Looking at Cinema’s Treatment of Transgender People

Image Credit: Martin Kraft via Wikimedia Commons

Laura Kiely looks at the history of transgender representation in cinema and highlights the need for better cinematic treatment in the current social and political climate

During a Tory conference speech on the 4th of September 2023, British Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made his anti-trans agenda clear, announcing to the predominantly politically right-wing audience in attendance that, “We shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be, they can’t, a man is a man a woman is a woman – that’s just common sense.” Sunak used such emotive language and essentialist polemic to elicit applause from the crowd. The British Conservative party has never shared overt support for the LGBTQ+ community; where the conservative party functions under the guise of tradition, their agendas overlook the material well-being of citizens that conform to restrictively normative standards, and there is arguably little difference in the conservative politicians’ treatment of the LGBTQ+ community now and in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher’s stifling regime. 

The experiences of transgender people have not been facilitated by popular culture in recent years, especially for those who grew up loving the Harry Potter franchise. The disparaging comments made by JK Rowling in early 2020 have attracted both criticism and defensiveness. While she remains an influential figure, she has come under fire for her transphobic views and has left many to ask if they ought to separate the art from the artist. In the wake of such vitriol from Rowling, whose footprint in literature and film has been universally recognised, it is paramount to encourage positive and authentic portrayals and counteract the negative impact of such rhetoric. It is essential to draw our attention back to the Western film industry’s history of representation of transgender people and to assess its evolution. Unfortunately, Sunak and Rowling’s sentiments are still expressed to an extent in the treatment of transgender people by mainstream cinema. 

From its inception, cinema has widely relied on ridiculing cross-dressing characters for ostensible comedic effect. This kind of clumsy representation established a transphobic trope which was repeated in a plethora of comedy films still famous today. Films such as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) and Mrs Doubtfire (1994) feature classic comedy actors in roles that ridicule the transgender community while simultaneously mocking womanhood, thus rendering its societally constructed characteristics as puerile. The difference between representation in these two films and films we consider extremely dated today such as Meet Me at the Fountain (1904) and A Florida Enchantment (1914) are close to none. There is really no exhibition of any progress between those ninety years of global cinema. Films like Soapdish (1991) teach their audience to react to transgender characters with horror and disgust; to see the protagonist as their surrogate with whom they share a reaction of disclosure to some “monstrous secret,” topped off with overwhelmingly offensive vomiting. The problem with this offensive and clumsy representation is that it renders transgender lives not real and unlivable. What we see in film influences how we think about transgender people and inevitably influences our reality and how society treats them. In Disclosure (2020), a Netflix documentary examining the representation of trans people in media, actress and activist Laverne Cox says that; “We see comedians dressing up as women in order to get a job in Tootsie (1982) or affordable housing in the case of Bosom Buddies (1980). These are all real obstacles for actual trans people”. 

The problem with this offensive and clumsy representation is that it renders transgender lives as not real and not livable. 

However, this kind of comedy was transgender representation at its worst and frankly makes comedy one of the genres where transgender people are treated the worst. Films such as Judith of Bethulia (1914), Psycho (1960), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Silence of the Lambs (1991) alienated transgender people further, teaching their audiences to fear them. These films do not feature actual transgender actors or characters, but depict characters who employ cross-dressing as a facet of their “monstrous” guise. With the abysmal lack of real trans representation in film, these fearful depictions became the only reference for most people, yet it seems there were no signs of progress. This dichotomy of horror or comedy has been the cheap go-to for film and television, where the film industry capitalises on trans presence while obstructing their access to  the materials needed to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives. Speaking with a young transgender woman living in Dublin, Sorcha Berrill-Doran says; “I have a lot of feelings about trans representation in film. For the most part, we are used as punchlines at best, and made into villainous monsters at worst. Even ‘good’ representation tends to be written, directed and starring cisgender actors (The Danish Girl (2015) or Boys Don’t Cry (1999).” 

In 2018, the Chilean film A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It stars Daniela Vega, who portrays a transgender woman’s journey of grieving her boyfriend’s death while facing discrimination from his unaccepting family. The film received critical acclaim for its authentic portrayal of being transgender in a society with little social acceptability for queerness. Vega’s performance was particularly praised as it registered a significant advance towards casting transgender people to play transgender roles. It speaks to the distance between comedic and/or horrific representations of transgender people, hopefully representing the beginning of a new era of portraying transgender people as real, complex, and multi-faceted people worthy of having a place in contemporary cinema.