There’s a long history of trans people being either erased or misrepresented in our media. One example that comes immediately to mind is Silence of the Lambs. Though I love this movie, the tropes it uses when it comes to Buffalo Bill are both extremely common and extremely damaging.
Lecter says that Buffalo Bill is not actually transgender, it’s true, but that doesn’t stop the plot arc from being transphobic—most audiences will not differentiate. Trans women being violent and murderous as a direct result of being transgender is a common trope in horror, and it reinforces the stereotype that trans women are delusional predators. It has a direct, dangerous impact on the lives of real people: for example, women’s festivals exclude trans women, and laws are passed to stop trans people from using the correct bathroom lest they be rapists or murderers, though this puts trans people at real risk of assault. There is absolutely no basis to this stereotype; on the contrary, trans women are exponentially more at risk to be assaulted and murdered themselves. They are no more likely to be violent than anyone else.
Comedy is another genre in which transphobic, especially transmisogynistic, tropes are prevalent. In the cartoon Family Guy, there’s a story arc that reaches new transmisogynistic lows. After a lot cissexism, misgendering, invasive questioning about trans bodies (cis people often believe they have a right to information about a trans person’s genitals, as if they are a zoo exhibit, even when they would never think of asking such questions about a cis person), and more tropes involving trans women being predators, there’s a scene in which a character sleeps with the trans woman in question and then, discovering she is trans, vomits for a full forty seconds. This plays into the idea of trans women as “traps,” or fake women seeking to trick straight men into having sex with them. Not only is this misgendering, inaccurate, and offensive, but it puts trans women in danger. Media portrayals like this reinforce the idea that men who find out their hookup partner is trans should be disgusted and horrified, and are justified in raping, assaulting, and/or murdering her. This is not abstract; trans women, especially trans women of color, have an enormously high risk of being victims of violence, many times higher than just about any other population segment.
In The L Word, a trans male character is also dangerously misrepresented. Max begins to medically transition partway through the show. His hormones, of which he is taking too high a dose, make him aggressive and violent; this is a common (and inaccurate) stereotype or misconception about the effects of testosterone treatment, and about men in general. It’s used as an excuse to stop AFAB trans people from starting testosterone—it was used as such for me, actually. This can be extremely damaging, as preventing medical transition can devastate mental health and even lead to suicide. Next, Max, who was previously attracted only to women, suddenly becomes attracted only to men. That’s another common misconception about T: that it turns you gay. It can raise your sex drive and make you more aware of attractions you already had, and it can make you more comfortable in yourself and open to exploring your attractions, but it can’t reverse your orientation. Later, Max becomes pregnant. This isn’t a problem in itself, as trans men can and do get pregnant, but it happened directly after the media frenzy about another pregnant man. This leads me to believe they were capitalizing on this newly born stereotype and exploiting such experiences. Finally, they proceed to misgender Max by referring to the situation as his “motherhood.” This character arc is an example of a show, one with seemingly good intentions, making a mess out of a trans story line and spreading misinformation due to lack of research. It’s also an example of LGB organizations completely mangling inclusion of the T, when they even attempt inclusion at all.
One campaign aimed at improving transgender representation in media is called Trans Media Action, at transmediaaction.com. Its stated goals are to “deepen media institutions’ and journalists’ understanding of trans issues through the creation of safe and useful points of contact, both on the web and through physical training space,” and to “engage more trans people online, involving trans people across the UK with positive work that changes the way they are represented and understood by the media and public.” They are working on accomplishing these goals through a series of workshops with media professionals to influence journalists, and then connecting media professionals with the trans community. They are also gathering funding for websites aimed at increasing information, visibility and positive representation of real trans people.
Another such campaign is called Trans Media Watch, at transmediawatch.org. They say they are “a charity dedicated to improving media coverage of trans and intersex issues,” and aim to “help people in the media to understand these issues and produce clear, accurate, respectful material,” as well as “help trans and intersex people who are interacting with the media to get results they are comfortable with.” They want the portrayal of trans people in the media to be “fair, respectful and accurate,” and they want “an end to the prejudice, bigotry and hate routinely directed at trans people and we want the media to play its role – no longer fuelling these things. We are more than happy to work with any representative of any media organisation to help them do a good job.” It provides assistance and information to trans people dealing with the media, whether they work with it, are contacting it, or have been approached by it. It also provides media training to trans and intersex organizations. On the flipside, it provides assistance and information to media looking to represent trans people, offering guidelines, training, and consultations. Unfortunately, both these organizations operate primarily in the UK.
An advocacy site called transandmedia, at transandmedia.wordpress.com, seeks to accomplish similar goals. It is a collaboration of five other European organizations, also seeking to gain transgender media equality, hoping to help each other and exchange information and strategies. They take turns hosting working meetings with trans* activists, and plan to create a media brochure with examples of successful trans media representation, aimed at such activists. The group also aims to increase visibility through public meetings with journalists, associates, and audiences. This is an effort to help trans* activists and allies to share methods of educating usually ignorant audiences on transgender inequality and discrimination. The site has a language guide, and hopes to add a list of resources, the beginnings of a collection of positive trans images, media training from each of the associated organizations, news, and links. It also has a collection of resources and guidelines for trans people in effective dealings with the press.
An essay about the representation of trans women in media can be found at www.calpernia.com/diary/favorites/transsexual-cliches-and-stereotypes-in-media, discussing various stereotypes and tropes in media representation of trans people. At http://www.glaad.org/publications/victims-or-villains-examining-ten-years-transgender-images-television we learn that, over ten years, trans characters were victims 40% of the time and villains 21% of the time. 20% the trans characters were sex workers, and transphobic slurs and language were found in 61% of the storylines. Also, “offensive representations and storylines were found on every major broadcast network and seven different cable networks.” Here (http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2013/03/22/analysis-trans-suicide-and-the-way-the-media-reports-the-trans-community/) are several statistics involving trans mental health and its relationship with media. According to this article, 84% of trans people have considered suicide, as compared to 10-14% of the general population, and 35% of trans people have attempted it (other sources say 41%), as opposed to 5% of the general population. 51% said that the way the media represents trans people has a negative effect on their mental health. More such conclusions are provided at http://www.transmediawatch.org/Documents/How%20Transgender%20People%20Experience%20the%20Media.pdf, in which 78% of the respondents say that media’s trans representation is inaccurate, 70% say it is negative, and 67% say such negative items make them angry, 50% unhappy, 34.5% excluded, 20% frightened, and 60% bad about society. 21.5% say they have experienced verbal abuse connected with an item in the media, and 8% have experienced physical abuse of this kind. 86 respondents say media representations caused negative reactions to their transition among their family and friend, including 14 who say they caused ongoing family problems or complete breakdown. 19.5% have faced problems at work related to media representation, and 12% from service providers. Also, 61.5% say they feel happy after encountering a positive portrayal in the media.
These statistics and theories show the impact that media representation has on trans people.