Storytelling in film and television, the technology to create them, and ways of sharing those stories are always in a forwarding momentum. Part of that forward momentum is the characters in the stories mirroring the moviegoers being entertained and even pushed into thought-provoking conversations. Representation is vital in that equation, and one expanding group that needs that level of expression is those in the transgender community.
In 2014, a Time Magazine article titled “The Transgender Tipping Point,” written by Katy Steinmetz, showcases the importance of the trans community becoming more inclusive and the long road that has been taken to make that possible. Unfortunately, even though aspects of society have made strides to be more inclusive, the entertainment industry has been lacking and even exploited the trans population in the past.
First, Hollywood’s treatment of transgender people dates to the old days of the film industry. Some think that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is the first movie to display a person of this community in a not-so-favorable twist. The 1930s movie Murder!, the third film in Hitchcock’s filmography, appears to be the first movie that uses “cross-dressing” in a movie’s plot. The ‘Psycho Slasher Transgender Murderer’ trend would continue in films such as Sleepaway Camp, Dressed to Kill, Silence of the Lambs, and being used as a punchline in Tootsies and Ace Venture: Pet Detective. However, Hollywood would try to rectify its past mistake but still trip over itself.
Several movies in the past decades have received acclaim from critics for their portrayal of the trans community. Films that featured these types of stories, once called ‘Crossing-dressing Cinema,’ have now been accurately labeled ‘Transgender Cinema.’ These movies focus on the transgender experience, and though it’s a basic description, the films carry a level of nuance that opens doors on topics surrounding the manner. Unfortunately, even though Hollywood tries to make advances to showcase these movies, their attempts still miss the mark.
1999’s Boys Don’t Cry brought Hilary Swank an Academy Award for Best Actress and shined a light on the hate crime of a trans man named Brandon Teena. Though the film garnered rave reviews for film and Swank’s performance, it was built on the back of gender as a tragedy. The trend would persist with Dallas Buyers Club and maintain the notion of transgender women played by CIS actors. Chris Sarandon’s Dog Day Afternoon, Eddie Redmayne’s The Danish Girl, Matt Bomer in Anything, perpetuated the common mistake of male actors playing trans-woman and reinforced the gender binary and stereotype of ‘men in dresses.’
In 2016, in his THR guest column, Nick Adams wrote, “Hollywood is having a very difficult time letting go of the idea that putting a male actor in a dress, wig, and makeup is an accurate portrayal of a transgender woman.” Likewise, the vice president of GLAAD’s media institute writes that hiring male actors to play transgender women gives off the message that being transgender is an act or performance and “that underneath all that artifice, a transgender woman is a man.”
Even though some mainstreams have not fully embraced the transgender community for what they are, others have pushed forward.
The Right Kind of Representation
Another misrepresentation in Trans-cinema is the fetishization and sexualization of the characters portrayed, but filmmakers have worked hard against that stereotype. One film that is an excellent example of Trans-Cinema is Drunkstown‘s Finest, directed by transgender Navajo filmmaker Sydney Freeland. The film chronicles three Navajo individuals living on a reservation–one of the lead characters is played by trans actress Carmen Moore—and the experience of Moore and Freeland as artist lends a high level of authenticity to the film.
2017’s A Fantastic Woman is another case of featuring a story on this community with the lead role being played by a transwoman that garnered raved reviews from critics and showcased a market for the type of genuine storytelling. On the romantic comedy-drama side, there’s 2014’s Boy Meets Girl, which follows a transgender woman. Gary Goldstein of the LA Times said that the movie is a “lovely story, which brims with credible, enormously heartfelt emotion.” Documentaries of the past and present have also shown the actual life of this LGBTQ2S+ community.
Paris Is Burning is a 1990 documentary that gives audiences a look into a world that had not been well-known. Directed by Jennie Livingston, the film takes place in the mid-to-late 1980s and diaries the ball culture of New York City. It showcases the lives of African-Americans, Latinos and LGBTQIA+ communities who partook in the events. The thoughtful production explores the topics of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America is a much watch and has been adapted into a highly successful TV series. Continuing with the documentary genre, actress Laverne Cox produced the 2020 Netflix program, Disclosure, which details trans representation in pop culture and toxic potholes that the film industry often steps into when dealing with trans individuals.
Though these programs have been making waves in the entertainment industry, there are a growing number of people in front and behind the camera making movements in Hollywood.
Players in Film Business
As more stories feature transgender characters continue to grow, so do the people portraying them. Elliot Page came out in 2020 and has been one of the many people at the forefront of transgender inclusion in film and television. As mentioned early, Laverne Cox got her noticed on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and continues to produce programs involved in the LGBTQ2S+ community. Asia Kate Dillion, who also appeared on Orange Is the New Black, became the first openly non-binary actor to play a non-binary character on television. The list goes on with Jamie Clayton in Sense 8, Hunter Schafer in HBO’s Euphoria, Alexandra Billings, and Scott Turner Schofield. There’s plenty more for those who are making a difference behind the lens.
Lana & Lilly Wachowski are the most well-known transgender directors working in Hollywood today. The Matrix directors continue doing high-profile projects on that topic with actors and actresses who have been part of the transgender community. Silas Howard, director of By Hook or By Crook, is one of the first out-transgender directors behind the camera. Yance Ford is a documentary series producer and director whose career spans over ten years in the filmmaking industry and sixteen Emmy nominations. And lastly, there’s director, television writer, and activist Janet Mock, whose career includes People Magazine, Huffington Post, the FX series, Pose, and a New York Times bestselling author. As the transgender community continues to break ground and gain recognition in the entertainment business, many groups are standing as allies to champion the community’s success.
Foundations to Help
Everyday sites are created for people in the LGBTQ2S+ community in the entertainment industry. For example, the Transgender Media Portal is a website used to “promote the careers of today’s trans filmmakers.” The description on the site state, “The Transgender Media Portal aims to do audiovisual work by trans, Two-Spirit, nonbinary, intersex, and gender-nonconforming people more available to artists, activists, festival programmers, researchers, instructors, and the public.” There are other places as well to help out.
Trans On Set and Out on Set are parties making significant advances in the filmmaking industry. The groups’ mission is to improve the quality of work available for transgender workers. The sites’ database aims to help producers find trans actors and actresses, and crew members for their production. However, the history of trans is just as important to keep intact for those wishing to learn more. Groups like the LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory and the Digital Transgender Archive were put together by those who understand the need to preserve historical events in trans entertainment.
This is just a tiny tidbit of history about the number of people and groups that have become a staple in film and television. The inclusion of all groups should be a high priority in the entertainment industry to advance the media. Many more people are doing their part to help those in the LGBTQIA+ community as the television and film audience are becoming more reflective of today. Minorities and other underrepresented voices and stories are becoming more prominent in the filmmaking business, and it’s time for the transgender society to receive the same treatment.