Transforming the Media…

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The Gryphon explores transgender representation in the media and the work that still needs to be done.

Before the sixties, few, if any, films had been made about transgender people. However, with the recent release of Hollywood blockbuster, The Danish Girl, various fictional and documentary television shows, and the reality television star Caitlin Jenner’s very public gender transition, it is apparent transgender is becoming more and more popular as a subject the media wishes to explore.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 10.42.51However, the LGBT website, GLAAD, recently reviewed the last ten years of transgender images on television. They found that trans characters, when they were portrayed in the media, were more often cast as villains, murderers, or sex workers and generally had negative representation. Furthermore, GLAAD alludes to the fact that anti-transgender language and dialogue are very prevalent in television and generally go unchallenged by other characters. This is shown in both Family Guy and Two and a Half Men, where transgender characters were introduced but were used as the punchline. It seems obvious that there is a problem of both a lack transgender representation and it being shown in a defamatory manner in the media, issues that clearly need addressing. But it is also arguable that a few directors, creators, and writers have begun to bridge this gap.

Drop Dead Diva and Orphan Black both featured episodes that focused on the largely unseen topic of transgender men. Meanwhile, Candis Cayne starred as a trans housekeeper in Elementary and unusually her character’s storyline did not hinge on her gender identity; instead the focus of this multi-dimensional character was on other issues. Popular series, such as Glee and The Fosters, have both included transgender people as regularly scripted characters. However, while they do have strong and often positive storylines, transgender characters often remain sidelined at the outskirts of the narrative.

As the title subtly suggests, the award winning Amazon series Transparent tackles the relatively untouched topic of transgender also. Yet it differs from the other examples because the entire focus of the series is on transgender people, rather than limited to one character. It tells the story of Maura Pfefferman, who had been presenting as a man throughout her adult life despite always identifying herself as a woman.

What was particularly interesting was the discussions between Maura and her trans friend, Davina, of sex reassignment surgery. Davina herself had undergone the surgery as well as facial reconstruction to make her features more feminine. However Maura tells the doctor in her consultation that she is yet to decide whether to keep the sexual organs she was born with. Although, when asked by the doctor if she plans to get breasts she replies, ‘two please’. This highlights the diversity that exists within the trans community and the viewers only gain this insight because Transparent has dedicated full episodes to exploring these issues. Transparent has been praised for its broadening of the viewer’s perspective of the lives of trans men and women. Jeffery Tambor, who plays protagonist Maura, has said that “people are identifying with the trans movement” following the release of the show and, to its credit, Transparent does provide viewers with an in-depth insight into the lives, troubles, and celebrations of those in the trans community through its many trans characters.

danishgirlTransparent has interesting links to the recent Oscar nominated film, The Danish Girl. Based on a real story, Lili, played by Eddie Redmayne, undergoes sex ressasingment surgery, an operation that had never been attempted before, in spite of its many risks. With the film set in the mid-1920s, The Danish Girl highlights the fact that these issues have been around for decades. But, with almost one hundred years separating Maura and Lili’s lives, the reactions from friends, family, and the public within the stories do not greatly differ. This prompts the idea that the media is questioning whether society has really changed at all in its attitudes towards transgender men and women.

There is also much public debate over which actors should play these characters. The Danish Girl was heavily criticised when Redmayne was cast as Lili as critics argued that there are many transgender actors who could potentially portray the role more candidly, having undergone similar journeys themselves. Unlike the film, this is the route the creators of Transparent seem to have followed: Alexandra Billings, who plays Davina, is a trans woman herself and we are also introduced to the character of Dale, a trans man like the actor Ian Harvie who portrays him. Similarly, the very popular television series Orange is the New Black features a large focus on one particular trans character for which the actress Laverne Cox was nominated for an Emmy. This clearly highlights the increasing appreciation for trans representation on television and also marks a definitive change, as she became the first ever openly transgender person to be nominated in the acting category for the award.

Transparent, alongside the other television series, is an example of the changing trend in the portrayal of transgender people in the media. They are popularising the subject of transgender and are teaching viewers more and more about the issues surrounding the topic. However there is, arguably, still a long way to go: the representation of transgender people is still riddled with problems and these examples are only forming the first steps towards real change.

Sophie Roberts

Image: Amazon, GLAAD, Universal Pictures.

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