Getting Transgender Characters Right

Between the show and the blog, we’ve had quite a bit of content lately discussing proper representation of LGBT characters and transgender characters especially. From Transparent to Anything to The Danish Girl, we’ve had plenty of instances where we’ve picked apart the representation and portrayal of transgender characters. And I’ve noticed that it’s mostly been focusing on the negative. Now, there’s a depressing reason for that, in that the vast…vast…VAST majority of transgender representation in media only falls on a spectrum between harmful at worst and problematic at best.

But there are some examples that not only cross the barrier separating okay but flawed from good but push on to actually outstanding. I’ve listed them a few times as comparisons here and there but I’ve not gotten any time to focus on them and really explain exactly what sets them apart as shining examples of transgender representation. Well, it’s time for them to get their moment to shine (plus I’ve always wanted to do my own BuzzFeed style top list) so here are my top three (sort of) examples of transgender characters done right and why.

Honerable Mention: Cremisius Aclassi – Dragon Age Inquisition

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This one is a honerable mention because I really wrestled with myself over whether or not to include it. As a person who shouts till she’s blue in the face that transgender characters need to be played by actual transgender people, including Cremisius (Crem)-who is voiced by a cisgender woman-seemed like sacrilege. In the end I decided to give it a partial pass since Crem still represents a lot of positive aspects of transgender character portrayal as well as being the absolute best example of trans in games that I can think of. Also, while I recognize as much as anyone that this is a cop-out excuse, voice acting is not the same as camera or stage acting and there are a ton of examples of voice actors playing characters of different races, genders, or ages than what they physically represent.

So yea, let’s at least discuss Crem. As video games have grown to be constructs of deep and complex narratives they’ve given us a way to interact with and understand stories that’s never been possible in any other medium. Remember the old choose your own adventure books where you’d come to a point where you could make a choice of where to go and flip to a different page depending on what storyline you chose? Well, video games have become an amazing realization of what those books were trying to achieve. Two people can play the exact same game and get almost completely different experiences. What you see, who you interact with, hell; even who your character falls in love with are all different depending on the choices you make in the game.

There is only one point in all of Dragon Age Inquisition where all players must see Crem. He’s standing outside the Temple in Haven wanting to talk to you as you pass him by. If you do pass him, if you do just ignore him and go about your game, that’s all there is to it. Crem (and subsequently his boss, Iron Bull) do not become a part of your adventure. If you do talk to him, you have the option of letting his band of mercenaries join your team. Beyond that you can interact with both he and Iron Bull through layers upon layers of optional dialogue. And it’s only when you venture deep into these conversations that you find out Crem is a transgender man.

And this gets to why I simply had to put Crem on this list. He’s a perfect tool for teaching the player what it’s like to meet a transgender person. If you just pass him by without talking to him, you’re absolutely none the wiser. If you talk to him, you’ll notice he has a few slightly feminine traits but pay it no mind. Even after you go kill monsters with him you’re still not privy to the secrets of his gender identity. It’s only through forming a deep relationship with him that you find out he’s transgender. So many people think all transgender people are obvious. To go back to the insufferable bathroom topic, people who are afraid of transgender people in the bathroom think they’re going to instantly recognize any they come across, or that they will somehow telegraph their transness to them. The truth is a lot of transgender people just blend in, and it’s none of your business unless they choose to let you know about it. Crem helps deliver this message in an interactive experience.

Plus, he’s badass.

Number 3: Sophia Burset – Orange is the New Black

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You all knew this would be on here but I bet you thought it would be number one. Sophia is a great character and I have a lot of good things to say about her, but she’s not my favorite. Still, this is her moment to shine so let’s put a spotlight on her and what the portrayal of her character does right. Firstly, she’s a transgender woman of color, and you will not find a more maligned demographic of people in America. Seriously, on a scale for people who have it rough in America simply because of who they are, I can’t think of any that have it worse. It’s vital that we get TWOC into the media because they are simply so invisible to the collective conscience.

Sophia actually isn’t a main character on OITNB. Cox only has a guest starring role each season so she doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time. Still, the writers have done a great job making sure we get to know her just as well as we get to know all the other women and guards at Lichfield Prison. One of the fun things about OITNB is how many of the episodes each highlight one character and weave in scenes from their past that help us to understand how they wound up behind bars. Sophia got her back story told in the first season and it was beautifully executed.

