The Magic of Representation: Trans Men on Film

Seeing yourself on a screen can feel magical, but the takes on trans men on film, have been anything but so. Two recent films that have caught my attention are The Assignment and 3 Generations. As a trans guy who has watched everything from Boys Don't Cry to Romeo to By Hook or By Crook and Brace, I know there are so many ways to tell our story. But The Assignment and 3 Generations aren't cutting it.

3 Generations


Movies were my exposure to the queer community long before I let anyone in on the fact that I am trans. But a problem shared by many movies with trans characters at the forefront, particularly this new crop of "trans inclusive movies" is that the characters are described and portrayed through a cisgender lens. From Hillary Swank as Brandon Teena, peeling off an Ace bandage that he had used to bind, (which is the absolutely incorrect way to bind, by the way), all the way to Ray, whose parent's complain loudly with the all too familiar transphobic "Why couldn't she be a butch lesbian?"

First of all, let's get something right, here: the main issue I have with these kinds of movies is not only with their stories, but with the casting of cis actresses in trans male roles. Many trans men characters in television and in movies have been played by cis women. If you plan on adapting trans stories for a movie, at least make the effort to cast, interview, and hire trans people as sensitivity readers.

Secondly, many stories with trans men have been bogged down with tragedy. I see that on display in Boy's Don't Cry, the tragedy of Adam's demise in a car crash in Degrassi, in Daniela Sea's Max Sweeney on The L Word, whose character when on testosterone is portrayed as angry at the world and at his relationships, and in Michelle Rodriguez’s character in The Assignment, who is "forced" to transition.

All of these suggest that when writing these characters, no writer ever spoke with a trans person before, during, or after writing. And when casting these roles, it would be better to have a voice in the characterization by an actual trans person than none at all.

The few 90s televisions series and movies (that are not available by streaming) that do feature trans male characters seem to think it's absolutely necessary for a cis actress to be cast as a trans man, dragged up, and on one occasion, even winning an Academy Award for doing so.* But that's not representation. That's a farce.

If that's how writers and casting directors think of us trans men then, they should see the movies like By Hook or By Crook, Brace, tv shows like The Bold and the Beautiful, and The Fosters, as well as web series that are available to stream like Eden's Garden and Brothers and learn how to tell our stories. Right. Now.

Brothers


The same cis perspective permeates many works in fiction. The line between fact and fiction has been blurred by many writers, which only reveals their own biases and phobias. Because the fact is, I am as real as you are. I don't bind with Ace bandages. As a pre-operative trans man, I don't even bind with a binder. I am not depressed or "filled with roid rage" when on testosterone. I feel like who I've always been: Me. No one "forced me" to transition. I am not a sinner for doing so. I'm not a butch lesbian. Transitioning is not a choice, a race, a want, a controversy, or a fetish, nor am I mentally ill for doing so. Everyone has their own journey in life, and mine is just one of many.

The problem is that writers need to learn how to portray us better by asking us to help and hire us. Some, like The Fosters, Faking It, The L Word, Degrassi, By Hook or By Crook, Brace, Brothers, and Eden's Garden are stepping stones on how to portray trans men in various ways in this format, by casting us as leads in our own stories.

There are plenty of hashtags that have just punctured the surface of this problem. Others, like #TransWritingTips give tips on how to write trans characters better. I can't conjure a spell to help improve the portrayals of trans men on television or in movies. I have fiction for that, and it's up to all of us to point this out when we see it.

Eden's Garden


*On that note, you don't have to tell me how many times trans women have spoken up, on social media and in real life about how their representation is told through a cis lens and how they are left waiting in the wings only to get a Spirit Award or a GLAAD award for bringing awareness to an all too prevalent trope. And it's about time they get cast in their own stories, too.

Eli Knight's picture
on June 1, 2017

GLBTQUAPI blogger, comic book enthusiast, featured in Transgender Today (NYT editorial), contributing writer for Geeks OUT and trans man. Pronouns: He/Him. Motto: Live. Laugh. Learn. Respect. Love.