From 'Glen or Glenda' to 'The Danish Girl': A History of Trans Lives on Film

It's not all Eddie Redmayne.

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Mar 7 2015, 4:43pm

Still image from Dallas Buyers Club, Voltage Pictures

Over the course of the past several years, transgender individuals have inched their way into mainstream consciousness. Trans people typically face high levels of unemployment, increased risk of contracting HIV, discrimination—in housing, employment, restrooms, and access to medical care—and a host of other challenges unique to their struggle for equality. As GLAAD notes, less than one in 10 Americans actually know a trans individual, making the media the public's primary source of education on trans issues.

For more than half a century, from Glen or Glenda to Dallas Buyers Club, the entertainment industry has tried to get a handle on how to accurately and respectfully portray trans people. Unfortunately, it sometimes appears that the creators wind up using trans characters less as people and more as props, to be used for comedic effect or to shock the audience.

2014 saw the debut of trans-centric series like Transparent, The T Word, and True Trans with Laura Jane Grace. These shows—created with trans people in either starring or consulting roles—are a sharp departure from trans media of years past and instead paint trans individuals as real, non-sensationalized people. While these series are examples of success in documentary, comedic, and dramatic portrayals of trans people, they are far from the norm.

Over the past half-century, the entertainment industry has portrayed transgender individuals hundreds of times.

In 1953, writer and director Ed Wood released Glen or Glenda, a film centered around society's disdain for those who deviate from traditional gender norms. At the time of the film's release, it was illegal to be caught publicly cross-dressing in a number of states. Glen or Glenda became a cult sensation and was later re-popularized in Tim Burton's 1994 film Ed Wood in which Johnny Depp plays the titular character coming to terms with his own compulsion to wear women's clothing. Wood did not identify himself as transsexual; the term "transgender" wouldn't make its way into the cultural lexicon for another couple of decades.

In 1970, director Michael Sarne released Myra Breckinridge, a film based on Gore Vidal's 1968 novel of the same name. Sarne's adaptation features Raquel Welch as Myra Breckinridge, a teacher at Buck Loner Academy who takes advantage of her male students and sexually assaults them. The film ends with Breckinridge reverting back to her former male self. Like Glen or Glenda, critics panned the film. In 1974, Vidal published Myron, a sequel centered on Breckenridge's struggle to establish true identity.

1975 saw the release of Dog Day Afternoon, a film inspired by the story of real life bank robber John Wojtowicz and his transgender wife Elizabeth Eden. The film starred Al Pacino as bank robber Sonny Wortzik; Chris Sarandon played Leon Shermer, a character based on Eden. The film won an Academy Award for best original screenplay and received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Sidney Lumet, the famed director of such films as 12 Angry Men, Network, and The Verdict), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Pacino), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Chris Sarandon), and Best Film Editing. Dog Day Afternoon marked one of the first times a mainstream film featuring a prominent transgender character received critical acclaim. Sarandon's nomination for playing a trans individual signaled the start of a trend that would eventually lead to Oscar wins for straight actors Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry) and Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club).

The 1980s featured films like Brian De Palma's critically praised Dressed to Kill, in which Michael Caine plays Dr. Robert Elliott and his murderous, female alter ego Bobbi; 1982's The World According to Garp, which earned John Lithgow an Oscar nomination for his role as Roberta Muldoon, a transgender woman; and 1983's Sleepaway Camp, in which a transgender woman goes on a homicidal rampage.

For better or worse, the 1990s featured some of the most iconic depictions of transgender and gender non-conforming characters Hollywood has ever produced. From Silence of the Lambs's Buffalo Bill to The Crying Game's Dil and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective's Lt. Einhorn, it slowly became more commonplace to use gender variance as a plot device in mainstream Hollywood, even if it wasn't always done in a particularly accurate or flattering light.

