Media portrayals of transgender people
The portrayals of transgender people in the media reflect societal attitudes about transgender identity, and have varied and evolved with public perception and understanding. Media representation, culture industry, and social marginalization all hint at popular culture standards and the applicability and significance to mass culture, even though media depictions represent only a minuscule spectrum of the transgender group, which essentially conveys that those that are shown are the only interpretations and ideas society has of them. However, in 2014, the United States reached a "transgender tipping point", according to Time. At this time, the media visibility of transgender people reached a level higher than seen before. Since then, the number of transgender portrayals across TV platforms has stayed elevated. Research has found that viewing multiple transgender TV characters and stories improves viewers' attitudes toward transgender people and related policies.
In February 2016, John Hansen of The Guardian noted that for the past few years, "YA and middle grade books with trans main characters remain sorely lacking," and as such Hansen pointed to ten transgender authors who have trans characters in their novels. Even so, Dahlia Adler of Barnes & Noble noted that literature with transgender protagonists is quickly evolving with more "trans authors in the spotlight." Christina Orlando Book Riot wrote that one of the biggest caps in the publishing industry is "transgender fiction about the trans experience," further stating that "trans stories always seem to be a second thought," pushed aside so that other "palatable narratives" can take its place. Additionally, Hannah Weiss of Insider wrote, in 2020, that readers can find a "find a vast variety of fantasy and sci-fi stories" which star non-binary and trans characters, most of which are written by trans people.
Reviewers for The Guardian, Barnes & Noble, Insider, and Book Riot highlight some of the same books which transgender characters. These include Everett Maroon's The Unintentional Time Traveler (2014), Pat Schmatz's Lizard Radio (2015), Meredith Russo's If I Was Your Girl (2016), April Daniels' Dreadnought (2017), Anna-Marie McLemore's When the Moon Was Ours (2016), C. B. Lee's Not Your Villain (2017). Barnes & Noble further points to Matthew J. Metzger's Spy Stuff (2016) while Insider highlights Akwaeke Emezi's Pet (2019), Rich Larson's Annex (2018), Amy Rose Capetta's The Brilliant Death (2018), and a collection of stories titled All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages (2018) which are edited by Saundra Mitchell. Book Riot and The Guardian listed 12 other books with transgender characters and themes.[a]
According to a study by Erik Melander in 2005, at least 25% of webcomic creators were female. This percentage was significantly larger than the number of successful women creating print comics at the time, and the number may have been even higher, as a certain percentage of contributors were unknown. In 2015, 63% of the top 30 comic creators on webcomic conglomerate Tapastic were female. In 2016, 42% of the webcomic creators on WEBTOON were female, as was 50% of its 6 million active daily readers. Girls with Slingshots creator Danielle Corsetto stated that webcomics are probably a female-dominated field because there is no need to go through an established publisher. Noelle Stevenson, creator of Nimona and Lumberjanes, noticed that webcomics predominantly feature female protagonists, possibly to "balance out" the content of mainstream media. Corsetto noted that she has never encountered sexism during her career, though Stevenson described some negative experiences with Reddit and 4Chan, websites outside of her usual channels. However, there exist a large amount of openly gay and lesbian comic creators that self-publish their work on the internet. These include amateur works, as well as more "mainstream" works, such as Kyle's Bed & Breakfast. According to Andrew Wheeler from Comics Alliance, webcomics "provide a platform to so many queer voices that might otherwise go undiscovered," and Tash Wolfe of The Mary Sue has a similar outlook on transgender artists and themes.
DC Comics introduced Alysia Yeoh as the first major transgender character written in a contemporary context in a mainstream comic book. She is a fictional character created by writer Gail Simone for the Batgirl ongoing series, and is Barbara Gordon’s best friend, and a transgender woman. They went on to premiere the first ever transgender wedding in Batgirl #45. Marvel Comics has followed suit, with writer Al Ewing adapting popular character Loki to have a fluid gender identity.
