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It is rare to come across portrayals of trans characters in media. It’s even rarer to come across portrayals that are positive and nuanced. In fact, the media space is notorious for negative and stereotypical representations of transgender characters. The media representation of trans people is steeped in transphobia.

Portrayal of Trans People in Films and Television

It is perhaps not that difficult to recall films or television series where transgender characters are used as caricatures for providing certain comic relief and for aiding the development of other characters. This rather objectionable use of trans characters in a derogatory and inhumane way unfortunately still persists in mainstream media and the entertainment industry. There is definitely a greater degree of check on it now though because of increased awareness on trans issues.

Hollywood has a history of a rather problematic portrayal of transgender characters. The first film which comes to mind is Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ that creates the stereotype of the mentally disturbed cross-dressed murderer. Subsequently, the portrayal of a transgender person as a psychopath murderer persists in many mainstream media representations.

But things have begun to change for good now. And one can find quite a few positive, nuanced and non-stereotypical portrayals of transgender people in cinema and tv series. What instantly comes to mind is the amazing TV series ‘Pose’ that tries to portray the ‘drag ball’ culture of New York of the 1980s. The specialty of this TV series is that it’s been produced by a transgender activist and also stars transgender actors. The music for the series has also been composed by a trans musician.

Then, there is the hugely famous ‘Transparent’ TV series that delved into the life of a Los Angeles family who discovered that their parent is a transgender woman named Maura. The first season was premiered in 2014. Owing to its great success, subsequent seasons were launched as well. The series was great in some ways but the controversial aspect was the casting of Jeffrey Tambor as the main character Maura. Allegations of sexual harassment were made against him by the transgender cast and crew members of the series.

In cinema, there is the brilliant movie ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ that is based on the real-life story of Brandon Teena, a transgender man from the US who undertakes a quest to find love in Nebraska but things take an ugly, unexpected turn and he becomes victim to a hate crime being plotted and perpetrated by two men known to him. The film is remarkable in its effort to explore the subject of violence against transgender people. Transphobia is generally dismissed as something limited to cracking jokes at the expense of trans people and not accepting them into one’s social circle. In reality, transphobia borders on hatred and leads to violent and sordid crimes against trans people. ‘Boys Don’t Cry ‘is daring in that it chooses to portray such a sensitive and important issue.

Then there is the famous movie ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ that is extremely problematic in its portrayal of a trans woman. The stereotype of the crazy, drug addict prostitute persists when it comes to portraying the character of a transgender woman. What’s even worse is that the director chooses a cis male to portray the lead trans woman character of the film. Jared Leto plays the character of the trans woman in the film. This is the problem one frequently encounters in the representation of transgender people in cinema and tv. One rarely gets to see trans actors playing themselves. The problem is not with casting cis actors either. But the director generally has a tendency to cast to a male cis actor for the role of a trans woman and vice versa. And that is offensive to trans sensibilities. Why can’t a cis woman play the role of a trans woman? And then one wonders that if the filmmakers’ understanding of trans issues is so limited and parochial, then how does one expect them to portray their lives with any degree of depth and sincerity.

There is still a considerable lack of actors from within the transgender community. Often when big-budget films are made, the producer is obviously looking for an actor with that kind of a presence which makes them sell the film at the box office. And there are hardly any trans actors with that kind of stature. Then, there is also a paucity of transgender scriptwriters and filmmakers. This is something we need to look at. Positive portrayals of trans people in media will increase only when the storyline is being developed by transgender people themselves. This is not to say that a cis person cannot make a brilliant movie about the trans community. Surely, they can. But if trans people get to portray their issues from their own perspective and vantage point, the level of conviction would be in a different league altogether.

But still, things have improved a lot over years. While the frequency of trans representation in media might not have increased that much, the quality of representation has certainly improved. There are more positive portrayals of trans characters in media now than, let’s say 10 years or 20 years back.

Trans Representation in Video Games

Trans representation in video games has certainly increased over the years. Whether the quality of representation has improved or not is another issue though. Video games have been notorious for their stereotypical portrayal of trans characters. Often characters falling under the LGBT umbrella are just vaguely added for the sensational value without any proper characterization. The trans characters in these video games are mostly side characters. It’s rare to find a video game which has a trans character for a hero or a heroine.

The video game which is widely regarded as featuring the first trans character in gaming is Super Mario Bros. 2. The trans woman character by the name of ‘Birdo’ is badly stereotyped in the initial Japanese version of the game. She is constantly referred to as the man who thinks he is a woman. Birdo’s character is eventually developed to make it reflect a trans woman but even that is full of a lot of problematic stereotyping.

Another gaming series well known for having a trans character is Mass Effect: Andromeda. It features a trans woman by the name of Hainly Abrams and the game features her post-transition. The game shows her freely acknowledging her ‘dead name’ to someone. Now, a dead name is the name a transgender person had before the transition. It is usually a sensitive issue within the trans community. Transgender people rarely share their dead names with anyone. It’s only after they have established a great deal of trust and confidence that they would consider confiding it in someone. But the trans character in ‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ is shown to be sharing her pre-transition name so casually.  Although the makers of the game acknowledged this error, made apologies, and worked on fixing it as well. So that’s a positive development. Because of increased awareness on trans issues, media cannot get away with inaccurate portrayals of trans characters. There is a certain pressure to present fair and balanced characters which are good.

Many Indie games also feature trans characters. A game like ‘Do I Pass’’ is about passing as a cis man or woman when people look at you as a trans person. The Indie game ‘Losing Charge’ is based on the life of a trans teenage boy who lives with his sister and their dad. Then there are others such as Undertale, Crypt of the Necro Dancer, and 2064: Read Only Memories.

The Way Forward

They say that even bad publicity is good publicity. This holds true to a certain extent in the case of transgender people. Even if the representation of trans people in films, television, and video games is full of flaws, the good thing is that at least they are getting visible. Once an issue gains visibility, it opens up the possibility of a dialogue. Even if a particular tv show or a film has a somewhat derogatory portrayal of trans characters, it has gotten these characters to the forefront of mainstream representation. When you are critiquing those characters, it gets easier for people to understand trans issues because they have that movie or TV show as a reference point.

A lot of media representation of trans characters is skewed simply because the people who create these programs might not enough about a trans person. They might have never met a transgender person in real life. Or even if they have, they might not have known them close enough to understand their life and struggles. That is why it is important for transgender people to themselves get involved in the creative industries. Once trans professionals and artists start creating audiovisual and written content about their lives and struggles, others will be able to understand their issues better. And it would certainly pave the way for more and more positive portrayal of trans characters in media.

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