Does visibility equal progress? A conversation on trans activist media

by Sam Feder and Alexandra Juhasz

Summer 2016

The transgender tipping point:
who succeeds, who benefits?

Alex: Hi Sam, can you tell me about your background as an artist and your current work on a documentary about trans[1] [open endnotes in new window] media history?

Alex Juhasz, left, and Sam Feder, right.

Sam: Hi, Alex. I started making films in the early 2000s. Since then my work has focused on current activist issues that I’m part of and witnessing, specifically regarding transgender lives. My present film is in response to the growing visibility of trans people in the media and puts that visibility into historical context. How did we get here? How have images of trans people evolved? How does increased visibility intersect with how trans people understand ourselves or how society understands trans lives? Does visibility equal progress?

Trans-indie documentaries, left to right: Shinjuku Boys (Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, 1995), Southern Comfort (Kate Davis, 2001), Transvisible (Dante Alencastre, 2013), Major! (Annalise Ophelian, 2016)

Alex: How is this moment of visibility different from earlier examples of trans visibility?

Sam: This moment is different because there are more opportunities, there is a slight shift in how dominant films and TV shows write trans characters, and being trans has become a commodity that sells. I struggle with how the current moment casts trans visibility as something new and in that process breaks it from an historical narrative, rendering the past invisible. That’s largely why I became interesting in making a film on the history of trans people in media.

Regarding this “moment,” just like any good story, there was a moment of change in June 2014 when Time magazine published the beautiful cover photo of Laverne Cox with the words “Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier.” Two years earlier Joe Biden said that transgender discrimination is the civil rights issue of our time. In opposition to the prevalence of historically flat and stereotypical portrayals of trans people, there has been an overt shift in how transgender lives are showing up in the media. A few respectable and somewhat well-rounded trans characters have been written for TV (The Bold and the Beautiful, Transparent, Orange is the New Black) with some trans people cast as trans characters (Laverne Cox, Trace Lysette, Alexandra Billings, Ian Harvie, Scott Turner Schofield). With media attention declaring a shift in visibility as a “tipping point,” I hear liberal allies noting this as a success for trans people in general. However, I don’t see success reflected in our lived reality except for the uplift of a few actors. Visibility is not always or necessarily a good thing. It can leave some people more vulnerable to harm, particularly when we consider the intersections of race, class, citizenship, religion, ability, etc. The recent increase in opportunities for visibility is often framed as success, presuming an improvement for all trans lives. This quick move to call this particular visibility “success” performs two erasures: of the ongoing (or increased) struggles in trans people’s lives and of the previous visibility of trans people in media.

However, this is not the first time trans people have gained visibility through casting. 2000 was a first in American television history: Jessica Crockett, a transgender woman, was cast as a transwoman on Dark Angel (Sarah Pia Anderson). In 2005, Alexandra Billings played an out trans woman on the TV show version of Romy & Michelle. In 2007, Candis Cane was the first transwoman to have a reoccurring role as a transwoman on Dirty Sexy Money. But even with this increase in trans casting, the default has always been and continues to be cis people cast in trans roles. [2]

In considering these issues, many questions come to mind. What does success mean in this equation? What does that mean for social justice? What does it mean for trans people who are not invested in Hollywood? What was the role of trans social justice movements in leading up to this “tipping point”? Are we, trans people and trans activists and media makers, accountable for this? Did any of our work lead to this? Are social movements and services concerning trans lives benefiting from this “tipping point” at all? This “tipping point” made room for Caitlyn Jenner to come out. Did any trans people who weren’t on her show benefit from that? Jenner is calling herself an activist. Transparent is hiring trans actors and crew. Do the opportunities for those few individuals size up to the opportunities the cis people involved will embrace due to the Emmy, Golden Globe, and Peabody awards they’ve received? Who is actually benefitting from this “tipping point”?

Alex: It is certainly the understanding in contemporary popular culture that there is more visibility or a new visibility, that there are more images to see, and that trans voices are more available within dominant discourse than before. But what the mainstream culture understands is one thing; from where you stand is there a tipping point?