Transgender themes are also found in manga. One notable example is Wandering Son, which deals with issues such as being transgender, gender identity, and the beginning of puberty. Gary Groth of Fantagraphics Books said in an interview he licensed Wandering Son because "it's not a typical choice for a manga title published in the U.S. and it's not typical subject matter for comics in general," saying that the subject is "perfectly legitimate ... for literature—or comics." Web comics have also included trans characters, with award-winning series Questionable Content adding trans woman Claire Augustus in comic 2203.
In the 1980s and 1980s, writer, filmmaker, and actor Jake Graf said that he couldn't "find himself in any of the TV or film characters he saw" and called the worst manifestation of this was in the 1999 film, Boys Don't Cry. He called the film the "most horrific representation" which put him off transitioning "for another ten years." He said, when interviewed in 2017, that representation of transgender people is improving from being portrayed negatively or as the "butt of the joke."
In 2013, GLAAD noted a number of films which they felt had positive transgender representation. The organization specifically listed The World According to Garp (1982), Second Serve (1986), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink) (1997), Southern Comfort (2001), Normal (2003), and Transamerica (2005). Bustle also argued that TransAmerica had positive depiction of transgender people.
In 2017, Nikki Reitz of Grand Valley State University examined transgender representation in film and television in an article in the journal, Cinesthesia. Reitz wrote that often trans women are cast as villains in film and television, citing examples of bad representation in the films Sleepaway Camp (1983) and Silence of the Lambs (1991), and further criticizing TV shows such as Law & Order (1990-2010), CSI (2000-2015), NCIS (2003-Present), and The Closer (2005-2012) as doing the same thing. Reitz further criticized the practice of "casting cisgender men in the roles of trans women," in films such as The Danish Girl (2015) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013), while saying that often lauded characters in Orange is the New Black (2013-2019) and Tangerine (2015) fall into existing tropes, while the film Boy Meets Girl (2014) does not, for the most part. Reitz concluded that casting trans actors and actresses to portray transgender characters will "slow the perpetuation of negative stereotypes of trans people" and will cause public opinion of trans women to improve, along with the "quality of life" for such individuals.
In 2012, GLAAD reviewed 102 episodes and storylines of scripted television containing transgender characters, finding that "54% of those were categorized as containing negative representations at the time of their airing" while another 35% ranged from "problematic" to good," with only 12% considered "groundbreaking, fair and accurate" to such an extent that they could win a GLAAD Media Award. The organization specifically criticized CSI (2000-2015), Nip/Tuck (2003-2010), Californication (2007-2014), House of Lies (2012-2016), while praising episodes in shows such as Grey's Anatomy (2005–Present), Cold Case (2003-2010), Two and a Half Men (2003-2015), The Education of Max Bickford (2001-2002), Degrassi (2001-2015), The Riches (2007-2008), and Ugly Betty (2006-2010). The following year, GLAAD stated that while depiction of gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters increased since 2003, depictions of "transgender characters remain comparatively infrequent" and are often problematic. Degrassi continued be praised by GLAAD, and by Bustle for its positive depiction of transgender characters.
In 2019, Michael Rothman of Good Morning America wrote that while Hollywood has work to do when it comes to representation, that "some major TV shows have seamlessly introduced transgender characters" which has made a big impact, as the characters "weren't defined by their gender or sexual orientation at all." In 2020, Business Insider noted that "more TV shows are featuring transgender actors and characters," ending previous trends of transgender characters played by cisgender actors like Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne, with TV series at the forefront of bringing visibility to the transgender community. The article noted this is specifically the case with Laverne Cox starring in Orange Is the New Black (2013-2019), various actors in Pose (MJ Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, and Indya Moore), Hunter Schafer in Euphoria (2019–Present), Tom Phelan in The Fosters (2013-2018), Elliot Fletcher in Shameless (2011–Present) and Josie Totah in Champions (2018), adding that all these actors are "changing the landscape of television." GLAAD, Bustle, and Good Morning America all concurred with the assessment by Business Insider, praising Laverne Cox's character in Orange is the New Black.
