In terms of numbers, movies and TV shows are improving when it comes to LGBT characters. But while there are plenty more LGBT characters on our screens (both big and small) there are some glaring issues with their portrayal that stick out like a sore, offensive thumb.
Namely, there’s the fact that the majority of the LGBT characters we see are white, bisexuals either don’t exist or are promiscuous harlots and transgender characters are commonly robbed of their own storylines in favour of being on the end of some unfortunate transphobic jokes.
And, when trans characters do get their own stories, it’s rarely done right. There’s also the fact that time and time again, we are seeing what few trans characters we have be portrayed by cisgendered actors and actresses, which is disrespectful to the identities that they are portraying and disrespectful to the many trans actors who’ve been denied a chance of fame.
In this vein, the films that come to mind are ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ (Hilary Swank played a trans man), ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ (Jared Leto played a trans woman), ‘TransAmerica’ (Felicity Huffman played a trans woman) and upcoming films ‘The Danish Girl’ (Eddie Redmayne plays a trans woman) and ‘Three Generations’ (Elle Fanning plays a trans man). The fact that these films are just the tip of the iceberg – is absolutely shocking.
Worse still is that not only are these opportunities for the visibility of trans actors essentially being gifted into the hands of cisgendered actors, the movies themselves often have serious issues. For example, both Huffman and Leto received high praise for their roles (Leto even won an Oscar) but these are movies where little to no respect is giving to the trans characters.
The official synopsis for TransAmerica literally calls Huffman’s character “transsexual” whilst Leto’s character Rayon is constantly misgendered and disrespected throughout the film and at one point the lead character even suggests using a gun to give Rayon a sex change.
Arguably, cisgendered actors are not the only piece of the problematic puzzle but they are an example of Hollywood’s failures.
Much in the same way that you wouldn’t expect a white person to understand what it’s like to face all of hardships and micro-aggressions of a racist society, you shouldn’t expect cisgendered actors, directors and producers to be completely clued in on how to portray trans characters. This is not necessarily their fault(s) but it can and should be rectified by working with trans actors, filmmakers and consultants.
A good example of this is Transparent. Transparent airs on Amazon Instant (and therefore isn’t included in the statistic that .001% of the 796 broadcast series regulars are transgender) but it features cisgendered male actor Jeffrey Tambor in the lead role.
However, not only is Tambor’s character Maura supported by best friend Davina (who is a trans woman played by trans actor Alexandra Billings), but it features trans man Dale (also played by a trans actor) as a potential love interest for Maura’s daughter too. And, the show itself was made by creator Jill Soloway because of her own experience of having a trans parent and Soloway also made the decision to hire trans staffers for behind the camera work too.
So if Transparent can get it right (along with Orange is the New Black, which features TWOC inmate Sophia Burset) why can’t others? The main reason for this is clear – using trans stories for dramatic effect is bold and gains awards but hiring trans actors to actually play those roles is considerably risky.
Many point out that unlike with same sex relationships, there is little voyeuristic quality to displaying trans lives and characters. Questioning your gender or dealing with body dysphoria does not – for straight, cisgendered audiences at least – have the same pull as ‘two girls fall in love and make out a whole bunch in the process’. But shouldn’t we be asking for these stories to be presented for the sake of awareness and not whatever cishets think?
Absolutely. It could be pushed that the huge success of OITNB and Transparent can be attributed to the fact that they are good shows and gain from having trans characters rather than including them at their detriment. Looking at the roster of trans-related media out there: The T Word, Laverne Cox’s documentary on trans youth, ex-Navy SEAL Kristen Beck’s memoir about her transition (which became a best seller) and Tyra Banks is also putting together a trans docu of her own, it’s apparent that there is an appetite for hearing these stories. For their actual value and not for creepy, intrusive reasons either.
Could we see more trans characters – and with them, trans actors – in the future?
Demand determines everything in Hollywood and as executives look at what’s selling (queer stories) there’s good chance that they will ‘buck the trend’ and produce some good results in the process. That might seem a little optimistic but as traditional and TV movies look to compete with the inclusive shows on Netflix and Amazon Instant, it’s more than a little bit possible.
Cross your fingers and watch this space.