Over the past few years we’ve seen transgender representation in mainstream film and TV increase, while at the same time remaining worryingly one-dimensional and including little diversity. Trans people are often shoehorned into a plot as “the trans person”, limiting their narrative or personal story to their transness alone.
The most recent example is India Willoughby on Celebrity Big Brother. India is a news reader for Channel 5, who happens to be a trans woman. While she entered the house along with the other women on the show, it was quite clear that she was the trans woman of the group as opposed to a news reporter who happens to be trans.
Her introduction to the show was heavily focused on her being trans, including a full disclosure of whether or not she has had surgery. On the official website of Celebrity Big Brother she is referred to by her birth name and referred to as “Britain’s first transgender television newsreader”, making us wonder how you can tune into this “transgender television” station she apparently reads for.
Housemates Rachel Johnson and Amanda Barrie asking her if they could “see her tits” also shows how she is treated differently to the other women in the house. Obviously Rachel and Amanda were curious simply because India was trans. They would never have asked any other women on show to flash their breasts, as it would be seen as completely inappropriate. But India’s body becomes a spectacle and an object of curiosity, simply because she’s trans.
By being portrayed as the trans woman of the show, Willoughby seems to be expected to represent an entire community of people, which is unfair and illogical. It’s especially challenging when the person who is given that responsibility has proven to be very controversial within her own community.
Willoughby has a history of being dismissive and disrespectful of other trans people, saying non binary identities “cheapen the cause” and speaking against gender neutral facilities and uniforms. Her ideas suggest that the only trans people worthy of respect are those who have had genital surgery and conform neatly to society’s expectations of gender presentation and identity.
While this series of Celebrity Big Brother falls into this tired old narrative of the trans experience, they have simultaneously managed to portray one of the best representations of trans people and gender diversity a mainstream show has done in years.
This was done with the addition of Courtney Act (or Shane when out of drag) to the show. Courtney is a drag artist that uses she/her pronouns when in drag, but identifies as a gender fluid person that uses they/them pronouns. India and Shane interact with the other housemates in almost an opposite way – Shane takes time to respond to questions in a friendly and an education way, whereas India spent most of her time responding brashly and storming off. They represent two very different sides of gender and gender identity, where Shane seems to be inclusive and accepting of all identities and India seems dismissive.
Time again, we are thrusted the tired trope of trans people on operating tables (most recently in Transformation Street) and older trans women seem to be the most common depiction of trans people in the media and on TV, despite the trans community being so vast and varied.
As non binary trans people, it’s incredibly tedious to keep tuning into prime time shows promising “insight into the lives of trans people”, with TV stations and production companies patting themselves on the back for being diverse and inclusive. We all tune in, hopeful to see ourselves represented, but we usually end up being disappointed given the lack of representation of trans people with disabilities, trans people of colour, non binary people and trans masculine people in particular.
We have all seen documentaries about trans people’s medical procedures – sometimes described as “transitional porn” – and watched in awe as trans people get the surgeries that they always dreamed of that will finally “make them whole” in a dramatic, tear-jerking story that usually has tired tropes such as old photos, family members struggling with it and most importantly self hatred. We’ve all seen it. At least three times, right?
Documentaries about the medical aspect of being trans can be useful in many ways and offer people an insight into the lives of some trans people. But they portray a very superficial narrative of trans people conforming to society’s roles of men and women, going to great lengths to “look” and “be” like cis men and cis women both physically and mentally – in every sense of the word.
Viewers want to see trans people be super happy about conforming to gender expectations rather than talking about serious issues such as discrimination, suicide rates, violence and stigma. We don’t talk about issues such as the reform of the Gender Recognition Act (2004) – a piece of legislation that forces trans people to be diagnosed with a mental disorder to change their birth certificate. Instead, there’s a lovely segment where we can talk about how pretty trans women look with the right amount of make-up.
The only way we can create a more inclusive mainstream media is by having more trans people involved in the creative process. We need trans people to have significant roles in all steps of production so that our issues and stories are told authentically. Channels and platforms that commission content must demand involvement of trans people and give opportunities to trans production teams and trans film makers to develop content about other trans people.
When producers decide to include a token trans person in a show you end up with people like Willoughby expected to speak on behalf of all trans people, which is deeply problematic. Instead, we must have a broader and more realistic representation of the trans experience, which is portrayed through our eyes, not the limited “cis filter” we’re currently enduring.
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