(Spoilers for OITNB ahead!)

Laverne Cox has a twin brother in real life and that twin was called in to play pre-transition Sophia. This struck me as especially moving because, with how much entertainment media wants to cast cis people in trans rolls, the producers of OITNB basically had the perfect excuse to continue that trend but still chose to represent their trans character with a trans actress. If they had cast a cis male, the argument that the story called for the character to be seen both pre and post transition would have been viable…still upsetting, but viable. OITNB took the harder path in order to properly represent their transgender character and it paid off. Both of the twins gave wonderful performances and Cox’s brother’s portrayal of pre-transition Sophia was so spectacular it could have only come from someone who literally watched a loved one go through it in real life.

Now, each of the inmates’ back stories also lets us know how they came to be prisoners. When telling us the story of Sophia’s crime, the writers one again bypassed the easy road. If you’re trying to put a transgender prisoner in your story, especialla TWOC, and you need a crime for her to have committed, prostitute is the go-to. While it’s unfortunately true that a lot of transgender women, especially TWOC do end up selling their bodies in order to survive, as a narrative tool it’s old and boring. Still, it would have been effortless to just go that route. Again, the show is about criminals and they have a transgender character. The narrative is practically moving them towards it. But again, OITNB didn’t go the easy route. Instead, Sophia was busted committing credit card fraud in an attempt to bankroll her gender affirmation surgery. It’s creative, it works for her character, and it makes her more than a cliché. So bravo to the OITNB crew for giving us a well presented transgender woman at Litchfield Prison.

Number 2: Violet and Paige – Her Story

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Why the fuck did this not win an Emmy?

My love of Her Story should be pretty obvious at this point. This six-part mini series on YouTube is just beautiful. It has a great cast, it’s well-directed, and the story is quite compelling when you consider how many characters it follows for such a short amount of time. Her Story seems like one of those “will obviously be on this list” entries; it’s build from the ground up to let trans actors tell the story of trans characters. Well, you might be surprised to hear that I almost left it off this list for that very reason!

Let me explain. While I have nothing but love for this show, when I talk about proper representation of trans characters I’m often talking about integrating them into narratives we already have. Like I said in my criticisms of Strut, it just always leaves a bad taste in my mouth when proper representation of trans characters can only be found in media that exists largely just to have them in it. Doing so makes the fact that they’re trans have to be a major chunk of the story by default, thus making it feel like some extraordinary circumstance rather than just another way of being.

But I didn’t bring you here to talk about what’s wrong. In fact, it’s how Her Story triumphs over this problem that earned it a spot on this list. It’s a story that kinda has to put a lot of focus on the fact that the characters are trans, but the narrative allows more interesting things to be the real focus of each episode. Paige gets some great focus as a woman trying to make it as a lawyer, but it’s Jen Richard’s Violet that really gets to stand out. Her transgender status, instead of being the focus of her arch, is actually just an additional complication thrown into her quest to find love, get out of her abusive relationship with her boyfriend, and ultimately come to understand her own sexual orientation.

And that’s the part of Her Story that really grabs me. Highlighting that even a trans woman can find herself in an abusive relationship is good, but it’s the sexual orientation topic that sets this show apart. The T has long been a part of the LGBT movement, but that brings with it its own unfortunate misunderstandings. People tend to think of gender identity as a part of one’s sexual identity, and it’s a confusion that even crops up in the LGBT community itself. A transgender woman who is attracted to men is a heterosexual woman: not a gay man. Likewise, a cisgender lesbian who finds herself attracted to a transgender woman isn’t suddenly straight or bisexual. These are the issues Her Story tackles and it does so beautifully. As Violet explores her relationship with Allie (a cisgender lesbian), Allie’s friends call her sexual orientation into question. It’s these outside forces pushing against their relationship that take up the bulk of the story, not the fact that Violet or Paige are trans.

Number 1: Nomi Marks – Sense8

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I consider Sense8 to be one of the most underrated things ever on television. It’s a sci-fi series that comes to us courtesy of Lilly Wachowski, a transgender woman herself. Nomi isn’t necessarily the main character of the story, but the beauty of Sense8 is that no one is. All of the eight characters that share a psychic connection also share about equal screen time and story focus.

