I totally started writing this before Transparent recently won its two Golden Globes, so I’m—like—such a trans hipster right now. Just so you know.
Okay, so trans narratives have gone supernova lately, particularly over the last couple of years. They’re the new cash cow. Nobody wants a gay best friend anymore; it’s all about the trans best friend. The trans parent. The trans prisoner. The trans child.
And that can be really cool in its own way. Coverage and attention can help us, as trans people, continue to break into the mainstream, if only to just say hi. It’s nice to know that cis people are starting to notice that we exist. Recognition of our existence is a great foundational step toward being treated like we’re actually human.
Buuuuut it’s not always a basket of roses.
See, because with transness being treated this way, quite a bit of it is being capitalized on by cis people (directors, producers, screenwriters, authors, and so on). And with all those cis fingerprints, so many tropes are continuing to spread throughout mainstream media about the trans identity at large.
Trans characters are continuing not to be characters who are trans, but rather mechanisms solely for the benefit of the cis audience through cis characters in a cis plot.
We’re being used.
The problem with imposing the cis entertainment palette on trans people is the mainstream still doesn’t have a base sense of what or who a trans person is. To put negative, incorrect, or overgeneralizing labels on us just makes cis people think trans people are indeed evil, confused, or only exist to educate cis people about trans lives.
1. Being Pegged as a Deceiver, Liar, or Mentally Unstable Individual
The most iconic example of this trope is the kidnapper and murderer in Silence of the Lambs, who forces cis women to rub lotion all over their bodies until it’s soft enough to be peeled right off for personal wear. It’s where we got the (in)famous phrase, “It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.” Ick.
Trans narratives are also rife with lying and deceiving cis characters, usually by “tricking” them through the accurate representation of their identities.
Note how the so-called tricking is rarely done by the trans person in some intentional, backward way, but rather the mistake of cis assumption by the given cis character, who often is falling in love with them.
But is the cis ignorance still the trans person’s fault? Of course it is. Who can forget the big reveal in The Crying Game? Audiences couldn’t shut the hell up about it for years, conveniently ignoring the lover’s mistreatment of the trans character thereafter.
2. Being Used as a Pamphlet
Basically, whenever the trans character is on screen or on the page, the talk often immediately moves to trans stuff.
This is an issue because 1) there’s more to a trans person than being trans, 2) not all trans people want some sort of (medical) transition (which is what “trans talk” usually entails), and 3) apparently elephants don’t need to be discussed unless one’s in the room.
As soon as that trans character is no longer present, the trans topic is immediately dropped and forgotten. In the end, trans topics are only present when the character is.
Cis people are being taught an unfortunate lesson through this persistent trope: that they have no reason to discuss or reflect upon trans issues themselves. And since it’s the cis culture that’s brought trans issues to a head, that’s kind of bad behavior to encourage.
Also, for so many narratives in the media focusing on a trans person’s transition, we start to forget about the actual person. Cis people start to believe that transition is all that makes a trans person as a trans person. And that sucks.
The fact of the matter is we have way more problems than just transition (…yay?), so let’s start putting those on the table, too.
As much as I love Orange is the New Black, and as much as I respect the great strides its taken – like featuring a trans woman actually played by a trans woman, featuring a trans woman of color, featuring a trans woman dealing with the prison system, featuring a trans woman who’s actually complicated and neither entirely good nor entirely bad – it does have one huge flaw in the trans department.
As of this writing, two seasons of the show are out. And within those two seasons, there’s been only one scene in which the trans character doesn’t magically invoke trans topics. One.
3. Being Only Young and White (And Magically Able to Afford Medical Transition)
There’s plenty of identity crossover when it comes to people who are trans, but those that primarily get the limelight are the young and white ones.
Their experiences don’t culminate all of the trans experience, especially when further reduced to “just” transition and body dysphoria.
Thankfully, there have been a few examples that have managed to peek through.
One of the people featured in TransGeneration was both a person of color and a person of altered hearing. NoRmal and Transparent both feature people above middle-age. As already mentioned, Orange is the New Black has a person of color. So we’re slowly, slowly creeping forward on that front.
But then there’s the problem of trans characters more often than not magically being able to afford medical transition. That shit’s expensive and rarely covered by insurance, however universal it is in scant places.
But the world of media often sidesteps this issue. The character in question frequently has a surgeon parent or has been left with a trust fund or – shhh – the issue simply never comes up. How did I not see how lucky we are? Surgery for everyone!
At least there are a few examples of people who can’t quite glide on the road to transition.
I Am J by Cris Beam features a character so poor that he doesn’t even have his own bedroom. Sleeping on the couch every night kind of makes it hard to hide your true identity from your stunted parents, you know? (Bonus points for him also being biracial!)
And one of the heroines in Tokyo Godfathers is dealing with homelessness. Suffice it to say transition is a pipedream right now.
4. The Non-Consensual ‘Reveal’
The non-consensual “reveal” is hugely problematic in two ways because 1) it is, indeed, non-consensual, thereby taking all of the trans person’s rightful power in the situation and handing it over to the cis person, and 2) it suggests that there’s something necessary to reveal, even to people who shouldn’t matter.
