Picture this: a beautiful, seductive woman. She could be described as sexy or a little mysterious. She is irresistible—like catnip to men. A man flirts with her, or kisses or maybe has sex with her. Then it’s revealed: she’s a trans woman. Cue the man’s immediate shock, disgust, gagging, and/or vomiting.
Such is a scene played out over and over again in film and television of the past 30 years, from The Crying Game (1992) and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), to The Hangover Part II (2011) and that one terribly transphobic episode of Cake Boss.
Transgender characters have been done dirty in film and TV for far too long. We are too often portrayed as sex workers, addicts, villains, and gags. We’re seen as depressed, unloveable, lonely, or abused. In 2019 we can write these stereotypes off as tired and boring tropes, but they can also be dangerous.
Worldwide there have been 331 reported murders of trans and gender-diverse people so far in 2019. That's only what we're aware of. Every year, violence against trans people continues to alarm authorities and advocates. Black trans women and trans women of color are disproportionately affected. This is a disturbing pattern that persists year over year. The American Medical Association calls it an "epidemic."
Something is wrong. I think part of it is the way we are viewed. And what influences that more than the way we are represented in TV, film, and media?
As a trans woman working as an actor, screenwriter, and filmmaker who is frustrated and offended almost every time I see a trans character, I decided to do something about it. Inspired by the Bechdel Test, which is meant to measure the representation of women in fiction, I wanted to create such a test for transgender representation.
The Bechdel Test looks at whether a work features 1) at least two women who 2) talk to each other 3) about something other than a man. Ideally these should be named characters, but this last point is optional. The work must meet the first three criteria to pass the test. The Bechdel Test has already produced better representations for women since it was introduced in 1985.
There have been similar tests before mine (the Topside Test, the Brighter Tet) but they are intended generally for literature and fiction. I want my own Bechdel Test—for now let’s call it the May Test—to be for transgender representation in TV and film.
The May Test asks whether a transgender character is/has:
- portrayed by a transgender actor (If not, why not? Is the role perpetuating the cisgender actor playing the “man in a dress” stereotype?)
- safe, stable, and secure (not homeless, assaulted, or victimized—no more bloody noses!)
- thriving, healthy, and happy
- in love, loveable, and dating (not a lonely romantic pariah)
- a trans identity not used as a joke or “surprise reveal” gag
- an occupation that isn’t sex worker, dealer, or thief
- a storyline that is not solely about their transition or surgery, or their struggle with their identity
Bonus points if the trans character is in a lead role or has a gender queer, non-conforming or neutral gender identity.
Yes, perhaps the seven-point criteria is a bit much, but it matches and is in direct response to the many oft-repeated characterizations I’m tired of seeing. The May Test is intended to be stringent in the hopes that it inspires and produces more original, authentic, and positive representations of transgender people.
But knowing the May Test might be hard, I’ll keep it simple. Like the Bechdel Test, if a trans character can check off at least three points, they pass.
Let’s try it out on the notable 2015 Sundance darling Tangerine, an acclaimed film essentially about a trans sex worker and her relationship drama. The leads Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor are trans actors playing trans characters. And… that’s arguably the only criteria the film meets. Their performances are brilliant, but Tangerine fails the May test.
More recently, the narrative is shifting and representation is evolving. We now have newer trans narratives: A Fantastic Woman (2017), Assassination Nation (2018), Sense8, and Pose.
How about the most recent and very popular Euphoria? This provocative HBO series features a transgender teenager, Jules Vaughn, a compelling character and an integral part in the storyline. A promising start, but let’s break down this representation through the May Test.
The criteria Jules meets is that she is played by a trans actress, Hunter Schafer. Refreshingly, she is desirable and desired by other characters in the show, and is romantically involved with the lead. Her trans identity isn't used as a joke or revealed as a surprise gag or plot twist. She’s not a sex worker or dealer, she’s a high school student.
Jules passes the May Test. While her trans identity is still used as a plot point and she experiences some assault and harassment, this representation is an improvement and a step forward.
It would be wonderful for film, TV, and media content creators to apply some version of the May Test (or even the Topside Test or Brighton Test) for the transgender characters that they are writing, producing, directing, and casting. If and when they do, it will produce trans characters and narratives that are much more fresh, interesting, and relatable.
But it also has the potential to create characters and representations that could improve and even save trans lives.
Kiley May is a Hotinonhshón:ni Mohawk actor, writer and educator from Six Nations of the Grand River territory now settled in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.