The other week I wrote about how it is not only incorrect but also harmful to cast cisgender people as transgender people. Whenever I talk about this issue I hear two main counterarguments. Last time I wrote about how “it’s about casting the best person for the part” isn’t accurate. Today I want to tackle the other argument:
Well, at least your story is being told.
This is another argument that, on the surface, makes a lot of sense. The transgender community has often lived in shadow, hidden away, in silence for pretty much the entirety of the world. (Transgender identity isn’t new, it’s actually as old as human experience.) And when it comes to media transgender people have either not existed at all, been trotted out as cautionary tales, or been the butt of countless jokes. So to see a film that at least attempts to portray transgender identity with sensitivity is a step in the right direction… kind of.
Honestly, I would rather have our stories remain untold than to have them told poorly by someone else. In this case silence is better than error. Someone outside of the transgender experience will never be able to fully understand it. It’s too complex, too nuanced, to be told in a simple narrative. Not only that, but socially enforced ideas of gender that most cisgender people never have to question, influence how stories are understood and told.
Cisgender people also have a different focus when telling transgender stories. They focus on the medical stuff, on the tragedy of a person’s story, on how hard it is for some cisgender people when someone close to them transitions. All of these foci hold elements of truth: there are medical interventions that some transgender folks choose, there are some trans people who face tragedy, there are some cisgender people for whom their loved ones transition is difficult but these foci also highlight how cisgender people see transgender lives. And this narrow view in turns influences how media portrays us and keeps society viewing us in narrow and locked in boxes.
I’ve written before about how much representation matters. How when the only story available about a transgender man shows that young man being brutally murdered it sends a message. How every tragic ending is another way that society tells us what we are worth.
Not only that, but when there are so few stories being told about transgender lives, it is most important than ever that those stories be absolutely right.
If a writer writes a story about a selfish asshole of a white cisgender man, we, as viewers, understand that that selfish asshole doesn’t represent white cisgender men everywhere. We understand that because we have white cis men in our lives who are not assholes. We understand that because we have seen countless other stories and movies that feature white cis men who are not assholes. We understand it because there is a broad body of work that presents lots of ways to be a white cis man. That isn’t the cast for transgender people. So every representation has the burden of potentially being the only experience a cisgender person has of transgender experience. A cisgender person might not realize they know a transgender person. They might not have seen any other media that features a trans person (or worse they’ve only seen media that sets trans people up as the butt of the joke).
Every story being told about trans people has the burden of that lack of representation. It also has the burden of a history of representation which has set transgender people up as predators, deceptive, worthy of scorn, and worthy of pity. Which means that even if a writer or director or actor gets a tiny thing wrong that has massive, real world repercussions toward trans people.
It is vital that people get it right. And trans people are the only people who can be guaranteed to get it right.
Let me offer a series of questions:
What stories are being told and by whom? Why do so few films and plays about transgender experience have transgender people on the crew or working on the script? Is it because, deep down, the people doing the creating know that transgender people will take issue with what they are producing? Or do they just not care?
What aspects of transgender identity are being explored? Why are so many of the films really about how hard it is on cisgender people when someone transitions? Why are films highlighting the brutal violence towards trans folks? Why are there shots of trans women putting on makeup? Or trans men (if they exist at all) binding their chests or being filled with rage? Where are the films with happy endings? Does this emphasis mean that cisgender people pity transgender people? That they think we are incapable of having a happy ending? Do they think our lives are only wrapped up in our medical transitions? Do they see our identities as dress up; that by putting on makeup or binding our chest we are somehow playacting our gender identity?
Why do cisgender people think they are better able to tell our stories? Do they believe that we are unable to be unbiased about our own lives? (Do they really believe anyone is unbiased when telling a story?) Do they feel our lives and stories have more value when they are filtered through a cisgender lens? And if so, what does that say about how they feel about transgender people?
The transgender people I know who are telling stories are telling them about all aspects of our lives; the medical transition and the life beyond it. They are telling stories about being loved and being left. About tragedy but also about triumph. They are telling stories about being parents and having a job, about being a child and learning to be an adult. They are telling full stories; stories with empathy and wit and nuance. And they are able to tell these stories because they have lived them. They understand that our lives aren’t just our transitions, but that our transitions influence and inform the rest of our lives in ways that are sometimes surprising.
Transgender people need to be telling our own stories. We need agency, but more than that we need access. Because it’s not just about having a transgender character in a film, it’s about getting the story right. Because every wrong story is literally fueling violence toward transgender people. It’s increasing misunderstandings of an already misunderstood community. It’s silencing us and taking away our voices. It’s increasing the isolation of young trans people and increasing their risk of self harm. This isn’t simply about the media; it’s life and death. It matters.
What stories are told and who tells the stories matters so much. Let us tell our own stories. Not only us, but you as well, will be better for it.