Bruce Jenner's Interview Was So Important, But The Worst Trans Representations In TV History Prove There's Still A Long Way To Go
Today, transgender visibility in the media is not only increasing, but getting more positive — something that will hopefully only improve now that Bruce Jenner has officially said, "For all intents and purposes I am a woman." But historically, the media hasn't been all that great at portraying trans issues and trans people. In fact, a GLAAD study in 2012 found that fully 54 percent of all transgender portrayals on television for the past ten years had been negative. Which obviously sucks.
There are a lot of tropes when it comes to trans representation; the biggest one, of course, is that trans characters are usually played by cisgender actors of the gender the character was assigned at birth, rather than a trans actor or even a cis actor who identifies as the same gender as the character. This not only makes it that much harder for trans actors to find work, but it also sends the message that trans people are defined more by their biological sex than their gender identity — which is troubling for so many reasons.
Even beyond the casting, though, transgender storylines in television and movies also tend to have lots of problems. Being trans is often treated as a scandalous, vaguely creepy, or mockable thing. Trans women especially are often depicted as sex workers, and the trope of a trans woman who conceals her identity to "trap" a poor, unsuspecting straight man is also common. Often trans people are treated as duplicitous and untrustworthy in other ways, too. Then there are some instances where being trans is treated like a punchline, something ridiculous enough to carry the weight of a joke all on its own.
And then in many cases, trans people are just dead. They either die, often in gruesome or tragic ways, or they start off dead as the latest victim on CSI or Law and Order. And while it is tragically common for trans people to be attacked or killed, or to commit suicide, those should not be the only stories that people see — including and especially young trans people.
As I said, media representation is getting better, with shows like Transparent and characters like Laverne Cox's Sofia Burset on Orange Is the New Black. However, there are still plenty of shows that continue to treat trans characters poorly as well.
So what are the worst examples of trans representation? Well, here are six of the worst offenders.
1. Family Guy
Family Guy has never been great when it comes to...well, anything if you ask me, since I've never even found the show reasonably funny. But in the eighth season episode "Quagmire's Dad," the father of family friend Quagmire gets sexual reassignment surgery, or SRS. And while none of it was particularly well handled, this scene between Stewy and Brian pretty much sets a new standard for awful.
In it, we get to see both characters do all of the following: Consistently misgender Ida, the trans woman in question; treat her gender identity as something they can hold over her son's head; joke about her genitals; and, in fact, seem way more preoccupied with knowing about her genitals than learning her name. And then, when Brian finds out that the woman he slept with the night before — a woman who he described at the beginning in glowing terms — was in fact Ida, he vomits for a solid 29 seconds.
The whole thing is disgusting, just not for the reasons Stewy and Brian think.
As Queers United puts is, "Real issues came up during the episode which explored issues such as orientation and gender identity, coming out, surgery, and family and societal acceptance of transition. Unfortunately the show misrepresented facts about the transgender experience and instead exploited trans people for a few laughs."
2. Sex and the City
I know, I know, women everywhere still love Sex and the City — but let's be honest about the fact that it's not the best when it comes to LGBT issues, especially the "T" part. For instance, in the episode "Cock A Doodle Doo," Samantha takes issue with several transgender sex workers who solicit clients outside her building. And while I'd be annoyed if someone was shouting outside my window at night, too, the way the show handles the topic is not at all respectful. Even the basic premise is pretty bad. The black trans sex worker stereotype sucks (and has direct and terrible real world consequences).
But then we also get this conversation where the Sex and the City bunch treat the women in question as a joke while sipping their overpriced coffee in an upscale restaurant. They talk about how they "don't get the appeal," refer to trans women as "chicks with dicks" and make liberal use of the slur "tr*nny." Delightful.
There's also a scene where Samantha throws a bucket of water out her window at the women below, knocking one's wig off. In case you wondered if it got better after this.
3. Ru Paul's Drag Race
Putting Ru Paul on the list may seem a little out of place — after all, the contestants are primarily drag queens, not trans women — and in fact, only one has openly identified as trans while on the show. Despite this, Ru Paul himself spent a great deal of time last year insisting on his right to use slurs commonly aimed at transgender people such as "tr*nny" and "she-male" despite being cisgender himself.
Despite what the show may think, choosing to express yourself by dressing up as a woman is not the same thing as actually identifying as a woman, whether that woman is trans or cis. And the fact that the show seems confused as to those points is not great for trans representation. Although part of this does stem from the general population's lack of education around trans identity and how it differs from being a drag queen, the show remains problematic. And after their transphobic "She-Male" segment last year and subsequent double-down on using slurs, I feel they definitely make the list.
CSI has a history of terrible transgender portrayals. Like many crime shows, they have had their fair share of trans people as murder victims, which is already not great — especially since the main characters don't show such victims much respect. However, in their early seasons they also featured a transgender serial killer named Paul Millander, whose decision to transition from female to male is treated as just one more strange, unsettling, creepy thing about him. The character ultimately kills several people, including his mother and himself.
In another episode, "Ch-Ch-Changes," the show featured a trans woman performing illegal gender reassignment surgeries out of a storage space. The way in which the show stages the scene, the whole process of performing the surgery seems like something out of a nightmarish horror film, and the LGBT people who are featured in the episode are mostly reduced to stereotypes and portrayed as "freaks."
Most recently, the show included a trans woman in the episode "Strip Maul" who was not only a criminal and seems to have been mentally unbalanced, but who was portrayed by a cis male actor with a very masculine presentation, who was obviously done up to look like a man in a dress, rather than a woman who was anatomically male. You can see in the promo here.
At this point, I think we can all give up hope that CSI will ever get better. And I'm not sure it's possible for them to get worse.
5. Ally McBeal
Ally McBeal might get a little slack for being from 1990s, back when most people were even less educated about trans issues than they are today — but that doesn't make the show's "trans episode" less troubling. In the episode "Boy to the World," Ally's transgender client Stephanie is charged with prostitution and Ally suggests using her gender identity as a legal defense strategy to support an insanity plea. This doesn't have to be an awful move if the show makes it very clear they merely want to play on the tragic ignorance most people have by making such a move; however, the show itself seemed not to know whether or not to treat Stephanie as sick. A psychologist Ally calls to testify misgenders Stephanie and calls her "confused."
Ultimately, Stephanie winds up murdered after returning to sex work, meaning the show not only couldn't decide how to treat her gender identity, but also decided to resolve the issue by making her another dead, trans sex worker.
Californication is a show about an alcoholic womanizer, so you know there were always going to be some pretty unsavory things. But one of the most disrespectful was the episode in which one character, Charlie, gets a blow job from a woman he doesn't realize is trans until halfway through. And when he does, he gets intensely upset, and winds up crying in the back of Hank's car while Hank jokes about being able to spot a "tr*nny hooker."
It's also worth noting that this situation, in which a man discovers a woman is trans during sex or even just after merely expressing a sexual interest, often leads not to a hilarious car ride, but to actual physical violence. And the "trans panic" defense, in which defendants justify assault or even murder because they were shocked or frightened when they discovered the victim was transgender, is currently legal in 49 states. So, thanks for contributing to the idea that finding out a woman is trans is something to freak out about, rather than just going "oh" and enjoying the blow job.
Images: Wikipedia Commons