Sam: To what point are we tipping? Visibility of whom to whom? Social justice for whom? Assimilation of whom? A shift in public discourse by whom and about whom? Does visibility actually mean serving as a profitable commodity? Trans people are not yet authorized to set the terms of our own visibility. To be visible, we must conform to the demands placed on us by a public that wants to buy a story that affirms their sense of themselves as ethical. There is a semblance of conversation around what accountability and respect look like in regards to how we talk and write about, frame, and cast trans people. But as we see time and time again, the media experiences historic amnesia: filmmakers and show runners are not showing enough regard for our legacy and history in the media. In their rush to present themselves as doing something new, they remove from view a rich legacy and history of trans people in the media. Some are discovering trans people for the first time, finding our lives interesting for plot development. Others still use being trans as either a distasteful metaphor or a set of tropes we’ve witnessed since the early days of cinema such as tropes of trauma, pathology, deception, and pathetic-ness. A few seemingly respectful roles pop up and people are overjoyed by that tiny crumb. When you look at those roles they beg questioning: are they actually respectful? Are they doing anything new or different? Or, do they echo ongoing archaic – and harmful – themes and ideas of what it means to be trans?

We have Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black, and she’s behind bars. What does that tell us about the life chances of trans women of color? Or in the Danish Girl, Lili Elbe dies at the end of the movie due to transition-related medical complications. Whether or not that is true to her life, we still need to question why that’s the story people are telling, why that story is the one being funded at this time of tipping. And, we have to unpack how it’s perpetuating violence against trans people to cast cis people in trans roles the majority of the time. The arguments for why cis actors are necessary for the specific roles has been debunked. So, let’s look at the underlying issue of transness being something one (a cis actor) puts on as a costume (to play a trans role) and how that myth becomes part of a belief system. I’ve spoken with trans activists who were brought on as consultants for The Danish Girl who gave concrete feedback on what they saw as problematic. Their feedback was completely disregarded. And the filmmakers were still able to say they “consulted with trans people,” and that gave them credibility. However, this logic of tokenism will never redistribute logics of power between communities and groups.[3]

I’m trying to figure out what kind of space has been made for trans people, why it’s been made, and how that benefits capitalism, because entering the mainstream media means you’ve become a viable commodity. As an activist and media maker, what is my responsibility in this moment of mainstream attention, especially since this kind of visibility and being a commodity was never my goal.

Alex: At this moment of the so-called Tipping Point, there has also been a related (or unrelated?) set of rather visible social justice activities and struggles around the use of restrooms that had a tipping point of its own. Do you think the visibility in dominant media of trans people and these hyper visible political issues are related?

Sam: While trans visibility alone isn’t the reason, it seems like it created a new target, a face, and a singular issue for people to rally around. Since marriage equality and trans military inclusion became law, there has been an upswing in reports of backlash against LGBT rights. The media gave a ton of airtime to the legislation in North Carolina. Before that, legislatures in 22 states proposed bills threatening equal rights, with transgender people receiving the brunt of it. So, visibility has created the space for the media to see this issue as newsworthy, for now. It’s inaccurate to say that trans visibility caused the backlash because this implies that the backlash wasn’t already there.

Trans tropes as ideology

Alex: Sounds like in your research you have named a set of recognizable types or stereotypes of trans people?

Sam: I am interested in how recognizable types, stereotypes, or tropes work to create myths and ideology. We see three or four unflattering types of trans people. But, then what? Is it better to just make three or four flattering portrayals? There’s more to look at, including how an audience is taught to fundamentally trust these recognizable stories. Or how filmmakers learn to mimic each other without question. What is the responsibility of the media maker in perpetuating or challenging harmful images?

Putting those questions aside for now, here are the tropes I’ve seen, in no particular order (although I do think there is a meaningful evolution to these portrayals which I’ll show in my film).

Julia Serrano writes about two central media depictions: the “deceptive” trans person and the “pathetic” trans person.[4] The deceptive trans person is a character whose trans identity is unknown to the viewer and/or to the other characters. Early cinema uses this act of deception to create forbidden spaces and/or sexual predators. For example, Fatty Arbuckle in the film Coney Island (Roscoe Arbuckle, 1917) puts on a woman’s bathing suit and relaxes, ogling some women until he is discovered and thrown out. We also see deception concerning romantic desire. A character’s trans identity is unnoticed by their love object because they seemingly blend into the expectations of hegemonic femininity or masculinity. Their trans identity is undetectable so their disclosure acts as an unexpected plot twist fooling innocent straight guys into falling for “men.” Then the audience is expected to experience the same sense of betrayal the character in the film feels at the moment of disclosure. The classic example is Dil in The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992). This trope has appeared for 25 years on Jerry Springer and in the film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel, Myra Breckenridge (Michael Sarne, 1970).

