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Edited by: Anika Moraes

Content warning: mentions of transphobia and transphobic slurs, sexual assault, violence, and death

(Spoilers for all mentioned shows and films)

Anyone with experience as a transgender person knows that trans representation in film and television is lackluster, to say the least. A glance at any list of (canonically and visibly) trans people in films will show you just how rare it is to see accurate depictions of trans women in warm light, as well as trans-masculine and non-binary characters — who are rarely shown at all. 

This already short list of films and shows with transgender characters is shortened further when we eliminate those that haven’t been well-written or researched and aren’t even slightly accurate. So what exactly can one do to write better trans characters? 

To answer that question, I figured it would be best to explain by example. Here’s a list of the 5 best and worst depictions of trans characters in TV and film (spoilers for all mentioned below).

The worst:

5. Pretty Little Liars 

(trigger warning: deadnaming)

While this show was known for being ahead of its time in terms of including LGB characters, the writers clung to the homicidal trans person stereotype for their reveal of ‘A’s real identity; CeCe, who was formerly known as Charles on the show. They rightfully received backlash from many LGBTQ+ rights advocates for using this misrepresentative trope, especially from a show that had a large queer following. The trans community expected respectful representation in the same line as the other well-written queer characters in the show.

4. Boys Don’t Cry

(content warnings for extreme mentions of violence, transphobia, and sexual assault)

This film is lower on the list of bad trans representation because it is far more nuanced than others on this list. Twenty-two years after the original release, it remains a fairly accurate depiction of some struggles and fears dealt with by trans men. However, subtle details in the semi-biopic film push it into bad representation territory. The violence and lack of help that the protagonist,  Brandon Teena, dealt with is nightmarish for most trans men. Sexual assault, being outed, heartbreak, and murder all escalate at the climax of the film.  

The film uses slurs and derogatory language throughout the film. Brandon gets no help from anyone once he is outed as a trans man. These details alone wouldn’t necessarily put this film into the bad representation category. However, it was based on the real-life story of a transgender man named Brandon Teena and erased multiple details (including Brandon’s close friend Phillip DeVine, a black man who was also murdered) from the actual events that took place. The film was also directed by a lesbian woman, and Brandon was played by cisgender actress, Hilary Swank. Neither of these women was able to accurately show the differences between a lesbian woman and a transgender man, clubbing Brandon into the ‘masculine lesbian’ category instead of acknowledging his real identity. However, Brandon is a fleshed-out character, whose real story just wasn’t told well because it was told through the lens of a director who didn’t understand the subject. People are rightfully tired of only seeing trans people facing horrific violence. 

3. The Danish Girl 

As was with Boys Don’t Cry, one of the main issues with this film is that it was written, directed, and played by a team of cisgender people, aimed at an audience of vastly cisgender viewers. This biopic of Lili Elbe, a trans woman in 1920s Copenhagen, erases much of the lesbian relationship between Lili and her wife Gerda Wegner. They ended up portraying Lili and Gerda’s story as one about a man with a confused gender and his wife who goes along with his whims, instead of the true story of a trans woman who pushed the envelope of sexual reassignment surgery and her wife who loved her deeply and went on to paint erotic portraits of women for years after Lili’s death. This telling of Lili’s story erases the actual queerness of their lives and frames it in a way that is more digestible to a cisgender and heterosexual audience. 

2. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective 

(trigger warning: sexual harassment)

This film is infamous within the trans community for being explicitly transphobic, yet framed as a lighthearted comedy. Firstly, it follows the psychotic trans-person trope. Secondly, the main villain of the film is revealed to be trans by forcefully undressing her and being forced to expose her genitals in front of a large group of men, who react by vomiting everywhere. The villain’s trans identity in this film is seemingly thrown into the script as a silly throwaway gag. The protagonist’s comically horrified reaction on realizing the woman he had kissed earlier in the film was trans, and the gag reaction of the large group of men that found her attractive are just jokes meant to make their audience of straight, cisgender men squirm in their seats and laugh at the shock-value. The villain’s trans identity serves no other purpose in the plot; she is made to be trans only for the privileged to have something to laugh at. Her pain is trivialized and treated as a joke when in reality, the things happening on-screen are deeply disturbing and painful to watch.

1. Every medical/crime drama’s ‘very special trans episode’ ever written

This is more of a general category than a specific show, but every single episode in a medical drama that shows either (i) a trans person dying or becoming severely ill because of their hormone replacement therapy, or (ii) a trans person dying because they refuse to stop their gender-affirming treatments, is automatically garbage. After all, it is extremely rare for hormones to cause extreme illness the way these shows present them, and only represent throwaway trans characters that get no real depth apart from their trans identity. This trope makes the non-trans audience see trans people as helpless and weak; it also makes transitioning seem like an incredibly dangerous treatment when in actuality there is little to no risk of becoming ill from hormone replacement therapy.

Crime dramas that have their token trans murder victims/murderers also play into the trope of the psychotic trans person who kills women to steal their skin and become them. They also portray the trans community as weak since they all get murdered in hate crimes. Their sole purpose is to act as a prop for various characters. Both of these categories project terrible stereotypes of trans women as sex workers, drug addicts, psychopaths, or delusional people that would rather die than stop their transitions, and rarely — if ever — present trans characters who are more than just their trans identity, or trans-masculine and non-binary characters at all.

The best:

5. Orange Is the New Black

This prison drama cast transgender actress Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset, a trans woman who committed credit card fraud to fund her medical transition. She is a well-written character who gets to explore her personal growth outside of her trans identity. She learns how to repair her relationship with her son and ex-wife, who were initially unhappy with her choice to surgically transition. She is also treated as a whole character with a personality and likes and dislikes, instead of a token trans character only there to help move along the story arcs of the lead characters. Sophia is a deeply flawed person, but she also grows as a person throughout the show in a much more realistic way. Her story is that of a trans woman learning to deal with an inhumane and prejudiced criminal punishment system. She builds a life for herself that accommodates her own acceptance of her identity.

