Is Representation Enough?: A Research Into Negative and Positive Portrayals of Transgender People in American Television Programs

Transgender people have existed for centuries, yet television programs have tended to ignore them and their stories until recent years. While transgender people are seen as less “taboo” today than, say, in the 1950s, a significant portion of the United States still view trans people either with confusion, disgust, anger, or any combination of the three. Because of the irrationally prejudiced view of trans people from many people, television programs have been slow to feature them. Under our current system, television programs need viewers to succeed, and if a significant portion of the population is prejudiced against trans people, it stands to reason that programs will avoid featuring trans characters or trans actors. When trans characters were finally seen in television programs, they were usually negatively portrayed, used as a joke for cisgender characters. 

Today, we do see more positive portrayals of trans people, including in our class with Orange is the New Black, which is certainly a step in the right direction, but there is undoubtedly more work to do. When trans people are positively portrayed, television programs still place them in a cisnormative context, among many other problematic practices. Overall, positive trans representation in TV was minimal until the 21st century, when trans characters almost always faced jokes and discrimination from cisgender characters; However, even though positive representation has increased in recent years, television producers still use a variety of strategies to comfort cisgender audiences rather than challenging the cisnormative status quo.

For centuries, trans people have been viewed by populations with confusion and, unfortunately, disgust (Capuzza & Spencer). This public fascination spilled over to mass media when programs were broadcast to people across the United States. However, most representations of trans people in the earlier days of mass media painted trans people as “freaks” and “perverts” (McAvan). Trans people were not seen as equal characters in these representations, but simply as jokes or freaks for the cisgender main characters to make fun of. Unfortunately, this characterization of trans people lasted for an incredibly long time, with even modern, “progressive,” television shows such as How I Met Your Mother making stereotypical, offensive jokes against trans people (3). 

In earlier representations, trans people were not viewed as being nothing more than transgender; typically their entire presence in the program is for cisgender characters to comment or joke on the trans character’s apparent “mismatch” between their gender identity and their genetalia. In some programs, cisgender characters act with disgust at finding out a potential sexual partner is transgender, while some justify that they were “tricked” by the trans character. These representations were undoubtedly negative and harmful. Earlier representations painted trans people as freaks; objects to be made fun of and othered by the cisgender main characters. Regular trans characters in television programs were unheard of for the first decades of network television’s existence. In fact, the first trans character who was a series regular appeared on the sitcom All That Glitters in 1977, which lasted just one season (Capuzza & Spencer), and was portrayed by a cisgender actress. Around this point, transgender characters began to be featured in more television programs, but were still othered in these programs, with characters having little personality besides being trans.

Programs eventually shifted away from portraying trans people as revolting “freaks,” but as tricksters preying on straight, cisgender men who believe having sexual activity with a trans woman would be “gay.” An example of this type of representation can be seen in an episode of How I Met Your Mother, where the straight, cisgender main character is on a blind date and imagines how the date could go. In one of his fantasies, the main character is in the men’s restroom, then sees his female-presenting date walk in. The main character asks what she’s doing there, and the date responds “I know, I’m a dude,” and proceeds to use a urinal. While the show never explicitly says the date is transgender, it still perpetuates a harmful stereotype of trans women: No matter how feminine-presenting one may be, they are still a “dude.” Another recent example of harmful depictions of trans people is seen in the animated program The Cleveland Show where a character comedically vomits after finding out he had sex with a transgender woman (7). Although contemporary programs have made some amount of progress regarding minimizing negative portrayals of trans people, they are still all-too-prevalent in mass media, leading to audiences taking away prejudiced, bigoted ideas of trans people.

In addition to othering, trans women also face constant fetishization in various television programs, particularly reality television. In one example, Maury Povich, host of the daytime program Maury had a recurring segment titled “Men or Women?” where trans women and cis women were shown in revealing outfits such as bathing suits and lingerie (4). Povich then asked the audience whether each woman was assigned female at birth or assigned male at birth. This horribly transphobic segment fetishized trans women, as the only trans women seen on Maury would be hyper-sexualized. Finally, the program showed simple bigotry with the segment’s title. By highlighting cis women as women but trans women as men, it furthered the prejudiced characterization that trans women were simply men in disguise. Even in programs that have been viewed as “queer-friendly,” transphobia is still gladly highlighted. In this case, RuPaul’s Drag Race featured a segment titled “Female or ‘Shemale’ (5).” GLAAD defines ‘shemale’ as a defamatory term intended to dehumanize trans people (6). In this segment, contestants were asked to determine if a photograph depicted a “biological woman or a psychological woman.” This characterization paints trans women as deluded and mentally ill, implying that trans women are only women in their heads. Even in a supposedly queer-friendly program, it still gladly highlighted a transphobic segment.

