Introduction to Media Tropes of Trans women
This is definitely ahead of schedule, but when stuff upsets me, I want to write about it, and I want to share it. This post is about a few of the many “tropes” that are used to portray trans women in the media and have made their way deeply into the public “understanding” of trans women, and trans persons more generally. In this post I’ll discuss three: the deceptive, pathetic, and artificial transsexual tropes.
1. Deceptive Transsexual
Deceivers successfully “pass” as women: no one can tell their trans status without the trans person telling. The idea is that these women attempt to deceive and seduce straight men: they’re sexual predators, preying on unsuspecting men. These trans women are always “stealth,” “hiding” their trans status.
Cases in point: Dil in The Crying Game (1992), and Det. Einhorn in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994). Notice that these characters are almost always played by cis women. (Jaye Davidson as Dil is a cis man.)
We see this with the (Trigger Warning!) Jerry Springer phenomenon: episodes like “I’m really a man!” where trans women come out to their long time straight male partners (notice the heteronormativity: it’s never a trans woman coming out to her lesbian lover) for shock value. The focus is on the “real” sex of the trans woman (ostensibly, male). And the focus is always on how the cis male is afraid that he’s suddenly “gay” because he’s “really” in love with a man. (The people on these shows are so often starved for attention, and have no idea that what they’re letting happen to them is extremely offensive and damaging to other trans persons.)
Trans women simultaneously threaten many things about those with privilege, especially cis male, heternormative privilege. Men in love with trans women are not gay: they’re heterosexual. They’re in love with a woman, and in love with them qua woman. Gay men love men. It’s why portrayals such as Luther in Hedwig and the Angry Inch is absurd: gay men aren’t (typically) attracted to trans women, they’re attracted to men (though this can be cis or trans men). The key is that the deceiver is always portrayed as sexually attractive. And the climax of these portrayals is always the “reveal” or revelation of the trans woman’s trans status, usually done by (often forcibly) exposing male genitals. One form of assault commonly perpetrated against trans women is lifting their skirts or dresses, or otherwise disrobing them to “find out” what she has between her legs.
2. Pathetic Transsexual
As Julia Serano puts it, there’s an intense contradiction between the deceptive transsexual trope and the pathetic transsexual trope. The deceiver trope portrays the trans woman as dominant and powerful, still full of “male” energy. But the pathetic trope portrays trans women as weak, meek, and ignorant: ignorant in how to be a woman. Or, at least, that they’re bad at “playing” at being a woman. Consequently, while the “passing” deceiver is dangerous, due to her ability to seduce and trick unsuspecting straight (white) males, the pathetic transsexual is harmless. Pathetic transsexuals do not “pass” as women, and they’re viewed as sad, tragic characters. We see this, for example, in their poor makeup and style skills, as well as the inability to walk in heels, even for characters who’ve transitioned years ago (Bree in Transamerica, for example). These people are portrayed as seeking extremely feminine gender presentations, but continue to display extremely masculine traits and mannerisms. We’re perhaps supposed to respect them as a person, or as a courageous person, but not as a woman. The key here is that the pathetic transsexual is never portrayed as sexually attractive.
The media portrayal of trans women always focuses on people with a desire for ultra feminine dress, appearance, and behaviour. But that’s only a minority of real trans women. Most trans women are just women, and most women aren’t ultra feminine in their dress, appearance, or behaviour. The possibility of a butch trans woman is viewed as a contradiction: something impossible. How could a trans woman have masculine characteristics? Well, cis women may be butch, so why can’t a trans woman? (CAMH, in their illustrious history, is known for having turned away any “supposedly” trans women who displayed even the slightest masculine attributes: must not have short hair, must wear dresses, must have an obviously feminine name, must wear makeup, etc.)
Moreover, the portrayal is almost always of a trans woman in the act of dressing (feminine, of course) or putting on makeup. And it’s never a neutral version of makeup, like most women, it’s always an ultra feminine version. This relates to the conflation of trans women and drag queens: they’re nothing alike. The point of makeup for drag is to stand out; the point of makeup for women is generally to blend in, especially for many trans women. Seriously, next time you see reporting on, especially the life story or struggles (pathetic trope), trans women, notice what images the media uses: do they use these deceiver and vanity images? Do they show her getting dressed or putting on makeup (usually lipstick)? Once you know what to look for, you’ll see it everywhere. Heck, just watch the opening scene of Transamerica (oh, don’t get me started; let’s save that for another post).
3. Artificial transsexual
We can call this the “artificial” trope: trans women aren’t real, and they need all sorts of tricks and medical intervention in order to remotely “pass” as women. This includes the focus on facial feminization surgery (where things like masculine bone characteristics are removed and better resemble female characteristics), breast implants (or the use of falsies), vocal training, and makeup. The extreme focus on “before and after” images is a manifestation of the artificiality trope. Even serious and respectful discussions, like Oprah’s interview of Jennifer Boylan opened with scenes of women dressing and putting on makeup, and interspersed “before” pictures of Jennifer (this is extremely offensive, for what it’s worth: never ever ask to see pictures of what a trans person looked like when they were younger (pre-transition)). The stories of transitions almost never focus on the social and emotional journeys of the women; it’s almost always on the medical and surgical procedures. We should remember that these latter procedures, if they happen at all (and it’s only a minority that go through with any form of surgery) come very late in any transition. The media, though, portrays them as the central aspect of a transition.
One of the worst parts of the media portrayal of trans women is that when trans women are chosen for portrayal, the media seeks out people who fit the stereotype that the media has helped create. They want people who will show them how they put on their makeup and “become” a woman; they want people who will talk about all the medical interventions they’ve used; they want people who have the traditional narrative. In fact, the media will actively avoid those who don’t acquiesce to these features. They’ll keep looking until someone agrees. I know of many amazing trans women who have been asked to participate in a media portrayal, but were passed by because they wouldn’t agree to these deeply offensive portrayals.
“No, I won’t show you before and after photos. No, I don’t want to talk about my genital status. No, I won’t let you take a picture of me getting dressed or putting on makeup. You know what? I don’t even wear makeup very often. No, I will not put on a dress for you; I never wear dresses.” You don’t hear from these people, even though they’re the majority of trans women.
I think that this is enough for this post. There’s more, and in the future, I’ll discuss specific examples of terrible media portrayals. I’ll be starting a weekly media round-up where I’ll link a few media stories and include a little of my commentary.