It’s easy to say representation doesn’t matter when you have all of filmed media to choose from. White boys grow up knowing they can be anything and do anything, because film and television lets them know that they are the heroes and makers of their own stories. They can go out and achieve whatever dreams they want, because the entire world is at their grasp as long as they work hard or in some cases luck into it, but that isn’t the case for everyone else. When characters on television and film represent some sort of cultural identity and definition, especially in the case of minority persons, the few characters that actually end up having their stories told become of utmost importance to those with little or no representation. It’s even rarer when one of those characters is created by someone adjacent to the lived experiences of that minority character. More often those narratives and characters are constructed by the same white men who grew up wanting to be writers, and that isn’t to say they cannot create great characters that aren’t of their own lived experience, but it can be revelatory to see that character in the hands of someone who truly knows the ins and outs of a lived experience another person may only have tertiary knowledge of. In the case of Sense8, Lana Wachowski has given trans women a character so wholly different from the normal palette of transgender women in film and television that she feels like a springboard moment in what is hopefully more respectful and understood characterization of an often completely botched segment of people in film narratives.
The history of transgender female representation in movies and television is a constricted, damaging, limited, and completely toxic presentation of our lives with only a few bright spotlights throughout the last 100 or so years of movie making. Before the advent of Netflix’s transgender duo (Nomi in Sense8 and Sophia in Orange is the New Black) there wasn’t a significant role for transgender women where they could play a character who wanted to be more than a corpse (CSI, Dallas Buyer’s Club) , a murderer (Dressed to Kill), a joke (Family Guy, Ace Ventura) or a sex worker whose life decisions were damned by whoever was writing the character (Law and Order). There wasn’t an opportunity for us to exist beyond these confines so preconceived notions of who we are formulated in the minds of those without any direct relation to transgender people. It painted a portrait of a non-existent humanity, something (not someone) to be feared, mocked or pitied for having decided to become a deviant.
Even well meaning liberal motion pictures like TransAmerica and Dallas Buyer’s Club reek of allyship and an understanding that our bodies are constructed through maleness, rough exterior, and a kind of damaged femininity that is more akin to clown make-up and dress-up rather than an internal sense of womanhood. In those pictures we cannot escape a body that came to being through an assumed male socialization, because in these pictures transgender women are not women, but men to be pitied for having taken on the guise of womanhood which is in and of itself a deeply misogynistic line of thought that completely undermines who we are, how we got to be, who we are, and how our bodies are structured. Notice how transgender women are almost always portrayed by cisgender men, because in the opinion of Hollywood there is no way we can achieve a body capable or close to the cisgender female beauty standard placed upon all women by society at large so instead of showing real transgender bodies Jared Leto, Jeffrey Tambor and Eddie Redmayne occupy our space and define our place as women through masculinity. When they do write transgender women as beautiful characters or love interests for men it’s never enough to actually give them a happy ending and romance, but instead our bodies are upended by a reveal that categorizes us as male by focusing on a phallus. The man in the relationship has been tricked, and the entire relationship has been an affront to his sexuality. Take for instance the scene in Family Guy where characters vomit upon knowing they’ve slept with a transgender woman, only to have creator Seth MacFarlane say this is the natural reaction of men afterward. This both distances the narrative away from a transgender woman and focuses on a misogynistic, male viewpoint and a token punchline in a joke that our bodies are vessels of disgust. When dissecting that idea even further one finds that our humanity is then weighed on our attractiveness and our ability to please men, which goes beyond just a transmisogynistic idea of our standing in culture, but women as a whole, because if women’s narratives in film or television are only there to be attached to the pleasures of one man then this is wish fulfillment instead of reality, and strips all women of anything resembling character, cis or trans.
This is obviously a problem, and becomes exhausting when looking for anything resembling direct text relating to transgender lifestyle. Personally, I have always looked for subtextual readings of motion pictures where I could find something genuinely relatable to my own life experiences. I wrote about this earlier this year when I analyzed Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin as a transgender narrative, and while that film means a monumental amount to me it’s closeness towards transgender themes are something created by accident and completely in the realm of subtext. Girls like me don’t exist in the pictures is something I used to say to myself. I’m a young woman, and I look like these girls on the screen, but they don’t have my dysphoria or the problems present in my life. I didn’t find a single relatable character to my own personal existence until I watched Paris is Burning and found a closeness with Venus Xtravaganza who wanted nothing more than to live a normal life, and make her body complete in her eyes by having vaginoplasty, but in the final moments of the movie her body is disposed of, cutting short a life that was in it’s earliest chapters and extinguishing the chance she had at feeling home in her own skin some day. It’s devastating, it’s documented, and it’s real. I was left aghast at the brutality of the world, and wondered if I’d ever make promise on completing my own body or if someone would take that chance from me someday. It’s uncertain, because we aren’t safe even 25 years later. Paris is Burning is the greatest piece of transgender art that has ever been created, because it offers a glimpse into the lifestyle, bodies and humanity we have to offer this world. We are completely driven by the same desires and goal oriented ideas about career-making, family and creating a lasting effect on this world that all humans are even if our time is shorter. I fully believe we can change the ideas presented about our worth of life, and in the last few years there have been significant strides in the mainstream media regarding our lives, but things still have an exceedingly long way to go, but the trickle effect of gaining agency on our own narratives is beginning.
I’m forever grateful of what netflix is allowing to happen on their network, because they’ve finally given me a mirror in a fictional narrative of someone who I can finally say is like myself. When Nomi is introduced on Sense8 she’s having sex, her body is there for the entire world to see, and it’s not sorrowful to gaze upon her flesh, because it’s like mine. It belongs to a woman, not a man acting. Her sexuality is treated as belonging to her, and it’s her orgasm that the show is intent on capturing. This is agency, and the reveal of her girlfriend using a dildo on her afterward presents this as a narrative that won’t end with her feeling betrayed at knowing her body completely, because she loves every inch of her. They embrace, and their queerness is beloved by this show. Their warmth goes beyond the bedroom as well, and in a later scene at a pride gathering Nomi is confronted by a trans exclusionary radical feminist who refers to her as a colonizing male. This visibly upsets Nomi, but something remarkable happens just moments later when her girlfriend defends her place as a woman and in the LGBTQ community. Nomi is crying and then simply says to her girlfriend “No one has ever defended me before”. That is love. I know it because, the same thing happened to me just 24 hours earlier to me when my boyfriend called out some people for using the word “Tranny” when I was visibly upset by it. The parallel example of these two things happening alongside one another really hit home that this is my show. This is the truth. This is made for me and not for cisgender people. Nomi belongs to people like me, and after 23 years of existence I have someone. I guess girls like me do exist in the movies after all.