Forget The Crying Game. Forget Transamerica. Forget The Dallas Buyer’s Club. Dear god, forget Transparent. Forget every gross-out movie and sitcom plot and T-word punchline you have ever seen. They are all, in a word, bullshit.
The history of the representation of transgender women onscreen is not a history at all, because it does not even represent the group ostensibly being shown. Every man in a dress (almost always a man, TransAmerica’s Felicity Huffman aside) is a display of mimicry – a projection of anxiety and desire – that has everything to do with its cisgender (that is, not transgender) writers, producers, actors and audience and nothing to do with transgender experience. Just as we do not admit blackface to the history of representation of African Americans except as an instance of white racism, neither should we consider this history of cisgender ventriloquism as anything other than sheer, blatant transphobia. How can we when there are no trans writers, directors, producers or actors in this substantial body of work? When have we ever seen trans people as love interests, as friends or family members, as people with jobs besides sex work and hairdressing, as people with talents and quirks and foibles, and you know, the stuff that makes up character? Not only are these representations transphobic, but they are bad art, revealing nothing of the diversity of trans women’s lives.
But that is slowly beginning to change. Last year, Time magazine breathlessly declared that we have reached a ‘transgender tipping point’, featuring the lovely Laverne Cox on its cover. Cox is one of the stars of Netflix’s women’s prison drama Orange Is the New Black, where she plays a trans hairdresser. Cox’s role in this ensemble cast has been rightly considered important, and a significant milestone in trans representation – finally, a trans woman of colour playing a trans character in a major television series!
But the radicalism of Orange is, in the end, muted because the series takes place in a prison, an aberrant space in which there is a sense of the audience as voyeurs on the lives of the disenfranchised – poor women, people of colour, queer and trans characters. As great as Laverne Cox is, she’s still a hairdresser in prison, right where cis people think we belong.
Even more significant than Orange, though, is the new science-fiction series Sense8, which is co-created and directed by trans woman Lana Wachowski, along with her Matrix co-director brother Andy and Babylon 5 creator J Michael Straczynski. In Sense8, trans actor Jamie Clayton plays Nomi, a trans-woman hacker with a supernatural connection to the seven other main characters in the ensemble cast. Nomi lives in San Francisco with her girlfriend Amanita (played by Doctor Who’s Freema Agyeman) and, through the sci-fi conceit of the show, she is taken to various exotic locations around the world. After an accident at Pride, Nomi is held against her will by a doctor and her transphobic family. She escapes by becoming mentally united with a cop in Chicago and ushered from the hospital by a disguised Amanita. In short, Nomi is just a regular character in a slightly silly action series: while being trans affects how she moves through the world, ultimately she is not defined by her transition.
In Frames of War, theorist Judith Butler has talked about the way that media ‘frames’ its subjects, so that those who appear onscreen become important, and when they are lost, grievable. It is one of the more interesting features of Sense8 that Nomi always seems to be crying, traumatised by her mistreatment by the medical profession, her transphobic family, the police, childhood bullies, even a second-wave trans-misogynistic lesbian feminist at Pride. This crying serves to feminise Nomi (perhaps even excessively) but it also must be understood in its properly pedagogical sense: the Sense8 directors are teaching us the audience to empathise with a trans character, something that cis audiences have never needed to do until now.
Moreover, in Amanita’s steadfast love for Nomi, we are witnessing something hitherto unheard of on TV: a trans woman who is loved by another woman, and is, hence, loveable. We see Amanita stand up to the transphobe at Pride, fiercely protective of her girlfriend. We see Amanita in the hospital where Nomi is being held against her will, disguised as a nurse and trying to free her. And lastly, we see the two of them having sex, complete with lube-coated strap-on. All of these are undoubtedly firsts for TV, where the representations of trans women (when they occur) are relentlessly heterosexual. It is no coincidence that all of this has happened on a show co-created, written and directed by a transgender woman, and it sets a new standard by which to measure representations of trans women onscreen
Of course, Sense8 is not perfect by any means. It makes copious use of Nomi’s deadname, the name she was given at birth, and while this is deployed to show her mother’s lack of acceptance of her child, there is also a scene with a scummy hacker who declares he would ‘totally do’ Nomi now that she’s a woman, which feels like it’s making its mileage from the idea that it’s laughable to desire a trans woman. In another scene, a flashback to her childhood where she is given second-degree burns by a group of bullies after swimming, Nomi states that she was in the locker room ‘with the other boys’, ungendering her as a woman. Many trans women feel that they have never been boys or men, never been part of a group of ‘other’ boys; it’s a perception that only occurs through a cis lens on a trans life. Despite this slip up, the images in the scene flash between shots of a young boy and Nomi now, underlining that she was always there as a girl in some sense.
But Sense8 is radical in so many ways that it seems poor form to quibble too much about a few missteps. So, if you missed Transamerica or The Dallas Buyer’s Club, don’t worry – the history of trans women onscreen really begins now.