There’s the pathetic trans person who doesn’t deceive anyone. Their gender is not taken seriously, and they are considered innocuous. This role is often used to create empathy in the viewer but also revulsion: for example, John Lithgow’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of ex–football-player Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp (George Roy Hill, 1982) and Terence Stamp’s role as the aging showgirl Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephen Elliott, 1994). Even Maura Pfefferman in Transparent (Jill Soloway, 2014) echoes this trope. 

There is the pathological psychotic trans killer in films such as Psycho (Alfred Hitchchock, 1960) or the lesser known Homicidal (William Castle, 1961), Dressed to Kill (Brain De Palma, 1980), Sleep Away Camp, (Robert Hiltzik, 1983), Switch Killer (Mack Hall, 2015), The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), and Hit & Miss with Chloë Sevigny (Paul Abbott, 2012).

A year after Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) premiered, William Castle directed and produced Homicidal (1961), a film about a transman who dresses as a woman in order to kill people who know that he is trans. The trend of the trans killer continues Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980), Switch Killer (Mack Hail, 2004), Hit & Miss (Paul Abbott, 2009).

Those are a few we see over and over, none of which is flattering, nuanced, or complicated. These films both reflect and intensify common tropes that teach people how to respond to trans people. For instance, in the Crying Game, Stephen Rae’s character is not condemned for punching Dil in the face and then vomiting for a long 49 seconds of screen time. This is framed as an acceptable response to Dil having a penis. This scene has been satirized over and over again and not as a point of critique but as a point of humor like in Ace Ventura Pet Detective (Tom Shadyac, 1994). When this is the common experience viewers encounter when seeing trans people, should we be surprised about the high rates of transwomen being abused, threatened, or killed by the men who desire them?

Alex: What else have you learned through your research interviews about the history of representing trans people?

Sam: In my research interviews I asked a lot about dominant media. At some point I stopped experiencing the joy of mainstream films and TV because I found most of it so offensive. So I stopped watching. Every other joke is homophobic, racist, sexist, transphobic, you name it! Why can’t mainstream comedy be more clever than that? This representational history is what most marginalized groups face. By this I mean anyone who is pushed to the margins because they do not mirror the dominant center, i.e. white, cisgender, heterosexual, temporarily able-bodied, middle to upper class male – the majority of people who are in power.

This is the problem that keeps me going back to making media in hopes of impacting social movements. I believe media is the greatest myth-maker of our time and that cultural myths often lead to dominant ideologies. Media creates ideologies, and ideologies create social norms. The biggest obstacle for trans people and any marginalized group is that because we are outside the visual (and other) regimes of dominant power, we are seen as outside, different, and lesser-than. Through that process we are dehumanized. Dehumanization leads to violence, which is then systematically sanctioned in such places as the legal and the criminal justice system, health care industry, and employment and housing, thereby denying us our basic human rights.

Stories about marginalized people tend to be oriented around trauma. There has to be a traumatic event that is part and parcel of representations of transness which limits the stories being told and acts as erasure of other aspects of our diverse lives, experiences, and beliefs. And, yes, trauma is real and vital to talk about. The problem is, when that is all that gets talked about, the individual is reduced to one dimension. As activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett asks, “How do we tell the stories of people navigating enormous amounts of violence without simply reducing them to that violence”? How does that singular story affect how society sees trans people and how we see ourselves? From the research interviews I’ve done with trans people who work on both sides of the camera, I’ve learned that a majority could recount a specific scene from The Jerry Springer Show where a trans person was not only sensationalized and exploited but often berated or punched in the face for the amusement of the audience. I’ve learned that visibility does not equal progress and that we need more trans people making stories about trans lives. One of the first things film students learn is the power of writing from your own experience. And, of course some of those stories will be problematic, but I’d like to see space made for a critical mass of trans storytellers. This is not to say, by any means, that people should not write or work or speak on behalf of another’s experience, but when there is so little in the canon, and much of what is in the canon is horrible and authored by cis people, it’s time to prioritize trans voices. 

Alex: As we both know, independent media is where this prioritization can happen. What is your understanding of a possible Tipping Point in alternative media?