By Sarah Weingarten
Transgender characters are becoming more common on popular TV shows than ever before. Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, Glee, I Am Cait, Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters, etc. etc. GLAAD has catalogued 102 TV episodes with non-recurring storylines of scripted television that contained transgender characters since 2002. But over half of those episodes portrayed negative stereotypes of trans people. Only 12% of the episodes were considered accurate and fair according to GLAAD’s standards. Trans characters were the victim 40% of the time and the killers or villains in 21% of episodes recorded.
On top of not accurately displaying trans people on TV not all trans roles go to trans actors. Some people think this isn’t a big deal, but I am not one of those people. A lot of individuals argue that trans actors don’t exist, which is wrong, or that trans roles shouldn’t exclusively be available to trans actors.
A TV show I want to look more closely at is Transparent. Jeffrey Tambor plays the lead Maura Pfefferman, who is a trans women transitioning in her later years. I haven’t watched the show yet because I’m very torn. I love Tambor and don’t want to fall in love with a show that conflict with my personal beliefs. But Tambor is not a trans woman and is playing one on TV. I just don’t understand how Tambor can accurately portray a trans person without knowing what it’s like to be one in real life.
This conflict brings me to Julia Serano’s work “Performance Piece” where she talks about all gender being a performance. In this writing, Serano eloquently vents that saying gender is performance is a “crass oversimplification” and that in reality it’s a confusing mess like a junior high school mixer. She then goes on to write about her struggle being a trans women and how saying gender is performance erases her experience. Serano compares that erasure to Stephen Colbert’s skit where he insists he doesn’t see race, “It’s easy to fictionalize an issue when you are not fully in touch with all the ways in which you are privileged by it.”
Tambor and other non-trans actors playing trans people on TV don’t understand that one of their privileges of being a cis actor is being able to be more successful in Hollywood, therefore, having more opportunities to take roles that are trans. A cis actor taking a trans role is gender performance.