The new wave of transgender texts

It is not exaggerating to say that we are witnessing the dawn of a golden age of transgender representation. The trans directors the Wachowski sisters (plus token man J Michael Strazcynski) created Sense8, a Netflix series featuring a transgender actress in a leading role. Trans actress Laverne Cox has been nominated for an Emmy in her role in prison drama Orange is the New Black, as well as helming the cover of Time magazine’s special issue on ‘The Transgender Tipping Point’. And last Friday, Her Story, a web series written, directed and acted by transgender women, was nominated for an Emmy in the category of ‘Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series’.

And then there is Transparent. Like Her Story, Transparent was nominated for a number of Emmys last week. But where the aforementioned texts charted the emergence of trans writers, directors and actors, the success of Transparent – a text created by a cis (that is, not trans) woman, whose lead character is played by a cis man illustrates that as far as trans texts have come, there is still a long way to go.

Previously in Overland I have made the point that visual representations of transgender people have historically been a form of ventriloquism – written, directed and acted by cis people, and motivated by cis desires and anxieties about gender and sexuality that have little to do with actual transgender experience. I said: ‘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.’ It is in this textual tradition that Transparent unfortunately falls, with its lead character Maura, a trans woman played by a man, Jeffrey Tambor, an actor best known for playing the patriarch on Arrested Development. Queer theorist Judith Butler has recently cogently pointed out that Transparent, while very good on representing Judaism, harks back to The Birdcage in its level of cliched representation of transness.

By casting a cis man, Transparent excludes itself from the most basic aspect of transgender existence – embodiment. In doing so, it shows that it has no interest in transgender materiality, for transgender representation remains solely at the semiotic, even spectral, level. Of course, not all transgender women go on hormones or have surgery, but most do, and it is a sign of Transparent’s biases that it did not cast an actress whose body actually signals ‘female’ to its audience. It is little wonder then that so many reviews of the show misgender the titular character Maura.

By contrast, Her Story and Sense8 are showing that trans-helmed representations are a very different beast indeed. Importantly, the success of both series has shown that the typical Hollywood excuse for not casting transgender actors – lack of familiarity – is no impediment to finding an audience. Indeed, while Her Story and Sense8 have passionate trans fanbases, the community has greeted Transparent with a collective yawn.

Sense8 is notable for being a major series on Netflix, vaguely science fiction in premise, that features a trans woman (played by trans actress Jamie Clayton) as a major character, Nomi. It breaks new ground in trans representation in showing that character in a loving relationship, having sex, hacking computers – and having an uncanny connection to the other seven characters who make up the ensemble cast. This is remarkable, for the simple reason that transgender characters generally appear, when they do appear, as Issues Characters for the other more important cis characters to emote all over. They do not have partners, jobs or skills, let alone be a part of casts with silly science fiction conceits.

It is arguable that the new ground Sense8 has broken is only possible because it is helmed by two trans women, Lily and Lana Wachowski. Queer transgender experience pervades the text, from the hot sex Nomi and her partner Amanita have, to the way transphobic arguments are rehearsed and undercut by the text. The Wachowski sisters made their reputation in Hollywood pre-transition with movies like The Matrix, sneaking into a position of power in an industry not historically kind to female directors of any gender history.

Also making waves recently is the aforementioned web series Her Story, written and helmed by trans woman Jen Richard, and cis woman Laura Zak. Her Story is a romance series about the dating lives of two trans women in their thirties – Paige, a lawyer for LAMBDA, and Violet, a waitress. True to the genre, both experience a variety of misadventures, some of which are specific to trans experience, before finding love with their partners by the end of the show. Trans writer Julia Serano has described the two archetypes of trans women as either ‘deceptive’ (attractive trans women who pass as cis and fool unsuspecting men into sleeping with them) or ‘pathetic’ (ugly men in dresses who fool nobody with their laughable attempts at femininity), archetypes which describe representations of trans women both onscreen and off. Sense8 and Her Story fit into neither of those tropes.

In Her Story we see the impossibility of the transgender closet – either be out, and thus have one’s gender treated as illusory, or be in and later accused of deception. ‘Any kind of disclosure is complicated,’ Paige tells Violet, advising her to go slowly with her love interest, Allie. And yet, Paige’s transness is not a source of disgust for her potential boyfriend, nor for Allie either. Paige is a particularly groundbreaking character: a beautiful, accomplished woman of colour who passes as cis and thus must decide when, or if, to out herself to the man who pursues her. Violet, on the other hand, is known to be trans from the start by Allie, who finds herself falling in love with a trans woman and confronting the transphobic prejudices of the LGBT community of which she has until now comfortably been a part. Indeed, what is interesting about both Her Story and Sense8 is the way they feature trans characters who are also queer – and in relationships with other queer women. This is in itself a bold new step in trans representation. By contrast, Transparent’s image of the late transitioner living a heterosexual life pre-transition seems painfully stuck in the 80s.

But this new wave of trans representations, while heartening, has a few blind spots too. There are few portrayals of transgender men in leading roles in popular culture, and few non-binary characters, too. There is a crying need for a diversity of transgender representation, for trans characters of colour, for trans characters with disabilities, for nuanced portrayals of sex workers. What is clear from Sense8 and Her Story is that trans-authored texts are vital in producing worthwhile and meaningful representations of transgender people. The age of cis ventriloquism is coming to an end, and not a moment too soon.


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Emily McAvan

Emily McAvan is an Australian literary critic and theorist.

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