GLAAD and Good Morning America noted transgender characters and themes in Supergirl (2015–Present), The OA (2016-2019), RuPaul's Drag Race (2009-Present), Tales of the City (1993), TransGeneration (2005), Ugly Betty (2006-2010), Dirty Sexy Money (2007-2010), America’s Next Top Model (2008), The Real World (2009), Dancing with the Stars (2011), and Glee (2012-2013). Bustle added this, noting the same was the case for the series Transparent (2014-2019), Inside Amy Schumer (2013-2016), and Bad Education (2012-2014).
In January 2011, Wandering Son, directed by Ei Aoki and composed by Mari Okada, began airing on Fuji TV's Noitamina programming block. The series was praised for educating viewers on gender identity and gender dysphoria as many of the main characters are transgender, including Shuichi Nitori and Yoshino Takatsuki. ScreenRant further states that the series accurately portrayed the "strangeness that is puberty" and how this strangeness can "become very dark for trans kids."
In June 2019, Sage Anderson wrote that when it comes to animation, it "feels like an uphill battle to find stories that reflect any positive sense of the trans experience," further saying it is rare that trans characters get "their animated time to shine." He pointed out fifteen characters which are not canon transgender, but fans have felt they connect with the most. This includes Danny Phantom in Danny Phantom (2004-2007), Team Rocket in Pokémon (1997–Present), Hercules in Hercules (1998-1999), Seiya Lights and the Sailor Starlights in Sailor Moon (1992-1997), and Howl in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Other characters which transgender people connected to were Pidge in Voltron: Legendary Defender (2016-2018), Lars Barriga in Steven Universe (2013-2019), Link and Zelda in Legend of Zelda (1986), Sombra in Overwatch (2016-2018), Ms. Frizzle in The Magic School Bus (1994-1997), XJ9/Jenny in My Life As A Teenage Robot (2003-2009), Bow in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018-2020), Bayonetta in Bayonetta (2009-2014), Marco Diaz in Star vs. the Forces of Evil (2015-2019), and Dipper Pines in Gravity Falls (2012-2016). While Bow is confirmed as not heterosexual, series creator Noelle Stevenson said they are "very fond of" the fan interpretation that Bow is transgender.
In November 2019, the LA Times interviewed Jacob Tobia, who voiced a shapeshifting mercenary named Double Trouble in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, noting that this follows on the heels of shows like Danger & Eggs, co-created by a trans woman, Shadi Petosky, which included a non-binary character named Milo, voiced by Tyler Ford, a non-binary advocate and actor. Tobia told the publication that trans and queer people have been working in animation for a long time, especially influencing all-ages animation, and called his role voicing Double Trouble as an extension of that work, the "next step in a much longer journey."
In 2020, The Guardian highlighted five cartoons with the best transgender characters. This included She-Ra and the Princesses of Power with Double Trouble, a trans man named Jewelstar (voiced by Alex Blue Davis), and fan theories which assert that Bow is transgender, themes in Steven Universe with Steven trying to get his chosen family to "use the right name and generally to respect him for who he is," and Nico Colaleo's Too Loud with a boy named Jeffrey coming out as Desiree. Other shows mentioned included Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling where Rachel comes out as transgender and Danger & Eggs, which is described as wonderfully "showing transgender characters, as well as LGBTQ characters in general," including a trans girl named Zadie voiced by Jazz Jennings and a non-binary character named Milo.
In late 2020, the publication, Samantha Allen wrote in them. they had wanted tragsneder characters who are "neither punching bags nor possibility models" and that they found such a character in Natalie, voiced by Josie Totah, in the show, Big Mouth. Totah called this exciting because it could reach an audience that wouldn't be able to "this representation if it was on a different show" and called it "super cool."
