Thursday, May 3, 2012

Trans* portrayal in the media

Orangeban asked: It seems to be that there has been a recent upsurge in the amount of trans* people being portrayed in the media, particularly TV. Do you think this is the case? And what are your general thoughts about the portrayal of trans* people in the media?

This is an undeniable truth I've personally seen just from watching television myself,  I remember watching the episode of E.R. ( where there was a young transgender girl who's father and mother divorced. The father supported his transgender daughter, while the mother did not. When the father died in a car accident, she was made to live with her mother, who forcefully made her live as a boy.

I've also seen the episode of Law and Order: SVU (Episode title: Fallacy) where a transgender suspect ends up convicted, put into the male prison system, who is subsequently raped and murdered.

Then there's an episode of What Would You Do? Where the setup involved a young trans girl coming out to her mother, to  her disrespect and derision. The situation is sometimes ignored by nearby people, sometimes someone stands up for the young transgirl. 

Although I didn't personally watch it, you also have Chaz Bono being allowed to compete on Dancing with the Stars.

And, of course, you have the transphobic side of visibility, in the Libra tampon commercial (which is equally insulting to trans women as cis women - Because, you know, womanhood is exclusively defined by periods, and nothing else, right?) and the Paddy Power Advertisements; as well as that failed ABC comedy "Work it".

It's safe to say, that our visibility in media is growing. This list was made just off the top of my head, I'm sure there's many others. In a general sense, there's some good, and some bad with the way we're portrayed in media, even ignoring the transphobic parts.

Lets start with the good: Most people tend to be curious about transgender people, and in many ways these examples I've listed have done a great job showing real issues we face to the public at large. From the division it causes in families, to the very real danger we face in prisons, these facets of our life are often completely glossed over by people. Making people more aware of the dangers we face can only help improve public sympathy for us, and all in all is a positive.

Now onto the negative. I've yet to hear a story or sitcom or any other form of media with a trans person who's just *there*. What I mean is, they're used as a plot device to drive interest intrigue, appearing for one episode centering on their trans status, then that's it, they're gone. There is no depiction, that I'm aware of, at least, where the trans person is just a member of the cast. This lack of representation simply reinforces cis-normativity, and more importantly, the "this doesn't happen to me" mentality. The reason? Nobody is forced to live with, and accept the person on a regular basis. They show up as an a thought-provoking anomaly, their transition (not the person themselves) gets the spotlight, then they cease to be relevant.  The closest to this was the Chaz Bono thing, but that became a media circus because of his trans status.

So, is it helpful that we're being portrayed in media more? In short, yes. We're fast becoming visible, people are aware of us. However, we still have a way to go. We've yet to make the breakthrough to just being there, being 'normal'. Once we have a positive role model who's just there, who's trans status isn't used for petty jokes, and who is just a member of the cast with few issues, then we'll have made some serious progress.


Quote of the day: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." Gandhi

 (Also, there's apparently going to be another What Would You Do? scenario where a transgender waitress encounters an old acquaintance from a year ago, who causes hell for her. )

If you have any questions you'd like to see me address, please leave them in the comments section.


  1. Degrassi! Glee!

  2. My list was not intended to be all-inclusive, I just posted the ones I knew about from memory. If you know of examples contrary to what I said, post them! I'd love to see more positive portrayals of trans* folk.

  3. Thanks for addressing my question, I'd never really considered the fact that a character can never just happen to be trans*, their gender identity must always be a plot point, otherwise they'd just be a cisperson.

    Very interesting and thoughtful, thanks again!