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Transgender Representation 101: The 21st Century: Have Things Changed?

In the previous article (here) of this 101 series, I delineated how trans* individuals have been (re)presented in thrillers, which is rather problematic. However, more recent representations offer the audience a more sympathetic view of trans* characters. This is typical of movies and TV series that follow the footsteps of the so-called New Queer Cinema. Nonetheless, as it will be argued in this article, these transgender representations are not without problems.

The "New Queer Cinema"

At the beginning of the 1990s, the cinematic and televisual landscape began to experience a shift in the way in which queer characters and storylines were depicted. This shift was propelled by the AIDS pandemic that was affecting the lives of queer people with devastating consequences.

What has come to be known as “New Queer Cinema” developed as a response to "the homophobic practices of mainstream Western culture" (Benshoff and Griffin, 2006, p. 221). This new cinematic style was an attempt to propose an alternative vision of homosexuality to the very white middle class, and a “respectable” one created with the gentrification of homosexuality during the 1980s. Hence, the new queer representations were featuring controversial issues and “problematic” characters whose role was that of openly criticizing the sanitised image of the correct way of being homosexual. This supposedly correct way required gay people to engage in monogamy and construct family-oriented relationships.

Another characteristic of the New Queer Cinema was the celebration of the variety of expressions of queer sexualities.

These representations challenged the audience's restrictive definitions of sexuality while they also underlined the historical and social construct of sexuality. The New Queer Cinema remained largely independent during the 1990s. However, movies such as My Own Private Idaho [Gus Van Sant, 1991] and Paris is Burning [Jennie Livingston, 1991] increased its success, which led Hollywood to include more diverse representations of queer people from the turn of the 21st century. Nonetheless, the outcomes of this inclusion are questionable. In fact, Hollywood maintained the tendency to produce movies in which gay, lesbian, and transgender people were not the main characters but instead were cast in the roles of sidekick or antagonist.

However, in response to criticisms coming from queer activists, Hollywood progressively proposed characters and narratives which were at the same time stereotypical and innovative, especially in relation to gender variance. Particularly relevant in this sense are Boys Don't Cry [Kimberly Pierce, 1999] and TransAmerica [Duncan Tucker, 2005]. Cavalcante (2007) describes these movies as break-out texts. With this definition, the scholar aims at underlining media projects that are “firsts” in terms of visibility for minorities groups. Moreover, these innovative texts are characterized by their ability to enter into the cultural mainstream, by the fact that they "break with historical representational paradigms" (Cavalcante, 2007, 539). Lastly, break-out texts are defined by their potential of having a positive impact on the lives of the social categories they represent. It is interesting to notice how both Boys Don't Cry and TransAmerica have opened up a space within mainstream cinema for more sympathetic and “accurate” representations of transgender people. At the same time, they kept perpetrating some of the most insidious tropes that trans* representations had historically manifested.

Boys Don't Cry: an analysis

Boys Don't Cry is based on the true life story of Brandon Teena, a young trans man from Nebraska. The story of his tragic death had populated the American media in the 1990s when queer and trans lives were becoming more visible and vocal but also more repressed by society. The movie is ground-breaking for different reasons; first, for its depiction of trans masculinity, which is still under-represented in fictional narratives. Second, for the introduction of what has been defined by media scholars as “trans gaze”. Third, Boys Don't Cry is the first famous Hollywood movie in which the transgender character is depicted neither as an unstable criminal nor as a joke. The character of Brandon is depicted with a great deal of sensitivity and sympathy. This is in relation to the fact that Brandon is not framed from the cisgender gaze that usually characterizes the construction of mediatic representations. On the contrary, the narrative adopts a “transgender gaze” (Halberstam, 2005), although it is not consistently sustained throughout the movie. The trans gaze allows the audience not only to look at Brandon's character but, accordingly, to look with him. It is from this specific framing of the audience's gaze that the movie is able to evoke sympathetic feelings towards the transgender character and the challenges they have to face.

One of the most important achievements of the movie is the presentation of Brandon's transgender identity as legitimate precisely because the character is framed through Brandon's own perception of the self. The adoption of the trans gaze allows validating Brandon's identity claims during one of the most disturbing scenes: when Tom and John drag Brandon into a restroom and denude him, exposing his genitals in an attempt to confirm their ideas that Brandon is, in reality, a woman, while also forcing Lana to look at Brandon's body. Thanks to the trans gaze adopted in the narrative, the audience is influenced in perceiving this act as brutal violence because of Tom and John's misconception about Brandon's identity. Moreover, this idea is supported by the fact that Lana keeps referring to Brandon by using masculine pronouns throughout the scene. Another relevant element that comes from the use of the trans gaze is the challenge posed to heteronormativity. In fact, this scene puts into question the toxic hetero-masculinity performed by the characters of Tom and John.

