There are few stories more basic than that of the average episode of a procedural crime drama. A crime is committed, an investigation is performed, and the perpetrator is caught. Roll credits. Repeat next week. The bad guy is always caught, and he or she is usually the most famous guest star. (Why else would Lucy Liu be on SVU?)
They rank among the most popular shows and the most critically ignored, sometimes referred to as television’s answer to comfort food. Unfortunately, transgender fans can find little comfort because of a pernicious trend of vicious stereotypes. From the victimized sex worker treated with denigration or as comic relief, to the mentally damaged ax murderer, the presentation of the trans community in one of television’s most-watched genres is nothing short of horrifying.
A GLAAD media study reported that during a ten year period transgender characters were victims 40% of the time and killers or villains 21% of the time. In spite of GLAAD producing a reference guide for the treatment of the transgender community, those earlier statistics don’t appear to be improving.
We asked a couple of our trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming contributors what they thought about this treatment.
What attracts you to crime stories? What do you enjoy about them?
Lewd Alfred: I’m very attracted to any story which can examine moral grey areas. Laws, police, religion, morality, government, and society all have facets that are corrupt, and those who defy the conventions of these elements can be vilified. But, if the moral center of the show is more complex (and realistic), a character defying the law can be an antihero or a sympathetic character.
Eli Knight: For me, it’s the who-done-it, how, and whys of a mystery. I just enjoy really great storytelling with engaging characters that challenge the concept of a thriller/mystery and breaks boundaries.
Alexa Cassaro: Sadly I prefer watching the ID channel with true crime stories and real autopsies. I’ve always been interested in the morbid anatomy and scientific illustration. It’s a curiosity cabinet.
What are one or two of your favorite procedurals?
Lewd Alfred: NBC's Hannibal certainly started off as a procedural, perhaps in an effort to fit in with more popular shows, but fragmented into more of an epic drama. Still, that first season’s crime investigation aspects were brilliant, disturbing, and with a serial killer on the investigation team, everyone suited their own purpose. The “lawful good” characters were few.
I’ve been recommended Dexter for the same reasons, but to me, a serial killer who “only kills criminals” is an unnecessary vouch for the death penalty.
Hannibal never has a “legitimate” reason for killing, other than for his own pleasure, which I find less morally suspect than giving a reason for someone to kill.
Eli Knight: It’s a toss up between Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, CSI, and Criminal Minds, over here.
Alexa Cassaro: I love love love NCIS. The characters are far more interesting than some of the other crime shows. They have interesting quirky qualities that allow for a personal connection to the characters.
I also like Bones. It’s brilliant in the way they examine evidence. I appreciate all the science and anthropology that goes with it. It’s also nice to see people with so many different morals and beliefs. Bones is a very scientific, lives-by-evidence-and-facts type of person. This is beautiful because she tells it like it is with confidence and incredible intelligence, which is contradicted by her husband Booth (aka Angel *squeals*) who is religious, superstitious, and more down to earth. Also, one of the workers is an artist who rebuilds victims’ profiles from the bones. So fabulous.
Also, shout out to Houdini and Doyle. That is the bomb. If you haven’t seen it, WATCH IT. A well known magician, the writer of Sherlock Holmes, and a badass female constable solve murder mysteries that are beyond the normal explanations.
When did you first become aware of the treatment of trans characters in crime stories? Was there a particular story that brought it to your attention?
Lewd Alfred: There was a crime scene in either NCIS or one of the CSI shows which chilled me to the bone (and not in an entertaining way). The investigators found the bodies of three prostitutes. Off the bat, as a queer person with many loved ones who are sex workers, it’s horrifying to know that this is a regular occurrence in real lifeand one that is rarely taken seriously by law enforcement. One of the investigators finds upon examining the body of one of the women that she is transgender. “Pork and beans,” he says to his boss. As though that explains exactly why the murders happened and the case is closed.
The mere fact that one of the victims is transgender is a motive. Unfortunately, this is not only something that happens to my trans sisters, but also something that is used as a defense for murder. “Trans panic.” I was horrified they would treat a thing so lightly. And that they decided so quickly that someone being transgender was a perfectly understandable reason to kill.