Even in more recent shows that attempted to showcase diverse portrayals of trans people, programs still resorted to harmful stereotypes. In a study on television programs since 2002 done by GLAAD, the most common profession of transgender characters was sex worker, with twenty percent of trans characters in scripted programming doing some form of sex work (7). In the study, GLAAD found that every major network and seven cable channels had at least one negative portrayal of trans individuals, all but assuring that media viewers will watch programs that dehumanize, stereotype, and other trans people, even if the programs have no poor intentions.

Thankfully, television has undoubtedly shifted towards more positive, diverse portrayals of trans people in recent years. Programs like Euphoria, Orange is the New Black, and even children’s program Steven Universe have highlighted positive portrayals of transgender individuals, whether explicitly or implicitly. Orange is the New Black, which we viewed in this course, is one of a very select programs that have a transgender character that is actually played by a transgender actress. While she is not the main character of the program, she is a series regular, where she regularly interacts with other characters. However, and most importantly, her being transgender does not define her entire character. While it comes up at times throughout the show, she has a personality outside of her gender identity, something that is not typical with other portrayals of trans people in television. In Euphoria, one of the series regulars is a teenage trans girl, which is particularly positive, as it gives trans or gender-questioning children the opportunity to see someone like themselves. 

Finally, in Steven Universe, multiple queer themes are presented implicitly. In the series, “Gems” are presented as gender-shifting beings, with some presenting feminine, some masculine, and some neither (Moore). This suggests that gender is nonbinary, which allows audiences to rethink traditional, binary notions of gender identity. And to do this in a children’s show, although implicitly, is particularly commendable, as it allows queer themes to reach a young audience while still remaining appropriate for young audiences. Overall, there have undoubtedly been more positive representations of trans people in recent years; all of these programs allow audiences to see diverse representations of gender identity, rather than just stereotypes. These realistic depictions of trans people in television can help normalize trans people in real-life, leading to fewer stereotypes, biases, and prejudice among the general population.

However, although positive representation of trans women has increased, there has been next to no representation for trans men. Trans women characters are far more likely than trans men to appear on scripted television series (Capuzza & Spencer). Increased representation of trans women has not led to the same increase of trans men. In fact, “Representations of [trans men of color] in scripted media are nonexistent” (Keenan). So while representation of trans people in general has increased, it has not extended to all those who identify as trans. The lack of trans men in television, and media in general, create the stereotype that all trans people are trans women, which is certainly not the case. So while trans representation on television programs has been steadily increasing, not every trans person can truly say they have seen themselves on television.

While these shows certainly represent positive steps, there are still a number of issues regarding trans people on television. Simply said, representation isn’t everything. While positive portrayals of trans people is good, representation by itself is not enough to truly break down prejudices, stereotypes, and othering. Positive representation has increased, but there is still a long way to go.

One of these issues is that trans representation in television tends to disproportionately focus on the trans character’s physical transition. Television programs tend to equate “transgender” with “transitioning” (Siebler). Programs show trans people transitioning while trying to come to terms with a cisnormative society, rather than explicitly arguing against that cisnormative society. Television shows trans people as coming to terms with themselves, no matter if the cisnormative society disapproves, rather than fighting against the society. This creates the perception that if everyone in society simply socially accepted trans people, there would be no more prejudice or bigotry. However, because cisnormativity is built into nearly every facet of society, a liberal idea of acceptance is not enough to eliminate biases. Breaking down cisgender biases in our society requires confronting the cisnormativity that is present. However, as Siebler argues, trans characters in programs have not fought against the cisnormative pillars of society, but simply seeked a type of social acceptance from their community. Ultimately, this perpetuates the view that only social acceptance is required for true trans equality. But because of the cisnormative structures that are present in government, religion, and countless other facets of life, true trans equality can not occur without challenging these structures.

