ARTICLE / LONG READ
“I think you’re human”, Ricky (Michelle Hendley) tells Francesca (Alexandra Turshen) when she questions her sexuality after having sex with a transgender woman for the first time. The comment expresses the true sentiment of BOY MEETS GIRL (Eric Schaeffer 2014), one of the few films to depict transgenderism in a refreshingly funny and respectful way. Ricky, played by a transgender actor, is unapologetically trans, witty and unstoppable. The film ends happily with Ricky getting together with her best friend Robbie (Michael Welch). Sadly, characters like these are not often shown. All too frequently we are presented with a mixture of transition montages and political statement pieces, pushing aside the image of trans people as human beings and instead exploiting them. As wonderful as visible representation can be for something as marginalised as the trans community, not all representation is for the better. In Hilary Radner and Rebecca Stringer’s 2011 collection of essays FEMINISM AT THE MOVIES, Gary Needham explains “One should be cautious in assuming that increased visibility or popularity translates readily into political progress”. Representation can be based on negative stereotypes to mock characters or simply fill diversity requirements.
Too often we see a trans character in a television show or film who is cast simply to meet a diversity quota without showcasing them as an actual person. Max (Daniela Sea) in THE L WORD (Showtime 2004-2009) is one of the more disastrous transgender characters. The show barely attempts to accommodate Max’s identity, evident in the disrespectful attitudes shown by the other characters as Max transitions. Even Jenny (Mia Kirshner), who first encourages Max to transition, ends up saying some of the more ignorant, transphobic comments in the series, especially during Max’s pregnancy. “People, she’s pregnant! You can’t give a pregnant lady drugs”, Jenny yells as Max hyperventilates. With a full beard and 3 years of presenting as male under his belt, Max angrily corrects her: “He. He’s pregnant, okay?”
TOO OFTEN WE SEE A TRANS CHARACTER IN A TELEVISION SHOW OR FILM WHO IS CAST SIMPLY TO MEET A DIVERSITY QUOTA WITHOUT SHOWCASING THEM AS AN ACTUAL PERSON.
Transphobic comments are not uncommon in the show but, with Jenny being closest to Max, it simply indicates poor writing from people who have not researched or even attempted to respect their only transgender character. “Pregnant Max is presented as what I can literally only describe as an angry caveman”, Ryley Rubin Pogensky wrote for The Huffington Post in 2016, “the viewer is not drawn to feeling sympathy for him, but instead is looking at a disheveled, angry, and whiny gay man”. The suggestion is that the way Max is written makes him purposely unlikeable. As one of the most well-known trans characters on television, it is upsetting that he is used not only as a trope but also to inspire transphobia.
In contrast to this, FAKING IT (MTV 2014- ) – a show about friends who fake being lesbians for popularity – does a better job representing the LGBTQ community than most popular media. We are introduced to Noah (Elliot Fletcher), Shane’s (Michael J Willet) new love interest. Noah is a transgender man, although this is not revealed until later, and the series focuses on Shane’s uncertainty about dating a trans partner. Noah informs Shane and the audience of the correct ways to act towards transgender people, something THE L WORD never addresses.
Fletcher spoke in 2016 on behalf of Noah in a Frontiers Media interview about the message he presents: “Unfortunately, a lot of cisgender [where gender aligns with birth sex] gay men can feel uncomfortable about potentially dating a trans man - like, ‘Oh, am I going to lose my gay card for sleeping with him?’ As Noah says on the show, you don’t; a trans man is just a man. It’s so simple”.
TRANSPHOBIC COMMENTS ARE NOT UNCOMMON... IT SIMPLY INDICATES POOR WRITING.
BOY MEETS GIRL’s transgender woman Ricky is a breakthrough for trans characters. The focus of the film is on Ricky, her gender identity, her sexuality and her dreams of fashion school. The film avoids many negative stereotypes and shows Ricky comfortable with her own identity, which is not shown very often. “Many depictions of trans women include prolonged scenes of shaving or putting on layers and layers of foundation”, Gage wrote for online feminist community Feministing in 2015. “We didn’t see that with Ricky. Instead Ricky’s gender is portrayed as pretty ‘natural’ and something she’s at ease with”. The natural portrayal of Ricky shows where many other storytellers have gone wrong; Ricky’s character is comfortable because Hendley herself is comfortable with her body and identity.