4. Sense8

This show explores many themes as it follows the 8 lead characters who are telepathically connected, one of whom is Nomi Marks, a lesbian trans woman played by Jamie Clayton. Nomi is a good example of good trans representation because her trans identity isn’t the sole focus of her story in the show. The fact that she is trans is not given unnecessary attention and is only addressed in moments where her relationship with her transphobic birth family is brought up. She is a character with depth and aspects of her story and life don’t revolve purely around her trans identity.  It allows her to be more relatable to all viewers. Her long-term partner, Amanita Caplan, is also not a last-minute addition to the cast; she has her own personality and importance to the plot. She is her own character and her relationship with Nomi is allowed to grow organically on screen without making it a throwaway detail meant to cater to a queer audience. Their relationship also highlights some of the difficulties that come along with being transgender in a very poignant way.

3. Transfinite

This 2019 sci-fi omnibus short film written by Neelu Bhuman follows the individual stories of seven trans people. They are given supernatural powers to help them overcome the shared prejudice and discrimination they face due to their trans identities. The film does an amazing job of showcasing the day-to-day struggles that so many trans people face. Though most trans people watching can relate to the problems the characters deal with, the supernatural solutions the writers give us are far more fun to see play out on screen. It gives us a refreshing, packaged resolution to the story that we are so often deprived of in stories about trans people

Though we don’t get to see the longer stories of the characters on screen, this short film format works marvelously in giving viewers a film shot through a queer lens without being overly sad and realistically jarring.

All the trans characters in the film are played by trans people, and the cast is also mostly made up of people of color. The director — Neelu Bhuman — is also South Indian, and has worked on a multitude of short films revolving around the lives of queer people of color.

2. Euphoria

This HBO show had a huge cultural impact as it covers extremely difficult topics through incredibly beautiful stories, characters, cinematography, musical score, and more. Every aspect of this show is (in my opinion) beautiful – from the cinematography and editing to the writing, casting, and score. All of these elements come together to create a transformative experience for the viewer.

When it first came out, the audience was instantly captured and it’s easy to understand why. Each character in the show has a real story to tell, every character is so well written that they feel like real people. The writers did a great job of developing Jules as a character with a trajectory for growth and plenty of opportunities to explore her vulnerabilities. Her understanding of her trans identity and how it ties in with herself as a person is also one of the most accurate depictions of trans identity in a show to me. This was 100% because Hunter Schafer — the actress that plays Jules — is trans and had a hand in writing Jules. Jules is a trans woman but holds her innate masculinity in balance with the feminine. She understands herself in her identity and embraces it without making it overly exaggerated. She doesn’t force herself into any box that doesn’t accommodate her personality. Jules is trans, but she is so much more than that. She is as much of a train wreck as any other adolescent I know, and her growth alongside Rue plays out beautifully on screen. As a person, she’s a mess of contradictions, complexities, baggage, and bad behavior that all come together to make this beautiful character that you can’t help but fall in love with. 

1. Pose

FX’s ‘Pose’ is by far the best trans representation I’ve seen in a television show to date. With a majority trans cast and great representation for people of color, each character on this show has beautiful depth, though their storylines aren’t necessarily out of the ordinary. Many trans people relate to their stories very closely as the crew behind the show wrote from experience within the New York drag ball scene. They did a great job of showing the audience what the lower-class, queer community was like in the 1980s. 

Though many of the trans women in the show are seen doing sex work, it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of the time the show is set in, as few openly trans people were able to find employment during that era. Though it can still be difficult for trans people to get jobs today, it was almost impossible during the times the show is set in. 

Each of the trans characters in this show is played by real trans people, and they each have well-written arcs of their own. Each character on the show had an important part in showing people from both within and outside the community what the lives of queer people were like during the peak of the HIV crisis, and how they dealt with all the death and pain around them. While the found family trope is over-done, Pose does a great job of showing us a found family that cares deeply for their people.

Why do we need better trans representation?

The tropes perpetuated by bad trans representation are incredibly damaging to the community. For example, if the only mainstream depiction of a socially acceptable trans man is heterosexual, cisgender-passing, and stereotypically masculine, it alienates trans men that don’t fit into this mold. It could also make younger, impressionable trans boys feel uncomfortable in their identities. This rule includes any and all depictions of trans people that cater to a cisgender audience. Instead, they should be telling real trans people’s stories with a team of creatives that understand the experiences of a trans person with more depth than any cisgender person.

It also creates a sense of ‘othering,’ as cisgender people are statistically more likely to see bad depictions of trans people. Trans characters were cast in a victimized or villain role in at least 61% of the catalogued episodes and storylines. 20% of all trans characters shown on television at the time of the study were shown to be sex workers (according to a study undertaken by GLAAD). This kind of negative representation makes people internalize the belief that all trans people are psychotic murderers, sex workers, or murder victims, and nothing more. These negative tropes have heavy impacts on the subconscious, alienating the entire trans community in turn. 

More than the effect of this misrepresentation on a cisgender audience, the effect it has on the trans people watching is far worse. We internalize much of what we see on screen, and these terrible depictions of trans people make us internalize a lot of hatred and fear of ourselves and our own identities. Misrepresentation of trans identities in media allows people to forget that the trans community is still marginalized, and either trivializes their problems, infantilizes them, or erases them entirely. It stops trans people from realizing and acknowledging the injustice they face in legal systems all over the world, it hinders their growth and ability to cope with the marginalization they face, and it stops them from being able to thrive in the world.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Media and communications student, amateur poet, full-time clown.
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