Trans In The Mainstream: The State of Trans Representation and Why ‘Transamerica’ Remains So Important

Trans In The Mainstream: The State of Trans Representation and Why 'Transamerica' Remains So Important


Today GLAAD released their findings on LGBT representation in the film industry, known as the Studio Responsibility Index (SRI). It was a depressing read across the board, and nowhere more so than regarding the state of trans representation by the largest motion picture studios. To quote my colleague who recapped the report: “There were no transgender characters in the 2012 releases GLAAD tracked, but the two found in the 2013 releases were hardly an improvement. One was a transwoman very briefly depicted in a jail cell, while the other was an outright defamatory depiction included purely to give the audience something to laugh at.”

In response to this, welcome to ‘Trans in the Mainstream’, a week-long trip through some of the most notorious representations of trans men and women in bigger studio films.

There has been very little written in general on transgender representation in film. Until recently, long-form writers would use the term transgender to denote everyone from those who have chosen to transition from female to male (FTM) or male to female (MTF) to drag queens/kings, androgynous people, cross dressers, and gender queers. In this series I am using transgender explicitly for those who are FTM or MTF, or, in the case of films involving children, those characters that have expressed a desire to transition from their birth sex.   

There are all sorts of reasons why the transgender community so rarely finds representation on screen. From the pressures of an industry looking for what they decide are “universally relatable” characters, to simple discomfort with the subject matter, prejudice is also a big part of it. But there’s also a different kind of caution, one that comes from cisgender filmmakers themselves, who make up the vast majority of those actually shooting films, who may include trans characters in their films but who don’t feel entirely confident telling their stories. In this series I look more closely at the state of trans representation in the mainstream, not only to look at where we are, but to think about where we should be going. How do transgender stories fit into a film industry so focused on economic return? And how can trans filmmakers and audiences alike ensure those stories are told?

The state of trans cinema

Before looking at our first film, let’s take a look at the mainstream landscape as it now lies. It’s not news that major Hollywood studio productions tend to be extremely homogeneous. They star straight white men, sometimes straight white women, but the LGBTQ community is rarely represented unless they are used as the target for further derision, an easy joke, or to portray an unflattering character who will most likely die or murder someone. The 2013 Studio Responsibility Index published by GLAAD states, “Out of the 101 releases from the major studios in 2012… not one of the releases contained any transgender characters”. In 2012, even lesbian, gay, or bisexual representation in film was quite low but it’s staggering that there were no transgender characters in any major studio productions in 2012. As we found out today, things have hardly improved. It’s worth recalling this line from last year’s GLAAD report:

“For all the great improvements there has been in LGBT characters being depicted, on television,  transgender representations remain at least 20 years behind the, curve. This is especially true in film where transgender characters are rare even, in independent cinema,  much less major Hollywood productions. Not only does, this lack of transgender images reinforce the marginalization of the trans, community,  it must also be seen as a missed opportunity by studios and, screenwriters to tell fresh stories and better flesh out the worlds they create., GLAAD has observed a noticeable increase in media coverage of the transgender, community in recent years,  demonstrating that the public interest is there.”

Why “Transamericaremains so important

“Transamerica” is nearly ten years old but it is a film that was so far ahead of its time in the treatment of transgender characters that the film world still hasn’t caught up. It truly stands out as the finest U.S. film honoring what it means to transition as an adult. The domestic film business is generally not interested in any portrayal of trans characters and especially not accurate portrayals of trans people. Sometimes those of us in underrepresented communities view a film and give it a weight that it might not deserve simply because we’re thrilled to be seeing a version of ourselves reflected back. Transamerica is a film that, in my opinion, deserves a second look for everything it did right at a time when transgender issues were not nearly as talked about as they are now.

Since there are so few films that have featured transgender characters, the academic writing on the topic is limited. It is worth noting that almost all representation in narrative feature film focuses on transgender women. Cis men often play trans women on film but in Transamerica Felicity Huffman was cast in the role of Bree, who is a trans woman. This was an excellent casting choice that offered a legitimacy to the film and gave filmgoers the opportunity to see a woman embody the role as opposed to what so often happens, a male actor in bad drag who doesn’t capture what trans really is or means.
Transamerica brings up several topics related to transition itself that I think are very much worth discussing because they directly relate to why trans representation of MTF transgender people is often problematic in a way that is different than FTMs. When someone “successfully” transitions from male to female they are considered to “pass” (which means to be read as female by the public) and sometimes choose to live “stealth” (which means to be private about their status as a trans person). I don’t want to go too far into the wide spectrum of gender and gender identity being embraced by younger people transitioning, and I am not claiming to speak for all trans people, but generally a successful transition consists of being read as the gender you are transitioning to. The terminology is a sensitive topic and many people do not like the term “passing” as it feels deceitful to them, but in my opinion “passing” does truly convey the feeling of being read correctly in public. Bree mentions being stealth in the film but what does that mean exactly for a trans woman?