Next, programs with trans representation typically portray trans women as hyper-sexualized and obsessed with beauty, perpetuating the stereotype that trans women seek to “trick” straight men into sleeping with them (Serano). The disproportionate characterization of trans women as hyper-feminine, while often showing trans women having heavy makeup routines, backs up the prejudiced perception that trans women are deceptors, trying to hide their “true” identity as men. Additionally, the hyper-sexualization of trans women leads to fetishization of them. Trans women are disproportionately seen on television in a hyper-sexualized context, leading to the idea that trans women are sex-obsessed, furthering the perception of some that trans women are merely sexual objects, rather than human beings with fleshed-out personalities (Capuzza & Spencer). So while representation of trans women has increased, it can still perpetuate harmful, stereotypical ideas of who trans women “really” are, which ultimately does not break down any biases or prejudices that are all-too-present in our society today.

Additionally, it is important to note that, although trans representation within the diegesis of television programs has increased, actual trans representation within the television industry is behind. Of nine transgender characters who were series regulars in programs, only four of those nine characters were portrayed by trans actors (Capuzza & Spencer). This discrepancy makes it extremely difficult for trans actors to receive roles; trans actors are already at a disadvantage in receiving roles as cisgender characters, as producers could be concerned over whether the actor passes as a cisgender character. Next, there are already so few trans characters on television, greatly limiting trans actors’ opportunities. And when over half of trans characters are portrayed by cisgender actors, this harms trans actors even further. All of these compounded together make it extremely difficult for trans actors to get work in television. And because of the difficulty of trans actors gaining roles, cisgender actors are left to tell explicitly transgender stories. While it is untrue that a trans actor would always portray a trans character better than a cisgender actor, it still leads to the concern that trans characters’ stories are not as well-told as they could be if they were portrayed by trans actors, who often understand and have lived the experiences that the character is facing.

Next, trans characters, and queer characters in general, are typically seen in a largely cisgender, heterosexual group, ignoring the community that transgender and queer people have cultivated amongst themselves. Because most television programs still cater to the general population, the show is written in a cisnormative, heteronormative context (Capuzza & Spencer). Few shows that feature trans characters actually showcase the character interacting with the larger transgender community. Typically, programs show the trans character almost exclusively interacting with cisgender characters. While there are exceptions, such as Transparent and Pose, most programs that feature trans characters simply ignore the larger transgender community. And, unfortunately, this is the case with lesbian and gay characters as well. Gay characters are seen overwhelmingly in a heterosexual context; we rarely see the queer character interact with other queer characters. 

Additionally, transgender characters disproportionately socialized with gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters (Gamson). This leads to a harmful conflation between gender identity and sexuality. When trans characters interact with lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters, but not other trans characters, this perpetuates the idea that being trans is a type of sexuality. And if audiences view trans people through a disproportionately sexual lens, this can lead to increased sexualization and fetishization of trans people among the general population. So although seeing queer groups on television can be a benefit, seeing trans characters largely interact with lesbian and gay characters, rather than other trans characters, can lead to inaccurate assumptions among audiences. And just as television does with queer characters, programs featuring trans characters tend to ignore the larger community, and features these characters almost exclusively in a cisgender context.

Finally, although positive representation of trans people has increased, there is still a disturbing lack of nonbinary characters on television. Television programs have always catered to cisgender, heterosexual audiences when featuring queer characters, and trans people are no exception. Programs tend to show trans people, almost exclusively, as binary trans women (Capuzza & Spencer). This “wrong body” narrative, as Capuzza and Spencer describe, perpetuates the idea that all trans people simply wish to switch from one gender to the other. While this may be the experience that some trans people have, it is certainly not the case for all trans people. Just as television tends to ignore trans men, it tends to ignore nonbinary people as well. Nearly every depiction of trans people on television is binary. While there are exceptions, such as Stevonnie in Steven Universe, few nonbinary characters are seen on television. This lack of representation among nonbinary people ultimately perpetuates the idea that gender is binary, rather than fluid. Television almost exclusively shows cis women, cis men, trans women, and trans men, leaving few spots for nonbinary characters or actors. This furthers inaccurate ideas that a person has to be male or female, with no in between or beyond this binary. With millions of people watching television every night, this lack of representation of all trans people leads to inaccurate portrayals of trans people in general.

Ultimately, there are still many issues with transgender representation in television. While representation has increased, stereotypes and biases still remain all-too-present on the small screen. Clearly, representation is not everything. Even in shows that feature trans people in a positive light, there are issues. Even if a trans person is perfectly represented, with no stereotypes seen, television programs will still bend over backward to protect the cisnormative status quo. As stated before, trans characters tend to look for a type of acceptance from cisgender characters, with the idea that acceptance of peers is the ultimate goal. This liberal idea ignores the structural prejudices that trans people face not from peers, but from the entire structures of society. And, time and time again, trans characters are written not to confront these powerful cisgender structures, but to seek a passing acceptance from the community around them (Siebler). 