I did put these characters in a specific order and I consider Nomi to be the best representation of a transgender character I’ve ever seen. She exhibits many of the traits we’ve already touched on in other examples. She has a rich and compelling back story that isn’t saturated in her gender identity. She also lends more to the narrative than being a token character; she’s a bad-ass hacker. But there are two things about Nomi that really help her stand out to me.

The first one revolves around the story of Sense8 itself and thus I must put up another SPOILER WARNING. The story is about eight people who share a psychic connection. They are able to communicate with each other, mentally transfer themselves into the same place as each other, and even take over each other’s bodies in order to lend them their specific skills (seriously, why have you not watched this show?!) Each of the eight has their own unique talents which are helpful for the group to achieve their goals. There’s the fighter, the actor, the criminal mastermind, and in Nomi’s case, the hacker.

Notice I mentioned an actor. See, someone who doesn’t understand what it means to be transgender may be under the impression that being so is an act, that they’re pretending to be something they’re not. But when any of the eight need to call upon acting skills, they don’t call Nomi. It may seem like a small thing, but it helps to confirm to the audience that Nomi is Nomi and no one else.

The second thing I love about Nomi is a trait I’ve not seen well executed in any other trans character: she’s allowed to be sexy. Notice I didn’t say sexualized. We see that shit all the time. Trans women walking the streets in dark alleys are an often used as visual shorthand to add to the motif of a derelict urban environment. They convey sex, but are not meant to be something the audience actually finds attractive.

Sense8 introduces us to Nomi during a sex scene with her girlfriend Amanita. They’re both fully nude and the cinematography is utilized to highlight how sexy the bodies of both women are. Nomi’s breasts, hips, legs, etc. are all given the same care and framing any cis woman would be in a scene intended to get a reaction of erotic enjoyment from the audience. And this is nothing compared to her sex scene halfway through the series which is hands down the hottest sex scene I’ve ever witnessed in anything that wasn’t actual pornography.

I know there’s a lot of ire around the notion of portraying women, even cis women, as sexual objects, but when sex is tied to an already well-rounded character it’s actually a very positive thing. Nomi owns her sexuality. She consents to all sexual contacts in the story and they’re always with partners she feels safe with. She’s not being exploited, but rather allowed to own and be proud of her sexuality in a way we still don’t see with a lot of cis women on TV.

So see, entertainment media, it can be done. There are plenty of ways to properly portray transgender characters. They can be just as diverse, just as deep, and just as engaging as anyone else you write. So can we please try harder–if for no other reason than it’s more fun for me to write pieces like this than to drudge up another thousand words or so on how you fucked it up again.

-Faith

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The Stumbles of “Strut”

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Outrage over something clearly problematic is easy. My last post didn’t take a lot of effort to get my point across since casting yet another cis person as a member of the still poorly represented transgender community is such a cut and dry case of fuck no. Though even then some people will fail to grasp exactly why you’re angry, the bulk of the readership tends to at least figure it out after you make your case (and I did have a few people say they hadn’t understood why it was a problem until they read the post).

Pointing out the problems in something less blatant is a much greater challenge. Hell, it can even come across as being too picky or trying to find faults just for the sake of doing it. It becomes more touchy when the subject matter appears to be actually progressive and done with the very intention of making right the sins of poor representation. And while I’ll agree that being outright angry over such things is definitely not the right way to go, holding back criticism as a thank you just for trying sends the message that the entity in question got it 100% right, therefore no one needs to try any harder than that to appease said community.

What the hell am I going on about? Well, it’s been revealed that the Oxygen network has picked up a new show called Strut. Seemingly framed like America’s Next Top Model but without being a competition, the show is produced by Whoopi Goldberg and features a modeling agency that only works with transgender models.

Click here to watch the trailer.

If you’re thinking, ‘Faith, how can you think a show like that looks bad?’, let me go ahead and say that I don’t. I actually think this looks like a good show and I plan to at least give it a shot. It shows real transgender people who are allowed to talk about their own struggles. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have some issues with it and I believe those issues have merit. Like I said last time, I refuse to just take what I’m given simply because I’m given so little to begin with. I will always be picky about how I’m represented in the media, even when the media in question is trying to get it right.

