We're Here, We're Trans, And We're In Your Pop Culture

The mismatch between "Dallas Buyers Club" and not just reality but the pulse of pop culture when it comes to the depiction of trans women is a marker of how far we've come in terms of the depiction and handling of trans women.
Publish date:
March 14, 2014
transgender, pop culture, gender binary, trans women

Is 2014, the year of the trans tipping point in pop culture? The "New York Times" certainly thinks so, with a spread on major trans figures in pop culture including Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, while on the opposite side of the country, the "San Francisco Chronicle" ran a feature on nonbinary people (including yours truly) this February. We're cropping up like mushrooms, and our media and pop culture depictions seem to be changing. I fail to see that as anything but a good thing, even if we still have a long way to go.

Historically, trans people in pop culture as well as media have filled very narrow, rigid roles. There's the tragedized trans life and death, as in "Boys Don't Cry," the sensationalized circus freak (see the coverage of Lorena Escalera's death), the "men in dresses" stereotype behind every vile trans panic defense.

Members of the trans community were Other, terrifying, frightening, grotesque, over outcry from the trans community. That's all starting to shift, and we owe that to a new generation of trans actors, public figures and activists who are forcing media and pop culture to change their attitudes -- and since pop culture has a profound influence on society, they're also changing the way society interacts with the trans community.

Actresses like Laverne Cox, Calpernia Addams, and Candis Cayne are being cast in trans roles, literally changing the face of trans women in pop culture. Instead of relying on men in drag (with a few notable exceptions, about which more in a moment), Hollywood is starting to accept that trans characters need to be played by trans people -- that while actors can portray a wide range of people, a fundamental identity is not a role that can be taken on and off.

Meanwhile, figures like Mock are proving that trans women can be successful and powerful, becoming major game changers and trend-setters. The former editor of "People" has been outspoken about her life and the trans community at large in her bestselling memoir, "Redefining Realness," while advocating on the ground as she talks about pressing issues in the community. While many journalists have tried to twist her story into one of morbid fascination, focusing on her genitals and her history in sex work, she's wrested the media narrative back, and delivered sound corrections to those who continue to treat trans people as zoo exhibits.

With their outspoken presence in media and pop culture, trans women are shaping a better world -- even as they're acutely aware that, as Cox puts it in the "Times" feature, "Just because there’s a few trans folks having lovely careers and having moments of visibility does not mean that a lot of trans folks lives are not in peril. We need to remember those folks who are struggling, particularly trans women of color who are on the margins."

Yet, these baby steps in media and pop culture are important. They're slowly pushing social attitudes in a new direction, and with a change in attitudes comes a shift in the assessment of the trans community. The closer we get to mainstream pop culture, the closer we get to mainstream acceptance, and not just acceptance, but active integration in society.

Candis Cayne as Ms. Hudson on "Elementary" shows how dramatically roles for trans characters are shifting, as a woman whose primary role on screen isn't as The Trans Character, but as someone with a long and complex history with Sherlock Holmes (and I do hope we see more of her). This is the kind of normalized, casual, everyday role that many members of marginalized communities are pushing for, showing how banal everyday existence is for many people living on the margins -- at least, how banal it can be in a world where they are calmly integrated and treated like everyone else.

Conversely, of course, we have Jared Leto's controversial role in "Dallas Buyers Club," which netted him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing a painfully stereotyped man in a dress that viewers were expected to accept as a trans woman. In the role of Rayon, he plays what Steve Friess describes as: "an exaggerated, trivialized version of how men who pretend to be women -- as opposed to those who feel at their core they are women -- behave."

Friess compares the role to Mammy, which I am reluctant to do because I generally don't like playing "compare the oppressions," but his commentary on how painfully outdated, stereotyped, and revolting Leto's Rayon is incisive and telling. This is how many people still view trans women, as laughable men in dresses with grossly affected "feminine" tendencies. The role stands in stark contrast to the sensitive, striking, and dynamic trans women in pop culture who are starting to slowly but steadily take over the medium -- and any number of them could have played Rayon with better grace and accuracy had the production team cared.

The mismatch between "Dallas Buyers Club" and not just reality but the pulse of pop culture when it comes to the depiction of trans women is a marker of how far we've come in terms of the depiction and handling of trans women. Someday Leto's performance may be looked back on with scorn in light of the emerging trans talent in Hollywood that's finally being given the attention and respect it deserves, from major media interviews to serious roles.

Meanwhile, 2014 may also be the year of nonbinary visibility, as many features on the trans community are starting to nibble at the edges of the gender binary. While nonbinary people aren't a force in pop culture yet, we are quietly creeping into the media, and we're reshaping the way society thinks about gender.

In progress for marginalized communities, one step forward is often accompanied by two steps back, and the trans community faces many serious issues including discrimination in housing, employment, medical care, and society along with high poverty rates, increased risk of sexual and physical assault, higher risks of homelessness, and more. However, a trans presence in pop culture makes it easier to bring these issues to the fore and confront society with our reality -- as a diverse, complex, variegated community rather than a terrifying monolith.