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Transgender Representation in the Media

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The Transgender Pride flag waving on top of a building.

Transgender representation in media has increased over the past decade. This means incredible headway with trans actresses/actors in front-facing roles and as political leaders! Yet, is all the spotlight good for transgender individuals overall? Often representation in the media is not all sunshine and rainbows. And surely that means that not all press is good press. And with this increase, as it was a decade or so ago for gay media, there is a lot of focus on tragedy or tragic elements of transgender experiences.

Specifically, the huge uptake in reporting of transgender women of color being murdered or having hate crimes committed against them throughout the United States capitalizes on the terrible events these women have experienced. And the audacity of some media companies not even gendering victims correctly or even acknowledging it as a tragedy! It’s a paradoxical thing to be represented within the media and this breakdown aims to expose the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Transgender Misrepresentation

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Not all representatives in media are true to what it means to be transgender. Nor do they always convey what it feels like to be trans. It’s incredibly hard to generalize the thoughts, ideas, and feelings of a group of people, but it’s even harder to misrepresent them as a whole. Usually, the misrepresentation is coming from cisgender people spreading misinformation or weighing in on transgender issues as if their opinion was as important as a trans person’s. But there are some bad apples among us as well that do the same. Like Caitlyn Jenner, who had a failed political run and is planning another on an anti-transgender campaign.

If you don’t know the timeline of Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out and transition, it’s imperative to go over the facts to better understand the full story and how detrimental her ideas are to the transgender population. But it’s not just her taking a toll on how people perceive being transgender. Other famous people like Lil Nas X, while creating more awareness, also did a great job of misrepresenting and creating negative perceptions around pregnant transgender men. It’s cases like these where, with no transgender representation backing the ideas, when a lot of backlash and misunderstanding come from both sides.

Transgender Representation

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It’s not all bad though. There are many advocates, political leaders, and famous people who do a great job of taking on the difficult task of representing the transgender community with accuracy and poise. Actor Elliot Page has put in the work to share his experience on a personal level that helps not only out trans people, but closeted ones as well. And State Senator Sarah McBride does so in a much more intense way, as she puts herself in front of some of the most influential cisgender white men in the United States to advocate for us all.

Next are the ones who have dedicated their profession and life to helping the transgender community; this comes in many forms but notably are the mental health professionals who have been combating some of the worst things transgender people can experience. Then, on a much smaller scale, no-name advocates share their stories, experiences, and lives with others with the optimism of spreading hope to those who are currently struggling. It’s not a long list, nor is it extensive and comprehensive of all the amazing advocates, actresses/actors, and transgender individuals who faithfully represent what it means to be transgender.

The Paradox

There are bad representatives, there are good ones, and then there are the media that convey them. It’s in this conduit that things can get muddled and a paradox appears (and even if it is crystal clear, things can still be misconstrued). The paradox appears in many situations – on TV, in the news, or in general media. Mainly it happens due to lack of thought but not always. The paradox itself? It’s the representation that can possibly have positive outcomes and maybe even have the best intentions, but also produce its own set of negative ones alongside. A perfect example of this can be seen on the big screen in many TV shows and movies.

Cisgender (and sometimes transgender) people will play characters such as ‘transvestites’, ‘trannies’, or ‘trans sex workers'. While these characters could be perfectly and historically accurate, sometimes the needed discussion to make things clear and accurate does not happen. Often these representations stay in the category of misrepresentations. Not all transgender individuals are sex workers and have a life of heavy drug abuse, criminal activity, and promiscuous encounters. And starting conversations about transgender individuals is great! Except when there are no trans people to speak for themselves. This happens a lot, more than is helpful. News outlets will report on hate crimes without doing the due diligence of researching their ‘story’ about a trans person. So yes, it’s good that there is this exposure to start the dialogue, but without the much need for trans voices to set records straight or clarify, the good often results in the bad as well.

How Do You Get Proper Transgender Representation?

Well, a start is to put transgender voices, works, and ideas at the forefront of the conversations. Not only that but there must be more opportunities given to do so because we can talk, write, and spread our thoughts all we want but without a platform, most of the time, it is unfruitful. Moreover, the conversations and platforms need more than just to advocate- they need to help insight the change we want to see. You can put us on TV all you want but if you’re not backing us up by supporting our cause in other forms, your advocacy is really just for show. It’s kind of like homophobic brands making merchandise for pride – you can say you support us all you want and still put a ton of money into anti-LGBTQ campaigns. Education needs to go hand in hand with conversations and support.

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Like many of the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe films, LGBTQ+ fans awaited the release of Thor: Love and Thunder in open anticipation of the inclusivity that both Marvel and Disney had promised. However, the fans were only setting themselves up for disappointment when the film was finally released.

Despite passionate assurances from studio heads to key actors, Thor: Love and Thunder was NOT spectacularly gay. It wasn’t even that good…

Premiere Night Promises

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Standing on the red carpet at the London Premiere of the film, director and actor Taika Waititi and fellow cast members Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson were offered up the inevitable question: “How gay is the film?

Amidst some laughter from the crowds, Waititi gestured towards Portman to respond. The actress (who plays Thor’s love interest, Jane Foster, throughout the franchise) raised the microphone to her lips and thought for a moment, before delivering a quiet yet fateful: “So gay!

