Edie Freeman looks at the troubling representation of transgender people in film and media.
Content Warning: Discussions of transphobia, homophobia, sexual assault and violence
My walks home after dark can be jarring and confusing. On the one hand I need to be vigilant and concerned for my own safety, but on the other hand I don’t want to be perceived as a threat to other women who are walking alone. I worry if my footfalls are too heavy or my size is too imposing. I try to make myself smaller and try to be lighter on my feet. I try to make myself seem less threatening because the last thing I want to do is make other women feel unsafe or uncomfortable. But at the same time, I feel like I’m making myself more vulnerable. I feel caught in flux between being perceived as a target or a threat.
I have something to disclose: I am Transgender. If this were a movie made in the mid-2000s, the protagonist would burst into the next room and declare to a mortified crowd: “She’s a man!” with some combination of shock, betrayal and disgust. What is truly being revealed in scenes like these? That’s what Sam Feder’s new documentary, Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, examines by dissecting the representation of Transgender people in film and television.
Over the past few years I have come to terms with the various depictions of gender non-conforming people in mainstream media that have influenced me throughout my life. The sad truth is that the majority of these depictions have been harmful and I am still in the process of unlearning these false narratives. Disclosure does an amazing job of driving home how the repetition of heinous tropes and stereotypes of gender non-conforming people has etched a certain perception of us in the public eye. I was writing a piece about my personal experience with the representation of Transwomen in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective when this documentary came out and it was serendipitous to see the parallels of my experience with others’.
I have lost count of the number of times that I watched, rewound and re-watched our VHS copy of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. I loved that film. I loved bearing witness to Jim Carrey’s antics and cheesy one-liners, most of which I would repeat often. I didn’t get the American football references but that was fine, there was a dolphin. I remembered the end being a little weird, but other than that, I considered it my favourite film throughout my childhood. Only in the past of couple years since transitioning have I seriously reflected on my relationship with this film. When I think about it now, as a Transwoman, I find this film disgusting.
I suddenly felt less alone and less strange for my complicated relationship with the film
The film’s villain is Lois Einhorn, a former football star who is now a police captain, and who also happens to now be a woman. This character is treated by the other characters, and thus by the writers themselves, with what can only be described as cruelty. When Ace finds out that Lois is Transgender, he retches and vomits because they have kissed earlier. Then, when trying to prove this to the police (i.e., prove that she is not a ‘real’ woman), Ace tears open her shirt to reveal breasts. In dismay, he then tears off her skirt but fails to find the phallus he’s expecting. Only after turning Lois around and bending her over does he reveal her tucked penis and ‘prove’ his theory that she is not a ‘real’ woman. The numerous cops who have her surrounded with their guns – all drawn, by the way – collectively proceed to retch and vomit, implying that she has also seduced every officer present. Throughout the film, the character is portrayed as both a sexual predator and insane, all the while being hated by Ace Ventura, the zany protagonist who kicks dirt in her face as his final act against her. I want to remind you that this is all in a PG-13 movie about a stolen dolphin.
My attention was understandably captured when Ace Ventura was referenced in Disclosure as part of a wider discussion of portrayals of men repulsed by Transwomen on screen. When Zeke Smith starts talking about this film being his favourite childhood movie and the juxtaposition between his Transgender identity and the film’s blatant transphobia, I suddenly felt less alone and less strange for my complicated relationship with the film. I thought this trauma caused by my childhood obsession was a unique and personal struggle, but in that moment, it became a collective struggle. I wasn’t strange for latching on to this film despite its horrible depiction of a Transgender character; I was latching on because it was the only depiction I could get my hands on.
Over the past few years I’ve had a lot of unlearning to do, thanks to the internalised transphobia that this and other films have instilled in me. It’s difficult for me to think of myself as attractive, because sometimes all I can think of is men vomiting at the very thought of being with me. I worry about being too forward, because I was taught that Transwomen who try to seduce men are evil and predatory. I now know that this film is a horribly flawed representation, but it’s hard to shake these deep emotional associations. Those concepts are embedded in my head. And they’re also embedded in the heads of others, and that’s what really scares me. Because this is not just my own personal trauma, but the normalisation of these associations for a generation. For all the Transwomen who have internalised the idea that they are repulsive, there are many more cismen who have learnt that they should be repulsed by Transwomen. They have been taught that a Transwoman is not a ‘real’ woman, and that has horrifying consequences for us.
I was taught that Transwomen who try to seduce men are evil and predatory
I do fear for my life. Transwomen are murdered as a result of these kinds of associations. Aggression and violence towards Transwomen can manifest from toxic masculinity and internalised homophobia, from a resentment of feeling ‘tricked’ or from basically any other insecurities men can have about relationships with Transwomen. And it threatens our safety, our lives. As of August, at least 26 Transgender or gender non-conforming people have been murdered in the US in 2020 alone, the majority of whom are people of colour.
