It’s no secret that transgender women are having a long overdue moment in pop culture.
When even the venerable Time magazine acknowledges we’ve reached a “Transgender Tipping Point,” society has turned a significant corner in terms of trans visibility. Television of late has helped to lead the charge with nuanced portrayals on shows like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent.” These new fictional representations, coupled with the real-life coming out of Caitlyn Jenner, have helped push trans awareness into the spotlight like never before.
Later this year, two new films with high-profile casts will tackle transgender characters. Just in time for award season, Eddie Redmayne follows up his Oscar win for “The Theory of Everything” with the biopic “The Danish Girl,” about ’20s and ’30s trans artist Lili Elbe. And in “About Ray,” Elle Fanning plays a transitioning teen alongside Naomi Watts as her mother and Susan Sarandon as her grandmother.
While this small wave of recent, more positive trans roles, it’s important to note that the vast majority are still being played by non-trans actors. While it should never be suggested that trans actors be relegated to playing only trans roles, it’s also vitally important that more real trans people be seen on screen. For a community already facing an uphill battle legally and socially — and facing violence on a daily basis — the ability to tell their own stories is essential in bridging the gap toward wider understanding and acceptance.
Yet for transgender women in the real world, the harsh realities of ridicule, discrimination, hatred and worse remain ever-present. Some 20 trans women have been murdered in 2015 alone, most of them women of color.
Film has a long, though not always exemplary, history of its representation of trans women. Too often they are the victims or the villains, the freaks or the jokes.
With that, here is a look back at some of the most significant portrayals of trans women — for better and sometimes for way worse — on the silver screen through history.
10. “The World According to Garp” (1986)
Widely considered one of the first truly sympathetic trans characters to appear in mainstream film, Roberta Muldoon (played by John Lithgow) is a former football player who now lives in a home for abused women. She is kind and often a voice of reason for Robin Williams’ Garp character. Lithgow earned a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for the role.
9. “The Crying Game” (1992)
Perhaps the most famous of the offensive “Surprise!” reveals for a trans character, the film was critically acclaimed and earned actor Jaye Davidson an Oscar nomination for his nuanced portrayal of a mysterious trans woman named Dil. Of course, all everyone remembers is the so-called shocking twist and her male lover’s revolted — like, he actually vomits — reaction. That reaction also reinforces the devious and deceptive stereotype too often associated with trans characters.
8. “Orlando” (1992)
Writer-director Sally Potter’s adaptation of a Virginia Woolf novel remains one of the most striking and literal representations of gender-fluidity in cinema. It was also many people’s first introduction to ethereal otherworldly goddess Tilda Swinton. As the title character, Swinton starts out the film as an Elizabethan-era young nobleman who turns out to be immortal, then wakes up as a woman centuries later.
7. “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (1994)
While trans characters and drag performers are frequently confused in the media, this Aussie cult classic makes sure to draw a distinction between Terrence Stamp’s stoic Bernadette and her traveling companions. Bernadette is a mature and smart character, and is given the opportunity to find love in the Outback.
6. “Ma Vie en Rose” (1997)
One of the first widely released films to explore the lives of trans youth, this Belgian film follows the journey of young Ludo. Her struggle to identify as a girl despite her parents and community’s objections and societal pressure to conform was powerfully and compassionately depicted. The movie took home the Golden Globe for best foreign film.
5. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001)
The film adaptation of the off-Broadway cult musical by John Cameron Mitchell focused on the botched gender-reassignment surgery of its title character. A hallmark of its camp is anger, but also wit and pathos. The production has gone on to become a Broadway hit with a slew of famous actors portraying Hedwig, from Neil Patrick Harris to Michael C. Hall and Taye Diggs.
4. “Transamerica” (2005)
“Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman received critical acclaim — and an Oscar nomination — for her portrayal of a pre-operative trans woman who travels cross-country to help the son she never knew. Huffman gave a delicate and often slyly comedic performance as Bree. The film did face some criticism for focusing too much on Bree’s medical transition and making Huffman look dowdy for the role.
3. “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013)
However you feel about Jared Leto’s tone-deaf snub of real trans women in his various acceptance speeches last year (answer: very poorly), when playing trans characters becomes guaranteed Oscar bait, you know something has shifted. Leto’s performance as a trans woman with HIV earned him copious hardware, but also increased calls for more trans actors to be given the chance to play trans roles.
2. “Boy Meets Girl” (2015)
Possibly one of the first true trans rom coms, “Boy Meets Girl” is also the first film on this list to star a trans actress in a trans role. Trans actress Michelle Hendley stars as Ricky, the aforementioned girl living in small-town Kentucky with dreams of going to New York as a fashion designer. The boy in question is her straight male best friend, Robby. While following a fairly traditional romantic-comedy formula, the film touched on trans and queer attraction, sexual fluidity and more in an accessible way.
1. “Tangerine” (2015)
Refreshingly, Tangerine became famous not (just) because it centers around trans women, but because it was shot entirely on an iPhone. Yet the Sundance Film Festival hit about two trans sex workers is also remarkable for being one of the few films to revolve around trans women’s friendships. Many films depict trans lives in isolation, but “Tangerine” is a true buddy comedy. The movie is also the extremely rare production that features both trans women of color characters and trans women of color actors. Its central characters are played by trans actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.