Calpernia Addams

Transsexual Clichés and Stereotypes in Film, Television and Print Media

Note: I am not a humorless “Social Justice Warrior“. I hope for logical, fair, compassionate treatment of other human beings, but I have little in common with some of the new generation of perpetually offended, illogical professional victims who have overtaken the public discourse on the right and wrong way to interact with underprivileged, disenfranchised and minority communities like mine.
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Gotta get that shot of her “sexy shoes” in!

This little piece was originally written for a documentarian, but has been expanded and can inform any media piece about transsexual women. Its style and tone are conversational and idiomatic, reflecting the fact that these are my unpolished thoughts and this essay is not meant to be my perfectly considered “last word” on the subject. I write here almost exclusively about transsexual women (write what you know!), and will be interested to read a similar viewpoint from the trans male community when it is written. Someday I will probably reformat and footnote this essay, but until then I think the information can be useful to any media creator who wants to hear my perspective. Don’t miss my 1,000,000+ view YouTube video “Bad Questions to Ask a Transsexual” for a humorous but informative slant on these issues.

I’ve participated in many documentaries, going back to at least 1993, and I’ve probably seen or am aware of most English language docs or films of the last several decades that deal with trans characters, as well as many foreign language films. While I’ve done my best to influence those in which I’ve participated, my awareness has had to evolve over time, and sometimes I was simply not in a position of power once my participation was done. I have also participated in many narrative projects, including “Soldier’s Girl”, “Transamerica”, “CSI”, “Transamerican Love Story” and our own “Casting Pearls” and “Transproofed”. In addition to the points I make below about the storytelling in narrative projects, a major concern of mine as an actress, activist and consumer is that transsexual women are rarely allowed to play ourselves on screen. We are almost never allowed to play non-transsexual women. In both docs and narrative films, some key patterns have become apparent to me which are still fairly invisible to many creatives, so I will share an abridged list of some that I feel are negative, false, tired (ie:overused) or wrongly applied to transsexual women. This list isn’t intended to disparage the creative work of some very talented people, but I do feel it to be important to put this information out there. This is what transwomen who know something about film, tv and history are probably saying when they see these topics on screen.

Documentaries/Reality Television

Below are some of the seemingly “required” shots which can be found in most trans-focused documentaries and many trans-themed narratives, along with some reasons why they are negative, insulting or unnecessary:

Narrative Film/Television

Narrative filmmakers have been fascinated with transsexual people for as long as they have been aware of them. As an artist and storyteller myself, I understand that the journey of a transsexual character can seem like a bit of real magic happening in the mundane world. To the sympathetic eye, it can illustrate someone literally “transforming” from one form into another form, crossing some of the most basic divides in humanity: sex (physical characteristics) and gender (social roles). To the un-sympathetic eye, it can represent a profoundly disturbing freakishness that masquerades itself as “one of us” and walks among “us”, grotesque truth hidden by dark and forbidden alchemy of bio-chemicals and surgery and affect. Obviously, I ascribe to the former view when considering my own journey, choosing to find magic and evolution in my story.

My basic advice, in light of what I’ve written above, is this: If you really want to step into uncharted territory and do something that hasn’t been done before, try to be aware of the clichés, pitfalls and easy-outs that I’ve mentioned. Try to tell the story of how the issues you’re interested in affect a woman who is rejected, hated and disbelieved. A woman who has repaired a disfiguring birth defect. If you advertise for subjects in the back of the local gay rag next to the escort ads, you are going to get responses from one kind of person. If you advertise with fliers at the local college, another. If someone’s website has a photo gallery named “My Sexi Leg Pix” and blocky animated gifs of big-eyed Manga teeny bopper girls in crop-tops with pink hair blowing kisses — and they are a fifty year old construction worker — then apply the same screening criteria you would when looking for subjects who aren’t transgendered. Don’t just assume that “that’s the way transsexuals are” and stop there because it’s easy. The only subject you can find/write is a fifty year old married construction worker? (really?) Then find a fifty year old married construction worker who otherwise fits into society with other fifty year old women, one who is earnest about really being a woman and one whose transition was the path to living a fulfilled life in society rather than an end in itself. You can only find/write a sex worker? Then consider a bright, inspiring one who is saving that money for school or a home.

Because really being a woman, day to day, in relationships and in society, is what transition is about. When all the colorful makeup is washed away, the frilly sexy clothes are replaced with jeans and a white t-shirt, the hair pulled back, the mirror confiscated, does this person still feel like they are a woman? That’s the core from where everything else grows. The showgirls, sex workers, activists (and yes, the “nut cases”) are the visible tip of a vast, secret iceberg. There are real transsexual women of all ages, races and careers, living all over the world. Quietly in neighborhoods as members of the PTA, or walking the runways of Milan, in what we call “stealth” with no one knowing their history. We are all around you, if you only care to look.

Hall of Shame

Some of these movies were good or even great pieces of art, and some weren’t, but their treatment or use of a transsexual character (stated or implied) was damaging or poor, in my opinion.

Hall of Fame

See more examples of transsexual-interest films at http://www.tsroadmap.com/info/films.html