We need to deconstruct the very concept of what a ‘real’ woman even is, because this false comparison is killing us. The very concept of a ‘real’ woman buys into the Western understanding of the gender binary, which has become prevalent throughout the world due to colonisation and Westernisation. The very existence of intersex and non-binary people proves that chromosomes and sexual organs are inadequate means of quantifying the wide range of diverse gender identities. There are numerous Indigenous genders that exist outside of and predate the artificial construct of a gender binary, including takatāpui, hijra, Two-Spirit and leitī people. Gender needs to be recognised as the spectrum it is in order to reduce harm to all gender non-conforming people.
It’s important to note that all the stats from above are from the US, but violence against Trans people happens around the world. It can be much harder to find accurate numbers from other countries for various reasons. For example, the Egyptian government claims that LGBTQI+ people simply don't exist. Local rainbow groups can gather their own data but it is likely to be limited in scope when gender non-conforming people can be arrested in the street under blanket accusations of ‘debauchery’. Even in Aotearoa, murdered Transmen and Transwomen can be misgendered or dead-named by the police or media, making it harder and harder to identify the scope of the problem. All the while, there is an undercurrent of misunderstanding and demonisation, which feeds into the fear and violence. Sadly, this brings me to J K Rowling.
Discussions about the lives of Transgender people shouldn’t be centred around the beliefs of one wealthy cis-gendered author, but Rowling has recently become someone who actively espouses strong views about Transgender people to her large platform. Harry Potter has been present in my life for as long as I’ve been able to engage with fiction. My sister would read the books to me, and when she moved to the UK she recorded herself reading them on cassette. I still have that strong comforting association with Harry Potter, but I cannot remove the author from this equation.
We need to deconstruct the very concept of what a ‘real’ woman even is
J K Rowling has repeatedly asserted the comments of many well-known Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs). A recent batch of Rowling’s hurtful comments began with a jab at the phrase ‘people who menstruate’. Munroe Bergdorf, Daniel Radcliffe and many others have already responded to Rowling’s stance but the key takeaway here is that the phrase is purely a more inclusive approach in medicine. The argument against using the term ‘people who menstruate’ is that it feels dehumanising to ‘real’ women. However, the word ‘woman’ is not adequately inclusive in this context because it fails to include Transmen who menstruate while including Transwomen who don’t. Since being met with criticism for these comments, Rowling has furthered her argument, claiming that “erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives.” Which wholly misses the point. No one is trying to erase the notion of ‘sex’, but instead we endeavour to understand it more deeply in all its complexities. We just need to ensure it is explored safely and responsibly for the sake of those most vulnerable.
Just to be clear, calling out TERFs is not a critique of feminism. Feminism is a broad field and here we are referring to a particular subgroup. Simply put, TERFs fundamentally disagree with the tautological statements: “Transmen are men, Transwomen are women.”
More recently, Rowling has equated the transitions of Transgender people as a new form of “conversion therapy” for gay people. To wrongly conflate gender identity with sexuality is bad enough, but to remove the agency of Trans people in their own transition and imply that there is some kind of homophobic agenda is a heinous misuse of her platform of 14 million Twitter followers.
Rowling’s comments aren’t troubling because she’s spouting some extremist concept; they are troubling because they are a reminder of just how ingrained and normalised that kind of thinking is. It is a kind of thinking that I have had to personally confront coming from friends and whānau. It is a kind of thinking that has become internalised by many Transmen and Transwomen, including myself. Rowling is not the only one here, she is just indicative of the larger problem.
Rowling’s discourse leads directly to the other bitter side of much of our media representation: as predators. As seen in Ace Ventura, or The Silence of the Lambs, or any shitty 80s, 90s or 00s movie to feature a Trans or gender non-conforming villain, we are depicted as sexual deviants. This imagery is often evoked in modern discussions around Transgender rights by TERFs, who claim that by allowing Transwomen into female spaces (i.e., ‘female’ bathrooms) ‘real’ women will be put at risk of sexual assault. Now to be clear here, I do not intend to be reductionist or callous about women’s experiences with sexual assault. Trauma of this nature is real and valid, and sexual assault survivors have the right to feel safe. The problem with equating this discussion about the rights of Transwomen with a discussion about sexual assault has the implication that Transwomen are the perpetrators, when there is absolutely no evidence of this, just a fear of us. There is nothing to indicate a Transgender person is more likely to commit an act of sexual violence than a cis-gendered person.
In light of this, another TERF argument is that seeing Transwomen as women and allowing them into female spaces opens the door for cismen to simply masquerade as ‘Trans’ in order to exploit a loophole. This logic is also flawed and dangerous because it still equates Transwomen with men who are dressed as women. “If we let them in, what’s to stop…” is a line of thinking that still plays into the idea that we aren’t ‘real’ women.
