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Trans In The Mainstream: The State of Trans Representation and Why 'Transamerica' Remains So Important

By Dominic Clarke | /Bent July 22, 2014 at 10:57AM

On the day GLAAD release depressing findings about LGBT representation we review how studios have handled trans gender storylines
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Today 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, welcome to 'Trans in the Mainstream', a week-long trip through some of the most notorious representations of trans men and women in bigger studio 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?

The state of trans cinema

Before looking at our first film, let's take a look at the mainstream landscape as it now lies. It's not news that major Hollywood studio productions tend to be extremely homogeneous. They star straight white men, sometimes straight white women, but the LGBTQ community is rarely represented unless they are used as the target for further derision, an easy joke, or to portray an unflattering character who will most likely die or murder someone. The 2013 Studio Responsibility Index published by GLAAD states, “Out of the 101 releases from the major studios in 2012… not one of the releases contained any transgender characters”. In 2012, even lesbian, gay, or bisexual representation in film was quite low but it’s staggering that there were no transgender characters in any major studio productions in 2012. As we found out today, things have hardly improved. It's worth recalling this line from last year's GLAAD report:

"For all the great improvements there has been in LGBT characters being depicted, on television,  transgender representations remain at least 20 years behind the, curve. This is especially true in film where transgender characters are rare even, in independent cinema,  much less major Hollywood productions. Not only does, this lack of transgender images reinforce the marginalization of the trans, community,  it must also be seen as a missed opportunity by studios and, screenwriters to tell fresh stories and better flesh out the worlds they create., GLAAD has observed a noticeable increase in media coverage of the transgender, community in recent years,  demonstrating that the public interest is there."


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.

Since there are so few films that have featured transgender characters, the academic writing on the topic is limited. It is worth noting that almost all representation in narrative feature film focuses on transgender women. Cis men often play trans women on film but in Transamerica Felicity Huffman was cast in the role of Bree, who is a trans woman. This was an excellent casting choice that offered a legitimacy to the film and gave filmgoers the opportunity to see a woman embody the role as opposed to what so often happens, a male actor in bad drag who doesn’t capture what trans really is or means.
Transamerica brings up several topics related to transition itself that I think are very much worth discussing because they directly relate to why trans representation of MTF transgender people is often problematic in a way that is different than FTMs. When someone “successfully” transitions from male to female they are considered to “pass” (which means to be read as female by the public) and sometimes choose to live “stealth” (which means to be private about their status as a trans person). I don’t want to go too far into the wide spectrum of gender and gender identity being embraced by younger people transitioning, and I am not claiming to speak for all trans people, but generally a successful transition consists of being read as the gender you are transitioning to. The terminology is a sensitive topic and many people do not like the term “passing” as it feels deceitful to them, but in my opinion “passing” does truly convey the feeling of being read correctly in public. Bree mentions being stealth in the film but what does that mean exactly for a trans woman?

If a male transitions to female after puberty there are many potential costs that are incurred. While the film is somewhat dated it still captures the process of what a transition is like. There is a greater difficulty for trans women to be able to live stealth. In many places you have to live in the gender you are transitioning to for 6 months to a year, introduce yourself with your female name, come out to people, and see a therapist before you can be prescribed hormones and begin the physical transition. In bigger cities more and more LGBTQ health clinics are operating under informed consent which removes this burden of proof being thrust upon trans people. For trans women steps in a transition can consist of taking estrogen, electrolysis, they often take voice lessons if they can, facial contouring, Adam’s Apple shave, breast implants, and for those who are able to afford it, they have “bottom” surgery (genital reconstruction) but the cost of the surgery often keeps it out of reach. It’s important to remember that many insurance policies still don’t cover trans related health care.

In Transamerica we see Bree working several jobs, working on her voice, taking her hormones, and at one point getting some quick electrolysis done on her upper lip. She is living “stealth” as a woman and she has fully transitioned in the sense that she is passing successfully. However, one of the most cutting lines in the film comes when she is meeting with a psychiatrist in order to have her surgery. Bree asks him, “Don’t you find it odd that plastic surgery can cure a mental disorder?” Most surgeons in the U.S. who operate on trans patients will not do so without a letter from a therapist and some will only accept letters from psychiatrists. It’s highly problematic that a woman can go to a plastic surgeon and get FF sized breasts implanted in her chest without question but someone searching out gender conforming surgeries is required to undergo psychiatric evaluation and be deemed mentally ill before they can receive surgery. It’s wonderful to see what is still, sadly, an accurate portrayal of the hoops trans people are forced to jump through in order to receive gender conforming surgeries.