To break down the issues I have with this show, we need to tackle them from two different angles. First, there’s the issue of Strut as a progressive entity (as in will work to actively progress transgender acceptance). We live in a world where people have access to a near infinite amount of entertainment options. Between hundreds of channels, on demand sites like Hulu and Netflix, Youtube channels, podcasts, ebooks, and everything else the digital age has to offer, there’s virtually no chance you’re ever going to have to watch, listen to, read, etc. something you don’t want to. Strut is a progressive show produced by a progressive person and presented on a progressive network. It’s preaching to the choir. And while that can be good for the choir, it’s not going to achieve anything meaningful in the long run. The people who actually need to be exposed to these people and their stories will still be able to easily sequester themselves away from it. If the show were on NBC, CBS, or even a bigger cable presence like FX or TNT, it would have a greater probability of at least having someone stay on it till their show came on afterward. On Oxygen, it might was well be in a box wrapped in caution tape reading: WARNING: THIS SHOW WILL BREAK YOUR IGNORANCE.

Of course I’m not touting any of this as a fault of the show itself (that’s coming next), but more as an overall observation. Anyone who thinks this is going to be a means of turning public opinion is sorely mistaken. This is any other reality show; period. Nothing more, nothing less. And the thing that makes me the maddest is that very few content creators seem to be fighting for the simpler solutions that actually would work to make things better. I don’t need a show just for trans people, I need trans people on the shows people already watch. Instead of this, couldn’t we get a trans contestant on Dancing With the Stars? How about on Survivor, or Big Brother? These shows are already watched by millions of people, both the progressive and the ignorant. That’s where we need visibility! America’s Next Top Model actually got this right by having transgender contestants in with everyone else. That’s proper representation!

You want to really shake things up? Give us a transgender contestant on The Bachelor.

I said a while back in my post about neutral bathrooms that attempts to be inclusive can often just be a different kind of exclusive. In the bathroom example, the point is that neutral bathrooms are a great thing to have, but to build them specifically so transgender people have somewhere to go is just singling them out in a different way. “You’re not allowed to exist,” becomes “you can exist, but only over there.” Strut has the same feeling to me. There are a ton of shows just like it all over the place, each with a cast of men and women representing a variety of colors, ages, and sexual orientations. Why can’t we just throw transgender into that mix? Why do we need our own special version of what’s already out there?

Secluding the transgender experience from the rest of media further pushes the notion that varying gender identities are abnormal; they must have their own special place because they don’t fit in with normal life. For a long time you couldn’t get a gay character in a story unless the story was about them being gay. That’s gotten better over time, but transgender representation hasn’t caught up. Strut might be telling some great stories about the transgender experience, but it’s not letting those stories exist alongside what our collective culture already knows. What’s more, it’s doing it in the safest space imaginable outside of an online only medium.

As for the show itself (and this is purely impressions off the commercials as I’ve not seen any episodes yet), it’s another show about runway models. The transgender aspect is simply a gimmick, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I still think it looks like an entertaining show, but there’s nothing remarkable about it. I will say, however, that if we have to have a show with an all transgender cast…can it please not be models? Not to put down models or modeling in any way; it’s a valid profession that takes a great deal of work and talent, but so much of the stigma about transgender people is already centered around appearance.

It would be so easy for the plot of this show to be about how well the models appear cis when the pictures are submitted to magazines, billboards etc. If that turns out to be the goal these men and women have, then the narrative will actually become something harmful. So much of the transgender experience has been poisoned by the notion that passing equals validity. I know I’ve fallen into that trap more than once in my life. The idea that one’s gender identity isn’t worthy of respect unless they can pass for a cis member of said gender is an incredibly difficult battle that most of our community has to fight. Telling the stories of transgender people through the framework of a modeling show is only going to exacerbate that notion.

I’d like to stress again that everything I’ve presented here is speculation based on how the show has advertised itself. Once it’s out and I’ve had a chance to watch it, I might return to this topic and offer more insights. Until then, it’s hard to get excited for something like this. It’s hard to see this as a step forward when the greater advancement could have been made in a simpler way. It’s hard to be optimistic when so many of the same old problems with transgender representation are already showing up in the marketing for this show. It looks like a fun show, but if it’s aiming to be anything more than that, anything meaningful for the lives of the people it portrays, I find it sorely wanting.

-Faith

UPDATE: It’s come to my attention that Big Brother actually has had a transgender contestant before. Just goes to show you how much reality TV I watch.