It’s a new year, and trans people continue to be in the spotlight — but whenever trans stories are told in movies or TV, it’s usually assumed that those stories need to cater to a cisgender audience. A lot of the time, trans people aren’t portrayed as multidimensional humans. Instead, our lives end up being told in stereotypical ways over and over again, which become codified into tropes: themes or devices that are common and overused.
As more and more trans characters are represented in the media, here are some tropes we’d love to say goodbye to in 2016. Though they may have seemed cool and edgy back in the day — when just having a trans person onscreen seemed progressive — we need to get past these tired and unoriginal stereotypes to get to nuanced and human portrayals of trans people.
1. The trans person as a crisis for cis people.
A number of movies and shows, including Transparent (2015), The Danish Girl (2015), and I Am Cait (2015), use a trans person’s transition and the way it upends the lives of the people around them as a central conflict. Often, the biggest concern becomes not about the well-being of the trans person, but about how their cisgender loved ones feel about them.
It’s time to put out more trans narratives that don’t treat us as a problem to be solved.
2. The trans nude shot.
It’s been a staple of trans-themed movies going way back to the severely transphobic The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and the sympathetic yet still skeevy The Crying Game (1992), but the trans nude shot has re-emerged recently. In The Danish Girl, it’s used when Lili, played by Eddie Redmayne, obsesses over her body in a mirror, as she tucks her penis between her legs. In the indie film Boy Meets Girl (2014), trans teenager Ricky emerges naked from a lake and asks her best friend turned love interest if he would be interested in her even with her body. In both cases, there’s no other full-frontal nudity in the movie, which makes showing the body of the trans characters particularly objectifying and gratuitous.
3. The token trans actor with a bit part (especially when the lead is a cisgender man).
Let’s face it: Casting trans characters is a huge structural problem in Hollywood, one that is slowly but surely getting better as trans actors like Jamie Clayton, Laverne Cox, and Alexandra Billings have come to the fore. But like the gay or black best friend, it’s become a trope to cast trans actors in supporting roles with cisgender actors playing trans people as the lead, such as in Transparent and The Danish Girl. It’s always good to hire more trans actors for parts. But the more they play supporting roles opposite transgender lead characters played by cis people, the more we’re reminded that Hollywood capitalizes on our stories but doesn’t hire us for plum roles.
4. A trans person’s goal in life is to be loved by a cisgender person.
2015’s representative for a trope that’s been a staple of many movies from The Crying Game to Boys Don’t Cry (1999) is Ray in Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall. A Latinx gender-nonconforming femme, Ray spends the entire movie pining after the white cis hunk Danny, only to have their hopes dashed, leaving Ray in a puddle of tears. Even in the otherwise amazing Tangerine (also 2015), the plot revolves around a black trans character, Sin-dee, spending most of the movie chasing after her cheating boyfriend Chester. Memo to cisgender people: We’re not that into you.
5. The mentally unstable trans woman.
Speaking of Tangerine, another trope the movie exploits is the idea that trans women are inherently more irrational and mentally unstable than other people. While the core of the movie, the friendship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra, is beautiful and nuanced, the hysterical portrayal of Sin-Dee and the way she freaks out that Chester cheated with a cisgender woman plays into the well-worn trope of the Crazy Trans Woman. The same trope got deployed in Pretty Little Liars when the primary villain character “A” turned out to be trans.
This trope has also been immortalized not just in multiple episodes of The Jerry Springer Show but in one of the most transphobic representations in cinema: The Silence of the Lambs, throughout which a serial killer’s motive is presented as their desire to be female, which leads them to kill and skin women. Please, let’s just let this trope die.
6. The hot girl who turns out to be trans, to the disgust of cisgender men.
Thankfully, this trope did not rear its head prominently in 2015, but it’s such a staple of straight dude comedy that it’s important not to see it resurrected. From Hangover II (2011) to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, not to mention plenty of Seth McFarlane-created movies and TV shows, it seems like there are plenty of cisgender male writers who can’t handle their attraction to trans women. Let’s hope they continue to keep their phobias and anxieties away from the screen in 2016.
7. Straight cis dudes dressing up as women for laughs.
Though this trope has been dying out since the cringe-inducing White Chicks (2004), we still see it pop up in comedy sketches like “Ew!” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The joke here rests on men making bad or ugly women, which relies on the idea that women who don’t look cisgender deserve to be derided and laughed at. There are many ways to be funny without having to make fun of gender-nonconformity, and while this trope has produced a lot of laughs at the expense of gender-nonconforming femmes over the years, it’s one that needs to go.
8. The only trans people worth talking about are women.
There are occasional representations of trans men in movies and TV, too often as vehicles for female stars like Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and Elle Fanning in About Ray (2015), but there’s a huge imbalance in trans male characters compared to trans women. This plays into the spectacle that Hollywood thrives on: the idea that it’s shocking or titillating for male-assigned people to become women in a way that it isn’t in the reverse, because it makes a lot more sense in a heteropatiarchal society for someone to want to be a man than a woman. This trope keeps the general public from gaining a deep understanding of trans men’s lives.
While all these tropes have got to go, there were luckily a lot of awesome trans screen moments in 2015.
- Fyre Festival — organized by Ja Rule and billed as a luxury event — has turned into a total shitshow and people are livid 💸😱
- American Airlines gave workers a raise — to the highest pay in the industry — and Wall Street is furious. The company's stock has been falling since Thursday.
- The new leader of Marine Le Pen's National Front party in France has stepped down amid accusations of Holocaust denial.
- We found an average of about one false statement per day from Trump and his aides throughout the president's first 100 days in office 💯