What's Next for Transgender Media After 'Transparent'?
How shows from the Wachowskis' <i>Sense8</i> to the Emmy-winning <i>Her Story</i> are propelling trans narratives beyond transition.
Season three of Amazon's widely acclaimed series Transparent premiered Friday. The week before, the show earned its second cache of Emmy awards, including the second consecutive Best Director award for creator Jill Soloway, and the second Best Actor award for Jeffrey Tambor's portrayal of Maura Pfefferman, a transgender woman. They came as further affirmation that the show, roundly praised for bringing a nuanced portrayal of trans narratives to a massive audience, is indeed breaking new ground in Hollywood.
And for that reason, too, it has become a lightning rod in the ongoing debate over the politics of transgender roles in television and film. As seen in last month's uproar over cisgender actor Matt Bomer's casting in a trans role for the upcoming movie Anything, or previous controversies over Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer's Club and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, the viewing public is no longer content to let the underrepresented trans actor community miss out on roles they can play with the grace afforded by lived experience.
Certainly, Soloway's efforts to include trans people widely throughout her production team—in season three, the series employed 50 trans or gender-nonconforming people at all levels of production, up from 25 in season one—is more than laudable: It's a necessary step forward in advancing trans voices at every step in the creative process. And Tambor's performance is many shades more palatable than Leto's and Redmayne's.
But now that Transparent has proven trans narratives can be both inclusive and adored by fans, what's next? Beyond the ongoing push to allow trans people to tell our own stories, the next frontier in advancing trans portrayals on the screen will be moving past storylines about the transition process, and allowing even subtler shades of trans experience to emerge in moving, artful media. Thankfully, some of that progress is already here, in the form of new shows and films committed to authenticity in trans storytelling.
Earlier this year, the independent web series Her Story caught fire among both cisgender and trans audiences, due in no small part to a richness of details and nuance absent from even Transparent. It focuses on the budding friendship and romance between Allie, a cisgender queer reporter, and Violet, a trans woman she's writing about for a local gay publication, and the dating challenges encountered by Paige, an attractive, successful black trans woman. It's been lauded by trans critics for the depth of its portrayals and earned an Emmy nod this year in the newly created short-form category.
Where Soloway and Tambor capture trans experiences with broad strokes, Richards and Her Story are able to hit a deep emotional impact in far shorter episodes, because seeing trans lives through trans eyes brings a new measure of reality to its story. Further, the show pulls away from the well-trod transition narrative, allowing viewers to see trans people simply as they live—working, bonding, and dating.
It's hard to overstate the need to pull away from the transition narrative in trans-focused media. Transition, while obviously a pivotal part of many trans lives, represents just a tiny fraction of their lived experiences. The multitude of films and shows that focus on that narrow band of experience can feel lurid, like the interest of cis audiences hitches solely on the fascination of watching "boy" become "girl" or vice versa.
A small minority of people can count a trans person among those they know personally, and media portrayals often become their only exposure to trans lives and experiences. Reducing those existences to just prurient transformation spectacle is neither progressive nor inventive storytelling. The spectacle is enhanced when cisgender men play trans women, as seeing said actor "en femme" becomes part of the draw. And seeing trans characters portrayed as worthy objects of affection and desire, without disparaging them as sex objects, is still a fairly radical notion—one that must permeate all levels of the American film, television, and media production industry.
Beyond Her Story, there's Sense8, the sci-fi drama produced by Lana and Lilly Wachowski for Netflix. It features a queer trans woman named Nomi, played by trans actress Jamie Clayton, whose story was borne from the Wachowskis' very real trans experiences. She's shown dealing with an unaccepting family, navigating harassment in queer spaces, and having a beautifully complex, loving relationship with her girlfriend. Boy Meets Girl(2014), with trans actress Michelle Hendley playing the lead role of Ricky, a young woman exploring the complexities of same-sex attraction, manages to dodge familiar transition tropes to deliver a warm, supportive vision of transgender romance. And Doubt, an upcoming courtroom drama from CBS, features Laverne Cox playing Cameron Wirth, a high-powered trans woman attorney. With trans novelist Imogen Binnie in the writers' room, and guest appearances from Her Story creators Jen Richards and Angelica Ross, trans critics have reason to be optimistic about the show's potential.
Shows like Her Story, Sense8, Doubt, Boy Meets Girl, and others depict trans stories on their own, without having to be filtered through a cisgender lens. And as it should be, because trans people are not something that happen to cisgender people—we're simply people who exist. When the point is reached where transgender characters are portrayed by transgender performers with scripts that transgender people create, the opportunity will arise to bring television and film with a deep understanding of the humanity of trans people that is so routinely lost in cis-produced and -cast media seen to date.
To his credit, even Tambor recognizes the need to bring transgender performers into the mainstream, declaring his hope to be the last cisgender actor to play a transgender character in his Emmy acceptance speech. And Soloway feels similarly, telling Vulture that "the time has come where it's unacceptable for cis men to play trans women." If there's to be hope for quality trans media, let's hope they're both right—and that trans directors, producers, writers, and crew are brought on board with them.
Follow Mari Brighe on Twitter.