Barely a moment had passed before the gathered fans went wild and Taika Waititi gave his own verdict: “Super gay!”. Tessa Thompson made no statement on the ‘gayness’ of the film, instead opting to swing her microphone around suggestively. As more cheers erupted, a second round of “super gay” slipped out of Waititi’s mouth, before he urged the fans to enjoy the film.

Thor: Love and Thunder’s LGBTQ+ Potential

Thor’s movie-goers were definitely hyped up for a gay extravaganza and they had a specific character in mind. The fan-favorite Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson, stumbled her way into the MCU during Thor’s third film, Ragnarok. The Asgardian warrior won many people over with her wit, sarcasm, and pure badassery.

After the events of Avengers: Endgame *spoilers*, Thor Odinson gives up his claim to the throne of Asgard and names Valkyrie as king in his stead. This left many fans excited to see what would become of the character, especially after certain revelations were made at the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con:

“As a new king, she has to find her queen. So that’ll be her first order of business.”

With these words, Tessa Thompson threw her LGBTQ+ fans into a frenzy, with heavy expectations for the then-upcoming fourth installment of the Thor films. Indeed, in an interview with the LA Times, shortly before the film's release, Tessa Thompson was asked to comment on the sexuality of her character. She responded with several promising remarks, including “there’s a lot of folks that are righteously very hungry for that representation to exist in these movies, as am I”.

*Warning: spoilers ahead!*

So, How Gay Was Thor 4?

To put it simply: not gay at all. Not only did Valkyrie end up without a fabulous new queen, her non-heteronormative sexuality only got the barest mention (a brief line about a previous, now dead, girlfriend). Valkyrie may have made bedroom eyes at some pretty ladies before an action scene spoils the moment, but that’s about as much as we get.

The film does get some credit for introducing a trans character in a minor yet significant role. Thor returns to his people (after a brief stint as a Guardian of the Galaxy) only to find out that the daughter of one of his closest (and deceased) friends is now a boy. The issue is, whether due to personal prejudice or some alien inability to grasp the concept of being transgender, it does take Thor a frustrating few moments to come to terms with the change. And to stop deadnaming.

In fact, the only concession to the queer community was Taika Waititi’s extraterrestrial character Korg finding a husband in one of the closing scenes. This heartfelt moment was somewhat underscored by the revelation that Korg’s entire species is male, meaning he had no other choice but to be ‘gay’.

This Is Not Marvel’s First Queerbaiting Attempt

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This is, by far, not the first time that LGBTQ+ fans have been sorely disappointed by the workings of Marvel and Disney. In fact, people across many social media platforms have been chiding expectant viewers for once again falling for classic queerbaiting tactics. “Being queerbaited by the MCU is like being a golden retriever with a human who always pretends to throw the ball”, one Tumblr user declared.

Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson, was the perfect moment for the MCU to introduce its first lesbian lead. Larson’s character seemed to have an intense relationship with another woman, going so far as to help raise her child (before Larson’s Carol Danvers disappeared from Earth for 6 years). Despite leaning into several romantic tropes, the status of their relationship was never fully fleshed out. However, it was also the franchise’s first female-led superhero movie, so maybe they thought that introducing her as a lesbian would make the film too awesome.

The heavily anticipated Avengers: Endgame was also slated to introduce the MCU’s ‘first gay character'. While many fans were excited, particularly as this would be the second of Larson’s appearances on screen, the big gay build-up was a massive letdown. The film’s director Joe Russo made a cameo as a blip survivor mourning the loss of his husband. A five-second throw-away scene that had no impact on the outcome of the film. Big whoop...

Even when we did see a film with a gay lead, The Eternals, there were also ten other straight leads. At that point, it just seemed more like basic probability than an attempt at pushing LGBT+ superheroes into the spotlight.

Why Can’t Disney Let Marvel Be Gay?

The big problem with allowing a few characters to be anything other than cishet is that there are still many countries in the world that outlaw homosexuality. As much as we like to think that the MCU is being made for comic book fans, we all know the purpose of the films is to make money for Disney. And without certain markets in Asia and the Middle East, Disney wouldn’t be raking in up to (and over) one billion dollars per theatrical release.

Is There Any Hope For LGBTQ+ Fans In The MCU’s Future?

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the second in the much-loved Black Panther arc, will be released in cinemas this November. The studio has confirmed that the film will contain a queer character. Actress Michaela Coel will play Aneka, a warrior, and trainer of the king’s guard. Whether or not her diversity will stand out in the film (let alone endure for more than a 10-second scene that can be easily cut) remains to be seen.

Next year’s The Marvels film, starring Brie Larson, Iman Vellani, and Lashana Lynch may offer the MCU a chance to redeem itself in the eyes of its LGBT+ fans. The studios may feel it’s finally time to offer us the heartwarming lesbian relationship between Larson’s Carol Danvers and Lynch’s Maria Rambeau that seemed to be teased in the first Captain Marvel. Don’t raise your hopes too high, though, as you may yet end up as a stubborn golden retriever waiting for a cinematic universe to finally throw that rainbow ball.