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Transgender Misrepresentation on the Silver Screen: How Hollywood Is Cultivating a Culture of Discrimination

Transgender Woman Ascending

When are the major motion picture studios going to show a Transgender woman in the role of a Transgender woman who is harassed for using the women’s restroom in the workplace?

When will a Transgender man play the role of a Transgender man who is fired from his job?

When will Hollywood get on board with this?

It doesn’t look like it’s going to be any time soon, judging by the last five years. That’s how long GLAAD, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising public awareness on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues, has been publishing its annual Studio Responsibility Index (SRI). Since 2012, major film studios released a total of 568 films, and 96 of them contained characters who are LGBT, the vast majority of which were there to be the punching bag for humiliating jokes. Transgender characters barely registered a blip on the screen of the major studios, with only four films featuring transgender characters: two in 2013 (“Grudge Match” and “Instructions Not Included”); one in 2015 (“Grandma”); and one in 2016 (“Zoolander 2”).

Though she appeared in just one scene, only the character Deathy, the tattoo artist played by Laverne Cox in “Grandma”, provided significant dramatic impact to the plot. The three other films featured characters that were either imprisoned or the set-up for derisive jokes about transphopia.

But, that’s where the easy money is. After all, this is America, and let’s face it, the return on an investment on a white hetero-normative middle-class narrative – whether it’s told through dehumanizing jokes, violence, or animation – is far greater than developing a Transgender character with substance and depth. The less likely it is that a screenplay will be a blockbuster hit, the more likely it is that the budget will be slashed to improve the margins and distribution will be limited.

But, it’s too easy to simply say the seven major studios – 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Brothers – are in the business of making money, and not creating cultural change.

The truth is studios are creating cultural change and they’ve been doing it for a long time, by bombarding moviegoers with a barrage of neatly packaged motifs that paint inclusivity and specific marginalized groups as threats. Scholar George F. Kneller, PhD, Chair in the Philosophy of Education, UCLA, called it “Cultural Cultivation.” In a groundbreaking essay published in 1995, “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture,” Kneller defended cultural studies programs that teach critical analysis of media:

“We are immersed from cradle to grave in a media and consumer society and thus it is important to learn how to understand, interpret, and criticize its meanings and messages. The media are a profound and often misperceived source of cultural pedagogy: They contribute to educating us how to behave and what to think, feel, believe, fear, and desire — and what not to. The media are forms of pedagogy which teach us how to be men and women. They show us how to dress, look and consume; how to react to members of different social groups; how to be popular and successful and how to avoid failure; and how to conform to the dominant system of norms, values, practices, and institutions.”

Twenty-two years later, the proof of his theory on Cultural Cultivation has been manifested in the more than 200 anti-Trans legislative proposals in states across the country. Almost all of the proposed bills will never be signed into law, but they are a clear indication that many elected leaders and the millions of voters who continue to support them are convinced that Transgender people, and the LGBTQIA community in general, are a threat to safety and American culture.

However, just as clearly, the research conducted by GLAAD shows the major motion picture studios are either intentionally complicit or ignorant. At the very least, the studios are not concerned enough to care about their abhorrent record when it comes to Transgender actors and Transgender roles, nor are they open to any criticism on the matter.

Almost three-and-a-half years ago, Steve Friess, who teaches journalism at Michigan State University, penned an article for Time magazine titled “Don’t Applaud Jared Leto’s Transgender ‘Mammy’.” Leto, a straight cis actor, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Rayon, a fictional drug-addicted Trans sex worker who is more distraught about being transgender than being HIV in the movie “Dallas Buyers Club”. Despite pandering to virtually every negative stereotype, Leto’s performance was lauded for being a breakthrough performance. But, as Freiss points out, “Hollywood has long found humor in aspects of transgenderism — be it simple cross-dressing or actual transexuality — and shows no signs of letting up. From “Some Like It Hot” to “Tootsie,” a guy in a dress is always deemed clever and funny. And the trend, if anything, shows signs of escalating from benign and misinformed to threatening.”

He’s right. There are no signs that Hollywood is letting up. Since 2013, the seven major studios responded to the criticism by releasing just two movies with Transgender characters.

Just like racial humor was never funny and the objectification of women should have never been tolerated, Transgender people should not be dehumanized by a movie industry that does more to cultivate fear and disdain of “others” than it does to weed it out.

Of course, it isn’t fair to put the responsibility for creating change and cultivating culture all on the seven major studios. But, here we are in 2017, and still there are no Federal laws protecting the Civil Rights of the more than 1.4 million Transgender adults living in the United States. Only 19 states have civil rights protections for Transgender people when it comes to employment housing, health care, education, and public accommodations. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS) from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), almost a third of Trans adults have been fired from their jobs, denied a promotion, or have reported being physically attacked and sexually assaulted in the workplace.

Transgender people are twice as likely to be living in poverty and three times as likely to be unemployed. Consequently, only 16 percent of Transgender people own a home, compared to a national average that is four times higher. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, Transgender people were lucky to receive any health care at all; even with the ACA, one out of every four reported being denied coverage or medical treatment because they are Transgender.

The solutions seem simple: education and awareness. At the risk of sounding a little like Chance, the gardener from the novel Being There, by Jerzy Kosinski, the surest and most long-lasting change comes cultivating culture, much like working the soil in a garden.

It sure would help if Hollywood understood this

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This entry was posted on May 31, 2017 by in Human Rights and Civil Rights, Uncategorized and tagged , .

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