Even when a character’s body history isn’t disclosed to coworkers or friends of lovers (or even some friends of the trans character’s own), they are often still disclosed to lovers and loved ones in “accidental” ways.
It doesn’t matter who you are to us. In the end, knowing our body history is never your right.
It’s never okay to force it out of us through manipulation or threats or physical violence, go through our personal belongings or information, or get shocked or mad or upset with us over this information when it was ultimately your own cis-washed assumptions about people and gender that are causing you to react this way.
Maybe it never happens in a healthy way on the screen or page because that would give us too much rightful power in the situation.
To willingly and wholeheartedly speak our body histories in fiction would mean we’d all also have to actually talk about them. And in a way that actually focuses on the trans person’s wants and needs as opposed to the shock and horror the cis person is feeling over the surprise.
The pilot of Transparent unfortunately falls into this general category.
Deciding it wasn’t the right time to tell her children, the main character arrives home one day, dressed as herself, only to walk in on one of her grown daughters making out with another woman after they broke into the place because, hey, we need to make that non-consensual reveal happen somehow, right?
“…Dad?” the daughter simply asks when she sees her.
Abrupt end of episode.
5. Dying for a Cis Person
There are all sorts of people with trans experience who end up dying in movies and books for the benefit of cis gender people.
But seriously, where are the stories where a cis gender person dies for the benefit of a trans person? If you know of examples, please comment them. Because I don’t know of a single one.
I highly respect what Rent has done for the HIV+ community, as well as the lesbian and gay communities, but when the production’s trans character died of AIDS complications, Rent fell victim to this trope.
By dying, this character somehow comes back in a dream to save one of the cis characters. And then the cis one lives and everybody’s all touched by the trans character’s selflessness, and the story is over.
Trans people are not simply mechanisms for cis lives. We are not step stools that can be used so you can reach up that much higher.
To suddenly have us switched around in fiction so that we’re your devoted pets is nothing short of insulting, especially when juxtaposed to reality. On the whole, your kind has been quite barbaric to my kind. You’ve stolen many of our lives. Why would we hand over even more of them in fiction?
6. Dying for Trans Martyrdom
Stories such as Rent often use death as a way to gain trans sympathy from cis audiences. I mean, take Boys Don’t Cry.
I know this was based on a true story (and some people argue it was about a butch lesbian, not a trans man), but the movie version was definitely sensationalized. Firstly, because gender non-conforming people are easy to profit off of in our cis-centric society.
Secondly, it perpetuates that ugly one-two punch of violence against a trans person as a trans person’s only redeeming quality.
The fact of the matter is that we shouldn’t need to somehow earn your respect (nay, your mere attention) by dying. You shouldn’t only care about us, however momentarily, once we’re dead.
We should be hailed as the badasses we are while we’re still alive, not just pitied for having been brought down yet-again by the hands of the Almighty Cis.
7. Dying in General
The death in Albert Nobbs will always stick in my mind as the most bewildering.
The main character gets in the middle of a scuffle, is pushed against the wall at an awkward angle, staggers back to bed, and dies alone in the middle of the night.
Like virtually all trans-related deaths, it was just so unnecessary. We get enough of that in reality. Does our fiction have to be chock full of it, too?
Albert Nobbs dares to take it even further, playing into the sub-trope of being screwed over by cis people even after death. When the usual nonconsensual reveal is had, the main character’s life savings is all stolen by a greedy coworker who never cared much for Nobbs anyway.
And that’s how the movie ends. Seriously. That’s how it ends.
With our lives having been hard enough in reality, can’t we at least rest in freaking peace when it comes to fiction?
The Super Duper Test of Trans Awesomeness
Here’s how I feel we should analyze a trans character to see whether or not they’re actually being used for trans representation, or just plain being used.
The more points one accomplishes, the better off they are. If they actually get all eleven, they’re super duper! Whoosh!
To pass The Super Duper Test of Trans Awesomeness, a given piece of media must have the following:
- At least one trans character who
- Transcends the white/young/rich embodiment and
- Is in control of their own trans experience and
- Has their own backstory and present narrative that
- Doesn’t exist simply to drive the plot for the cis characters or
- Exist merely to capitalize on the popularity of trans narratives or
- Focus only on the trans person’s transness, and instead
- Is painted in a light that is neither purely good nor bad, and either
- Doesn’t actually die by the end or
- Dies in a way that isn’t to heroically save cis people, but
- Nonetheless dies in a way that has a significant effect on the remainder of the plot.
“But dear, deluded James!” you cry out. “That is simply too much criteria! How could somebody possibly ever pass your awful, awful test with all of these demands?! What kind of trans character could we ever be left to write about?!”
…How about a real one?
James St. James is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He isn’t particularly fond of his name, but he has to admit it makes him easier to remember. When he’s not busy scaring cis gender people with his trans gender agenda, he likes to play SEGA and eat candy.