This piece was originally published on I Wish I Knew How To Quit Film — regular /bent contributor Joe Ehrman-Dupre’s blog.
Today, in honor of the International Transgender Day of Visibility (TDoV), I thought it my duty to dedicate a post to the representation of transgender persons in film and television. The list I’ve compiled is by no means comprehensive, nor do I claim that the representations of trans people are entirely perfect; it is difficult, as in gay or lesbian media, to fully embody and visualize what the experience of feeling different, often less than, and conflicted is like. It has been even more difficult for filmmakers to stretch boundaries and cast trans persons to play trans characters.
A brief lesson: Transgender persons, as opposed to cisgender persons, feel that their gender identity—a mental understanding of self—is not reflected by the biological sex with which they are born. Put another way, trans people often say that they feel as though they were born in the wrong body, and many undergo surgical procedures in order to align their gender identity and physical sex.
Awareness of transgender persons in American society is continually growing, but that does not mean that the trans community is accepted or protected throughout most of the country. In fact, far fewer states protect the trans community by law than do protect the lesbian and gay community, and the rate at which trans people are being murdered and committing suicide is incredibly alarming.
Orange is the New Black
No show has done more for the representation of a trans actress than Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. The series follows Piper, an inmate at a women’s correctional facility in upstate New York, but also spends a good deal of time with the other incarcerated women. One of them, Sophia Burset, is played by trans actress Laverne Cox, and an episode revealing her backstory—which includes footage of Cox’s twin brother playing Sophia pre-transition (seen in the clip above)—is both tragic and empowering. Her identity is explored fully, including a romantic relationship and the child born from it, and Cox embodies the role in a way no other actress could. Though her screen time dwindled significantly in season two, Cox became the first transgender actor nominated for an Emmy (for guest actress in a “comedy series,” a misnomer here) for the first season.
The show is by far the most diverse on television today, with a multi-cultural, multi-racial, variously sexually and gender identified cast of women at its center. The result is fabulous, a hilarious and heart-breaking look at just how fucked up the American prison system is, and how humane the people inside of it can be!
Duncan Tucker’s 2005 dramedy is a smart, funny, and touching portrayal of a transgender woman’s journey toward self-love and acceptance. Played brilliantly by Felicity Huffman (Oscar-nominated for her work here), Bree is a trans woman on the verge of approval for sex reassignment surgery. She gets a call that a son she never knew (Kevin Zegers) is in jail, and her therapist implores her to seek him out and set him straight as a final hurdle in her transition.
Though Huffman is not transgender, her performance is remarkable for its bare bones honesty, deadpan humor, and genuine emotional catharsis. Time and time again Bree is faced with her past as a male, and that trauma, however deeply embedded, is overcome by her commitment to her future living life as a woman. The light-hearted approach and quirky indie feel of the film belies a much deeper, darker core at its center, making this a wonderful entry in the queer and transgender film cannon.
The gimmick of the film’s production—shot consecutively every Tuesday for 52 weeks—suggests a far more episodic, perhaps dull experience. But Sophie Hyde’s beautiful, emotionally honest film about a transgender man, in the throes of transition, and his teenage daughter, in the throes of her own adolescent angst, is something to behold.
The film unfolds with a series of scenes depicting the titular day, when Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, in a stunning film debut) is supposed to spend the day with her now-dad, James (Del Herbert-Jane, also wonderful). Billie’s quasi-romantic entanglement with a couple of classmates keeps her occupied and distances her from James, and they both hurt for it. Though some of their interactions together verge on melodrama, there is a consistent reality to the situation: Billie’s frustration and confusion are completely understandable—because of her age among other reasons—and James’s hurt feelings are relatable, too. In the end, they share a strong bond, and the film reasons that the alteration of one’s exterior—whether it be to match your gender identity or to explore your sexuality—has little to do with the ties that bind.
Transparent debuted on Amazon to a rave from critics and some controversy from members of the trans community: why cast a cisgender male actor to play a transgender woman at the start of her transition? The fact of the matter is that Jeffrey Tambor’s performance as Maura, the paternal figure to three grown (but not quite mature) children, and ex-husband to a scowling ex-wife, is spectacular and hits every emotional sweet spot.
The show is wonderful, too: a look into the lives of the Pfefferman’s and their trials and tribulations, which just happen to begin when Maura comes out as trans to her eldest daughter. Transparent is unfocused, bouncing from one character’s dilemmas to the next, but Maura serves as a core of honesty surrounded by people who are unable, in various ways, to live their truths. The flashbacks to Maura’ start as a man who likes to cross-dress rather than a transgender woman, are particularly fascinating, and serve as a wonderful reminder that gender identity can announce itself to us—and then become embodied—in all sorts of multi-various ways.
All About My Mother
Though it has been a while since I last saw All About My Mother, Pedro Almodóvar’s 1999 masterpiece, I am very aware of the prominent place that Agrado, a transgender woman, holds in its narrative. It is hard to forget a character so indelibly embodied and beautifully written.
Played wonderfully by Antonia San Juan, Agrado is a prostitute who constantly faces violence and hate from her male clientele. She has an acerbic, sarcastic sense of humor and a warm-hearted goodness about her, and none of the main characters find her gender identity cause for derision (probably because she is so self-assured). Though she is constantly threatened—by society at large and by the threat of the AIDS virus, a major narrative thread—Agrado does not die. She stands strong as an unapologetically queer character in a very queer film, and as one of the most richly realized transgender persons on screen (represented vividly in the scene above)