Why There's Still A Major Issue With Transgender Representation On Television
When Time placed Laverne Cox on the cover in 2014 and declared us to be at the “Transgender Tipping Point,” they were setting the phrase up practically on a tee. And I don’t even mean a golf tee, I mean like a tee-ball practice where everyone and anyone can take a series of whiffs at it any chance they can. Run a quick Google search on it and you’ll see that phrase referenced at the top of at least one article per year since it ran. (Not including this one.) But it's not time yet for culture to be congratulating itself. There's still a long way to go for transgender representation on TV.
Spoiler alert for all those other think pieces and hot takes on the topic, but nothing seems to have tipped. Controversial laws permitting trans discrimination still sit on the books in various states, with more in draft form in other statehouses. Very few states make it possible to update and change identity documents. The murder rates of trans women, especially women of color, are increase every year. And on the most simple metric, you can’t read the comments section of a single article about transgender issues, no matter how minor, without front row seats to just how negatively a large swath of the country still views us.
None of these problems would exactly go away overnight if TV were treating transgender individuals better, and we’re hardly the only marginalized group that deals with this stuff. But the truth is that culturally, entertainment is pretty much the biggest window through which people see society, and how a group is presented on TV matters.
I've been performing stand up comedy since 2001, both presenting as a man when I was still closeted, and as myself for the last eight years. In that time I've seen the shifts and changes in the entertainment industry both as an active participant, and as an avid consumer of TV myself. I've been on the auditions, and I've seen the finished product.
Time after time, when cisgender people (cisgender meaning those whose identity aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth, for those not up on the lingo) are cast to play a trans person of another gender, or a depiction falls into classic stereotype tropes, or — usually a combination of both of those — the response is something along the lines of, "At the very least, this has sparked a conversation.” But the reality is that this side of the conversation, the trans side, has been having this discussion repeatedly and for years. We’re forced to repeat ourselves to new batches of people who make the same mistakes as the last batch, only to move on, never think of it again, and leave space for the next group to do it over when it's their turn. If you need examples, see “the conversation” around Dallas Buyer’s Club, around Transparent, around The Danish Girl, around 3 Generations, around FX’s The Comedians, and most recently, around Anything. Clearly the conversation isn’t enough.
The most difficult hurdle that needs to be overcome is that with the notable exception of Transparent’s Jill Soloway, who has come out as gender nonconforming and whose show is based loosely on their own family’s experiences, the cis people producing these projects share many of the same pre-conceived and ill-informed notions of the experiences of trans people, and often times even what we look like, as the audiences they’re attempting to sell our stories to. The waiting rooms of casting offices around Hollywood are littered with stories from trans actors who were told we didn’t look right for the part, only to open up our web browsers the next week and read that a Matt Bomer or Steven Weber was cast in the part instead. Just last week, I sat in an audition waiting room and overheard a casting director's team discuss casting breakdowns and, not knowing I was in the other room, repeatedly confusing a man who dresses in drag for performance with a transgender woman. Minutes later a drag performer arrived to audition for the same role I was called in for.
This is not just an unfortunate coincidence. Recently I was in a conversation on Facebook with a friend who was trying to convince me that it was totally fine that she’d cast a cis man to play a trans woman in a low-budget production. Repeatedly she held the position that, of course she’d rather have cast a trans woman but she had such a low budget. Apparently we cost more? But when pushed on the topic, she eventually responded, in a sincere attempt to reassure me, “He looked beautiful, by the way." In some situations, there are condolences offered after the fact — apologies for decisions that could easily have been avoided just by listening to the community whose stories they wanted to mine.
That’s what so much of it boils down to. For far too many cis people who call the shots on casting choices, the only real difference between a cis man and a trans woman is a makeup artist on hand and a good quality wig. And if you think this is an isolated reaction from one filmmaker, this was also one of the same defenses offered up for the casting of Bomer in Anything, and Eddie Redmayne in Danish Girl.
Trans women are women. We’re not just men who can get made up real pretty-like. So when this fundamental misunderstanding of the core humanity of a character is present as early as casting, the odds of telling a story that reflects the truth of the trans experience are slim to none. It’s no wonder then that so many of these depictions revolve around "pity porn" themes like victimhood or isolation. These things exist in trans lives but they’re not all we’re made of.
Recently I was cast in a small guest starring role on the streaming comedy series Take My Wife, and I was given multiple opportunities to offer notes and perspective to help the writers shape my character and make minor tweaks to the dialogue. I found myself wondering, "What happens on a less evolved show, what happens when a character like this is played by a cis man and there’s no one there to offer up those notes?"
The small screen does fare somewhat better than the big one when it comes to this stuff, but not by much. At least for the most part you find transgender actors portraying ourselves more and more in TV projects. Laverne Cox is notable for her recurring role on Orange is the New Black, while performer and writer Jen Richards scored an Emmy nomination for her web series Her Story and appeared in an arc on the most recent season of Nashville. Though cancelled due in part to its high cost, the Netflix series Sense8 was a real coup for trans representation, with the Wachowski sisters behind the camera and Jamie Clayton’s performance as Nomi Marks in front of it.
It seems for the most part that the frontier for trans stories told from actual trans voices is almost exclusively located in the cloud, or at least on streaming entertainment services. It’s surprising that a prestige stalwart channel like HBO, which has included gay and bisexual characters in almost all of their major tentpole series, from Oz to Game Of Thrones and even the Sopranos has avoided bringing trans storylines into the fray. If we’re truly on the "transgender tipping point," why do cable and network TV outlets still fear putting us out there?
As amazing as cheaper to produce reality shows like I Am Jazz — and the less than amazing (and cancelled) I Am Cait — can be for helping to educate audiences on the actual day-to-day lives of a real trans person, they still suffer from that voyeuristic element of all reality shows. What we need more of is depictions of trans folk existing in the world like it’s just no big deal.
One of my personal favorite moments featuring a trans woman on TV this year was Crazy Ex-Girlfriend featuring a quick cameo from actress Michelle Hendley. It wasn’t a huge part, but Hendley’s character wasn’t written as explicitly trans, she was just a woman selling hallucinogenic teas at a festival in the desert. Nomi Marks from the above-mentioned Sense8 works in the same way. Her trans identity invokes spice and flavor, like the disapproval, deadnaming, and misgendering from her mother, but her actual story isn’t about being trans at all, instead she’s just one member of a sci-fi ensemble fighting a shadowy conspiracy.
What we need right now is our Will and Grace. Where is the transgender Will Truman? We need sitcoms that allow a trans person to just be funny and relatable, not just because of their trans-ness but just because of writing and character. Hulu’s Difficult People has had success with this in Season 2 with Shakina Nayfack as Lola, but it’s time for networks to take a risk too. We need something that takes us beyond stunt-casting jokes like Kathleen Turner as Chandler’s dad on Friends. We need roles in ensemble dramas like This Is Us, or to play random members of the box-of-diversity support teams of every superhero show on The CW.
Television, I’m telling you that there is a legion of trans actors who would show up tomorrow for every wacky neighbor, uptight principal, or freewheeling professor role you can throw at us. So, isn’t it about time you started showing up for us?
Writer's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly included a misgendering pronoun for Transparent creator Jill Soloway. I deeply apologize for this mistake.