Transgender Representations 101: “The Transgender Tipping Point”


As shown in the previous article (here) about New Queer Cinema, transgender representation at the down of the 21st century was not without problems. In the present article, which will close this 101 series, the analysis will revolve around trans* representations in the post-2014 era.


  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”

Since the beginning of the 21st century, it has been possible to witness a general trend of transgender visibility in the media, which arose from popular TV series such as Transparent [Amazon Prime, 2014-2019], Orange Is the New Black [Netflix, 2013-2019], and other reality TV shows, and movies.

This trend was epitomized by Time magazine's cover of 2014 starring actress Laverne Cox, with the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point: America's Next Civil Rights Frontier”. The article argues that less stigmatized media representations of trans* people paved the way to social inclusivity and legislative reforms for this marginalized community. Nonetheless, media representations of transgender people that can be considered “positive” and “progressive” are still very few up to these days.


First and foremost, the majority of transgender representations rely on a trans-normative lens [here], which reinforces the idea that transgender bodies are there to be scrutinized by others and to be talked about. In fact, focusing the attention on trans* bodies, with the consequent possibility of talking about genitalia, objectifies (and sexualizes) transgender people. This is, for instance, the main function of the so-called “mirror scene” within trans* representations in movies and TV series: from Lili's dreamy gaze at her naked body in The Danish Girl [Tom Hooper, 2015], to Ryon's undressing in front of a mirror while looking at her emaciated body in Dallas Buyers Club [Jean-Marc Valléè, 2015], the transgender character is objectified by showing off their (female) gender identity. During the “mirror scene”, the trans characters are also exposing their bodies to the stare of the audience, producing a visual representation of gender dysphoria, which contributes to the sexualization of the transgender body.


In this regard, it is no coincidence that female transexual characters are almost always written as prostitutes who end up being murdered because of not having disclosed their “true” identity. Such representations contribute to the perpetuation of the transgender victim narrative that finds its most successful depiction within medical dramas. From ER [NBC, 1994-2009] to Grey's Anatomy [ABC, 2005- ], and the more recent Chicago Med [NBC, 2015- ], the storylines involving the transgender characters revolve around the idea that their body exists in a state of liminality; so that in medical dramas, the transgender characters find out they are dying because of the hormones they are taking, or because of some disease that is connected to their biological sex. In either of these narratives, transgender identities are represented in close relation to their biology.


It can be argued that the underlying leitmotiv of trans representations is that trans characters are reduced to their trans-ness, that is to their bodies in transition that defy the gender binary. While, very little narrative space is usually left for the exploration of the human-ness of these characters.

One of the few exceptions in this sense is the character of Nomi Marks in Sense8 [Netflix, 2015-2018], since she is not defined by her being transgender, but she is treated as equal to the other cisgender characters in the narrative.


Another rather "humane" transgender representation is the one of Sofia Burset in Orange Is The New Black, which represents an important innovation in the ways in which transgender characters are depicted. In fact, Sofia is one of the few main transgender characters who are black, but not a prostitute. Nonetheless, Sofia's character is framed through a biological and medical lens since the other characters often misgender her, and they make comments about her body. However, Sofia's claims about her gender identity are never questioned or invalidated by the narrative. This character's storyline allows the TV series to open up a space of debate about the US prison system in relation to how transgender and gender-non-conforming people are treated. Moreover, Sofia's character allows another fundamental element of reflection, that is the predominant whiteness of transgender representations.


As underlined by Fischer (2018), movies and television programs ultimately reinforce the idea that transgender people are usually white, and they often (if not always) medically transition from one gender to the other. This is because the media show almost exclusively stories of trans* people who are white and who conform to the gender binary after their transition. Such framing of trans* identities, on the one hand, informs the cis-hetero audience about transgender's ideal features. On the other, it has an impact on trans people who might come to believe that they need to have medical procedures (from hormones to surgery) in order to rightfully embody their identity. Furthermore, Black and Latinx trans people might feel that their trans* identities are not legitimated because they do not see anybody who looks like them when they go to the cinema or when they are watching TV.


All in all, recent representations are still quite problematic, especially in connection to the fact that the trans identity is always framed through a biological and medical lens. Notwithstanding, there are a couple of TV series that defy this narrative, such as Euphoria [HBO, 2019 - ] in which not only the character of Jules Vaughn is never framed through a trans-normative lens., but the actress who plays her, Hunter Schafer, is herself a transgender woman. Finally, the most revolutionary modern TV series in terms of transgender representations is Pose [FX, 2018-2021]: this Tv series does not portray its characters in stereotypical and not-well-informed ways, but it gives space and voice to transgender actresses/actors, writers, and directors; while, it gives visibility to the Black and Latinx transgender community. To sum up, Pose contributes to shaping the historical understandings of this disenfranchised community, while directing contemporary attention to the transgender past, in an attempt to reveal the fil rouge that connects that past to the present.



It is undeniable that transgender representation in movies and TV has improved over the years, but still has a long way to go. As it has been shown in this 101 series, it is important to create and produce the most authentic representation possible when it comes to marginalized communities to provide a good example to the viewers. In this sense, The trans* section of the population, especially the Black and Latinx one, is still misrepresented under a “negative” light in the media. Nonetheless, fortunately things are beginning to change.


References

  • Chicago Med [NBC, 2015- ].

  • Dallas Buyers Club [Jean-Marc Valléè, 2015].

  • Disclosure [Netflix, 2020].

  • ER [NBC, 1994-2009].

  • Fischer, M. (2018). Queer and Feminist Approaches to Transgender Media Studies, in (edited by), Harp D., Loke J., Bachmann I., Feminist Approaches to Media Theory and Research, Palgrave MacMillan.

  • Grey's Anatomy [ABC, 2005- ].

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

  • Orange Is The New Black [Netflix, 2013-2019].

  • Pose [FX, 2018-2021].

  • Sense8 [Netflix, 2015-2018].

  • The Danish Girl [Tom Hooper, 2015].

  • Transparent [Amazon Prime, 2014-2019].



Images references

  • TransFace. Credits: Gay.it

  • The Transgender Tipping Point: America's Next Civil Rights Frontier, TIME Magazine, May 2024, cover.

  • Freema Agyeman (as Amanita) and Jamie Clayton (as Nomi) in a scene of Sense8.

  • The cast of Pose. Credits: David C Miller.


Author Photo

Marica Felici

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