Column: Trans media representation deeply flawed

This weekend a release date for the film “3 Generations,” formerly “About Ray,” was announced. It’s a film ostensibly about a trans character, which would otherwise be welcome, but it falls victim to almost every single pitfall Hollywood's attempts to represent trans people suffer from. So let’s talk about representation, why it’s needed and why the media is doing it badly.

The most obvious and public shortcoming of “3 Generations” is that it has a trans man played by a cisgender woman. This reinforces the idea that trans men are really just women pretending to be men, not helped by the director’s comments that the transgender male character “is a girl … presenting in a very ineffectual way as a boy.”

People get killed for that idea, that trans women are “traps” or men pretending to be women to mess with men. Earlier this month, three black trans women were killed in Louisiana within days of each other.

Yet the general excuse, that since the character is early in transition they can be played by a cisgender actor of the gender they were assigned at birth, is pervasive. “Transparent” and “The Danish Girl” both used the same argument. That reveals another problem with the media’s depiction of trans characters.

We focus a lot on transition stories as a culture. Almost every major trans-centric story Hollywood or the television industry produces involves the social, behavioral and physical transition in a trans person’s presentation to the world. It essentially reduces trans characters down to the thing that makes them most “different” from the rest of the population, in much the same way that a disproportionate amount of Oscar-nominated films with a black lead focus on civil rights or slavery, rather than just black characters interacting with society.

It’s part of a general assumption that unless race, sex, sexuality or gender identity are essential to a story or character, everyone is a white male by default. But that is beyond the scope of this column.

Even if we must make stories that try to play up the “otherness” of trans characters and don't just let them be trans in a way that doesn’t define their character, we can at least cast trans actors in them. Just have a trans woman play a pre-transition trans man, or vice-versa. They have some idea what the emotions involved in dysphoria and harassment are like, and need exposure.

Another problem with “3 Generations” and many other trans stories in the media is that they focus a lot on how cis characters react to trans people. This means that trans people aren’t portrayed as complex characters with their own agency, but as a vehicle for teaching people who aren’t trans about the values of flexibility and acceptance. It means that we don’t get post-transition trans characters with their own agency and identity outside of their gender, which means we can’t get to see trans people as normal. Until most people can see that trans people are really just people with a different experience in life, there will continue to be oppression. The media isn’t helping on that front.

There are some stories that deserve commendation for good portrayals. The Netflix shows “Sense8” and “Orange is the New Black,” while problematic in their own ways, do paint trans people as more complex than their gender and don’t primarily focus on transitions. The independent film “Tangerine” was also praised for its handling of trans characters and its casting of a trans actress, but it ultimately lost an Oscar nod to the cisgender-led mess that was “The Danish Girl.” Because, for some reason, critics, audiences and the academy are still willing to reward terrible portrayals of a marginalized group.

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