In January 2021, RWBY, a anime-influenced series on RoosterTeeth, confirmed May Marigold, voiced by Kdin Jenzen, as transgender on scene. Jenzen told CBR that this was a "moment of trumph," was glad she got support from fans, and praised the show for finding the way to make May's moment not "focus solely on her being her, but about everything happening in the now," with her story relevant to the story's protagonists, moving the plot ahead, and motivating those near her. As such, she called May's story "loud and soft in all the right ways," differernt from other representations of transgender characters in media.
When it comes to theater, it is a mixed bag for trans people. Trans performers have been struggling to break into the musical theater genre despite the fact that theater has "been such a crucial place for the exploration of gender fluidity," and continuing questions over whether cisgender people should play trans characters or not. Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a trans woman, played by both men and women on the stage. La Cienega in Bring It On: The Musical is a transgender teen character. Individual productions alter the identity of characters, such as Angel in Rent who is a drag queen in some productions and a trans woman in others. Adam is a play based on the true story of trans man Adam Kashmiry and his journey from Egypt to Scotland.
In 2017, the Washington Post noted that Taylor Mac insisted that a woman who identifies as genderqueer or transgender play the protagonist, Max, in his play, Hir. Mac said that transgender actors are getting "access to regional theaters across America they never had access to" in the past and said that the play "uses a transgender person as a metaphor for America."
In 2018, K. Woodzick, a genderqueer writer, stated that in theater, if a role is not specifically designated as transgender or non-binary, it is considered cisgender "by default," which is why she started the Non-Binary Monologues Project in 2017, with most of the monologues "written by queer, trans or nonbinary people," connecting their personal experience with their stories.
Charlize Veritas wrote that for transgender the ability to express yourself "in a new and wonderful world is such a gift," which includes playing as your preferred gender in video games. Early examples of transgender characters include Birdo in Super Mario Bros 2, where the manual asserts that Birdo is a boy who "thinks he is a girl", and Poison in Final Fight, who was censored in the English localization. Due to adherence to Nintendo of America's quality standards and translations based on preserving gameplay rather than literal meaning, these characters' identities were altered or erased in translation. Birdo has been recognized by Out and The Advocate for being trans-friendly and the "video gaming world's first transgender character." Poison in the game Final Fight (1989), a trans female villain, who later appeared in Street Fighter, was also noted as one of the first trans characters, even though her creators were criticized for being condescending about her because she is trans.
Some reviewers pointed to other 1990s and 2000s games with transgender characters. This included Flea in Chrono Trigger (1995) who made clear that "gender identity is a fungible thing" and has been described as genderfluid, Quina Quen in Final Fantasy IX (2000), Bridget in Guilty Gear (1998-2017), Guillo in Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean (2003), Eleonor "Leo" Kliesen in Tekken 6 (2009). However, Kleisen's appearance is "deeply androgynous" and debates continue about the sexual identity of the character. There have been recent indie games which have addressed the transgender community, including Hardcoded (2019) and other titles. However, one indie game, Heartbeat (2018) was criticized after it appeared to mock suicide of transgender people and the series creator made a number of transphobic tweets, leading some of the those who worked on the game to distance themselves from it.
In November 2014, an action role-playing video game, Dragon Age: Inquisition was released. The game introduced a transgender character named Cremisius "Krem" Aclassi who was born female, but presents as a man. Some called Krem one of the best trans characters in video games and praised him as a positive transmasculine character. One reviewer also pointed out that 2017 game Dream Daddy fulfilled the "unfortunate gaps" of Dragon Age: Inquisition, but that this representation was still limited. A writer for Dragon Age: Inquisition, Patrick Weekes, explained that the idea for Krems was formed a few years earlier, with one of the requests from fans that BioWare, which produced the series, to create transgender and genderqueer characters. After that point, Weekes and other employees discussed how to do this, with the character having to "belong and serve a purpose in the game," rather than just ticking off a box, and they decided that Krem fit well into the role as a lieutenant of Iron Bull, who is trans. Weekes further explained that Krem's status as a trans man "could emphasize Bull's character by opening up discussions of Qunari gender roles," with the character specially defined and drafts of the character passed to his friends in the genderqueer community to get their feedback. He said that BioWare is looking for feedback to do better with characters in other games. Kotaku hoped that more studios follow the example of the game and have similar characters in their games.
