Reaching the transgender tipping pointMovie Review Thursday, June 25th, 2015
This time it’s different.
Since Christine Jorgensen became an international celebrity in 1952 as the supposed, but not actual, first recipient of a sex change operation, the media has been fascinated, titillated and afraid of transgender people, and the images the media produced expressed these emotions. The broadcast news and film have long dominated the creation of transgender images, from Jorgensen to Caitlyn Jenner, from Myra Breckenridge to Boys Don’t Cry. But transgender people have been characters on television shows for nearly 40 years; the first was Linda Gray’s transsexual fashion model on the maligned Norman Lear comedic soap opera All That Glitters. Almost always, the transgender character has been minor (one or two episodes), depicted in simplistic ways (as evil or saintly), and played by a cisgender man or woman (who then brags about the acting challenge). Television representation is not everything, but it’s important, because in our hyper-mediated world, TV produces many of the images that end up representing reality for many people.
We’ve certainly seen some laudable representations, like Max on the L Word and Unique on Glee, but more often than not the transgender character is there as a comedic site gag (androgynous Pat on Saturday Night Live) or as a devious criminal foil (serial killer Paul Millander on CSI). This past year or so, however, has seen an unprecedented number of complex characters on television dramas, all on high-profile shows. Along with the arrival of Caitlyn Jenner, the continued celebrity of Laverne Cox, and the ever-increasing successes of activists such as Shannon Minter and Janet Mock on both local and national stages, these latest characters have helped us reach, as Time magazine claimed, the transgender tipping point.
Arguably, this new trend in transgender representation started with Cox’s depiction of Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black, Netflix’s popular comedic drama about the inmates at a federal women’s prison. While not one of the official series regulars, Sophia has appeared in some way in almost every episode and had one episode devoted to the story of how she ended up in prison. She had stolen credit cards to finance her sex reassignment surgery, and her young son turned her in, afraid to lose his father. Sophia is one of the prison’s hair stylists, and she’s gorgeous, confident and stubborn. While she’s a criminal, her crime is depicted as morally justifiable because she felt she had to do it to realize her true self.
Sophia is what we’d call a “positive” representation, and while they’ve existed on TV before – though rarely written with such complexity and sympathy – Sophia was different in one very important way: She is played by an actual transgender woman, something that is extremely rare in Hollywood. Its rareness is, in fact, justifiably infuriating for transgender people. Cox has used the fame garnered from this role, for which she received an Emmy nomination last year, to become a spokesperson for the transgender community, which she has done with brilliance and grace. (Her blog entry on Caitlyn Jenner is the best commentary on Jenner’s importance written so far.) She ended up on the cover of Time, along with the tagline “transgender tipping point.”
Transparent, which debuted last summer on Amazon, is not the first television show to be led by a transgender character – that would be the little watched but dazzling Hit & Miss starring Chloe Sevigny as an Irish transgender hitwoman – but it is certainly the most famous. While I doubt that it’s as widely watched as the amount of press it’s received would indicate, Transparent quickly became a cultural event, one of the few times a transgender-themed work has been embraced by both LGBT audiences and the general public. Creator Jill Soloway, who based the show about her father and her family’s reactions to his transition to her, created a character for the ages in Moira Pfefferman.
Jeffrey Tambor’s exquisite portrayal of Moira, who was born Morton and decides to finally transition after retiring, is worthy of its extraordinary praise. Moira is complicated; she’s funny, heartbreaking, loving, brave, as well as selfish, mopey and inconsistent. Meaning, she’s a fully realized human being, which is something few television characters are. That said, I am one of the few people who doesn’t like the show simply because Moira’s children are dreadful narcissists, and they take up entirely too much screen time. The presence of supporting characters played by transgender actors (particularly Alexandra Billings) helps, but they all needed more screen time.
I also wanted a lot more of Nomi, the heroic transgender hacker in Sense8, the Wachowski’s (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) Netflix science fiction series about eight men and women around the world psychically linked to each other. Not only is Jamie Clayton, the fabulous young actress who plays Nomi, a transgender woman, so is Lana Wachowski, one of the show’s creators; their collaboration, despite the fantastical concept for the show, brought a grounded authenticity to Nomi that makes her as revolutionary as Sophia and Moira.
However, I think Nomi is even more important. She is fully, thrillingly sexual. This is something neither Sophia nor Moira have been allowed to be – yet. And no transgender characters of any depth have made it to the major broadcast networks or any show with more than a couple million viewers; and transgender men have barely been seen on the small screen at all. We may be at the tipping point, but we still have a long way to go.
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