Eli Knight: During aired episodes of NYPD Blue, CSI, and Law & Order: SVU. I believe somewhere in the early seasons of SVU, there was an episode where a sex worker found in a church, dismembered, & is described, in a non-chalant fashion, that their genitals were removed and the character was misgendered throughout the episode, by the leads, nonetheless.
There were plenty of transphobic episodes after the first three seasons of NYPD Blue. It's one of the episodes where as Mark-Paul Gosselaar, pops up as a detective on NYPD Blue, in one of the later seasons. And this trope happens numerous times.
Many trans characters on crime dramas, like CSI and Law & Order: SVU, were (and still are) played by cisgender people:
This trope of trans characters getting killed off for plot fodder is even seen in the series finale of CSI.
Alexa Cassaro: Well It’s not a procedural, but I consider Pretty Little Liars a mystery/crime show. (Though how they haven’t figured all of it out by now or haven’t been arrested with so much they do is beyond me.) They are trying to figure out who this A person is and how to take them down for all the murders and crimes the person committed. I stopped at the episode where you find out that one of the girls, Alison, has a sibling, CeCe, who is A.
This sibling was put in an institute (which was incorrectly displayed but that’s another story for another day) by horrible abusive parents. CeCe turned out to be trans and finally got the surgery to become a trans woman. You find out this spazzed CeCe out to become a murderous, monstrous stalker (and girls could not for their lives figure out who Alison’s sibling was. Took them a bazillion seasons). This offensively was because it boiled down to, “oh, derp derp derp, we were looking for a coo-coo bananas BOY, not a GIRL.” I face palmed hard.
Now, not only did they make it seem like all trans people have dark backstories driven by their identity confusion and are criminals, but now, people will assume that trans people use it to change their identity as a disguise. This is far from what transgender is about.
I understand they tried to make CeCe sympathetic, showing that her family couldn’t love her for who she was but they failed when they made her a sly, quick-moving killer. And we all know there are people out there that don’t even see the sympathetic characteristics in her. They just see MURDERER, STALKER, CONFUSED, and EVIL, in bright lights.
Why do you think this presentation of trans people persists?
Lewd Alfred: I think it must be easier for writers to imagine trans people as bodies rather than as human beings with words to say and feelings and dreams. That way, they are ultimately objectified. Even very talented writers like Neil Gaiman have done it. Transmisogyny and fetishism also account for the number of trans women who are sex workers in fiction, especially when they are delegated to criminals. Even Laverne Cox has played a sex worker on Law & Order.
Eli Knight: Simple: They don’t see us as human.
Alexa Cassaro: Because people are either not informed properly on the matter or don’t care to learn or ask. Also, Assumption: “What makes an ass out of me and you.” People assume they know everything and use their “knowledge” for storylines, which then improperly represent trans or nonbinary people.
Also they have not a clue about pronouns or how to use them because with their “cisgender” background they use what they feel is right, not what feels right to the person! As a nonbinary person, I can say it brings a weird dysphoria when people use “she” with me. I usually brush it off assuming they are not informed about pronoun use but it still stings.
How do you think this can be fixed? How do you think these solutions could come about?
Lewd Alfred: I wish writers would simply be aware of how often tropes have been used and
abused. If you need to write a sex worker, what about giving them a well-rounded personality and empower them to tell their own story without objectifying them?
If you need to write a trans woman, why not let her survive and be treated with respect by someone, anyone? If not for the positive representation we so desperately need, then at least do it for the originality of writing.
Eli Knight: With stories for, by, and starring trans folks. That aren’t focused on our transitions. Or our genitalia. I think a great way to solve this problem is to hire trans and nonbinary staff and crew.
Alexa Cassaro: RESEARCH, RESPECT, WAKE UP. Like, I find it terrible that people can’t even Google before going into something.
I’m a perfectionist Illustrator with real OCD. If I’m illustrating something, I need to research the crap out of the subject to make sure everything is historically correct. Otherwise, I worry that someone like me will look at my work and point out that I didn’t do my research. Research is the respectful way to get things right.