Still image from Boys Don't Cry, Fox Searchlight Pictures

In 1999, Hilary Swank portrayed transgender man Brandon Teena in the award-winning film Boys Don't Cry. The film depicts the tragic, true story of Teena and his death at the hands of two former friends. The film brought mainstream attention to the devastating reality of violence that transgender individuals. Swank took home an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and co-star Chloë Sevigny was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role at that year's Academy Awards. Sevigny would later go on to play a transgender woman in the 2012 British TV series Hit & Miss.

In 2001, John Cameron Mitchell directed and starred in Hedwig & the Angry Inch, an adaptation of his 1998 stage musical of the same name. Hedwig tells the story of an East German gay man named Hansel Schmidt who falls in love with American soldier Luther Robinson. Schmidt learns that if he were to marry Robinson, he would be able to travel home to America with his new husband. Unfortunately, same-sex marriage was not a reality in East Germany or the United States at the time, so Schmidt decided to subject himself to sexual reassignment surgery in order to be able to marry Robinson. Despite the sacrifices made by Schmidt—now going by the name Hedwig Robinson—the marriage falls apart, leaving Hedwig to reconcile with her new reality, all the while performing in a glam rock band. The film explores these gender-related themes, focusing on what it means to be a man or a woman, and finding oneself.

In 2003, Showtime produced Soldier's Girl, a story based on the lives of transsexual performer Calpernia Addams and her boyfriend, U.S. Army Private First Class Barry Winchell. In 1999, Winchell was murdered by his fellow soldiers after they learned of his relationship with Addams. This tragedy ignited criticisms of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, instituted just five years earlier. Congress would repeal the policy in 2011, granting gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals the right to serve openly in the military. As of this writing, transgender individuals are still prohibited from serving in the military.

In 2005's Transamerica, Felicity Huffman plays Bree, a trans woman who learns just a week before undergoing sexual reassignment surgery that she fathered a son years earlier. The film follows Bree's journey across the country with her newly found teenage son, and focuses on the complexity of human relationships and what it means to be a family.

Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, The Weinstein Company

The portrayal of transgender individuals has frequently been defamatory, inaccurate, and based on outdated stereotypes. In a review of more than 100 episodes featuring a transgender character over a 10 year span, LGBT media watchdog GLAAD found that in more than half of surveyed TV episodes, trans characters were portrayed in a negative or defamatory light, and only 12 percent were deemed "groundbreaking, fair, and accurate." The organization went on to highlight specific instances of negative trans representation on TV, which included shows like CSI, The Cleveland Show, andNip/Tuck.

The past few years have seen a rise in the number of positive portrayals of trans characters. Even more importantly, there has been an increase in the number of trans actors and actresses cast in mainstream shows.

From 2007 to 2008, transgender actress Candis Cayne had a recurring role on ABC's Dirty Sexy Money, in which she portrayed a woman named Carmelita, the mistress of a high-profile politician. Cayne's performance illustrated some of the pain and shame trans women and their straight male partners often face, as well as the elevated risk of violence these women face. From 2013 to 2014, Cayne appeared in three episodes of CBS' Elementary, a modern take on Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

In 2013, Netflix premiered Orange Is the New Black, a comedy/drama about life inside a women's prison. The show features transgender woman Laverne Cox in the role of Sophia Burset, one of the inmates at the prison. Prior to appearing on OITNB, Cox had appeared on a couple of reality TV shows, as well as episodes of Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and HBO's Bored to Death. For the most part, these roles embodied many of the problematic elements outlined in GLAAD's study. Her role on OITNB, however, broke from many of those stereotypes, and while not perfect, has done much to bring trans awareness to the mainstream. Last year, Cox became the first out trans individual to be nominated for an Emmy in an acting category.

In June of 2014, The Matrix creators Lana and Andy Wachowski unveiled the cast list for their upcoming Netflix sci-fi drama series Sense 8. Among those cast is Jamie Clayton, a transgender actress who had previously appeared on HBO's Hung and TRANSform Me, a makeover reality TV show featuring Clayton, Cox, and Nina Poon; all transgender women. Lana Wachowski, herself, is a transgender woman, having come out publicly in 2012.

