Transgender representation in the media

Posted on Sep 9 2015 - 10:06am by Morgan Philley

Imagine growing up being fairly certain you don’t exist.

You’ve never seen anyone like you.

Not in movies, not in books, not in songs. You’re struggling to figure out just who you are, but you don’t have any role models to look up to. No examples at all, not even the language to describe how you feel about yourself. That’s what it’s like to grow up being transgender.

This problem can be easily avoided for younger trans folks in this day and age. With public transitions like Caitlyn Jenner’s, trans people are enjoying more visibility than ever before. Or, to be more accurate, we’re suffering more representation than ever before.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that every portrayal of a trans person in recent media has been harmful. But the overwhelming majority of them have employed a standard microaggression in the overwhelming arsenal of transphobic weaponry: cisgender (non-trans) actors and actresses playing transgender characters.

I can already hear the cries of, “But that’s the point of acting! To pretend to be someone you’re not!”

And I’m going to have to stop you right there. Transgender people are in a unique position of systemic oppression and limited representation that makes us a very fragile population.

And while I can’t speak for every trans person, on a personal note, I’m very touchy about it.

Every time that a trans woman is portrayed by a cisgender man, a subtle act of violence is occurring. Like when Jared Leto played a trans woman in the popular film Dallas Buyers Club, underlying cultural assumptions get perpetuated when Hollywood declares that a trans woman is nothing more than a man in a dress. This reinforces an untrue and pernicious cultural misunderstanding that often results in fear and hostility being acted out toward trans women in particular.

By asserting that “transness” can be approximated simply by crossdressing, films trivialize the struggles that trans people deal with every day. Additionally, these cisgender actors take roles away from aspiring trans actors who have enough trouble getting work as it is. And as anyone who has seen Laverne Cox’s performance in Orange is the New Black knows, there are some incredibly gifted trans actors out there.

It is both the responsibility of filmmakers to open casting calls for trans characters specifically to trans actors and of cis actors to refuse those roles when offered to them.

After all, it’s not like Eddie Redmayne, who will portray trans woman Lili Elbe in the upcoming film The Danish Girl, is strapped for cash.

From Elle Fanning in the new movie About Ray (whose trans-male character has been repeatedly and tellingly misgendered by director Gaby Dellal in interviews) to Jeffery Tambor in Amazon’s series Transparent, there are an overwhelming number of missed opportunities. Netflix’s series Sense8 is one of remarkably few productions that applies common sense and allows trans actors to portray trans characters.

While, undoubtedly, a few of the recent attempts to include trans characters come from good intentions, cliché tells us that those are what the road to hell is paved with. Add to that my fear that the true goal is just to cash in on a newly discovered market, and I’m just exhausted. I want to see characters that look like me played by people like me. We’ve fought tooth and nail for acknowledgement, and we won’t be swept back under the rug easily.


Morgan Philley is a senior English major from Clinton.