However, Halberstam (2005) points out that the movie does not sustain the trans gaze till the end, with catastrophic consequences. In fact, the trans gaze is converted by the director into a female-lesbian gaze during the last scene in which Brandon and Lena have a sexual encounter, which follows Brandon's sexual assault. Here, the narrative conventions and the visual codes inform the audience that what they are watching is a scene between two women. This is because of Lana's point of view who, in contrast to what had happened before, does not support Brandon's masculine identity anymore. The consequence is that Brandon's transgender identity is invalidated.

The trans gaze constitutes the most innovative aspect of Boys Don't Cry. It is what allows the audience to actually feel for the transgender character while also granting a powerful instance of visibility and identification for transgender people, especially trans-masculine individuals.

Nonetheless, it must be noted that even fictional representations that can be considered fairer and sympathetic in relation to the transgender themes are not without problems.

TransAmerica: an analysis

In media representations, the relation between the trans* identity and the idea of sex change is particularly problematic. This has become a recurring narrative trope to describe transgender people which caused a mediatic obsession with displaying the bodies, especially the genitalia of trans* characters. Hence, the audience is prone to consider that the truth of a person's identity is only visually inscribed in the body. Therefore, transgender characters are presented within a narrative that emphasizes anatomy as the true gender marker, and everything a trans character needs to do is change “nature's mistake” through gender reassignment.

This is the case with another popular movie, TransAmerica. The main character, Bree, is presented at the very beginning of the movie as ready to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. The plot unfolds from her therapist's decision of not signing the permission for the surgery before Bree deals with her past. Here, the transexual identity is framed through the medical lens and the character does not have an actual saying about their preferred way of disposing of their own body. Thus, TransAmerica embraces the dominant narrative about transsexuality that revolves around the perceived wrongness of one's body and the necessity to fix it for their gender identity to be validated.

The emphasis on the body of the transgender character can become quite problematic. In particular when it is used as the visual confirmation necessary for the audience to see the character's real gender, thus disclosing the deceiving nature of the transgender individual. It must be said that this is not the case in TransAmerica where Bree is open about her transgender identity. Unfortunately, there are several cinematic and televisual examples that could be used in this regard; for example, particularly disturbing is the treatment suffered by the character of Ava Moore in the TV series Nip/Tuck [FX, 2003-2010]. Ava is a transgender woman presented as malicious and psychologically disturbed, who is outed by one of the two main characters, the plastic surgeon Christian Troy during their (non-consensual) sexual encounter. Thanks to his medical training, Troy supposedly has the expertise to recognize that Ava is not a real woman given that she has had vaginoplasty. Moreover, he has the authority to question Ava's gender identity, which is ultimately invalidated.

Thus, the transsexual identity is merely reduced to their physical body. As explained by Johnson (2016) through the concept of transnormativity, both trans people who undergo and those who do not undergo medical transition are held accountable for narratives of gender nonconformity. This idea is mirrored in every fictional mediatic representation, even in the "more positive" ones through the way in which the transgender characters are described. This is once more the case in TransAmerica: from the beginning of the movie through to the end, Bree is depicted struggling in the attempt to conform to a “proper” way of performing femininity. For example, she does not know how to properly apply make-up or how to walk in heels. Therefore, her transgender performance is framed as inauthentic because she cannot completely pass for a woman. Furthermore, Bree is constantly hiding her pre-op body, and her character is structured around the longing, and necessity, to have “the sex change”. Thus, the narrative of the movie reinforces the dominant heteronormative concepts of gender.

Finally, while TransAmerica can be considered a fictional text that puts the narrative surrounding transgender characters in a new perspective by depicting Bree in a sympathetic way, the movie reduces the transgender identity to a medical procedure «[b]y making sexual reassignment surgery the engine that propels the narrative forward» (Cavalcante, 2017, p. 546). This fact might potentially have a negative impact on the lives of real trans* people because it reinforces the idea that transgender bodies are meant to be scrutinized by others.

To conclude, as the two examples of Boys Don't Cry and TransAmerica show, the more sympathetic representations of transgender characters from the 1990s are still somewhat problematic. These representations have a great deal of importance for both trans* people and cis viewers, but they still present narrative elements and ways of framing transsexuality that reinforce heteronormative conceptions of gender.

In the next 101 articles, more recent representations will be analysed to see if things have now finally changed (for the better).


  • Benshoff, H.M. Griffin, S. (2006), Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: New York.

  • Cavalcante, A. (2017). Breaking Into Transgender Life: Transgender Audiences’ Experiences With “First of Its Kind” Visibility in Popular Media. Communication, Culture & Critique, Vol. 10, pp. 538-555.

  • Halberstam, J. (2005). In a Queer Time and Space: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York University Press.

  • Johnson, A.H. (2016). Transnormativity: A New Concept and Its Validation through Documentary Film About Transgender Men*. Sociological Inquiry, Vol, 86, No. 4, pp. 465-491.


  • "New Queer Cinema". Credits:

  • Paris is Burning, poster.

  • Boys Don't Cry, poster.

  • TransAmerica, poster.

1 Comment

Silvia Vacchelli
Silvia Vacchelli
Jan 15, 2022

This series of article is always very interesting! I can't wait to read the next one and find out more about transgender representation in more recent films. Keep up the good work

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Marica Felici

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