Cinema has been going for over 100 years and, in its time, it’s shown many different people from many walks of life. Representation has become more and more important over the years and many film studios have gone out of their way to tell the stories of different people so that we can see people and hear stories that we may not have heard otherwise.
However, with great representation comes great responsibility, so the portrayal of a character that the film makers may or may not have knowledge of varies greatly depending on the research that the film makers put in and the input from the people that they are trying to portray on screen.
Some film makers get it right and some don’t and often that means that there are various cliches and tropes that rear their ugly heads and become so common that it may be hard to undo them.
Over the past few years, it seems that Hollywood has started to tell stories with trans people and as a disabled cis male, I and many others have started to notice that the trans community are getting treated much the same as the disabled community have in cinema for over 100 years. So, here I am offering up a guide on what not to do when representing the trans community in cinema because disabled people have been down this road before and if it doesn’t stop now then there may be no way back.
Firstly, the struggle that many trans people experience in order to be the person they are inside is one that’s full of emotional anguish, self-acceptance and mostly a time where they can truly feel like they are the person they are meant to be. Some people also go through some kind of turmoil when they become disabled, usually after being cut down in the prime of their lives.
These stories are not comparable, yet Hollywood may find the temptation to make the story of a trans person align with the stories that have been told about disabled people for years. The individual journey of a trans person becoming who they are inside should not be the sole reason for their story, it only serves as a way to teach cis people what a trans person may experience while they’re transitioning, and as mentioned earlier, results may vary as to how involved trans people are in the film.
Also, trans and disabled people do not exist to be pitied or looked down on because of a change in life or that they were born differently. Our stories shouldn’t be intense melodramas that tell the story of a person who lives their life in isolation because nobody understands them. There are many disabled and trans people that live great, varied lives and many are accepted widely by the people around them. Their physical appearance and their behaviour should never be an excuse for film makers to make the audience cry because of our supposed sad, lonely lives.
On the other side, our supposed differences should never be highlighted to indicate that we’re in some way different psychologically from other people. In short, we are not evil. Often disabled people have been portrayed as villains with physical differences such as facial scarring, a missing limb or a wheelchair. Similarly, there has been trans representation in horror and thrillers because serial killers are often portrayed as cross dressers or go to more extremes to be women such as in The Silence of The Lambs.
The implication is that because somebody chooses to dress differently than the sex that they were born is that their minds must be affected in some way and that makes them untrustworthy which couldn’t be further from the truth. With disabled people, if they have a facial scar, a missing limb or something else then it suggests they have been wronged by the world and that their minds have turned to revenge on a world that mistreats and ignores them. Again, something that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Also, it wouldn’t hurt if trans and disabled people played themselves. Once Hollywood started to write stories in the way that only mainstream cinema could, certain actors jumped at the chance to portray somebody other than themselves. Eddie Redmayne portrayed Lili Elbe, a Danish painter and trans woman who underwent ground breaking surgery in Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl which was hotly tipped as an Oscar winner which would bag Redmayne his second Oscar win. This resulted in an expected Oscar nomination for Redmayne and ironically a win for Alicia Vikander as Elbe’s partner.
However, that didn’t stop Hollywood to try and tell more stories from the trans community with reports of Scarlett Johansson and Halle Berry expressing interest in playing trans men. Disabled people have been dealing with this kind of representation for years and there’s an assumption that if you’re an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis, Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman that have played disabled people and won Oscars then it makes you a better actor. It does not. Don’t let that be a thing with trans people too.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly. We are not your inspiration. Stories showing trans people becoming the people they were always meant to be and disabled people ‘overcoming the odds and triumphing in the face of adversity’ are not good reasons to make films. It may make audiences feel good that somebody on screen can finally feel good about themselves, continuing their lives as normal, but these feel good moments of achievement are few and far between.
They also ignore the continuing ignorance and prejudice that we all experience every single day. Nobody overcomes something they’re born with, because once they’ve achieved something that other people wouldn’t believe they could do, the way they were born is still very much a part of them.
So, there are a few examples of what could happen in cinema with trans people if Hollywood gets the idea that representing their stories could be the next big thing. Hollywood always likes to think it’s progressive, but if they start to fall back on old tricks to manipulate audiences then they may be setting back representation for many years to come.
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