HOW THE MEDIA CONDITIONED THE PUBLIC TO RESPOND TO THE TRANS EXPERIENCE
Oftentimes we find ourselves mimicking what we see on our screens. It’s why embedded content is so effective in reaching audiences. Seeing a character do something creates a reaction in our real lives. For example, kids believe they can fly when watching their favorite superhero do it. On a larger scale, what is consumed on the screen can shape our mentalities, our values, and our beliefs. Films, TV shows, and cartoons have perpetuated stereotypes of minority groups as long as there has been a cinematic history. As Laverne Cox said in the recently released documentary Disclosure, “When you’re a member of a marginalized community, most of the film and television is not made with you in mind.”
The representation of transgender individuals in cinema is not an exception to this narrative limation or misrepresentation, but rather is a horrifying example of how the media has shaped the way the transgender experience is perceived. Jen Richards said it best: “Every trans person carries with themselves a history of trans representation just in terms of how they see themselves.” The same can be said about cis people believing they understand the trans experience from media representation, even though it has not been well rounded. Trans people haven’t even been seen as people until very recently, but rather their experience has been used as a gimmick for poor humor as seen in films such as A Florida Enchantment, The World According to Garp, Transamerica, or TV shows such as The Jeffersons.
Movies such as Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, Dress to Kill, and many others showcase a “crossdresser,” a man who wears women’s clothing, as a killer, someone wrong and twisted. These films teach people that being trans is an illness or something to be feared and locked away. Movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Crying Game showcases trans women being met with disgust. Directly after the trans character reveals their transness the partner instantly moves to attempt to “cleanse” themselves. Now people are led to believe that when a trans person discloses their trans identity, it’s not only okay but encouraged to respond negatively and violently.
Medical shows and crime shows have consistently perpetuated the idea of the “transgender victim.” The storylines all directly mirror each other because the idea is the same–violence and death follows a transgender person. Media represents being transgender as something that’s limited to being a victim, a psycho, or a sex worker. Transgender people do not get well-rounded narratives that explore not just their experiences as a trans individual, but simple human experiences as any other content would.
The media’s limited understanding of trans people’s experiences leads to a limitation of roles for trans characters or actors. Looking at 134 episodes that contained a depiction of a trans character, GLAAD discovered that the most common profession given to the character was a sex worker. There is a history of sex work in the trans experience, but that is not all there is. As actress Christine Herrero said, “There is so much joy and so much light within the trans experience and within trans people that I feel like very rarely do I see that highlighted or celebrated or talked about.”
There is a real connection between the violence we see on screen and the violence we see inflected on transgender individuals, especially on transwomen of color. It has been decades of the media setting forth the narrative that being transgender is associated with violence and as mentioned before people behave in the way they have been conditioned too. Therefore if the public is told transness is to be met with violence then the public will react in the way it has been conditioned. GLAAD stated that 80% of people in the U.S. don’t personally know a transgender person and in fact, only learn about their experiences through the media. As Laverne Cox said, “When all you see reinforced is violence, we are put further in harm’s way.”
We need to amplify trans voices in our media. This doesn’t mean cis actors playing trans roles, which in fact creates more harm than good. Cis actors playing trans roles adds to the idea that trans people are just people in “costumes” or simply “dressing up.” Christine Herrero’s own experience was shaped because of cis actors playing trans people. While describing her own history with trans representation, she said, “There was a period of my life where I thought that trans people were borderline just like high-class drag queens.” She was influenced by the media on how to think about her own experience and that didn’t align with what she knew about herself.
Now imagine people who don’t know a trans person themselves seeing the trans experience as a singular narrative. One of these narratives being that an actor who can step into the role of a trans character and immediately turn back to being cis when accepting an award. Now the connotation is that transness is role, an act. Now imagine not knowing a trans person and seeing Ace Ventura reacting by being disgusted, or seeing Dress to Kill and associating transness with a serial killer.
We need trans voices onset, offset, and behind the set telling their own stories that are bigger than what the media has limited the trans experiences too. In Indya Moore’s words, “We want to tell stories that are specific to our experience as trans people. We want to tell stories that really investigate what it means to be human.” Pose does a wonderful job at what Indya Moore is describing, but it’s just a step in the right direction. Pose is one narrative that wonderfully amplifies trans writers and actors, but Hollywood and the media needs to do more. Moving forward there needs to be space for trans individuals to criticize and to create roles for themselves that are not limited to harmful stereotypes or one layered stories. Christine Herrero summarized her sentiments by saying, “ I just think that it’s important to know that trans people have existed forever and will exist forever.”