Columns, Opinion

Spotlight on Society: Visibility for transgender characters and actors

Television and movie storylines are increasingly introducing transgender actors. Unfortunately, most of these characters follow the same two tropes: prostitute or runaway. This is not how the community deserves to be portrayed.

In the TV show “Big Sky,” nonbinary and transgender actor Jesse James Keitel plays a transgender prostitute with the bigger ambition of being a musician. Although Keitel was the first transgender and nonbinary actor to be represented as a regular on prime-time television, starring alongside big-name actors such as Ryan Phillippe, they still have to portray the stereotypical street-worker role.

The entertainment industry ultimately needs to introduce more storylines for transgender characters — not just because they are underrepresented, but because they are represented in an unfair, stigmatized way.

In the limited appearances transgender people made in more dated shows, they were captured in a similar manner as Keitel’s character in “Big Sky.” But dissimilarly, Keitel brought more depth to their character than other roles from the ’90s, such as in “Sex and the City.”

Alexia Nizhny/DFP STAFF

Although the door has opened for more inclusive roles for nonbinary and transgender actors, they still do not receive the same amount of recognition as, say, Oscar-nominated Eddie Redmayne, who portrayed a transgender woman in 2015’s “The Danish Girl.” These actors and actresses are limited in the roles and awareness they receive for their portrayals.

There are a couple more well-known and recognized transgender actors, but they still face judgement from the public and barriers in what roles they play. Elliot Page, for example, is a highly visible actor in the Netflix show “The Umbrella Academy.”

Unfortunately, conservatives, specifically commentator Ben Shapiro, are extremely ignorant in regard to Page’s portrayal of the lesbian character Vanya Hargreeves. In his cleverly named podcast “The Ben Shapiro Show,” Shapiro refused to address Page by his preferred pronouns or acknowledge that he does not identify as a female.

It is deeply problematic and upsetting for someone with Shapiro’s platform to completely dismiss Page’s personhood. He does not seem to understand basic sexuality and gender identity and the respect that comes with recognizing those rights.

What many people seem unable to comprehend is transgender actors are extremely underrepresented, even more so than lesbian or gay people. Because of this, Page is able to portray any character he feels comfortable portraying, regardless of their gender or sexuality.

If television producers want to rewrite Page’s character to be more reflective of him, no true supporter or audience-member would question that decision because it simply provides more screen time for the transgender community.

However, a handful of shows have been pushing for better trans representation. For example, the show “Pose” brings awareness to the LGBTQ+ community in the 1980s. It centers around Black transgender individuals and the racism and queerphobia they face in a white, cis-gender dominated world.

The CW’s “Supergirl” stars Nicole Maines, who is also trying to bring further visibility for trans people. Her character, Nia Nal, is one of the first trans superheroes to be represented in the entertainment industry.

Nal’s powers are symbolic of the inflammatory rhetoric in today’s day and age — she is able to use precognition and dream manipulation to defeat her foes. Nal’s superhero alter ego, known as Dreamer, uses her half-human, half-alien DNA to try to impact the debate on civilian liberties. She discusses immigration rights and LGBTQ+ rights due to her connection to both issues.

One storyline in “Supergirl” included someone referring to Nal as not “a real woman” — a very problematic phrase. However, every other non-villainous character stood by Nal, making ignorance a vocal enemy in the show.

Trans characters and actors are essential in creating plotlines that appeal to similar audience members. Having a cast such as this exists and receives some recognition — although certainly not enough — introduces an LGBTQ+-dominated cast and provides us a refreshing scope of characters who do not fall under trans tropes.

Additionally, the introduction of a trans superhero enables young children who may be struggling with their identities or sexualities to find someone like them fighting oppression and bigotry on their screens. The entertainment industry needs to create more roles that acknowledge the bravery and importance of a transition story, and these actors should receive more awards and recognition.

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