It is no secret that the media fails to uphold culturally accurate representations of trans and gender non-conforming people.
Before Pose, portrayals of trans women on television and in movies often adopted the harmful stereotypes that cis people have so easily digested throughout the years. We’re either hyperfeminine sex dolls or overtly-masculine mavens of trickery and deception. When weaponized and used as tools of oppression, these overgeneralizations can lead to more problems for the community as a whole.
If you Google “trans women” and all you see is pictures of one body type (skinny, yet lean, and extremely hairless. Like cue-ball hairless) gripping their phallus in one hand and their balloon tits in the other, it is going to promote an over-sexualized archetype of the entire group.
The tricked out tranny. The salacious, slutty shemale.
This is not to condemn the trans women within the sex work industry, especially since those jobs have really been the only ones available to us in the past and a girl has to make money somehow. But to have that be the first thought to pop into people’s heads, is to have even more opportunities taken away from us and more discriminatory behavior projected onto us, from all angles of society.
I know when I was a baby T-girl doing my online research, I would recoil in shock at the lack of diverse, and accurate images of girls who looked like me. There were barely any images of us, not only living, but thriving in a society that till this day fails to recognize us as established members of society. Am I only seen as either really sexy or extremely disgusting? Do I have to fit this image in order to be trans?
Of course, a lot has changed since then. A Google search now is a lot more reputable in its depiction of trans women, with the induction of more popular mainstream actors and activists like Laverne Cox, Isis King, Indya Moore, Hari Nef, and so many more. Yet, the fact remains that this hypersexualized vision of our community continues to put us at a disadvantage in many ways.
Sadly, mainstream society thrives on such toxicity in an effort to justify the ruthless harassment, sexual violence, and killings of trans women. Whether it be salivating over the “chick with a dick” fantasy or lacing viral videos with blatantly transphobic rhetoric, these not-so-nuanced depictions of trans women have proven to rob us of our full humanity.
A lot of the problem is rooted in the industries that dominate our digital screens. Social media, television shows, and blockbuster films that feature trans women often provide a skewed perception of the people we are and the lives we live. When a suit-and-tie-wearing Jared Leto accepts an Academy Award for playing a trans role, despite being a cisgender man off-screen, people are going to take that image into consideration when sizing up a trans woman’s body and her features. It takes away the opportunity for us to tell our own stories. It upholds restrictive societal standards of how people *should* look and act. It reifies the notion that the trans identity is a costume that we put on, and that underneath what people fail to read as necessary methods of gender dysphoria alleviation--hormones, surgeries, agents of social transition, etc.--lives a “man in a wig.”
The same goes for Jeffrey Tambor playing “Maura”, a woman who transitions later in life, in Transparent. The same goes for Eddie Redmayne playing Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of gender confirmation surgery, in The Danish Girl.
Portrayals like these often convey a caricature-esque nature of the trans experience, adding a heightened sense of masculinity and an air of “fakeness” to the community that exists off-screen.
When a video surfaced in late-2018 of a woman confronting a GameStop employee after getting misgendered multiple times, Twitter had a field day with a slew of hateful memes, transphobic commentary, and downright disrespectful behavior toward the victim. Her authenticity was called into question, painting her as hyper-aggressive and belligerent rather than a frustrated victim of social pariah. In cases like this, it is the behavior of one individual that justifies the damnation of an entire community, which is one-sided and unfair.
Conversely, when a billion-dollar industry run by men immortalizes a single image of the shemale sex kitten who likes to dominate and be dominated, it gives people the idea that that’s all we are good for. It strips us of our ability to have meaningful relationships, have jobs outside of the sex-work industry, and take on any image that is not the stereotypical “T-girl porn idol.” We’re not all dom tops with double D’s. Pornhub, I’m looking at you.
To live in a society in which a trans woman’s “passability” is measured by the way she talks, walks, dresses, does her hair and makeup, if she medically transitions, and literally any and everything else that people feel they have the right to pick her apart over, it becomes exhausting to live up to people’s expectations. We’re not all Nikita Draguns and Gigi Gorgeouses, who are blessed to be able to afford whatever we need to help us transition. We don’t all have the privilege to be out and live authentically. We are women of varying sizes, shapes and lifestyles, just like cis women, and we deserve to portray ourselves as such, without ridicule.
Sure, it may be easier to perpetuate a polarized image of us, because it aids the ideas that keep us in a subordinate class of people, which ultimately continues to devastate the chances of moving ourselves to a higher level of social recognition and ability because…
I forgot where I was going with that. But there’s no justification to feeding into that garbage.
Be more critical of the media you digest and the way in which you treat trans women as a result of the destructive ideas that are subconsciously taught to us through these mediums.
Please and thank you.
Ivana Fischer is a film and media enthusiast who specializes in cultural studies. You can find her across all socials @iv.fischer