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Trans Stories Onscreen - An Evolution

Shows like Euphoria, Pose, and Orange is the New Black, and films like Tangerine and A Fantastic Woman, have ushered in a golden age of trans representation. But the history of trans and gender non-conforming people on screen has largely been dominated by jokes and harmful stereotypes. This has played a huge role in shaping cultural and political attitudes, as well as creating some of the most common misconceptions about trans lives and identities. Here’s our Take on how trans representation has evolved over the years and where there’s still room to grow.

TRANSCRIPT

We’re living in a golden age of transgender representation. Recent shows like Orange Is the New Black, Pose, and Euphoria, and films like Tangerine and A Fantastic Women, have given us nuanced, diverse transgender characters in stories that treat them with sensitivity and purpose. But this change has occurred slowly. The history of trans and gender non-conforming people on screen has largely been dominated by jokes and harmful stereotypes. And this has played a huge role in shaping cultural and political attitudes—as well as creating some of the most common misconceptions about trans lives and identities.

From making gender nonconformity into a punchline to depicting trans people as violent killers, Hollywood has a lot to make up for. Here’s our take on how this trans representation has evolved over the years, from punchlines to real people—and where there’s still room to grow.

The “Man In A Dress”

One of the oldest—and most frequent—depictions of gender nonconformity has been the trope known as “man in a dress.” For years, the mere sight of a man in women’s clothing seemed to be enough to get a rise out of the audience. Male actors have been crossdressing on screen for the sake of comedy since the silent film era, as comedians from Charlie Chaplin, to Flip Wilson, to Milton Berle turned breaking gender norms into a punchline.

Drag in comedy has sometimes been a way to challenge those norms. In 1959’s Some Like It Hot, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play jazz musicians who are on the run from mobsters, disguising themselves as women. Often regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time, the film uses crossdressing to critique gender dynamics, as the two men confront the everyday challenges of being women.

Jerry: Dirty old man…I just got pinched in the elevator.”

Joe: “Now you know how the other half lives.” - Some Like It Hot

The same can be said for 1982’s Tootsie, which finds Dustin Hoffman playing a struggling actor who pretends to be a woman to land work. In his guise as Dorothy, Hoffman’s character for the first time really sees the rampant sexism that his female coworkers and friends have long been experiencing…

Michael Dorsey: “I don’t like the way he condescends to me either. Calls me sweetheart, calls me honey, doesn’t even know my name.” - Tootsie

… and he boldly stands up to his male coworkers. But while the character’s growth speaks to the value of men learning from and embracing their more feminine sides, it also presents femininity as inherently weak by implying it needs a man to defend it. And much of the film’s humor comes from that ironic juxtaposition.

At the core of the “man in a dress” is deception. For these men, dressing in drag is a lie, undertaken as a means to an end—and hijinks ensue whenever someone comes close to discovering who they really are. This trope isn’t entirely limited to men, but women crossdressing for comedy is generally less common. As such, it’s a ruse steeped in misogyny: The men hide themselves by adopting stereotypical depictions of femininity like vanity, flightiness, lack of intelligence, and overall weakness to make others find them unthreatening, allowing them to get what they want.

This trope has remained especially pervasive in comedies starring black men, who have long been put in dresses for an easy laugh. Putting men in a dress is seen as a means of emasculation, and it’s a gag that many actors and critics have increasingly begun to challenge as not only sexist but racist, symbolically disempowering black men.

Dave Chapelle: “I don’t need to wear no dress to be funny—what am I, Milton Berle?” - The Oprah Winfrey Show

As Professor Todd Boyd told NPR, “I don’t want to see any more black men in dresses. That is dead. There are already too many forces at work in society attempting to emasculate black men as it is.”

In her 2007 book, Whipping Girl, author Julia Serano coined the term “transmisogyny,” an intersectional form of sexism she describes as rooted in heterosexual men’s “fear of being seen as feminine.” The mockery of trans women allows those male audiences to process that fear, and to feel affirmed in their superiority. Transmisogynist depictions assuage any perceived threats to their heterosexuality by suggesting that trans people aren’t real.

Crossdressing, drag, and trans identity have long intersected throughout the history of the LGBT community—and for many, drag can be an empowering gateway to a better understanding of your gender identity. Groundbreaking documentaries like 1968’s The Queen, about the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, and 1991’s Paris is Burning, about the queer Ballroom subculture in New York, debunked the idea that trans women were just men in costume.