In September 2015, Destiny: The Taken King a major expansion for Bungie's first-person shooter, Destiny was released. The titular character in this game, Oryx, is trans man. Polygon asked why gaming publications had not discussed this, noting that on paper this is "a huge moment for advancing transgender representation within our medium" but that this is not acknowledged within the game, only hidden away on the show's website. As such, they argued that while this is a positive, it can't be praised because the fact Oryx is transgender is hidden away.
In September 2017, South Park: The Fractured but Whole was released, a game lets players pick "female, transgender, or cisgender characters." The same year, Hainly Abrams appeared in Mass Effect: Andromeda and became the first trans character of the Mass Effect franchise. In December 2017, a trailer for Catherine: Full Body, which would premiere in February 2019, was released by the game's developer. Upon seeing the trailer, some trans gamers were concerned that the game would "include a transphobic character," noting that on the game's website, the character, Rin, is "implied to be transgender." In 2018, The Advovate noted that a waitress named Erica is revealed to be transgender in one ending of the game.
In September 2019, a free DLC chapter of the platforming video game Celeste was released, acting as an epilogue to the main story and adds 100 new screens. Some fans speculated that the protagonist Madeline is transgender because she is a Pride and Transgender flag is near her computer monitor, while on her nightstand is a photograph with a woman where she has "notably shorter hair" and a some believed that a prescription pill bottle shown nearby is "medication for the anxiety and depression" or is drugs for hormone replacement therapy. However, some of saying this just represents her allyship or argue that the fact that developers have not confirmed this relegates it to queerbaiting. Furthermore, this reveal caused discussion and debate, with the wiki for the show taking a "firm stance against Madeline being a trans character," and the creator remained silent on the issue, lading many to "refuse to accept it as canon." Laura Dale of SYFY added that while there is "room for characters who are never explicitly stated as trans," Celeste never hints at Madeline being trans, only "dropping a flag at the end of the game with no other context" and that this could have happened because developers want to walk a line between those who want better representation and "bigots who might play their game." Dale concluded that when the trans status of a character is ambiguous it means that "trans fans can't fully get excited about representation," and that she wishes that the creative team for the game talks about it in some capacity. On November 5, 2020, the game's creator, Maddy Thorson, came out as trans and confirmed that Madeline is trans, adding that it is "painfully obvious," calling the creation of Celeste realizing the truth about themselves.[b] Thorson also said that they don't blame anyone for criticizing how Madeline's transness was represented, but that they needed time before talking openinly about it, talked about the value of trans representation, argued that "Madeline’s transness is meaningfully intertwined with her story," and added that they worked with transgender people to add in small details to her room, while admitting that they would write the story differently now, calling the game one "written and designed by a closeted trans person."
In September 2019, Borderlands 3, an action role-playing first-person shooter video game was first released. The game has non-binary, gay, pansexual, and straight characters, which Danny Homan, senior writer at the game's developer, Gearbox Software, said that since their goal is "entertain the world," their characters should reflect that world, with writers trying to be aware and respectful of people of all backgrounds. In the game specifically, FL4K is "nonbinary, omnisexual and omniflirtatious," Zane Flynt is pansexual man, Lorelei is non-binary and transgender, as noted by the Washington Post.
In June 2020, action-adventure game titled The Last of Us Part II was released. Paste argued that while the game tries to tell a story "inclusive of trans identities" with characters like Lev, a trans man, he "is continuously placed into varying degrees of violence" during the game as he tries to stand up during the game, and concluded that his story isn't made for trans people but to "give cisgender players a space to connect with their guilt and pity for trans people." Even so, the magazine praised Ian Alexander, a trans actor, for voicing the character, and praised the character generally, even as they called the game a "reproduction of violence on the trans individual."