If a male transitions to female after puberty there are many potential costs that are incurred. While the film is somewhat dated it still captures the process of what a transition is like. There is a greater difficulty for trans women to be able to live stealth. In many places you have to live in the gender you are transitioning to for 6 months to a year, introduce yourself with your female name, come out to people, and see a therapist before you can be prescribed hormones and begin the physical transition. In bigger cities more and more LGBTQ health clinics are operating under informed consent which removes this burden of proof being thrust upon trans people. For trans women steps in a transition can consist of taking estrogen, electrolysis, they often take voice lessons if they can, facial contouring, Adam’s Apple shave, breast implants, and for those who are able to afford it, they have “bottom” surgery (genital reconstruction) but the cost of the surgery often keeps it out of reach. It’s important to remember that many insurance policies still don’t cover trans related health care.

In Transamerica we see Bree working several jobs, working on her voice, taking her hormones, and at one point getting some quick electrolysis done on her upper lip. She is living “stealth” as a woman and she has fully transitioned in the sense that she is passing successfully. However, one of the most cutting lines in the film comes when she is meeting with a psychiatrist in order to have her surgery. Bree asks him, “Don’t you find it odd that plastic surgery can cure a mental disorder?” Most surgeons in the U.S. who operate on trans patients will not do so without a letter from a therapist and some will only accept letters from psychiatrists. It’s highly problematic that a woman can go to a plastic surgeon and get FF sized breasts implanted in her chest without question but someone searching out gender conforming surgeries is required to undergo psychiatric evaluation and be deemed mentally ill before they can receive surgery. It’s wonderful to see what is still, sadly, an accurate portrayal of the hoops trans people are forced to jump through in order to receive gender conforming surgeries.

It seems to be more common to have cis men playing trans women which does seem to stem from the outdated idea that trans women can’t be beautiful and/or pass as “real” women. For example, the first time I remember seeing a trans woman depicted on screen was John Lithgow’s character in The World According to Garp. No offense to John Lithgow but he did not make an attractive woman. Given that the film came out in the early 1980s it’s almost amazing that the character wasn’t scrubbed from the script. The idea that trans women can’t be beautiful is slowly being shattered thanks to women like the actress Laverne Cox and the activist and writer Janet Mock. The filmmaker of Transamerica clearly had sensitivity to transgender issues. By allowing a woman to be cast to play a woman (yes, many trans people just want to be seen for who they are and don’t want the “trans” qualifier) Duncan Tucker really honored what it means to be transgender.

It may be splitting hairs to go into what it means to be transgender given that identity is so personal. Though when your identity has to be sanctioned by medical providers before you can fully embrace it, perhaps it is worth clarifying a bit. Most trans people simply want to live their lives in the gender that they feel that they are. The trans qualifier is embraced by some and shunned by others. At the end of the day since gender is the sum total of what we present to the world, and we live in an extremely gendered world, the qualifier only tends to come up when you’re in the process of transitioning and people don’t know what you are. Being ambiguously gendered or barely “passing” is to constantly be made to feel uncomfortable simply because others feel uncomfortable about your existence. To see Duncan Tucker treat a trans character so humanely is extremely important, moving, and should really be held up as an example for other cis filmmakers who want to get it right.

Another excellent portion of the film consists of Bree returning to her hometown of Phoenix. Often for trans people, coming out to family members, especially parents, is the most difficult part of coming out. The LGBTQ community’s members are known for making their own family, some out of necessity and some out of the desire to be fully understood and accepted for who they are. Bree claimed that her family was dead earlier in the film and once we are introduced to her family, we see why. As Peter Caster and Allison Andrew have put it:

“When Bree confronts her mother in Phoenix, the latter grabs Bree’s crotch and is relieved to feel male genitals. She exclaims to her husband with a look of relief, “Thank god Murray, he’s still a boy.” In response, to this invasion not only of her personal space but her physical body, Bree grabs her mother’s hand and forces it to feel her developed breast. The dismayed mother cries, “My poor Stanley, I can’t look at you” and turns away. The mother’s crude actions adhere to rigid sex/gender binaries wherein male anatomy equals maleness, an underdetermined equation the film and queer theory treat as a false dichotomy”.

