I’ve been thinking a lot lately about depictions of trans folks in pop culture. I began asking around among people I know, soliciting recommendations. I had a vision in my mind of a happy post, I really did.
And I discovered something interesting: There’s not a lot out there. I can’t say that I am completely surprised by this, but I was jarred when I realized that the only depictions of trans people, period, that I could think off offhand were an intersex trans character who appeared on a single episode of the short-lived Mercy, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And then, with some prodding, Alexis from Ugly Betty, a show I haven’t watched. (Don’t hate me! I don’t have anything against the show, I just didn’t start watching it, and then it ended, and then…well, I will probably watch it at some point, ok?) Needless to say, I’ve never seen a genderqueer person in widely-consumed popular culture, let alone heard the word ‘genderqueer’ or seen an exploration of nonbinary gender identities.
No one really knows how many people in the population are transgender. There are a lot of reasons for this, starting with varying definitions of ‘transgender’ used both by population researchers and by transgender folks ourselves. I’ve heard that one percent of the population is transgender, usually in settings that suggest this statistic applies to binary trans folks. The lack of interest in collecting real statistics on our numbers definitely speaks to a lot of interesting things about the society we live in.
And our lack of representation in pop culture is very telling.
It’s not that we aren’t present in pop culture. We are, it’s just in very small numbers, and the kinds of opportunities available for trans characters are very limited. Needless to say, very few of these characters are actually played by trans actors. We live in a world where many people have some very harmful beliefs about trans people, and these beliefs are usually reinforced by depictions of trans people in popular culture, where we are played as objects of mockery or fear.
A lot of people like to lump depictions of trans identities in with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer characters, thanks to that handy LGBQT acronym, which makes it seem like there are more trans characters around than there really are. Personally speaking, I’ve honestly always been a little bit uncomfortable with this acronym, intended as a unifying measure, because to me it conflates sexual orientation and gender identity. The ‘T’ sometimes feels out of place to me although I get the intent behind it.
Apparently the ‘T’ seems out of place to a lot of other people as well, because organizations that examine the depictions of LGBQT folks on television often ignore problematic depictions of trans characters. And some actively celebrate shows for having ‘good representations’ while evidently ignoring the fact that those shows actually don’t have such great representations of the trans community.
In a relatively recent example pointed out by Lisa Harney at Questioning Transphobia, Glee won a GLAAD award despite the fact that it uses trans slurs. A show that took care to lecture viewers about how it’s not ok to use ‘r#tard’ or call a gay man a ‘faggot’ has absolutely no problem referring to ‘she-males.’ That award feels like a big slap in the face to the trans community, especially since the citation specifically mentions us: ‘fair, accurate and inclusive representation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and the issues that affect their lives in the media. (emphasis mine)’
And the GLAAD award gets hauled out as evidence when people critique the depiction of Kurt, when people ask why the show thinks it’s ok to use slurs against trans people without comment. When organizations that are supposedly keeping an eye on depictions of trans folks on television can’t even be bothered to address the use of slurs on network television, it’s no small wonder that members of the general public push back, hard, on critiques from members of the trans community.
After all, GLAAD said it was ok.
We need better representation for trans folks on television. Starting with more roles, a greater diversity of trans characters, avoidance of stereotypes, and, critically, getting transgender actors in these roles. There’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t have empowering, awesome, interesting, complex trans characters on television. It’s a pity that the organizations that claim to be pushing for just that are falling asleep at the wheel.