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Transmissions: Represent

by Gwendolyn Ann Smith

Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith  

After more than a decade of people fighting for it, the "Wonder Woman" movie was released in mid-2017. Critics, by and large, loved it, and the film quickly became the fifth highest grossing superhero film domestically. For many women, it was a sign that they finally had a place, albeit still in the shadow of other male superheroes.

On Friday, the movie version of "Black Panther" will be released, finally presenting a big budget superhero film that centers on the African superhero. The film has already shattered records for superhero films, weeks before its release.

Why is this? It's simple: representation matters. While it has long been a part of existence for straight, non-transgender Caucasian males, we are finally seeing a shift in popular mass media to allow for more female lead characters, more people of color, and an overall move toward greater diversity.

This expansion has not been without backlash, nor are we anywhere near reaching parity between racial, sexual, or other forms of representation on screen. That said, we can pretty safely say that there are kids being raised today who, in this last year, have finally seen heroic characters on screen that represent themselves, rather than seeing yet another white man in tights and a cape fighting injustice.

Being a transgender person means that representation is few and far between when it comes to movies and TV. While we do have real-life role models - from Christine Jorgensen to Danica Roem - there remains a dearth of big name transgender characters in popular culture.

What characters do we get to see that represent us in movies or television? We've been represented by trans actresses Laverne Cox on "Orange is the New Black" and "Doubt," as well as Jamie Clayton on "Sense8," Candis Cayne on the "Magicians," and a few others, but most stories told of transgender people feature non-transgender men playing trans characters, usually with tragic back stories and equally awful ends.

Trans people have usually had to subsist on scraps. Maybe we've felt a kinship with Frank-N-Furter from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," or the eponymous lead in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," but those are hardly representative of transgender people, and have some deeply problematic parts within the characters. Yet, for many of us, this was all we saw of ourselves on the silver screen. Or, at least, all we saw beyond the psychopathic, crossed-dressing killers like Buffalo Bill in "Silence of the Lambs."

I look back on what was considered a "good" piece of representation - say, the transsexual character of Bernadette Bassenger from "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," and see now just how little it took to be what seemed like a great portrayal.

As we're seeing more and more transgender people in entertainment, both in front of and behind the camera, as well as better written transgender characters, we're seeing improved representation overall - yet there remains precious little on the large or small screen that is truly presenting stories of which transgender people can really feel a part.

In a tweet by Shadi Petosky, a trans woman most recently known for the groundbreaking and trans-friendly animated cartoon series "Danger and Eggs," she mentioned "Black Panther," adding that the need for representation is why she would want to see "a Marvel movie full of visible transsexuals."

I'd like to second this.

As I hinted at before, we are often not the lead character. Trans characters often play supporting roles, and that trans-ness is an aspect the lead can play off of. We're Roberta Muldoon to Robin Williams' lead role in "The World According to Garp," or Rayon to Ron Woodroof in "Dallas Buyers Club."

When we are the lead character, the story is a well-trodden one focusing on our transitions. That is, who we are, how we do it, and all the little things that make up the typical transgender narrative. We're not usually afforded the right to be anything but the typical transgender story, or have our trans-ness be simply a part of our lives on-screen.

Maybe we don't hail from Wakanda or Themyscira, but surely there has to be a place for us. There have been transgender characters in comics in the past, and there's nothing truly stopping that from being the case in the future.

Or, if not in a big-budget superhero epic, perhaps a sci-fi story, or a fantasy tale, or, well, anything that we can be in and presented as ourselves. Some story in which we can be seen as heroic, valid, and worthwhile.

Likewise, much of our history is lost and barely known. We could see stories of Hirschfield's clinic in the 1920s and the trans community that sprung up around it, or a story of Stonewall and the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries born by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. We could have stories about people with trans backgrounds over the centuries, from the Chevalier d'Eon to the Egyptian pharaoh, Hatshepsut.

What's more, let's consider tales that not only focus on trans characters, but center on non-white transgender people, or focus on trans men and nonbinary presentations. Let's focus on the wide variety of possible trans identities.

Like I said, representation matters. In a community where many of us attempt suicide, where we are not understood, where we are bullied, shunned, and hurt, the notion of seeing characters that we can relate to, that look like us, and that share our same needs and desires is vital to our very existence. Maybe we won't see that transgender-centered Marvel epic any time soon, but there is no better time than now to start working toward it, and seeing a day when it is possible.

Gwen Smith doesn't own a cape. You'll find her on the web at http://www.gwensmith.com.

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