Characters seek to fit into their cisnormative groups, rather than confronting the group’s members about their underlying transphobia. This desire for acceptance, rather than challenging the status quo, spreads the idea that trans people simply need acceptance from peers in order to achieve equality in society. This is not the case, as transphobia is built into governments, education systems, religion, capitalism, and practically every other facet of American life. And when television programs featuring trans characters refuse to confront this structural transphobia, it leads to misinformation among audiences.

Next, while representation of trans people in television has increased in general, some specific networks are falling behind. Cable channels and streaming services are more likely to feature trans characters than programs on the four major networks (Capuzza & Spencer). Cable and streaming tend to have younger audiences who tend to have more progressive views on gender identity. Programs on cable and streaming feel like there is less risk to feature a trans character because the service’s audience may be more accepting of trans people in general. On the other hand, network programs tend to have older audiences who may have conservative ideas of gender identity, and may react with confusion or outright hatred if they see a trans character on television. Positive trans representation has undoubtedly increased, but certain channels and streaming services are carrying the load, to the point where some audiences may not see trans people on television, allowing stereotypes and prejudices to define what these audiences think about trans people, rather than allowing accurate, diverse portrayals of trans people on television inform them.

Overall, trans representation on television has had a messy, stereotypical history. For the first decades of television in America, trans people were nowhere to be found on the small screen, and when trans people finally were seen, they were painted as “freaks.” They were not seen as human beings, but as “perverts” who deserved the ridicule and harassment of cisgender characters. While the explicit dehumanization of trans people decreased throughout the decades, they were still used as punchlines for cisgender characters. Even in recent programming such as How I Met Your Mother, trans people only existed when their existence could be joked about by cisgender characters. Unfortunately, we still see this prejudiced depiction of trans people in many modern programs, where trans people only exist in the program to be made fun of, dehumanizing the entire trans community. 

Thankfully, in recent years, some shows have been lauded for their positive, diverse portrayal of trans people. Programs like Orange is the New Black and Steven Universe show positive portrayals of trans people without solely relying on stereotypes. These programs are undoubtedly a step in the right direction for showcasing accurate depictions of transgender people. However, positive representation of trans people should not be the end goal. Even with positive representations, there are still oversights.

 Notably, the lack of trans men and nonbinary people is concerning, as these communities are seeing little representation on the small screen. Next, trans women are still seen as hyper-sexualized even in positive depictions, leading to the stereotype that all trans women are obsessed with sex. Trans actors still face many barriers in gaining roles, as few trans characters are even played by trans performers. We still see trans characters in most programs in a cisgender context, where there is little to no interaction between the main trans character and other trans characters. This ignorance of the larger trans community is an unfortunate omission. Finally, television programs still refuse to have trans characters confront the cisnormative structures that are present in the United States. Characters seek gracious acceptance rather than challenging internalized transphobia. This leads to the notion that true transgender equality simply comes with acceptance, rather than breaking down the transphobia that is present in nearly every facet of American life. Overall, while transgender representation on television has undoubtedly come a long way, there is still work to be done. Television, and mass media in general, has an enormous audience in the United States, and while positive depictions of trans people have been a great step, programs need to be unafraid to take the next step. Highlighting trans characters who are unafraid to confront the cisnormative structures that are present in our society today can help audiences realize that true trans equality occurs not merely with peer acceptance, but with breaking down the numerous transphobic structures in America.

Works Cited

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  1. Murray, N. (Director). (2014, March 17). Shade: The Rusical [Television series episode]. In RuPaul’s Drag Race. Logo TV.
  1. GLAAD Media Reference Guide – Transgender. (2019, December 07). Retrieved from https://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender
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  1. Keegan, C. (2014). How Transparent tried and failed to represent trans men. The Advocate. Retrieved from http://www.advocate.com/commentary/2014/10/22/op-ed-how-transparent- tried-and-failed-represent-trans-men
  1. Siebler, K. (2012). Transgender transitions: Sex/gender binaries in the digital age. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 16(1), 74–99. doi:10.1080/19359705.2012.632751
  2. Serano, J. (2007). Whipping girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
  3. Gamson, J. (2001). Talking freaks: Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered families on day-time talk TV. In M. Bernstein & R. Reimann (Eds.), Queer families, queer politics: Challenging culture and the state (pp. 68–86). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

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