Another topic that the film didn’t shy away from is the juxtaposition of becoming who you feel you are after having effectively lied about it up until you transition. To a certain degree, trans people are forced to keep everyone at a distance because the fear of the true identity being discovered and the intense self-hatred one feels for being so different is overwhelming. It’s easier to remain closed off, not being forced to deal with the truth, and keeping everyone at an arm’s length because they can’t know the real person you are. The beauty of Transamerica is that this is shown visually as opposed to the audience being told. Truthfully, this isn’t something that can be conveyed easily with words and it was very smart of the filmmaker to show it visually as opposed to scripting it for the therapy sessions in the film.

Again, Andrew and Caster write:

“Most often the editing…juxtaposes one-shots of Bree, where she is the only character in the frame, with two- and three-shots, as several people crowd the mise-en-scéne with jovial intimacy in contrast with her isolation. The alternating shots emphasize Bree mostly alone and seeing everyone else, inviting the audience to acknowledge her feelings of exclusion, a device of editing that highlights her social ostracism.”

One of the biggest complaints that trans people often have about their representation in film is that their narrative is one of tragedy. Trans people often portray sex workers, murder victims, or murderers. Silence of the Lambs is often called out as a prime example of an offensive portrayal as the character Buffalo Bill thinks they are trans. This is disputed in the film itself. Whichever way you cut it, it’s an incredibly unflattering portrayal. Pedro Almodovar is fond of depicting trans women as sex workers though, to be fair, he also gives them quality roles as well. Of course, the story of Brandon Teena, while true, is still the classic “trans as victim” story. The depiction of a normal person who happens to be trans is woefully underrepresented. Perhaps this is why Transamerica stands out so much. In an interview with Robert Newton on Moviefone, Duncan Tucker, the screenwriter and director, states, “So many people think the movie is going to be one of two things: something campy and silly or a dark cross-country trek in which the main character gets beat up. It’s just so not either one of those. Hopefully you’ll laugh more than cry, because it really is joyous – or at least I hope it is – and not grueling and dark.” I completely agree with Tucker’s assessment of his film and would go one step further and suggest that it is the only American film that has told a truly honorable story about what it is to be trans.

Read more ‘Trans in the Mainstream‘ tomorrow on /bent.

This Article is related to: Features


Comments

Shelley

Except the plot device that drives the movie is complete crap.
No therapist would "take back" their letter.

It wasn't until I saw "Different for Girls" that I was FINALLY able to se a film about a trans character done right.
Of course it was British.
Whose films are so much better then our anyway.

Jani Louvel

lol no

KF

Just came across this article and this series. Thanks for writing this series.

Z

Beautiful Boxer is quite a wonderful picture. I find it to be the best depiction of the experience of being trans.

Jess

CB,

Bree is attached to gender because society places a high value on gender on gender as the identity. The movies name is TransAmerica for crying out loud! What did you think it was going to be about? The point is that this movie normalizes the trans experience and yes, trans people have been portrayed as sexworkers and serial killers but this movie is one that humanize them and while it is a low bar to clear (blame society for that!) this movie did clear the bar, which is why it remains important and relevant.
Is the movie homophobic or is society as a whole homophobic and the movie portraying that reality? Seriously! We spend so much energy clamoring for trans authors/articles/ representation, and the minute we get it we tear it down because they don't mirror our opinions verb by verb.

Christianne Benedict

God, I hated TransAmerica and if it's the best trans female depiction mainstream cinema can muster, then I hope cis filmmakers will do us the favor of omitting us from future films. Bree is a burlesque and the film goes out of its way to ungender her, whether from the constant sheen of make-up on her face to the short lenses used to project her features into space to the weird voice Huffman affects for the character to the idiotic notion that she's so obsessively attached to her gender presentation that she'll wear high heels until her feet bleed, she's the very model of the "pathetic transsexual" stereotype and the hyper-feminine fallacy of transgender depictions. But, hey, at least she's not a prostitute or a serial killer. That's progress, right? That's a low bar to clear.

