GLAAD’s (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) annual report, which examines the representation of the LGBT+ community in the media, has stated that the number of regular transgender characters has hit a record number (16 characters), which amounts to 4.8% of the LGBT+ characters (including broadcast, cable and streaming), more than doubling last year’s figure (7 characters) (2017). This increasing representation is good news to the trans community, since media plays a major role in the construction and dissemination of popular discourse, shaping audience’s knowledge and understandings about a certain topic (BBC Bitesize). Traditional understandings of ‘transsexuality’ have been deeply influenced by essentialist views, which considered it an abnormal condition. The incorporation of transgender characters into popular culture and production of trans-themed materials has challenged some deep-seated ideas about gender and has contributed to its normalisation. This essay article will first analyse the use of stereotypes by the media, alongside their role in the reinforcement and deconstruction of discourses about ‘gender’ (more specifically, the ‘essentialist’ views, in opposition to ‘social constructionism’). Finally, it will undertake an overview of transgender representation in mainstream media (from the first to most recent examples) in order to assess the impact of popular culture on social perception about ‘transgenderism’.
Media often resort to stereotypes to create understandable messages, so that they can reach a broad (and diverse) audience (Wolska 2011). Stereotypes are simplified and vague generalisations which highlight the most remarkable characteristics of a social group (2011). They are internalised through the socialisation process and the media. However, the latter are usually the only available source of information about certain events and groups (such as the LGBT+ community, foreigners or ethnic minorities), hence the only way to gain insight and form an opinion about them. This image is occasionally partial, biased and inaccurate, as it can be the case of women, who may be portrayed as hyper-sexualized stunning models or housewives struggling to remove the stains from their children’s clothes. This happens because, in the male-dominated field of media, women are often portrayed in the way men perceive them (known as the ‘male gaze’), or how society expects them to look and behave (BBC Bitesize). This demonstrates the primary role that media plays in the reassertion and deconstruction of discourses.
Discourse, in its sociological sense, refers to the set of knowledge about a given topic or practice, which can comprise written, spoken, audio-visual and unrecorded texts. French philosopher Foucault, who was interested in the relationship between power and knowledge and their influence on human thought and behaviour (Klages 2006, p. 142), affirms that we write, speak or think about a given topic in a way which is specific to a given place and historical period, and therefore, different from any other (Warren 2015, p. 278). Therefore, it is not a static entity, but it changes over time. Discourse limits the way we can think about a topic, but it also provides us with methods and practices for understanding and making meaning of that topic (2006, p. 142). Like ideology, it informs what people know (and therefore) do, that is to say, it determines social practise (2006, p. 143). Discourse is mostly shaped by media (especially in the information age) due to their pervasiveness and alleged reliability (usually being the only medium from which we receive information). Therefore, media exert an overwhelming influence in our beliefs and ideology, and as such, they can shape them. Likewise, media can influence popular notions about gender identity and sexuality. In fact, as the Critical Media Project states, they create meanings, thus building knowledge and shaping understandings about diverse issues (BBC Bitesize). Moreover, they can create social norms (Lantagne 2014) and influence audiences by shaping their stances, convictions and judgements (McLuhan & Gordon 2013, p. 354). Some Marxist thinkers have gone further in voicing concerns about the role media plays in propagating certain ideologies: Antonio Gramsci stated that dominant groups use media to transmit the dominant hegemonic ideology and reinforce their ideas (Carro 2015); whereas Luis Althusser singled out the media as part of the Ideological State Apparatuses, which, in addition to the Repressive State Apparatuses, are means for maintaining dominance (Althusser 2004, pp. 694-95).
Society tends to impose a “rigid structure of gender dichotomy” on individuals and classify them into ‘male’ and ‘female’ despite gender diversity (Braithwaite & Orr 2017, p. 65), invisibilizing alternative gender identities such as ‘transgenderism’. This belief is upheld by ‘essentialism’, the belief that people and things possess innate, ‘natural’ traits that are unchangeable (Barta). It resorts to biological, physiological and genetic causes to argue that particular behaviours are unchangeable (Twine 2001, p. 2). Therefore, essentialists would argue that each gender has “essential, inborn thought and reasoning patterns that define them” (Whittemore), an idea which ends up “upholding status quo social relations and hierarchies” (2017, p. 67). ‘Social constructionists’, however, contend that meanings are not inherent, static, universal and atemporal, but they are defined by the circumstances in which they arise, thus they are relative, construable, temporal and variable. Feminists, in line with social constructionists, argue that gender is not a biological product, but a social construct (2017, p. 66; International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 2008); and that the fallacy of ‘biological inferiority’ of women has been used to justify the patriarchal order (Gupta 2013). Moreover, they claim that gender and sexual orientation are fluid and should not be rigidly categorized (The Critical Media Project). The rigid use of identity categories can be limiting if used inappropriately (2017, p. 66).