Between August and September 2020, the video game Tell Me Why was released in three episodes for Microsoft Windows and Xbox One. It would be praised for having a major playable transgender character, Tyler, which is voiced by a trans man named August Black, with the game developed with input from GLAAD. Many reviewers would say that the game "made history," "stands out," is a milestone for LGBT representation, for featuring Tyler as a transgender character. Black told Axios that he is honored to voice the character, saying the character has taught him a lot, adding that "in a way I feel like I also showed him a thing or two" and that backlash from the game doesn't scare him, arguing that "people should get used to trans representation. However, some gamers, like Mia Moore, criticized the narrative's "positive depictions of police officers," calling it "cop propaganda," and were frustrated that one indigenous character is a cop.
In December 2020, Cyberpunk 2077, an action role-playing video game was released. It faced backlash for its stereotypes of transgender people, with some people even boycotting the game altogether. One critic said that no matter how much trans people tell cisgender people about the problems with the game, concerns of trans people "never outweigh cis pleasures." George Borsari of ScreenRant wrote that the game problematic portrayals trans people with pronouns of a character tied to their voice pitch, no ability to choose non-binary pronouns, and "a lack of trans story characters." Bosari pointed out there also issues in the advertising for the game before its release and noted that in the past CD Projekt Red has interacted with the trans community in a problematic manner.
There are various transgender musicians, who have made their mark on the music industry. This includes Shea Diamond, KC Ortiz, Ah Mer Ah Su, Anohni, and She King (who takes the stage name of Shawnee Talbot). Furthermore, Skylar Kergil, The Cliks (especially a trans male singer named Lucas Silveira), Ryan Cassata, Kim Petras, Rae Spoon, and Katastrophe have also been recognized as accomplished musicians. The same was said to be the case for Black Cracker, Audrey Zee Whitesides, and Mina Caputo.
In 2016, the singer and guitarist of Against Me!, an American punk rock band, Laura Jane Grace burned her birth certificate on stage to protest discrimination against transgender people in North Carolina. The band's album Transgender Dysphoria Blues deals with gender dysphoria, following Grace's gender transition and coming out. Grace, part of one of the most "premier punk groups" had come out as transgender in 2012 and was praised for honestly approaching trans issues in Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
In 2020, Teddy Geiger, transgender musicians lauded for changing the music industry, gave an interview to NBC News. She said that she found she was transgender when she tried to get treatment for her obsessive compulsive disorder and publicly stated on Instagram she was trans in October 2017, getting positive support from her family. In 2018, she released an album named LillyAnna, the name she had used on chatrooms, anonyomously, before coming out as transgender. Geieger said that since ten she grew as a person, saying that her Sharkbait single is a reflection of her new voice.
In January 2021, pioneering trans performer, Sophie, died unexpectedly. Jessica Dunn Rovinelli of The Guardian stated that Sophie's electronic dance tracks "freed femininity and bodies from their usual contexts and let them dance with abandon," including albums like Bipp in 2013. She further called the music "intensely physical" and noted that Sophie's single, Lemonade/Hard established a sound which "influenced virtually every aspect of mainstream pop music since," and praised the single It’s OK to Cry as "revelatory," and dissolving fake and real hierarchies. She further said that the album, Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides is more "more far-reaching" than her other albums. Other publications said that Sophie pushed the boundaries of pop music, was the "architect of future pop," and was an "experimental pop producer."
In February 2021, the BBC Archive Twitter account shared a clip of Wendy Carlos, in 1970, showing how to use the Moog synthesizer, who had disguised herself as a cisgender man as she was fearful, at the time, "of being publicly seen as a woman." Carlos came out publicly as trans in 1979. Carlos was a "classical composer and instrumentalist" who came to fame with her 1968 album, Switched-On Bach while also composing music for A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and other films.
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