Transgender Representation 101: An Introduction "Why Representation Matters"

The present 101 series is centered around how transgender people have been represented in US movies and television. Here is the outline of this 101 series:

  1. An Introduction: Why Representation Matters

  2. The Media Coverage of the Life Story of Christine Jorgensen

  3. The Genre: Comedy

  4. The Genre: Thriller

  5. The 21st century: Have Things Changed?

  6. Post-2014: “The Transgender Tipping Point”



Before diving into the whys of the importance of talking about the topic of representation of transgender people on movies and TV, it is necessary to point out terms that some readers might not know. At the end of the article, there is a glossary with a list of concepts useful to better understand the present 101 series.



Why Representation Matters

Since antiquity, humans have been told stories to make sense of the world around them, to keep the chaos under control; and stories have been told throughout human history through a wide variety of media. One of the most pervasive, if not the most of them all, for the past 50 years – at least –, has been television. The stories that come to life thanks to television, arrive directly into people's homes, and nowadays, with the proliferation of channels and with the expansion of the modalities of watching, as for example streaming platforms of the likes of Netflix, everyone is constantly immersed in a flow of different and diverse stories.


Another undeniably relevant medium in human history is cinema: In the same way as television, cinema has had a huge impact on the ways in which it is possible to approach the knowledge of situations and of people the audience might not be first-hand familiar with. Thus, it becomes quite important to understand the relevance of media representations since those contribute to structuring a person's sense of self and the cultural knowledge through which people make sense of the society they live in.


The ways in which transgender people have been represented in the media are characterized by a long history of stereotypical and not-well-informed depictions. This is problematic for two reasons: On the one hand, these representations have an impact on those members of the audience who might not know personally anybody who is transgender. On the other hand, transgender characters and narratives are relevant for trans* people as well, by giving them the possibility to “meet” someone else who have their same feelings and thoughts, and by informing their understanding of how to begin their journey of social (and eventually physical) transition. Clearly, media images and stories that give a depiction of trans* people as deceivers and engaging in criminalized activities help neither the cis-gender viewer to empathize with and appreciate the challenges that transgender people face every day, nor the trans* viewer who wants and needs to see someone with whom to identify. Moreover, stereotypical and problematic representations can contribute to a higher degree of intolerance towards transgender and gender-non-conforming people, who are already disenfranchised segments of the population and (political) targets of discrimination and hate.


Scholars and activists have argued that for minority groups gaining media visibility is a necessary step to make in order to claim political power and to be more fairly treated by mainstream society. It is from this perspective that TV series and movies might be considered extremely helpful, if not essential: In giving spaces to underrepresented and misrepresented people to make their lives, stories, voices, and needs heard. But why is this not the overall situation as of yet? To answer this question, it is important to understand what lies behind the production of movies and TV shows.


Although a television program or a movie can be watched by a heterogeneous public, it is produced by the industry by having in mind a target audience, and usually, the audience of reference is white, cisgender, and heterosexual. This is a rather fundamental aspect: Media scholars in this regard talk of “cisgender gaze" to explain that fictional media representations center their narratives around the cisgender experience, constructing a narrative (and a world) in such a way that it appears as if it «exist[s] for scrutiny by, and the entertainment of, cis people» (Mitchell, 2017). This way of framing mediatic texts has various consequences: Characters who are not cisnormative tend to be misrepresented because the audience is not supposed to identify with them; in addition, these representations are embedded in a system of supposed normalcy, with related privileges, that construct the cisgender identity as the norm; and lastly, the audience is induced to adopt a “cis perspective” when approaching a media product.


The theorization of the “cis gaze” is modeled on the “male gaze” proposed by the feminist approach in film studies. With the “male gaze” scholars refer to the ways in which women are depicted in movies (and television): They are reduced to objects of fascination for the consumption of the male public. Thus, the “male gaze” and the “cis gaze” are implied in the ways in which representations of specific social groups are framed in both fictional and non-fictional media, influencing at the same time how the audience is supposed to react to these representations. In this regard, there is an important element to stress: Scholars debate about how much freedom the audience has in interpreting and creating meanings from media images.