Hollywood has a long record of transgender misrepresentation (Reilly 2017). Trans people have been depicted as villains, psycho killers and disturbed, especially in horror films and thrillers from the 1960s to the 1990s (Smith 2017). This is the case of Buffalo Bill from the Silence of the Lambs (1991), a serial killer who murders and skins women to make a ‘woman suit’ for him; or Norman Bates from Psycho (1960), who cross-dresses as a woman.
Other films with transgender murderers are Homicidal (1961), Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Sleepaway Camp (1983). All these films convey the idea that “gender non-conformity is frightening and unnatural” (Smith 2017), and as author of ‘Transgender on Screen’ John Phillips suggests, they “trade on the otherness of transgender to engender fear and loathing” (2006). Nevertheless, more recent movies and TV shows represent trans people in a more positive light. For instance, Netflix TV shows Orange is The New Black (2013- ) and Sense8 (2015- ) have been praised by the trans community for representing them in a real, authentic and not at all tokenized way (Boshemia Blog 2016).
The latter, created by the Wachowski sisters (who are also transgender) includes both a gay and a trans-lesbian relationship. The show depicts Nomi, a transgender woman who must undergo brain surgery (lobotomy) because of an abrupt change in her brain chemistry which puts her life in danger. This metaphor is a “razor-sharp commentary on the medical, surgical, and psychological conversion therapy” (Boshemia Blog 2016).
This increasing presence of transgender characters in the media has helped to dismantle deeply entrenched long-standing prejudices about transgender people and contributed to their acceptance by and inclusion into the broader society. It has also raised awareness about trans issues and made trans politics central in the LGBT+ movement. As a consequence, LGBT+ struggle (at least in Western democratic countries) has moved away from traditional gay and lesbian demands (legal reforms such as same-sex marriage or right to adopt) to claims for deep social changes, as well as emphasizing racial and economic inequalities (which initial feminist and LGBT+ movements did not) (Women’s Law Project 2011). Accordingly, it has called for the empowerment of the oppressed and disadvantaged (such as the disabled, asexuals, intersex people or ethnic minorities).
Mass media have become more liberal and critical of traditionalist ideas (Gauntlett 2008, p. 281). This has been the result of changing social attitudes, but it has also required the active role of media in disseminating inclusive messages. This change is worthy of consideration, but the situation of transgender people is far from idyllic, and there are still serious problems with media representations (Loughrey 2016). Transgender presence is still unusual, and it is sometimes considered inappropriate, especially in children literature and movies (Smith 2017). GLAAD reported that out of the 271 LGBT+ characters that appeared in the 2015-2016 season, only seven belonged to the ‘T’, and there was only one male transgender character (Kelley 2016). What is more, quantity does not equal quality, as GLAAD’s president claimed (Loughrey 2016). In fact, the study ‘How Transgender People Experience the Media’ found that 70% of respondents believed they are portrayed either in a negative or very negative way, with only 5% deeming it positive (Trans Media Watch 2010, p. 6). 78% of them considered these representations either inaccurate or highly inaccurate (2010, p. 6), and according to the 36%, these representations have triggered negative reactions from their relatives and friends (2010, p. 9). Furthermore, 21.5 % stated having suffered at least one incident of verbal abuse which they believed was associated with the way they are represented in the media (2010, p. 9).
The Internet has pushed traditional TV into the background. In fact, most of these shows are only streamed online. According to the magazine Affinity, there was no regular transgender character on broadcast or cable television shows except for The Fosters (2013- ); and there was only one more the year before (Unique Adams from Glee (2009-2015)) (Tarlton 2016). However, the influence of conventional TV channels cannot be overlooked, since it is still the only source of information for a big part of the population, especially adults and the elder, who tend to hold more prejudiced and conservative views about this issue.
Past experiences have proven that a lack of appropriate role models can propel dangerous and false prejudices (Reilly 2017). This is why increasing representation in the mass media is necessary to the normalization of the transgender community (Boshemia Blog 2016), as it will educate the audience and build tolerance. Media play a fundamental role in creating and shaping values and ideas about certain topics, especially in these days when they are usually the only source of information at our disposal. It was through these means that essentialist views took hold of social discourse about ‘sexuality and gender identity’ in the last century. However, after a change in social morality, media have begun to spread a more liberal and tolerant message. Consequently, gender is no longer perceived as an inborn, inherent trait dependent on and in line with biological sex, but as a diverse social phenomenon that can change over time and place. The increasing incorporation of transgender characters into popular TV shows and films has challenged gender binarism and brought trans politics into the forefront of the political agenda. The prominence of trans politics is a milestone in the LGBT+ movement, since it has raised awareness about the different socioeconomic backgrounds and the complexity and diversity of sexualities and gender identities within the LGBT+ community (which had hitherto been invisibilized), along with empowering the most disadvantaged social groups. Nonetheless, trans people are still under- and misrepresented in the media (Gauntlett 2008, p. 285), carry a heavy stigma and are subject to social and institutional discrimination. Therefore, it is important that the audience remains critical of stereotypical and prejudiced representations of the trans community and keeps demanding truly representative trans role models (and actors!).
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