By Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s Entertainment Media Strategist
In the latest installment of its annual Trans Images on TV report released Tuesday, GLAAD finds some improvement over the previous year’s results when it comes to transgender representation on scripted television. This year, GLAAD reviewed 13 new scripted episodes with trans characters that have aired since November 2013. In a slight improvement, 46 percent (six) of the 13 episodes tracked were considered defamatory. This is a drop of 8 percent from the previous two reports. Another 39 percent (five) fell in the range of problematic to acceptable. But still only two episodes (15 percent) were considered outstanding: Drop Dead Diva‘s “Identity Crisis,” and Orphan Black‘s “Variable and Full of Perturbation.” Both episodes focused on transgender men, which is quite unusual as trans men remain largely invisible in mainstream media.
This report began in 2012 when GLAAD examined 102 transgender-inclusive television episodes from the previous 10 years. The report was updated last year with 20 new episodes that aired from November 2012 to November 2013. Combining the two reports, GLAAD found that 54 percent of all trans characters on episodic television were outright defamatory, another 34 percent ranged from simply problematic to acceptable, with only 12 percent of trans representations good enough to be considered outstanding.
There was only one episode this year in which a trans character was portrayed as a victim, and none where they were portrayed as the villain. In the previous two reports, 35 percent of episodes tracked included characters classified as victims, while 19 percent of tracked episodes included trans characters in the role of murderers or villains. Additionally, only one character this year was portrayed as a sex worker, Venus Van Dam on FX’s Sons of Anarchy. This is an improvement over previous years in which the most common profession for trans characters was sex worker.
Unfortunately, anti-transgender slurs, language, and dialogue continue to be prevalent in television. Of the 13 episodes tracked, 39 percent (five) of them contained problematic language – often spoken by popular or sympathetic characters with whom the audience is supposed to identify. These slurs typically go unchallenged by anyone else in the episode.
Highlights and Lowlights
– Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva included a standout episode in the series’ final season featuring Jane defending a transgender elementary school student whose school will not allow him to use the proper restroom. While the series has come to an end, the episode was another in a long line of memorable Drop Dead Diva episodes which included a diverse range of LGBT characters and stories.
– BBC America’s clone drama Orphan Black introduced a trans clone in the most recent season. Tony Sawicki is a grifter who finds out he is a clone after the tragic loss of a friend. He meets the main protagonists who decide he should be sent away for his own safety, but with means to possibly return in the upcoming third season.
– CBS’ Elementary saw the return of trans housekeeper Ms. Hudson (played by trans actress Candis Cayne) for a single episode, and we hope she will return again in this new season. Ms. Hudson is a multi-dimensional character whose identity and storyline don’t hinge on her gender identity, and she is precisely the type of transgender character we need to see more of on television.
– On the other hand, too many comedies continued to include transgender people as the easy, lazy punch line. FX’s animated comedy Chozen about a gay rapper trying to rebuild his career after getting out of prison included an episode with Chozen and his rival Phantasm trying to ruin each other’s reputations by setting each other up with trans people and selling the photos to tabloids. While in this episode both of the trans people are aware of the set up and agree to the plan, the idea that being with a transgender person will ruin someone’s career is obviously offensive. The series was cancelled after its first season.
– TV One’s Love That Girl aired an episode centering on the core cast of friends scheming to break up the date of their friend Latrell and a beautiful woman when they found out the woman happened to be trans. Even worse, the trans woman herself was portrayed as being deceptive for refusing to disclose her transgender status before the date began.
– As noted in previous reports, Fox’s Family Guy continues to feature defamatory humor and this year saw a lazy visual joke in which Quagmire asks to spend the night with the Griffins because he “made eye contact with a transvestite at a bar and he followed me home.” In a flashback, we see a person with a deep voice, five o’clock shadow, and a hairy chest wearing fishnet stockings and a corset yelling at Quagmire from the street.
– CBS’ Two and a Half Men had a two-episode storyline in December 2013 with Alan dating a trans woman. Initially the show seemed to go in the right direction, with Alan being surprised that his new girlfriend was trans, but happy to continue dating her because she was attractive and they had a lot in common. However, it quickly went downhill as the numerous jokes about Paula’s “male traits” were played for laughs at her expense.
GLAAD did not include the South Park episode “The Cissy” in their analysis because the episode did not include any actual transgender characters. The episode was about Cartman pretending to be transgender so that he could have access to the girls’ bathroom because it was cleaner. The school responded by giving him his own bathroom, which he loved even more. As part of this storyline, the show took the opportunity to explain to viewers the difference between actual transgender people who have a gender identity other than the sex assigned to them at birth, and Cartman’s obvious ruse.
Recurring Characters and Storylines
For this report GLAAD’s analysis only includes one-off or non-recurring transgender characters and storylines, but there were a few regular scripted transgender characters that deserve recognition. ABC Family’s The Fosters introduced Cole, a trans boy uncomfortably living in a group foster home for girls. Cole is notably played by a trans actor, Tom Phelan. Transgender student Unique (Alex Newell) was a series regular on the most recent season of Fox’s Glee. The show transferred focus to New York late last season, but the upcoming final season will see a return to Ohio and may feature Unique again. Showtime’s House of Lies most recent season included Lex (Bex Taylor-Klaus), a self-identified “boi” who dated gender non-conforming teen Roscoe.
Streaming services continue to lead in developing groundbreaking series with prominent trans characters. Amazon’s newest original series, Transparent, follows a Los Angeles family as Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) announces her transition to her kids and ex-wife, and has received rave reviews from fans and critics alike. Series creator Jill Soloway also made fostering a trans-inclusive environment on set a priority and hired several trans actors, crew members, and extras. Transparent was recently picked up for a second season to air in 2015. The Netflix hit original series Orange is the New Black returned this summer for a second season with trans inmate Sophia Burset remaining a recurring character. Transgender actress Laverne Cox made history when she was nominated for an Emmy for her work in the series. Orange is the New Black‘s third season will premiere in 2015.
Casting Trans Actors to Play Non-Trans Roles
Notably, this year has also seen welcome examples of trans actresses cast in non-trans roles including Laverne Cox on Faking It and Erika Ervin on American Horror Story: Freak Show. Transparent also cast trans actors to play small non-trans roles in the show. GLAAD hopes other television shows will cast talented trans actors to play roles where their transgender history is irrelevant to the role they are being asked to play.
Stay tuned, The Next Family has an interview coming soon with Faith Soloway, one of the writer’s of Transparent.
This article was brought to you by The Seattle Lesbian