Venus Xtravaganza: “I don’t feel that there’s anything man-ish about me, except maybe what I might have between me down there.” - Paris is Burning

Meanwhile, films like The Birdcage and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert may have gotten comedic mileage out of casting cisgender and even straight actors as flamboyant drag performers, but they also earned plaudits for doing so thoughtfully, portraying their characters as real, feeling people who were quirky and funny for who they are, not what they wear.

Recently, we’ve seen a near-total rejection of the “man in a dress” trope. In 2012, ABC quickly canceled the sitcom called Work It, about two men who disguise themselves as women in order to land jobs in a recession, after the show faced swift, near-universal backlash before it even premiered—a marked shift in public tolerance for even the idea of those kinds of depictions. Increasingly, the “man in a dress” doesn’t seem like a laughing matter. In 2016, Louie Anderson won an Emmy for playing a woman on Baskets—a gender-bending performance he approached sincerely, never turning it into a joke. Meanwhile, the success of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and We’re Here have helped to bring drag fully back into the domain of queer culture, reclaiming it as a powerful, artistic expression rather than a tool of mockery and oppression. It’s no longer seen as a means of hilarious deception, but of living your truth.

The Crossdressing Killer

A darker trans depiction has commonly seen these characters used not to provoke laughter, but terror. Gender non-conformance has long been portrayed as immoral, criminal, and a sign of mental illness. This reached its nadir with the media coverage around 1950s serial killer Ed Gein, when Life Magazine falsely claimed that Gein had killed women and skinned them because he wanted to be one. Gein’s story ended up directly inspiring classic horror movie villains like Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill and Leatherface of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, creating the popular myth of the disturbed transsexual.

Clarice Starling: “He’s making himself a woman suit, Mr. Crawford, out of real women!” - Silence of the Lambs

Gein was also the model for one of horror’s most depraved villains. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho introduced Norman Bates as a confused, cross-dressing murderer, helping to cement in the public consciousness that gender non-conformance was a sign of instability, deviance, and danger. The film does attempt to differentiate Norman’s condition.

Dr. Fred Richmond: A man who dresses in women’s clothing in order to achieve a sexual satisfaction is a transvestite. He was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive.” - Psycho

Yet it also paints gender-nonconformance and mental illness as inextricably connected—much as Hitchock did 30 years earlier in 1930’s Murder! whose own cross-dressing villain, Handel Fane, is portrayed as overtly effeminate. It’s also later revealed that he’s of mixed race, making him a cypher for multiple social anxieties.

Psycho inspired a long legacy of imitators, beginning with William Castle’s Homicidal in 1961, and carrying through Brian De Palma’s 1980 Hitchcock homage Dressed to Kill. The trope of the cross-dressing killer fostered longstanding prejudices that something was wrong with queer people—that they were mentally ill, undeserving of empathy, and potentially deadly.

As writer K.E. Sullivan pointed out in an essay for Jump Cut, both the “man in a dress” and the “cross-dressing killer” rely on the revelation of a character’s supposedly true nature. Only these gender nonconforming villains don’t “hide or empower a clever heterosexual man but [reveal] a monstrous gender-and sexual-deviant.” 1994’s Ace Ventura combines comic ridicule and villainization in its reveal of Police Lieutenant Einhorn’s former identity as NFL player Ray Finkle. And even when they’re not portrayed as murderers or psychopaths, a character’s transgender identity can still be used to provoke shock. When 1992’s The Crying Game featured the revelation that Jaye Davidson’s Dil is actually a transgender woman, critics likened it to the twist in Psycho, reinforcing the idea that it was inherently unsettling.

In part due to these kinds of representations, to this day transgender people live under a cloud of mistrust, as seen in the political attempts to bar them from jobs, medical care, homeless shelters—and even public restrooms. And sadly, this trope has not been totally eradicated on-screen either, as seen in the psychopathic trans character CeCe on Pretty Little Liars. In reality, of course, trans people are much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators—and more recent portrayals have reflected that they have more to fear from society than the other way around.

Elektra: “The NYPD doesn’t care about a murdered transsexual. We’ve never been treated with respect or dignity.” - Pose

But most importantly, Hollywood seems to be waking up to the idea that trans people are just that: people.

