Trans* People On TV

I spent my weekend at a conference for transgender people, and it was a little frustrating. If there’s one place in the world you might hope to escape clueless questions, utter ignorance, and the necessity of patiently holding people’s hands through Trans* 101, it’s at a conference by, for, and largely attended by trans* people.
Alas, no such luck.
It’s well past time popular culture assumed the burden of basic education. Pop-culture overthinkers like myself enjoy citing articles that indicate the profound influence of the mass media on public attitudes. The Cosby Show changed the televisual landscape for African-American-centered shows. Will & Grace taught America about The Gays (FACT; Joe Biden says so). Isn’t it time Middle America learned, from its favorite babysitter / best friend / water-cooler-conversation facilitator, that transgender people are human too?
Stupid TV! Be more trans-friendly!
Certainly it’s much, much more likely for pop culture to get it wrong than right. I’ve read queer theory textbooks assigned for class that left much to be desired on the trans* front, and I hardly expect better from the mass media.
Of course, there are some lovely, sensitive, non-rage-inducing portrayals of trans* people to be found in books, film, and TV, but these tend to be fairly obscure. In the mainstream, things are still pretty terrible.
For example.
Apparently there are no actual trans* actors in Hollywood. Apparently a trans woman needs to be portrayed by a cis woman, and a trans man needs to be portrayed by a cis woman, and the films need to focus obsessively on these characters as explicitly trans bodies. We have to see all of the little things a trans person does in order to pass. We have to see crotch shots and/or invest all meaning in bottom surgery. We have to cast an ugly, voyeuristic eye over these bodies – bodies which, lest we forget, in real life belong to cis women: there’s a weird doubling of voyeuristic focus here, on the characters as trans and on the actresses as women, and while on one level we are being invited to leer over these bodies as trans bodies, we are certainly also being invited to leer over these bodies as women’s bodies.
For example.
I rage-quit Glee long before the introduction of its trans* character, and so did fully half the Americans who used to tune in on a weekly basis when the show was in what I (for want of a better term) will call its prime. People just aren’t talking about this show the way they used to. From what I can make out, the portrayal of the trans* character has been reasonably well-received; but, as always with Glee, things could spiral horrendously out of control at any moment. An unholy chimera of offensively over-the-top jokes and earnest After School Specials, and never remotely consistent with its tone or characterization, Glee would not have been the ideal venue for a realistic depiction of a trans* person even at the zenith of its cultural impact.
(And now I have wasted an hour of my life reading up on recent developments in this stupid show, and I have the TV equivalent of a caffeine headache.)
Help me. Friends don’t let friends relapse.
 For example.
A friend recommended the show Hit & Miss, starring Chloe Sevigny as a trans woman who is an assassin. But I’d already seen this interview, and I knew there was no way I could watch this show without spontaneously combusting from rage. I mean, really:
Whenever Mia is shown changing or in the shower, there are quick glimpses to remind viewers that a crucial part of her is still male. Hence the prosthetic, which took two hours to attach. 
 “It was horrifying,” says Sevigny. “I cried every time they put it on me. I’ve always been very comfortable being a girl, so it was hard to wrap my head around the fact that someone could feel so uncomfortable in their own skin.”

Everything about that just makes me so incredibly furious. The fact that the show’s producers thought it was necessary to include those “quick glimpses.” The journalist’s phallocentrism and essentialism. Just the whole fact that Chloe Sevigny is appropriating and trivializing the experience of gender dysphoria for the sake of some TV show. I’m so happy that all those times I sobbed in the shower because I hate my body, all those hours spent wishing myself away into some non-physical realm, the absolutely inescapable feeling of discomfort and discontent in my own skin – I’m so happy that all of that was able to be comprehended by comfortably cisgender Chloe Sevigny when she donned her prosthetic penis to play a transsexual assassin in a TV show.
Things that are retroactively ruined because I can’t see Chloe Sevigny without ragesploding: American Psycho, Boys Don’t Cry, that one episode of Louie
Some things are getting better. Lana Wachowski is pretty high-profile at the moment; I could personally take or leave her films, but as a human being she is perfection, and Hollywood’s first mainstream trans director is a BFD. And maybe Glee is going to do a really excellent job with its trans* character, and the six million suckers who still watch it will be vindicated.
But I don’t think I’m going to run out of things to be angry about any time soon.
Max Thornton blogs at Gay Christian Geek, and is slowly learning to twitter at @RainicornMax.


  • Posted November 6, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Great article, thanks!

  • Posted November 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Parabéns seu artigo é muito bom

  • Posted November 6, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    I think the bigger criticism of “HIt and Miss” is that the producers decided that they couldn’t actually find an actual trans* person to play the part. I refuse to believe that there are no trans* people who could do it.

    Rather, I suspect it was that either they didn’t look hard enough, or that trans* actresses were uncomfortable with certain aspects of the thing — quite possibly that desire for cheap thrills by frequently showing genitalia?

    I didn’t personally find Sevigny’s statements all that offensive; as an actress, it’s her job to try and comprehend the experience of someone who has a life quite different than hers. To some degree, acting is all about appropriation, within a controlled and limited sphere, and any fictionalization is always going to trivialize to a degree.

    I don’t see her claiming to completely comprehend the trans* experience, nor trying to speak for trans* people or act as if she knows better. Just admitting to finding someone else’s pain rather painful herself when she thought about it enough, which is kinda the point about empathy, surely?

    Perhaps she shouldn’t have taken the part, but I don’t find that an unforgivable character flaw.

    No, the fault here is with the TV networks, the directors and producers — the people with the actual power, the people making the decisions about how to treat subjects. Not so much with their employees. I think we blame the people with the actual power a bit too little in these things, by comparison.

  • Posted August 2, 2013 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    Yeah, I too find that comment of hers about being uncomfortable wearing the fake penis maddening. Aw, she cried when she saw herself in the mirror? Cry me a river. Gotta love cis privilege.

  • Really?
    Posted January 8, 2015 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m pretty sure she was upset over the Trans struggle, she was so taken aback by now knowing the feeling of being forced to have something else. Not that it’s crazy we have these feelings, that it’s so hard for us she realised.