It seems to be more common to have cis men playing trans women which does seem to stem from the outdated idea that trans women can’t be beautiful and/or pass as “real” women. For example, the first time I remember seeing a trans woman depicted on screen was John Lithgow’s character in The World According to Garp. No offense to John Lithgow but he did not make an attractive woman. Given that the film came out in the early 1980s it’s almost amazing that the character wasn’t scrubbed from the script. The idea that trans women can’t be beautiful is slowly being shattered thanks to women like the actress Laverne Cox and the activist and writer Janet Mock. The filmmaker of Transamerica clearly had sensitivity to transgender issues. By allowing a woman to be cast to play a woman (yes, many trans people just want to be seen for who they are and don’t want the “trans” qualifier) Duncan Tucker really honored what it means to be transgender.

It may be splitting hairs to go into what it means to be transgender given that identity is so personal. Though when your identity has to be sanctioned by medical providers before you can fully embrace it, perhaps it is worth clarifying a bit. Most trans people simply want to live their lives in the gender that they feel that they are. The trans qualifier is embraced by some and shunned by others. At the end of the day since gender is the sum total of what we present to the world, and we live in an extremely gendered world, the qualifier only tends to come up when you’re in the process of transitioning and people don’t know what you are. Being ambiguously gendered or barely “passing” is to constantly be made to feel uncomfortable simply because others feel uncomfortable about your existence. To see Duncan Tucker treat a trans character so humanely is extremely important, moving, and should really be held up as an example for other cis filmmakers who want to get it right.

Another excellent portion of the film consists of Bree returning to her hometown of Phoenix. Often for trans people, coming out to family members, especially parents, is the most difficult part of coming out. The LGBTQ community’s members are known for making their own family, some out of necessity and some out of the desire to be fully understood and accepted for who they are. Bree claimed that her family was dead earlier in the film and once we are introduced to her family, we see why. As Peter Caster and Allison Andrew have put it:

"When Bree confronts her mother in Phoenix, the latter grabs Bree’s crotch and is relieved to feel male genitals. She exclaims to her husband with a look of relief, “Thank god Murray, he’s still a boy.” In response, to this invasion not only of her personal space but her physical body, Bree grabs her mother’s hand and forces it to feel her developed breast. The dismayed mother cries, “My poor Stanley, I can’t look at you” and turns away. The mother’s crude actions adhere to rigid sex/gender binaries wherein male anatomy equals maleness, an underdetermined equation the film and queer theory treat as a false dichotomy".


Another topic that the film didn’t shy away from is the juxtaposition of becoming who you feel you are after having effectively lied about it up until you transition. To a certain degree, trans people are forced to keep everyone at a distance because the fear of the true identity being discovered and the intense self-hatred one feels for being so different is overwhelming. It’s easier to remain closed off, not being forced to deal with the truth, and keeping everyone at an arm’s length because they can’t know the real person you are. The beauty of Transamerica is that this is shown visually as opposed to the audience being told. Truthfully, this isn’t something that can be conveyed easily with words and it was very smart of the filmmaker to show it visually as opposed to scripting it for the therapy sessions in the film.

Again, Andrew and Caster write:

"Most often the editing…juxtaposes one-shots of Bree, where she is the only character in the frame, with two- and three-shots, as several people crowd the mise-en-scéne with jovial intimacy in contrast with her isolation. The alternating shots emphasize Bree mostly alone and seeing everyone else, inviting the audience to acknowledge her feelings of exclusion, a device of editing that highlights her social ostracism."

One of the biggest complaints that trans people often have about their representation in film is that their narrative is one of tragedy. Trans people often portray sex workers, murder victims, or murderers. Silence of the Lambs is often called out as a prime example of an offensive portrayal as the character Buffalo Bill thinks they are trans. This is disputed in the film itself. Whichever way you cut it, it’s an incredibly unflattering portrayal. Pedro Almodovar is fond of depicting trans women as sex workers though, to be fair, he also gives them quality roles as well. Of course, the story of Brandon Teena, while true, is still the classic “trans as victim” story. The depiction of a normal person who happens to be trans is woefully underrepresented. Perhaps this is why Transamerica stands out so much. In an interview with Robert Newton on Moviefone, Duncan Tucker, the screenwriter and director, states, “So many people think the movie is going to be one of two things: something campy and silly or a dark cross-country trek in which the main character gets beat up. It’s just so not either one of those. Hopefully you’ll laugh more than cry, because it really is joyous – or at least I hope it is – and not grueling and dark.” I completely agree with Tucker’s assessment of his film and would go one step further and suggest that it is the only American film that has told a truly honorable story about what it is to be trans.


Read more 'Trans in the Mainstream' tomorrow on /bent.