This piece is going to be pointed and confrontational, because too many people have been telling me that “Hey, trans women are in media! You should be happy! You’re represented, after all.” I’m thinking a lot of you don’t know the difference between representation, visibility, and slandering. Everyone who is not a trans woman has a suspicious pattern of calling all appearances of trans femininity in media “representation.” This may come as a shock to some of you, but not all “representation” is good and helpful. In fact, what most folks call “representation” of trans femininity is just slander. Sure, we trans women might be a bit more visible, but what does that visibility look like, and does it justify further violence against us? Yes. Yes, it does.
Don’t get me wrong, I am ecstatic that strong women like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox (there are more, but these two are the most known) are receiving a lot of media attention. But hey, as great and important as they are for the trans movement, two or so trans women of color do not suddenly erase all the slanderous appearances of trans femininity in media. Adding a few pieces of silk to a bowl of knives doesn’t make it soft. You will get cut if you stick your hands in it. People, especially DFAB trans people, look this over way too often.
I’m of the position that people are conditioned to perpetuate and defend (by denying the existence of, by rationalizing, by justifying, or by simply not noticing) oppressive systems and the micro-level behaviors (microagressions, etc.) which enable them. For a long while, I figured that if people knew better, then they would actively resist their conditioning because they’re moral, rational people. I’m still of the former, but I’m no longer of the latter. Yes, that means I do not necessarily believe that people are moral and rational.
People are conditioned to defend oppression, because they benefit. Being aware of an issue doesn’t necessitate any kind of follow-up action or self-reflection. What happens an unfortunate amount of the time is this: “I’m aware, so I can’t be a part of the problem.” Classic white liberalism. It’s rarely ever (read: never) some enormous moral revelation that gets somebody to stop their oppressive behavior completely.
Now, what’s this got to do with representation? Representation, visibility, and slandering are all very relevant in regards to conditioning people’s behavior, because these are what people see (or don’t see) of a particular group of people.
Visibility is really pretty neutral by itself. It doesn’t necessarily have a ‘good’ or ‘harmful’ attached to it until we start looking at it more closely. Visibility is usually what artists mean when they say ‘reach.’ Reach is the number of people they’ve networked with, the number of people who like their Facebook page, etc. It’s their fanbase, the number of people their work has the potential to influence. A person with a lot of reach is a lot more visible, because of how many people can see them. In regards to trans people, trans visibility is very important. Trans women, and trans femininity more broadly, is hyper-visible. There’s a few reasons for this:
- Femininity is already marked as Other under patriarchy, and so is always noticed.
- Masculinity as the default, and so it goes unnoticed.
- “Man in a dress” is a longstanding visual trope used to mock an emasculated man or to deceive others. Think Bugs Bunny switching into a red dress to fool Elmer Fudd.
- The obsession with the genitalia of trans feminine people. Sleepaway Camp is a perfect example of this.
- Gender variancy among DMAB people is highly discouraged, because under patriarchy, the only place for DMAB people to go is closer towards femininity. Patriarchy does not offer a gender-neutral option, and ‘men’ must always be masculine.
The appearances of trans femininity in media are harmful 9.9 times out of 10, reinforcing toxic narratives regarding the lives of trans feminine people, especially trans women. The reason these appearances are simultaneously harmful and hyper-visible is because patriarchal systems and people with stake in these systems do not want me to be treated humanely, because these systems and people benefit from harming me, whether they are actively engaged or not.
So then, the next logical step in making sure I am not treated humanely is to make sure that any and all appearances of trans femininity are erased or slanderous.
Caricatures and Punching Down (AKA Slandering)
I’m going to introduce a concept which may be new to some of you (nothing wrong with that, but let’s make sure we’re on the same page). It’s called ‘punching down.’ Imagine a house that’s cut in half, and you’re looking at the sliced portion. For the sake of simplicity, this is a two-level house. The person on the upper floor can reach down and smack the person on the lower floor with ease. All they have to do is lean over and punch. They don’t have to climb down, but the person on the lower level has to climb up to the upper floor, and their hands can get stomped on when they attempt to grab the end of the ceiling to pull themselves up. No, it is not odd that this house has no stairs, because marginalized people are not promised upward mobility, and why would a privileged person ever want to go to a place they believe is “beneath them?” Therefore, there’s no need for stairs in this system. What is important is that a person with privilege in a scenario has a much easier time abusing someone who they see as beneath them, whereas the marginalized person can’t really fight back as effectively for numerous reasons involving gatekeeping, disenfranchisement, exclusion, and more.
Punching up can happen, but it is important to know that punching up is not unethical. Because trans feminine people’s lives are characterized by the violence done against us, rebelling against or mocking a privileged group is an act of self-defense. Hell, our existence as people is an act of self-defense because the society we exist in is ultimately bent on our annihilation.
In regards to caricatures, they are always punching down. 99.9999% of appearances of trans femininity in media punch down. Depictions of trans women in particular have gone from gruesome murderers (Sleepaway Camp) to hopelessly tragic, drug addict sex workers (Dallas Buyers Club). Caricatures only show the features of a subject in a simple or exaggerated way (read: emphasizing stereotypes/cis perceptions of trans femininity). These caricatures are often passed off as authentic experiences when they aren’t simply employed to mock an already marginalized group. And why are they authentic? Because cis people wrote it, produced it, acted in it, and more. It is authentic because the oppressors say it is.
Trans femininity is not represented, it is visibly slandered on a mass scale. Representation means we are speaking our own stories. Representation means we can speak truth at power. Representation means we are not only visible but also in charge of our own lived experiences. Representation means our stories have real value, because we are speaking them ourselves.
If other people are going to tell our stories (which they will whether we like it or not), then we as trans feminine people need to be heavily involved in the process, not token diversity so beneficiaries can pat themselves on the back for “being inclusive.” If we aren’t heavily involved, then what is centered? Cis perceptions of trans femininity, which is inherently false and oppressive. And then who benefits? Cis people, because they make money off of us, they gain fame, and they receive awards for pretending to be us (looking at you, Jared Leto, and all the folks involved in Dallas Buyers Club). They receive all of the benefits while we are stuck living the same old hurt every day. This is exploitation. You cannot represent trans feminine people without us involved. You can never get it right unless we are part of the process in a meaningful way.
No more stories about us without us.