Halle Berry was the latest Hollywood cisgender actor who thought she could and should be able to portray a transgender person in a film. She said in an interview that she thought she could “experience that world, understand that world” in reference to playing a transgender man. As if this ignorant guffaw wasn’t bad enough, she couldn’t even get pronouns or terminology correct during the interview, and her overwhelming concern seemed to be that she would have to cut her hair short. Oh, Halle. You sweet, misguided fool.
I appreciate the apology she issued soon after the backlash, but the role should never have been pitched to her, and she should never have considered it. There is an irony in how easily transgender folks are dismissed because people don’t think we know ourselves well enough to be transgender, yet there are some cisgender folks so sure they could understand what it’s like to be transgender that they could enter our world by playing dress up and getting a haircut. It’s 2020 and Berry should have known better, but her industry is notorious for this. The media is both the cause and the solution to this problem.
To get a better understanding of the history of transgender representation in film and television, please watch Laverne Cox’s documentary, Disclosure. The Netflix film is made by, and for, transgender people, because when is the last time we were given the time or space to tell our own stories? The film highlights several transgender actors and activists as they examine how transgender people are portrayed in the media, and how that has impacted society’s views of transgender people as well as our own ideas of ourselves.
The film is a must-see for everyone, however, because cisgender folks need to know that the way we are portrayed on screen is rarely accurate. The biases cisgender people hold because of this negative and false representation hurts the transgender community.
Laverne Cox is a special kind of brilliant. Her intelligence, vulnerability, and ability to create a safe space for other transgender folks to tell their stories about how they saw, and continue to see, transgender people represented was both heartbreaking and validating for me.
As a kid, I knew I was not just a girl, but it wasn’t until I allowed myself to wonder if I was a transgender man that I knew I wasn’t that, either. Finally, in my late 30s I found the language to know I am nonbinary. I am not female or male but a mix of both. On most days, I feel genderless. Yet we live in a binary world, and with that is the idea people must be male or female and then follow guidelines that reinforce stereotypical gender roles and expression. I, a queer, transgender person, got these messages too — so for a long time I chose to fight and suppress authenticity rather than embrace it.
I tried so hard to find others like myself in books and movies, but I was constantly left with the feeling that I was either never enough of one gender or that I was too much of both. Media portrays transgender folks as being laughable cross-dressers, deviant tricksters, or disgusting. Some of the common played-out tropes include: cisgender men dressing as women to be funny, transgender women being attacked or killed while selling their bodies, transgender people being the crisis and emotional burden of their loved ones, and the idea that the only good stories worth telling are those about transgender women. Transgender men and trans masculine folks are largely underrepresented in TV and film. And because 80% of Americans say they have never met a transgender person, according to a survey done by GLAAD, they don’t have much reason to challenge these tropes.
I craved seeing masculinity in females and was drawn to tough, tomboy characters, and to characters who pretended to be boys in order to fit in. But nothing I ever saw was right, or felt like me or what could be my life. Instead, I watched people in movies feel either revulsion when they realized they had developed intimate relationships with a transgender person (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) or relief when they realized the person they had feels for was actually just pretending to be the gender they are not (Just One of the Guys). Both of these films were examined in Disclosure, and are pointed to as mirrors to the way society treats transgender people in real life.
It also sets up a frustrating and dangerous cycle when transgender people like me tell our stories and demand to be seen as actual human beings and not caricatures that can be laughed at or dismissed. It’s easy to see transgender people as the butt of a joke, and in many ways film and television have encouraged that; it’s much harder to let go of biases or comfort to realize transgender people are not just in drag and playing make-believe or out to trick anyone. Homophobia and transphobia are strong; the proof is in the fact that hate crimes against LGBTQIA+ folks are on the rise. Add in racism, and you will quickly learn that Black transgender women are killed in disproportionate numbers.
So, thanks but no thanks, Hollywood. Stop trying to “experience our world” and start listening to the experiences of actual transgender people. Start hiring transgender actors if you want to see the world through our eyes. Because when the director yells “cut,” society needs to see that the transgender character they got to know, understand a little better, and maybe even love is still a transgender person.
It should be just as easy to praise trans folks as it is cis folks when it comes to giving awards for our stories. Our lives are worth more than jokes and shocking reveals, and media needs to do a much better job of representing us with positive and factual visibility.
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