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Trans In The Mainstream: 5 Takes On The Representation of Trans Men and Women In Film

By Dominic Clarke | /Bent July 29, 2014 at 3:20PM

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?
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"Ma Vie En Rose"
"Ma Vie En Rose"

Last week 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, we offered 'Trans in the Mainstream', a week-long trip through some of the most notorious representations of trans men and women in bigger 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?

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Here's five takes:

The State of Trans Representation and Why 'Transamerica' Remains 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. READ THE WHOLE ESSAY HERE.

Jared Leto's Rayon In 'Dallas Buyers Club'

Dallas Buyers Club received a lot of attention last year due in large part to Jared Leto’s portrayal of the transgender character Rayon. The character and Leto’s depiction of the character was polarizing. Cisgender straight liberals fawned over the performance (even awarding Leto with an Academy Award), but with many in the LGBTQ (emphasis on the T) community sorely disappointed by it. This film is actually a great example of what not to do if you’re going to create a trans character for your film and that’s why I’ve included it. READ THE WHOLE ESSAY HERE.

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 "Laurence Anyways" comes down somewhere between "Transamerica" and "Dallas Buyers Club" in terms of representation of trans characters. Xavier Dolan is a young gay male who, at 25, has an output as astounding as his artistic vision. The G and T in the alphabet soup of the LGBTQ community continue to make uneasy bedfellows for some. Overall the film is wonderful but even queer filmmakers don’t always get the trans experience right. READ THE WHOLE ESSAY HERE.

On Sex, Gender and Audience Expectations in 'Boys Don't Cry':

Prior to "Dallas Buyers Club", "Boys Don’t Cry" was the one film with a transgender lead that members of the cisgender heterosexual community had most likely seen. Re-watching the film and discussing it with fellow film buffs, I’ve come to realize that it was a somewhat ambiguous portrayal of a transgender person. However, this is the one film where the casting choice doesn’t seem incongruent with the character, perhaps because it’s based on a real person who we know hadn’t medically transitioned. READ THE WHOLE ESSAY HERE.


Trans in the Mainstream: Telling Children's Stories in 'Tomboy' and 'Ma Vie en Rose':

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'Ma Vie en Rose' and 'Tomboy' are two very brave films as they deal with the topic of children who appear to be transgender. There is no one trans narrative and not every trans person knows from the time they are born, yet it is amazing to have those that do know from a young age to be given representation in film. It is becoming less controversial to listen to children who claim an alternate gender identity, to help them acquire hormone blockers, and to get them the correct hormones as they get older. These films are true gifts for those who can relate to the particular narrative of knowing from childhood that you are different.  READ THE WHOLE ESSAY HERE.