Frank Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter concurs, praising one of the closing scenes: “It’s Hendley’s Ricky who commands attention, thanks to the performer’s utter naturalism in front of the camera and her willingness to bare herself both emotionally and, in one of the film’s most affecting scenes, physically”. Ricky’s naked body exposure differs from how body reveals have been shown in other trans films. BOYS DON’T CRY (Kimberly Peirce 1999) forces the audience to be confronted with Brandon’s (Hilary Swank) pre-op body, just like Lana (Chloë Sevigny). THE L WORD reveals Max’s pregnant body as an explanation for his cis-gendered gay boyfriend leaving him. Instead of the humiliating approach, BOY MEETS GIRL uses the exposure to show Ricky’s utter acceptance of herself and, in turn, make the audience confront their own expectations of trans beauty.
Although the film is perfect for cisgender audiences who may be new to learning about transgender issues, some members of the trans community have spoken up about problems with the film. “Not only is this portrayal unrealistic… but it also plays into a problematic trope of trans people as isolated, as needing cis people to validate our identities”, Gage continues. The isolation trope is one that features heavily in many trans films, separating them from everyone else and to make the audience isolate them too. Trans characters are made to seem one of a kind and while they can educate cisgender audiences, they also encourage the idea that trans people are few and far between and deserve to be treated on a different level.
Historically, we can see the same mistakes repeatedly being made. While older films can almost be excused for casting based on the lack of visible transgender people, contemporary films should not be extended such courtesy. Transgender people are the most visible they have ever been - Caitlyn Jenner won Glamour’s Woman of the Year Award in 2015 and Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time magazine in 2014 - so why do we still have cis actors taking on trans roles?
WHY DO WE STILL HAVE CIS ACTORS TAKING ON TRANS ROLES?
From DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (Jean-Marc Vallée 2013) to THE DANISH GIRL (Tom Hooper 2015), transgender characters are caricatured while transgender actors go without work. Mark Ruffalo, executive producer of ANYTHING (Timothy McNeil 2017), oversaw the casting of Matt Bomer as a transwoman. In 2016, in response to the backlash from trans people upon hearing about this, Ruffalo made a statement on Twitter: “To the Trans community. I hear you. It’s wrenching to you see you in this pain. I am glad we are having this conversation. It’s time”. Yet Ruffalo explained that he would not be making any changes to the film regarding the casting. The problematic practice of casting cis actors in trans roles is not just about taking them from transgender actors, it is also about how trans characters are represented towards to the audience. If a trans character is played by a cis actor, it invalidates their identity and takes away something very important from the role.
Cleo Kambugu, a Ugandan transwoman and activist, joined forces with European filmmaker Jonny Van Wallström to create a documentary about her life entitled THE PEARL OF AFRICA (2016). Kambugu spoke personally about the film to Variety’s Damon Wise in 2016, expressing that she did not wish to follow in the footsteps of other trans films. “I didn’t want this to be another Hollywood trans movie or documentary that would sexualise my identity and reduce me to being a trans person”, Kambugu stated. “I wanted it be humanising. I didn’t want it to focus on my victimhood or trivialise my reality. I wanted it to tell my story while also being able to talk about my resilience – I didn’t want to be portrayed as a weak person that needs to be saved”. Kambugu describes what the ideal trans character should be: someone whose gender does not define them but is still a significant part of their life, someone who may have suffered hardships but has managed to power through them, someone who is not sexualised, or exploited, or played by a cis-gendered actor.
Transgender people are the most visible they have ever been. It is time they were given a chance to create characters that reflect them and not used purely for a diversity agenda. While there are certain transgender tropes that are sure to stick around, there is hope that they will be delivered in a new and different way. Kambugu says it best: “I think there’s so much that transgender people can teach the world about identity. Because when you don’t assume that things should be the way they’re supposed to be, you’re able to explore what things could be like. People are used to being in a box”. It is time to make way for new filmmakers who can convey a more authentic experience through film and help educate and entertain the world a little better.