The scholar Stuart Hall proposed the encoding/decoding model to analyze the production and reception of media texts: The industry produces texts and images from specific ideological standpoints and with specific intents in mind; those texts and images are then decoded by viewers in different ways. Accordingly, the audience can either follow the preferred encoded meaning or oppose it, with the consequence of negotiating the meanings attached to the text. In light of this, it is also important to underline that people make sense of media texts and images «according to the cultural (including sub-cultural) codes available to them» (Dyer, 1993, p. 2): In this respect, Bell Hooks states that the viewer is in a position of agency when confronted with media narratives because they will bring their cultural and personal instances, for example, gender, class, and race, in the experience of vision.


Notwithstanding, entertainment representations are created in such a way that the public has to become invested in the stories and in the characters represented, with the consequence that viewers are inclined to follow the ideas embedded in a movie/TV series. Hence, when transgender people are represented in such a way that they are objects of ridicule, as it is in the case of comedy productions, or pathologized subjects, as in thrillers, it follows that their gender identity tends to be perceived by the public as invalid, illegitimate, and even dangerous. Unfortunately, media representations have not been considered to be harmful for a long time, and sometimes even nowadays, although there are plenty of studies that demonstrate it. This is the reason why movies and TV series contain characters and storylines that depict being transgender in highly problematic ways. The road so far has been several decades-long: As it will be analyzed in the next parts of this 101 series, the matter at hand is rather complex. Nonetheless, things are beginning to change.



Glossary

- Cisgender: From a Latin-derived prefix meaning “on the same side”, a cisgender person is somebody whose gender identity corresponds with his/her biological sex.

- Cis-normativity: The ideological discourse based on the assumption that being cisgender is the norm. Thus, any other form of gender identity is considered not legitimate.

- Gender Identity: A person’s own understanding of themselves in terms of gendered categories like man and woman, transgender, genderqueer, and many others. How they feel inside or what they believe themselves to be.

- Gender-non-conforming: It is a term given to people who do not conform with the gender norms that are expected of them. These people may identify as transgender, non-binary, or genderqueer.

- Heteronormativity: It is the belief that heterosexuality, based on the gender binary of male-female, is not only the norm or default sexual orientation but also the only acceptable sexual orientation.

- Heteropatriarchy: In feminist theory, heteropatriarchy (etymologically from heterosexual and patriarchy) is a socio-political system where primarily cisgender males and heterosexuals have authority over other sexual orientations and gender identities. This is the predominant structure of all current western societies.

- Intersectionality: A theory introduced in 1989 by law professor and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw. This theory enables to understand that individuals (particularly women of African descent) are marginalized by overlapping mutually inclusive axes of identity such as race, gender, sexuality, and class.

- Transgender: An umbrella term that may include transsexuals, crossdressers, drag queens, drag kings, and other people who transgress the socially constructed confines of gender.

- Trans*: Abbreviation. The term trans with an asterisk at the end indicates an umbrella term inclusive of both transgender and gender-non-conforming people.

- Queer: An umbrella identity term taken by people who do not conform to heterosexual and/or gender binary norms. “Queer” is a reclaimed derogatory slur taken as a political term to unite people who are marginalized because of their non-conformity to dominant gender identities and/or heterosexuality.

References

  • Dyer. R. (1993). The matter of images: essays on representations,Routledge: New York.

  • bell hooks. (1992). The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators, in edited by, Belton, J. (1996). Movies and Mass Culture, Rutgers University Press, pp. 247-265.

  • Cohen, J. (2001). Defining Identification: A Theoretical Look at the Identification of Audiences With Media Characters, Mass Comunication & Society, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 243-264.

  • Gillig, T.K., Rosenthal, E.L., Murphy S.T., Folb, K.L. (2018). More than a Media Moment: The Influence of Televised Storylines on Viewers’ Attitudes toward Transgender People and Policies, Sex Roles, Vol.78, pp. 515–527.

  • Hall, S. (1997). Representation and the Media, Media Education Foundation: Northampton; transcript of the video lecture.

  • Mitchell, G. (2017). The Cis Gaze: How Trans People Are Viewed Through Cis Expectations, TransSubstantiation. Retrieved from: https://transsubstantiation.com/the-cis-gaze-6c151f9374ca.

Images references

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Marica Felici

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