It's a deeply homophobic film, too, given the depiction of Bree's son as a hustling gay prostitute who is gay because he was abused as a child and who can be lured away from the "gay lifestyle" by the right girl.

This movie is crap.

RGL

This was a beautifully written article. Thank you.

transmen conversation coming?

I hope to hear more about trans men since we don't really ever see enough of them.

Danny

I enjoyed reading this article and I agree with you that this films is important for representation of a trans woman. We have to remember that while the movie does serve the purpose of introducing trans issues to mainstream culture, the films goal is to make a profit. Drama and comedy had to be constant, otherwise it would end up being a documentary, one without a point. And isn't the trans experience closely tied to tragedy and oppression? Which is my point, I appreciate more articles such as this one but I struggle with this dilemma; should trans people and trans people alone be allowed to write about the trans experience? If that's so, wouldn't that be a limited perspective? I'm tempted to ask about the author's qualifications, but won't that violate trans anonymity? Do trans people want to be exposed? Or do they want to be recognized by the sex they're transitioning? All of this is to say that trans people often lack congruency within their own collective identity? (Should there be a "collective identity"?) We can't trust Hollywood to "get us", and we shouldn't expect them too. Sometimes we can't even get ourselves. Don't believe me? Try going to a tgsf meeting! I look forward to seeing tomorrow's article.

Gina

While I truly appreciate your writing on this film I highly disagree with your conclusions. I think there are a lot of simpleminded aspects and tropes in TransAmerica. I don't like the intro shot with Andrea James doing the high to low voice (which is basically doing the classic sensationalized "reveal"… omg, that's a transsexual), the entire plot with her therapist telling Bree she has to reconnect with her son is very contrived and not terribly believable. Bree's choice of clothes and ghastly makeup just feeds into a trope of how clueless trans women are at being 'real' (even though she's obviously not someone who just recently transitioned). The trope of "she's not real or at peace with herself until she got SRS. She seemingly has zero connection to the trans community or the Internet or in her city (not very credible for the early 2000s). She has a kind of prissy femminess which is exactly an old school cliche of how trans women are often depicted. The trans barbecue scene has the trans women talking about their SRSs and genitals as though they're cars or possessions instead of something that's been part of a highly personal experience… yes, it's Bree's view of the experience, but it still reinforces a lot of societal cliches about trans women. One scene I found offensive was twhen Bree is urinating and the headlight shines on her penis… both not very credible and highly exploitive of her body (and again, making the central issue of transition being penis, penis, penis). And most of all, the biggest complaint I've seen about trans people in any film (and in this one) is that the main trans character is played by a cis performer who often give highly cliched performances as to what it's like to be trans (and I would say the same about Jerod Leto in Dallas Buyer's Club). Actual trans people are pretty much used as window dressing. Yes, Felicity Huffman is a good actress, but much of her performance in terms of voice, presentation, mannerism and trying to embody a trans woman seems very cliched. I saw the film when it first came out, then watched it again about 2-3 years later and it was an acting job which seemed very mannered and dated the second time around. There have been many better foreign films about trans people (both frequently with trans and even cis performers playing them). I thought the recent Israeli film, Melting Away, did a much better job at portraying a trans person (even with a somewhat fanciful plot twist) and the Italian film Princessa was an excellent depiction of a trans character and was portrayed by a trans woman. Yes, it's about a sex worker but, ultimately, the character is shown with much more profound depth than TransAmerica. Different For Girls (made before TransAmerica) also has a cis actor playing a trans character… but I just think it's better directed, written and acted. The American indie film Gun Hill Road had a more subtle view of a trans character than TransAmerica (and featured a young trans actress in the role). I agree with you about how the film showed Bree's feelings of paranoia, exclusion and being an outsider… in that regard it was effective. In all, I think TransAmerica is a fair film, avoids some pitfalls while perpetuating others… but was no landmark.

Lee

While I don't agree with your observation that trans cinema lacks exemplary films, there are several that come to mind, I believe what it lacks is an audience. Thankful films like DBC are promoting the trans movement and focusing a good light on the trans population. Trans people often separate themselves from the alphabet soup umbrella (LGBTQ), if you have to attack your own with accusations that not enough is being done to protect the trans community then does that imply that all those other enemies in the Conservative party have been defeated?

Jess

Beautifully written and true to the trans experience in America. We need more exposure and more articles like this one. Great job!

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