[Ed. Note — After a one column hiatus, Samantha Korb’s The Small Screen is back to its regularly scheduled boob-tube analysis.]
In the mix of all things LGBT, something that I think is lost often from not only the political landscape of LGBT rights, but from queer television, are transgender individuals. Transgender men and women have been with the LGBT movement from before Stonewall to now and the very few images of transgender individuals on TV and in movies have been blown out of proportion, ended in tragedy, or have failed to take on the complexities of their lives with respect. So, I have to ask, where do transgender individuals fall into the scope of the representation of our movement in media and how can these existing images improve?
Trans characters started appearing in film far earlier than in mainstream American TV. Movies like “Boy’s Don’t Cry,” “Transamerica,” and a lesser known film, “Soldier’s Girl,” attempted to open the eyes of its viewers, and the Academy responded to both “Boys” and “Transamerica” for their superb acting and storytelling. But what did we really learn from these two cherished films other than these actors gave compelling performances? In “Boys,” did we believe that Brandon was really Teena, and deceiving his lover’s family when his “true identity” was shown, as the official synopsis of the movie suggests? In “Transamerica” did we believe that only a woman could play the role of a transwoman? Did we believe that only white people were the ones who are trans? Because the lack of trans people of color in these and other films sure suggests that.
We have to look at the character roles we have associated with transgender individuals. More often than not, media have assigned those who identify as transsexual in the roles of sex workers and prostitutes and while that might be the reality for some in the transgender community, obviously that is not the case for every trans person. In the ABC hit show, “Ugly Betty,” writers are bucking the stereotypes with some of its characters, one of them a transgender woman Alexis Meade, played by Rebecca Romjin. But why is so much of the TV world so scared to let a real transwoman or transman play the roles about their lives?
We also have to take into consideration of how these characters are treated, portrayed and how they or their storyline ends. In an episode of the hit HBO series, “Entourage,” the mayor of Beverly Hills hooks up with Anika, a transgender woman, who, unknowing to the mayor is a biological man, and while he has no problem with her gender identity, the show’s main characters do and the mayor is made fun of because he hooked up with a transgender woman. At the end of the episode her male genitalia is ‘exposed’ in a car, a-la Britney Spears style.
So are the “gay” shows picking up the slack? Nope. The now, off-the-air show, “Queer as Folk,” while fun to watch, merely demotes transgender individuals to drag queens and performers. And “The L Word” character Max might just be the worst transgender representation in TV history. The character’s decision to transition is taken lightly and without so much as true plot development and artistic seriousness. Later, Max is used as nothing more than a cheap joke for the main characters’ laughs.
And while media representation does not alone encourage education among our community and society as a whole, it is a start. TV and film need to be able to show transgender individuals as human, not as cheap tricks, not as jokes or deceptive men and women, but as human. They also need to show these men and women being able to live life without tragedy, and while not completely devoid of struggle, to show their happiness when it comes to living the life they have always wanted to. The TV industry needs to work on showing representation of transmen, not just transwomen, and not be so quick to assume transwomen are just into finding a man.
But, as a community, we can’t wait on the media to do their part, we need to do our own. On Nov. 20 many of us, LGBT and allied individuals, remembered those transgender brothers and sisters who were killed simply because of their gender identity. We need to do more than just take part in Transgender Day of Remembrance. We need to work to educate ourselves and others about transgender issues and advocate for those trans members for our community. We need to do this, so we can live in a climate and culture that doesn’t downsize trans men and women to the stereotypes often portrayed in television and movies, and where each year so many names of transmen and transwomen aren’t added to the list of those we will remember.