When I first began writing this journal/blog thingy I wondered in my very first post if I should come out or not; if I should restrain myself from letting that little dirty secret slip into a Google-searchable journal. In the end I realised something rather important, so I just said “fuck it” and wrote that into the very first post. I knew I couldn’t hold that back. It’s in the DNA of this journal’s name, as the first post explained.
But what I also realised is that there are still so precious few outlets for trans people to get the message out there. There are certainly more than ever. The Internet has been a remarkable help in this regard. Many books are now on the shelves that are autobiographical, political or both, and that’s a wonderful thing. Yet even so, none of us can name a really good movie that portrayed a trans person sympathetically, seriously, and non-stereotypically, much less a TV show.
We are shown as crude caricatures, or with our high heeled legs pointing up out of a dumpster, or as cruel temptresses who will defile unwitting young men with our secret sausage. Trans women are those crude and cruel mockeries, trans men don’t even exist at all in the media, save for the needed telling of some tragic tales like that of Brandon Teena. But beyond those sad true life stories, we do not hear much about trans men or trans women- certainly not the triumphs of our every day lives, nor do we see any beautiful pictures painted on screen depicting the realisation of our simple dreams.
Transamerica came closest but even that film, despite having had several trans women consultants like Andrea James whose life story would make a damn fine movie on its own, blew chunks in its portrayal of us. Felicity Huffman’s character was portrayed as a hyper feminine almost wanna-be character that stumbled in her high heels. That’s bollocks, for one thing. You adapt to high heels pretty quickly. Her character is years into transition and that stumbling does little more than assist the audience in not taking her seriously as a woman; as if to say walking in heels is some arcane art of women that cannot be imitated by trans women because of their knobbly bits.
There are countless moments like this, such as the portrayal of her putting on her makeup and spending a tremendous amount of time ‘putting woman on’ which reinforces the idea that she has to put on a costume and deceive. Unlike an actual woman, is the implicit message, intended or not. This belies the countless stories of real trans women who roll out of bed in a tank top and jeans and get groceries in the morning without spending two hours putting on makeup.
What was particularly annoying about this portrayal was that it tapped straight into a deeply othering meme that infects the wider media. Showing trans women spending lots of time putting on makeup. Even in sympathetic news or talk show outlets that have shown positive stories about us, like Oprah or Vermont’s CBS affiliate, there’s always that money shot of the trans woman putting on makeup. It reinforces this asinine idea that our womanhood is artificial and revolves around the rituals of cosmetics and wigs and stuffing our clothes in the right places. The idea becomes very much implicit in all of this: we’d not be women but for that artifice.
This is insulting to trans women and it’s insulting to women as a whole. I am taken seriously as a woman despite not wearing much in the way of makeup. The most I ever use is a little lipstick because I happen to like what it does to my face. That’s not a crime. But I sure as hell don’t spend hours in front of the mirror using layers of foundation to “make myself a woman.”
In an earlier entry I remarked that trans people were an excruciatingly de-voiced group. These examples highlight the consequences of this. When the powers that be deign to cover us or give us a very filtered voice, it must always be channelled through the filter of their own definitions and biases. This has profound consequences and also explains a particular aspect of what I might call a little ironically The Transsexual Mystique: the fact that we’re all things to all people.
To Christians, Muslims, and other religious conservatives we are sins against nature whose very existence flies in the face of God. To liberals we are diversity chits to showcase their tolerance but not to be taken too seriously as ‘actual’ men and women. To macho, patriarchal men, we are incredibly gay sissy guys who need a beatdown and also a place for them to project their worst misogynist fantasies. To some feminist women, we’re sleeper agents of the patriarchy itself, men in drag who denigrate womanhood by being parodies of it. To psychiatrists we are their social experiment and a place to project their personal ideals so that we might be moulded into them. To some gays we’re merely deeply closeted gays and lesbians unable to grapple with our own latent homosexuality.
You may note that many of these stereotypes are trans woman-specific. This is because trans men are thinly regarded at all by society in this. Their existence puts lie to some of those stereotypes and is thus inconvenient.
The only way this happens is because who we really are isn’t part of the narrative. They know we exist as transsexual people but they don’t know what to make of us. So they project their fears, worries, and fantasies onto us. We are blank slates on which they may write their values, and in so doing they merely rationalise us into some role that buttresses their worldview. Because we sure as hell aren’t being allowed to do it. So few of us can stand up and say “this is my life, I’m a human being and here’s my experience…” So we simply become MacGuffins for everyone else’s political ballgames.
When we are allowed to speak, we always have our words edited by the demands of commercial media and parsed by psychiatrists who allegedly know us better than we know ourselves. Our experience is forever qualified by the desires of others.
So I’m telling this story. My story, and my observations. I don’t pretend it applies universally, but it’s part of the true tapestry of the lives of all trans people. What can be done to fix and redress the media portrayal problems? A good place to start looking and see what the future might look like is Venus Envy, a webcomic by Erin Lindsey that deals with the lives of trans people in a small Pennsylvania town. It can be a little soap opera-ish, but what matters most is that I identified with the main character, Zoe.
She wasn’t a caricature, she wasn’t a cardboard cut out, and she wasn’t comic relief. She was a fictional character who was going through what I went through with the same thoughts, worries, fears, hopes, and some experiences that I had. It matters so very much to see and I ate that comic up, finding hope in Ms. Lindsey’s excellent and heartfelt storyweaving.
One of the other main characters is a trans man as well, and their issues are handled so deftly and expertly that I never felt condescended to. I just felt like this was a reflection of my experience. Trans people as a whole were being taken seriously in this artwork. Lindsey knows how to make us laugh about our own foibles and some of her earlier comics make great play of that. But the joke is not on us, it’s on the absurdity of the situations society leaves us in. That is a critical distinction.
This is why I get so annoyed at people who decry “affirmative action” on television and in films, like some morons at the University of Connecticut’s Young Republican club who actually denigrated Star Trek: Voyager for being such a thing. To hell with you. There is a very distinct power to seeing a reflection of yourself in the media. It makes you feel like you’re part of the society and that your stories and experiences matter enough to be reflected into the general public. I can empathise with white characters and with cis-women characters, and even the odd male character. But it makes my heart sing with I see a trans woman I can truly identify with.
Because the trans part of my womanhood is a very specific and very involved set of experiences that are not easily replicated in other demographic groups. Zoe Carter as a character matters a lot to me because of that. Erin Lindsey truly Gets It. It’s no surprise then that she’s trans herself. But we all need to tell our stories, and in her way this is how she tells hers.
I also added a link to the blog roll to Lady Jade Lioness’ Den, a good friend who is writing a wonderful piece of erotic fiction starring a trans woman who, aside from being elegant, strong, and intelligent, can kick some serious ass and knows how to use a pair of daggers to deadly effect. In a word, a badass I can empathise with. It matters to have those sorts of heroes and see them portrayed positively and sympathetically.
It matters not just because we need to feel less alone or because seeing ourselves reflected positively is empowering. It is also because we need to stop being all things to all people and instead be ourselves.