Reel Identities: Transgender Representation in Film and TV

The following post was originally published in the University Observer Vol. XXII, Issue V, and was later posted online on the paper’s website.

Following the backlash The Danish Girl has received for casting Eddie Redmayne as a lead, David Monaghan looks at how trans people are represented within film and television.

2015 was the year of trans. We saw a surge of support for trans rights as Caitlyn Jenner came out on social media to a predominantly positive and supportive public, later winning the Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year award. On home turf, the Irish government passed the Gender Recognition Bill, allowing Ireland’s trans citizens the right to self-identify without the need to provide testimony from psychiatrists or doctors. And more recently, in Northern Ireland a Green Party candidate has become the first transgender person to stand for election within the state. Most spectacularly is the fact that a film that deals with trans issues has reached the Oscars: Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl has landed four nominations: for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design.

The battle for recognition at such a prestigious awards ceremony was difficult, and not without controversy. A lot of criticisms levelled at the film stem from Eddie Redmayne’s casting as the historical Lili Elbe, the first woman to undergo sex reassignment surgery. He joins the ranks of Dallas Buyers Club’s Jared Leto and Transparent’s Jeffrey Tambor under cisgender actors cast in transgender roles. To many trans activists such a move is considered a joke, and sends the message out that in order to succeed, even in a world where trans people can finally be depicted in mainstream media, you must still be cisgender.

Of course, there are exceptions to this ‘rule.’ Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox is a trans actress who plays an openly trans person within the show. Her character, Sophia Burset, deals with the stigma and challenges that come with being trans in a despotic and often harsh prison environment: she puts up with inappropriate conversation from fellow inmates, such as prison chef Red who tells her that she could never accept a child of hers who would make such a transition. In season three she faces her biggest stress as she is assaulted in her salon by embittered prisoners. The threat of violence is an unfortunate reality for trans peoples worldwide. Burset’s problems are viewed as somewhat more valid than that of Redmayne’s as Elbe or Tambor’s as Maura Pfefferman, as Cox has experienced first-hand the hardships people face when expressing their gender identity, while the former two come to their work with a degree of separation from the subject matter. It is worth noting, however, that they both depict characters who are in the process of transitioning, and spend a portion of their respective pieces presenting as male. An argument can be made for their casting with this in mind.

Despite the drawbacks listed above, it is a step forward to acknowledge trans people through the medium of film without the need for cloak and dagger storytelling. In years previous, trans people were treated as the butt of the joke. When they did appear, their stories were not treated with the respect or gravitas that they deserved. In a strange coincidence, the rise in support for the trans rights movement happened concurrently with a sudden boom in Irish cinema, with Ireland bagging a total of nine nominations at the Academy Awards this year. Irish director Neil Jordan won an Oscar in 1993 under the Best Original Screenplay category for his film The Crying Game, which deals with a multitude of social issues, among them issues of gender: one of the characters within the narrative is trans. Stephen Rea’s Fergus is overcome with revulsion when he discovers that his love interest, Jaye Davidson’s Dil, is a transwoman, her gender identity reduced to a mere plot-twist. This does not mark the only time Jordan has dealt with trans representation: his 2005 adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto treads similar ground.

The film centres on Patrick Braden, later Patricia ‘Kitten’ Braden, and her journey from rural 1970s Cavan to the bustling metropolis of London in a strange quest to find her mother. The word ‘transgender’ is never uttered however, possibly due to Patricia’s inability to receive education on the transgender movement and/or the social ignorance of such a topic in the 1970s: “I am a boy, not a girl!” Patricia’s adoptive mother forces her to say. While Patricia says she is female and presents as such, different pronouns and descriptions are used to refer to the character throughout. Her childhood friends use female pronouns and are fine with her style of dress, while other characters, such as the deeply-closeted singer-cum-republican Billy Hatchet, call her ‘Patrick’ at times. Some characters see Patricia as male, while others see her as female. In a scene set in a London nightclub, a man flirts with Patricia before exclaiming, “Christ, you’re a bloke,” to which Patricia responds, “Ten out of ten, Sherlock.” When magician Bertie Vaughan falls for Patricia, she is forced to tell him “I’m not a girl.” He responds by saying, “I knew that, princess.” Film critic Roger Ebert spoke about this, writing: “[Patricia] doesn’t care if you think [she’s] male or female, as long as you think [she’s] Kitten.”

Indeed, as the narrative progresses, it becomes less a realistic story of coming out as trans, and more a quest of individuality and acceptance in an inherently oppressive society. While the film fails as a trans narrative, it succeeds in depicting the struggle of being different within a suffocating space. This film, and the earlier Crying Game, are indicative of what trans people had often come to expect from cinema before the surge in support for the movement: stories where trans identities are not concrete or treated with enough gravitas. Exceptions like the biographical Boys Don’t Cry did exist, however, offering hope to a misrepresented community.

But now trans representation is at a point, surely, that suggests we are a more welcoming and accepting society? Perhaps not. Recently, Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes and made remarks about Caitlyn Jenner, using her old name in the process. He also joked about what Jeffrey Tambor does in his role as Maura. Trans people, alongside other members of the LGBTQ+ community, are still treated as the butt of the joke within major Hollywood narratives, as a September 2015 YouTube video from GLAAD, titled ‘Hollywood Must Do Better,’ demonstrates. It shows clips from films such as Ted 2, The Wolf of Wall Street, Grown Ups 2, Instructions Not Included, Anchorman 2, and a host of others, that feature trans people as caricatures or walking punchlines (or in some extreme cases, punching bags). The unfortunate thing is that all of these films were made within the last five years, telling us once again that, while progress has been made, there is still a long way to go in creating better representation for trans people within the medium.

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