Being transgender onscreen and off
For the past couple of years, transgender issues have been the topic of ongoing public debate. On Tuesday, President Obama brought those issues back into the headlines when he commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the Army private arrested in 2010 for leaking classified material.
At the time Manning was sentenced to 35 years and placed in an all-male military prison, she was known as Bradley. After she came out as transgender, Army rules prevented her from cutting her hair and she had to fight to be approved for hormone therapy. She spent long periods of time in solitary confinement and attempted suicide twice.
Manning’s incarceration was torturous, and in May, she’ll be released to find a country that hasn’t moved very far forward on transgender issues in the time she’s been away.
While mandating transgender rights has moved to the fore in some respects – transgender people can now serve openly in the military, for instance – some jurisdictions are moving to limit such mandates. For example, North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act limits individuals from entering government bathrooms that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificate. Despite a backlash that has included boycotts, other states like Texas are lining up to pass similar “bathroom bills.”
Civil rights advocates fear that, with Republicans in charge of Congress and Donald Trump entering the White House, things will get worse for LGBT people fighting for legislation.
As we’ve watched events play out in legislatures around the country, we’re also keeping our ears and eyes open for interesting transgender films and series. While last year wasn’t a landmark year for trans portrayals on movie and TV screens, there were a few standouts.
Her Story (2016)
Web series Her Story follows the dating lives of trans and queer women living in Los Angeles. Far from the tired old plot lines about transitions that we’ve seen in virtually every other film or series that tackles trans issues, Her Story look at other aspects of transgender women’s stories. It’s won praise for its direct storytelling with three-dimensional, vulnerable, and sexy characters. Starring Jen Richards and Angelica Ross, the show earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama. Viewers can watch it for free on Youtube.
When Tangerine premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, no one realized it had been shot on an iPhone 5. The result was a beautiful production telling the comedic story of Sin-Dee and Alexandra, two trans women who, well – here’s the synopsis:
“It’s Christmas Eve in Tinseltown and Sin-Dee is back on the block. Upon hearing that her pimp boyfriend hasn’t been faithful during the 28 days she was locked up, the working girl and her best friend, Alexandra, embark on a mission to get to the bottom of the scandalous rumor. Their rip-roaring odyssey leads them through various subcultures of Los Angeles, including an Armenian family dealing with their own repercussions of infidelity.”
Amazon introduced Transparent in 2014 to a virtual standing ovation. The series told the story of Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a retired college professor and trans woman who had struggled for years to keep her gender identity a secret from her colleagues, as well as her own family. Snappy, dark humor and an all-star cast won the series two Golden Globe Awards. Now in its third season, Transparent continues to wow as it follows the self-serving Pfefferman clan through all the things that make families stronger – even as life seeks to tear them apart.
Acclaim and Controversy
While Transparent creator Jill Soloway drew a lot of praise, she also faced searing criticism due to her casting choices. Many people in the trans community see the show as another example of transgender actors being passed over in favor of putting better-known cisgender names in their place. It happened in The Danish Girl, which starred Eddie Redmayne as transwoman Lili Elbe, and again when Matt Bomer was slated to play a transgender sex worker in the upcoming drama Anything.
Another series that’s drawn fire from the transgender community is the USA Network drama Mr. Robot. Creator Sam Esmail cast cisgender male actor BD Wong in the role of Whiterose, a mysterious hacker who is also a transwoman. In an interview with Vulture, Esmail revealed that he wrote the character with Wong in mind. Notably, Wong is famous for appearing in a production of M. Butterfly as a male spy who dresses up like a woman in order to engage in an affair with a French diplomat.
Two decades ago, it was groundbreaking for filmmakers even to tell the story of a transgender character. When audiences learned the tragic fate of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry or first met Dil in The Crying Game, the moments helped open the door to LGBT themes onscreen.
Today, simply telling trans stories or thoughtlessly including them in an ongoing narrative isn’t enough. In addition to depriving transgender people of the ability to tell their own stories – in favor of packing a box office punch by using a more famous actor – many feel casting cisgender actors sends the wrong message.
Richards addressed the issue in a series of tweets. “When Jared Leto plays Rayon and accepts his Oscar with a full beard, the world sees that being a trans woman is just a man performing,” she wrote. “When Matt Bomer plays a trans woman, he is telling the world that underneath it all, trans women like me are really just men.”