Years from now, it's entirely possible that Cox, Cayne, and Clayton will be heralded as pioneers of the golden age of trans media representation in scripted television, a format in evolution. As these women and other trans people find themselves part of the entertainment industry, they will be better suited to mold coverage, and reduce inaccuracies and stereotypes.

In theory, documentaries are the one format where individuals can most directly tell their own stories. Unfortunately, in both long- and short-form documentaries, trans lives have been portrayed in similarly sensationalistic ways as they are in scripted endeavors. Many of these tropes—trans women shown putting on makeup, a laser focus on surgical procedures, and other common themes of trans documentaries—have become so prevalent that they've prompted viewers to create their own "Trans Documentary Drinking Game."

Nonetheless, there are documentaries that have been done right, such as 2007's Red Without Blue, which focuses on a pair of identical twins, one of whom eventually comes out as transgender. The film manages to avoid more stereotypical tropes and keep the focus on some of the struggles many trans people face in navigating familial relationships after coming out.

Other films, such as the 2011 Chaz Bono documentary Becoming Chaz or 1990's Paris Is Burning, have received critical acclaim. In the case of Paris is Burning, success came mostly in the form of its cult following. Paris is Burning stands apart from many of the other trans documentaries, by focusing not only on trans individuals, but on the larger, LGBT culture found in New York City's mid-to-late 1980s ball scene.

Last year, Laverne Cox and Laura Jane Grace each released their own trans documentary series, titled The T Word and True Trans with Laura Jane Grace, respectively. One only hopes these seres will pave the way for more relatable, human representations of trans people in both documentaries and broader pop culture.

Last April, it was announced that actor and recent Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn, Les Misérables, The Theory of Everything) would be playing the role of Lili Elbe in the upcoming film adaptation of The Danish Girl. Elbe was a transgender woman who, in the early 1930s, underwent one of the first documented sexual reassignment surgeries. While Redmayne's work has been consistently well-received, his casting in The Danish Girl raised concerns. Will he be able to accurately portray the film's subject.

In an interview with E!, Redmayne is quoted as saying, "Even though it is period and under completely different circumstances than today, I'm meeting many women from the trans community and hearing their experiences. I have put on dresses and wigs and makeup. I'm beginning to embark on that and trying to find out who she is."

Few question the value of speaking to trans women about undertaking the role, but Redmayne's comment set off red flags. Does he think gender identity is nothing more than "dresses and wigs and makeup?"

This statement harkened back to Leto's Dallas Buyers Club acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Awards, where he said, "I'd like to use this opportunity to clear up a few things. I did not ever use any prosthetics in this film. That tiny little Brazilian bubble butt was all mine. It was a very transformative role, and I had to do a lot of things to prepare. One of the things I did was wax my entire body including my eyebrows. I'm just fortunate that it wasn't a period piece so I didn't have to do full Brazilian."

This idea, that appearance and adherence to gender norms are intrinsically linked to one's gender identity, is one of the very stereotypes that advocates for trans rights frequently look to dispel. While having trans characters and trans themes featured in Hollywood is seen as a generally positive development for trans people, casting actors who don't seem to have a real grasp on the characters they portray can be a cringeworthy experience to watch.

Will Redmayne do Lili Elbe justice? It's certainly possible. Would it have been nice to see a trans actress in that role, or for the film's script to have been written by a trans woman? Absolutely. But progress, here as everywhere, is incremental.

As we enter 2015, the question of whether modern day portrayals of trans individuals will be remembered as accurate or offensive remains an open question. As portrayals of trans individuals become more accurate, so does trans perception in the public eye. Progress is invariably linked to portrayal, and upcoming years will prove pivotal to the state of trans rights in the immediate future.

Follow Parker Molloy on Twitter.

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