Even in Aotearoa, murdered Transmen and Transwomen can be misgendered or dead-named by the police or media
I’m not going to delve too deeply into all the facets of this argument. Other Trans activists have done so already and I would implore you to look into the work of Jacob Tobia, Ashlee Marie Preston, Munroe Bergdorf and Alok Vaid-Menon to name a few. What I can speak to is the direct impact this has on my existence. Hearing arguments that equate me to male sexual predators, and seeing depictions in media of Transwomen as deviants and predators, makes me hyper-aware of how I am presenting myself and how I am being seen in different situations. I opened this piece recounting the way I feel walking home after dark, and those two juxtaposed spectres of being both a threat and a victim hang over me in many situations. I need to adapt my behaviour for the comfort of others while still fearing for my safety. This paradox comes down exclusively to the way Transwomen are seen and the way we often see ourselves, as taught by the representations we are fed.
We make up a significant proportion of targets of violence in both fiction and real-life media. You will see us as murder victims in police procedural dramas and on the news, but we will also be the deceptive villain or insane predator in a film. Cis people get to pick and choose in which light they are understanding us at any one time, but we carry the weight of both these false depictions at all times. We can see these two conceptions intersecting in Ace Ventura when the despicable and humiliating treatment of Lois Einhorn is justified as comeuppance for her actions and predatory behaviour. The implication is that Transwomen are deserving of victimisation because they themselves are a threat to be dealt with. This is not reality, but it becomes solidified in people’s minds when it’s spoken into being over and over again through these narratives. As a result, when I feel targeted, my instincts tell me that it’s my fault. I know it’s not, but try telling me that in the moment.
An underlying part of this dichotomy is misogyny. Transphobia doesn’t exist in a vacuum and can be seen at the intersection of sexism and homophobia. I identify as a feminist because I am not just targeted as a Transwoman, but as a woman. We face the same threats, have the same fears. Feminism needs to be Trans-inclusive because we are on the same side. Transwomen are women. Different groups of people obviously have different issues, such as women of colour facing systemic racism, people who menstruate needing access to period products or lesbians facing homophobia, but there is also overlap in the issues we face together.
Feminism needs to be Trans-inclusive because we are on the same side
Friends and colleagues have joked with me by asking: “Are you sure you want to be a woman?” on multiple occasions after discussions of different women’s issues. I laughed it off at the time because I didn’t have the courage to say that it’s not a matter of want. It’s who I am. It’s a matter of circumstance. I know they are trying to be relatable, but they are inadvertently making me feel less valid as a woman in the same breath. Yes, by openly identifying as a woman I am making myself vulnerable to the same kind of issues that ciswomen have been facing for centuries. But it’s not a choice.
Mainstream media needs to move beyond representing us as either the victims or predators. And it’s happening, slowly. Disclosure does a great job of dissecting the horrors of past representation while looking to the present and the future with more and more Trans artists creating work. I can look back on another film I loved, The Matrix, with the knowledge that the Wachowski sisters have transitioned since, and view it as a story of understanding one’s identity in a fight against an oppressive system. I can look to television shows such as Sense8 or Orange is the New Black and know that there are interesting, compelling Trans characters being played by Trans actors or written by Trans writers. I am privileged enough to see amazing projects such as Rūrangi ensuring that Trans voices are front and centre in uniquely Trans stories while focusing on issues here in Aotearoa.
There is a long way to go and those of us writing today have to be careful not to perpetuate the negative representation we may have internalised. What is most interesting of all to me is that Disclosure, while talking about representation, has entered the fold as a form of representation itself. The most important part of the documentary to me was simply seeing all these Transgender actors and creators, visible and speaking candidly about their experiences. Stunning, intelligent, articulate and confident Transmen and Transwomen given space to speak on their own terms. Not needing to fight their way through painful interviews where their genitalia is questioned, or taking on humiliating roles because they are the only roles available to them, but just sitting there and speaking their truths.
So, ultimately, what is being disclosed? Or maybe what we are disclosing isn’t the point. Instead maybe we can ask who are we opening up to? Who is our audience? Who needs to know? Well, for one, those who care for us and will see us for who we are regardless. We reveal aspects of our identity to the people in our lives who we want and need to understand us deeper. Then, there are other Transgender and gender non-conforming people who, in some form or another, we can relate to, inspire, or at the very least show they aren’t alone. As a Pākehā Transwoman in Aotearoa I have a certain level of privilege I can utilise. I have income I can donate. I can feel safe enough to walk through town as visibly Transgender in the hope to normalise our presence on the streets. I have the means to write openly about my experience. I feel like I can safely make use of my disclosure in these ways. We don’t all need to be hyper-visible film actors but if we feel comfortable enough to do so, we can let others know that we are here. Personal or communal, our disclosure is for us.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.