Transgender people have been featured onscreen for decades now. However, they have been reduced to stereotypes; treated as either a deplorable “other” in exploitation films that have marketed transsexuality as a titillating shame, such as in 1953’s Glen or Glenda, or as a surprise twist as in 1992’s The Crying Game. In fact, examples of how trans people have been trivialized permeate all throughout pop culture. Who could forget Ace Ventura dry-heaving at the thought of having been attracted to a trans woman? Or when Ted Mosby imagines that the worst thing a partner could say to you is that she “used to be a dude”?
When being trans is played for laughs or a cheap gimmick, not unlike a sideshow attraction, it neglects the inherent humanity and lived experiences of the trans community. It then becomes not a question of having representation in media, but whether it is a validating, liberating, and truthful representation at all.
It wasn’t until recently when movies like The Danish Girl and Boys Don’t Cry delved into the lives of trans men and women that the topic of trans representation became hotly debated. After all, a mere three decades ago, it would have been unthinkable to feature transgender characters prominently onscreen. Now, we see movies featuring trans stories becoming the darlings of the Academy Awards season.
Do we really need to split hairs when it comes to trans representation? To that, Dr. Jaya Jacobo, an assistant professor specializing in trans and queer studies from the Ateneo de Manila University, counters, “Does trans solidarity begin with the performance and end with the accolade, though?”
Jacobo defines trans facing as “when cis people embody [the] trans experience in media texts,” usually exemplified by production companies hiring cishetero actors to portray transgender roles onscreen. Treating transness as yet another “challenging” role to be tackled by thespians—something one can easily slip in and out of like a flimsy Halloween costume—reduces the complexity of trans identity to a performance. No matter how heart-wrenching that performance may be, it remains a performance, a facade nonetheless.
Beyond the glittering lights of Hollywood, there is so much more at stake as onscreen portrayals continue to perpetuate the injustices that trans people face every day. With already little trans representation onscreen, the stereotypes proliferated through these portrayals can destructively mold how the community is perceived by society.
A study by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that 54 percent of transgender portrayals on television are negative representations replete with transphobic undertones. Transgender characters are also usually written as killers, sex workers, or drug addicts. “This doesn’t help real [trans] people at all. It doesn’t explain suffering,” says Jacobo, explaining the consequences of these trends. “And it doesn’t propose any cause for solidarity; it only lets us appear according to the terms of the grotesque and the monstrous.”
In the Philippine context, transness takes on different connotations, intersecting with colonialism and Western-centrism. Even the word “trans” itself is rooted in the American experience, and to hold the West as the vanguard of progressiveness would be a disservice to the diverse gender identities that have existed in the Philippines long before colonizers came.
The bakla, for example, actually encompasses gay, trans, and queer identities—a testament to the prevalent gender fluidity in pre-colonial society. “When Western concepts of transness invade our mediascape, other possibilities of trans identity formation are not given an opportunity to ground themselves even more,” Jacobo explains.
Dr. Mikee Inton-Campbell, an assistant professor in DLSU’s Communications Department, shares that there is very little text to study in terms of the concept of transness in the Philippines—something that is reflected in their portrayal in popular media. “I wish there were more films that were centered on trans women,” she laments, “Pero sana hindi masyadong parang parody. Kasi nacoconflate naman ngayon ang transness with drag.” While drag is an intentional performance of gender that often involves gay men with vibrant personas and has a long history in the LGBTQ+ movement, it should not be confused with transness, which includes various gender identities.
(But I hope it doesn’t turn into a parody, because transness is nowadays being conflated with drag.)
With cisheterosexual male actors usually getting the already small amount of trans roles onscreen, true representation and exploration of the Filipino trans identity will only begin once trans artists are allowed to tell their own stories.
When trans characters are portrayed onscreen in the Philippines, Inton-Campbell adds, there are respectability politics at play, restrictively determining trans people to appear as aesthetically pleasing and fitting the mold of heteronormative conceptualizations. “For the queer audience, the images are obviously not real enough because [these do] not reflect who we are,” she comments.
However, the problem of inauthentic trans portrayals onscreen does not end with just casting trans people; more gravely, the persisting “cisheteropatriarchal” structure benefits from these negative portrayals of the community and perpetuates trans people’s further discrimination in society by constantly reproducing images of prejudice that affect real-life perceptions on trans people.
Steps toward true progress would mean finally discarding the old stereotypes of transness, and more importantly, entail the conceptualization and articulation of trans stories be done by and with trans people, on and off-screen. “Representation without existence is empty,” Jacobo asserts.