Transgender Characters on Television: Quality vs. Quantity
The 1990s and early 2000s saw a rise in gay and lesbian characters in popular television shows such as Jack in Dawson’s Creek, Ellen in Ellen, Will in Will and Grace, and a number of characters in Roseanne. The lesbian and gay community was beginning to see themselves regularly represented in the media, a trend that would continue through today. Around twenty years later, a similar change is occurring on TV with regard to the transgender community, which is estimated as numbering 700,000 people 1 in the United States. Transgender refers to people whose gender identification and/or expression differ from the gender they were assigned at birth 2. Transgender people face certain challenges and discrimination with healthcare, employment, military service, housing, and more because of their identities.
More and more transgender stories are being told on television. While transgender characters have been featured on sitcoms and dramas for some time, recent years have seen a progression in representing transgender characters on television. An increase in the number of transgender characters initially appears to be positive, but, as GLAAD’s “Trans Images TV Report” shows, it may be the quality of the representations that is more important, as transgender people have long been stigmatized and stereotyped by the media. Producers still have a long way to go to ensure there is a sizable variety of positively represented transgender characters on TV.
Transgender Stories on Reality TV
In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay on her show, Ellen, after which she faced backlash from major corporations who pulled their advertising spots and criticism from major publications for showing affection while in public with her partner. 3 Despite this, Ellen raised awareness about gay issues and became a role model to a population who previously had few role models in the media. What DeGeneres’ coming out did to increase the conversation about the lesbian and gay community, Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out in April 2015 has done to stir up conversation around the transgender community. Although, like DeGeneres, Jenner’s coming out has been met with both positive and negative responses, she is stepping forward as a highly visible role model for the transgender community, another community with few meaningful representations of themselves in the media. Jenner’s high profile story has been documented on television with her E! reality show, I Am Cait.
I Am Cait has contributed to a recent surge in reality shows focusing on transgender people that began with Discovery Life’s New Girls on the Block in April and continued with TLC’s I Am Jazz and ABC Family’s Becoming Us. The shows represented a variety of stories within the transgender world, telling the stories of a community of trans women in Kansas City, a teenage YouTube star, and of a family with a transitioning father. The shows document triumphant moments in the women’s lives, like trying on a wedding dress, and touch on the difficulties of being transgender, like facing unemployment because of their transgender identity. These reality shows are a step in the right direction of representing a variety of transgender experiences and educating the public on a marginalized community. However, the success of the shows is still limited in that almost all the women featured are white, and they are only representing male to female transitions. Outside of reality television, a change in the depiction of transgender characters is also happening on scripted television.
Transgender Representation on Scripted TV
Perhaps the most significant stride in representing transgender people on television is the number of recurring transgender characters that have been created in recent years. In the past, many transgender characters had insignificant roles, often depicted as sex workers or victims in crime procedurals. Now there are recurring transgender characters in successful shows like Transparent, Orange is the New Black, and The Fosters. However, it is significant to note that these shows are all on subscription based channels, apart from more accessible network television. One exception to this is Fox’s Glee, which has been applauded (and criticized) for its portrayal of a diverse set of characters on network television since the show began in 2009. Glee’s story line has included two major transgender characters during its run time, Unique Adams and Sheldon Bieste, who depict two very different transgender experiences. While there has been an increase in meaningfully depicted recurring transgender roles in television, a look at nonrecurring roles for transgender characters shows that quality over quantity is more important.
In 2014, GLAAD, an LGBT media advocacy organization, put together an installment of their annual “Trans Images TV Report” 4, which found that many representations of transgender people on television are negative. The organization found that, of the new episodes with nonrecurring transgender characters analyzed, 54% represented transgender people in a defamatory fashion, 34% ranged from problematic to acceptable, and only 12% were outstanding. While there was a decrease in transgender characters portrayed as victims, villains, or sex workers, many transgender characters served as the punchline to offensive jokes. They cited transgender representation in Lifetime’s Drop Dead Divas and CBS’ Elementary as outstanding for depicting multidimensional characters. Comedies like Fox’s Family Guy and CBS’ Two and a Half Men, however, included jokes at the expense of transgender characters. Family Guy continues to use outdated language when speaking about transgender people and depicts them as unattractive characters to be avoided. Two and a Half Men featured a story arch about Paula, a transgender love interest for Alan, in which they emphasized her “male traits”, like sitting with her legs open, as a running joke. GLAAD’s report highlights the importance in not only depicting a number of transgender characters, but in representing developed, multifaceted characters.
One last aspect of transgender representation worth mentioning is the rise of transgender actors on television. A rising number of the transgender characters on television today are represented by actual transgender actors, such as Tom Phelan in The Fosters and Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black. Transgender actresses have also been cast as non-transgender characters, such as Laverne Cox in MTV’s Faking It and Erika Ervin in FX’s American Horror Story, exemplifying that transgender people should not be defined solely by the transgender part of their identity.
While there are many roles on scripted television that portray transgender people, not all are quality depictions. The representation of transgender people in reality television fares better, although there is room for improvement. As a popular, widespread medium, television is an important catalyst for educating the public and continuing the conversation on transgender equality. Television creators as a whole still have work to do establish that transgender people are represented as developed, multidimensional characters, ensuring that the transgender community can see a reflection of itself on television.
- Gates, Gary J. “How Many People Are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender?” Williams Institute. The Williams Institute, 01 Apr. 2011. Web. 04 Oct. 2015. <http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/research/census-lgbt-demographics-studies/how-many-people-are-lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgender/>. ↩
- “GLAAD Media Reference Guide – Transgender Issues.” GLAAD. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2015. . ↩
- Lo, Malinda. “Back in the Day: Coming Out With Ellen – AfterEllen.” AfterEllen Back in the Day Coming Out With Ellen Comments. After Ellen, 08 Apr. 2005. Web. 08 Oct. 2015. <http://www.afterellen.com/tv/34682-back-in-the-day-coming-out-with-ellen/2>. ↩
- Townsend, Megan. “GLAAD’s Third Annual Trans Images on TV Report Finds Some Improvement.” GLAAD. N.p., 14 Nov. 2014. Web. 04 Oct. 2015. . ↩
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