Transgender Television Hits and Misses
It’s an understatement to say that transgender television characters are having a moment. They’re having a whole year. From Amazon’s groundbreaking “Transparent” to Laverne Cox on “Orange Is the New Black” and the unavoidable Caitlyn Jenner, there has never been more representation of transgender people on the small screen.
All signs point to a television landscape that has embraced the transgender experience with arms wide open, but some shows do it better than others — and some segments of the community are better represented than others. Here’s a breakdown of transgender portrayals on TV, including their hits and misses for the broader transgender community.
Caitlyn Jenner on “I Am Cait”
Former Olympian and Kardashian family patriarch Caitlyn Jenner invited America inside her transition as she extricated herself from the Kardashian web and started living as her authentic self.
Hits: Thanks to the overexposure of Jenner’s ex-wife and her brood, no transgender person has had such a wide reception or scope of influence. The sheer power of Caitlyn’s brand is a gift to the community and has been able to raise awareness and somewhat “normalize” the transgender experience in a way no one else could have.
Misses: Because of Jenner’s insular lifestyle and privilege, the journey portrayed on “I Am Cait” did not reflect the challenges and struggles of most transgender people. In fact, Caitlyn even questioned her own ability to “do it right” on multiple occasions. While broad exposure was a big plus, the failure of the show to connect with the heart of the transgender community tarnishes the victory.
Sophia Burset on “Orange Is the New Black”
We’ve seen Sophia (Laverne Cox) denied hormones and cherished for her skill in the salon, but the third season of “Orange Is the New Black” showed us a raw portrayal of a transgender parent struggling to hold on to their child.
Hits: Up to this point, we haven’t really seen anyone act uncomfortable around Sophia. This season, as she spun out of control trying to alleviate her own guilt about not being there for her son, we got to see that all hasn’t been chatty haircuts and blowouts in Sophia’s life in prison.
The show exposed a more balanced picture of life for transgender women in prison and the extreme practice of “protecting them” through isolation. The brutal beating that Sophia experiences is hard to watch, but it shined a light on the harsh reality of so many transgender people both walking free and behind bars.
Sophia’s surprising struggle between offering her son fatherly or motherly advice about sex — “Try practicing on insecure girls” — was another homerun for a show that seems to have a pulse on the real issues faced by transgender people.
Misses: Nope, not even one.
The Lehwald Family on “Becoming Us”
A teen boy (Ben Lehwald) lets cameras follow him as he adjusts to the new dynamics of a family where his father is transitioning to life as a woman.
Hits: On the opposite end of the spectrum from “I Am Cait,” this show portrays a more typical transitioning experience for those without the blessings of money and fame. One of the best things about “Becoming Us” is how downright normal it is.
In fact, his father’s transition isn’t usually the centerpiece of the action. Ben deals with dating, school, and everything else an average teen goes through, making the transition just another aspect of a relatively normal, everyday life.
Misses: Even though “Becoming Us” is billed as a completely unscripted docu-series, it suffers from moments of unreality and the trappings of overly enthusiastic producers. The show, and its attempt to portray a real family, would have benefited from less canned narration and fewer movie montage-worthy songs and soundbites.
Maura Pfefferman on “Transparent”
Jeffrey Tambor’s Emmy-winning portrayal of a father finally embracing her true identity and the fallout experienced by her family took the television world by storm this year.
Hits: Based on the real experience of show creator Jill Soloway and her transgender “Moppa,” this show rings true on so many levels. The fear that Maura faces when revealing her gender to her children, and their varied reactions of incredulity and fierce loyalty (when they defended her right to use the ladies’ room) are genuine and relatable.
Misses: Some disdain the casting of a cisgender man in the role of a transgender woman, but Tambor’s performance is given with nothing but love. The only real downfall of this show, at least when it comes to the portrayal of the transgender community, is the bone it throws to transgender men. Once again, a transgender woman is at the center of the story, but men are barely represented.
It’s true that transgender people have never been more represented in pop culture. Television is getting a lot right when it comes to telling the stories that have been overlooked for far too long. However, there is still room for improvement, especially when it comes to equal representation. I hope to see the whole transgender community embraced in the future, including the stories of transgender men.