The Transgender Tipping Point

One of the biggest problems with onscreen trans representation is that it has long excluded actual trans people. In Classic Hollywood, where all queerness had to be coded in subtext and innuendo to get around the rigid Hays Code, it was rare to even get a semi-respectful portrayal of gender non-conformance with cis actors, like Katherine Hepburn’s cross-dressing character in Sylvia Scarlett.

One of the first films to earnestly tackle transgender issues was inspired by early transgender icon Christine Jorgensen, an ex-GI who received gender affirmation surgery in 1951 and became one of the most talked-about women in the nation. But despite being a popular performer herself, she didn’t get to star in her own story. Instead, it was adapted as 1953’s Glen or Glenda, which starred its director Ed Wood—a cisgender man who largely ignored Jorgensen’s story and made it about his own transvestism. The very slow movement toward more positive trans representation spawned critically lauded performances. These were sympathetic portrayals—and along with films like Trans America and The Danish Girl, they brought more grounded stories with a compassionate perspective of trans resilience to a mainstream audience. But they also drew increasing criticism for their casting of cisgender actors, who were accused of appropriating trans lives and stories, while denying opportunities for actual trans people to tell these stories.

There were some notable exceptions through the years: Trans actress Holly Woodlawn became the first to inspire an organized Oscar campaign for her performance in 1970’s Trash. Trans actress and club performer The Lady Chablis gained a wide following through appearing as herself in Clint Eastwood’s 1997 film adaptation of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. And trans director Silas Howard—who would later go on to direct for Transparent and Pose—made his debut with 2001’s By Hook or By Crook, a buddy film about the relationship between two trans men.

Then, in 2013, came what TIME Magazine would later call “the transgender tipping point,” heralded by the arrival of trans actress Laverne Cox on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. Cox’s character Sophia wasn’t a joke, a psychopath, or a cliche. She was a real trans person facing genuine struggles.

Sophia Burset: “Listen doc, I need my dosage. I’ve given five years, $80,000, and my freedom for this. I’m finally who I’m supposed to be.” - Orange Is the New Black

She was also given a life—including a backstory that revealed her journey toward her identity, and the difficulty she faced in opening up to her wife. Although Sophia’s trans identity overlaps with her criminality, given that she committed fraud to finance her transition, she’s also given empathetically human motivation for breaking the law—and throughout, she wants nothing more than to get her family back.

Cox’s lauded performance presaged even more powerful and nuanced representation in shows like Sense8, The OA, and Euphoria, and critically acclaimed films like Tangerine and the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, all of which also cast trans actors in trans roles. Amazon’s Transparent, though starring a cis man, made a trans woman’s late-in-life transition the focus of an honest story about the internal and external battles that trans people face. This growing movement reached its most revolutionary moment with Pose, a series that assembled TV’s largest-ever cast of trans actors then centered its story on Blanca, a trans woman who transcends being a joke, social pariah, or sexual object to be a leading light in her community.

When we first meet Blanca, she’s just learned she’s HIV positive. We soon learn she’s also been rejected by her family. But rather than telling a story focused on struggle or defeat, Pose finds Blanca using the time she has left to lift others up, dedicating herself to being a mother to her chosen family. And although Blanca faces adversity, Pose is more interested in her motivations and how she sees the world than in how the world sees her. And this feels like a new beginning.

We’re only a few years past that transgender tipping point, but it’s already done much to counteract decades of damage. Faced with growing public outcry, actresses like Scarlett Johansson and Halle Berry have backed out of trans roles, while other cisgender stars who have taken them in the past have said they wouldn’t do so again.

Promisingly, GLAAD found that trans representation on TV increased to 38 characters in 2019, up from just 26 in 2018. And in 2020, Netflix released the documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, an eye-opening look at the history of trans representation that has exposed a broader audience to the many ways this community has been horribly mistreated in film and television—and the way that trans people have always been an indelible part of our culture.

Susan Stryker: “Trans and cinema have grown up together. It’s like we have always been present on-screen.” - Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen

Yet even as Hollywood increasingly acknowledges trans people and stories, the fight for visibility continues. While there are more trans women on screen than ever, trans men, trans people of color, and non-binary people still remain underrepresented. Promisingly, when these characters do show up, their stories aren’t always just about their gender identities. Increasingly, they’re just one facet of their lives, unique yet unremarkable. At long last, we’re seeing the trans community for who they really are.

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