When it comes to transgender representations in film, Hollywood’s report card doesn’t look good. Even films as recent as 2015’s The Danish Girl employ long-abused tropes. In fact, trans filmmaker Sam Feder, who prefers to be identified with gender-neutral pronouns, can’t name a single mainstream film in the past century that hasn’t made them cringe. And Feder would know — they’re currently sifting through the depths of American film to compile a comprehensive guide to trans cinema throughout history. As of now, Feder has 200 clips and counting. This effort has taken them over a year and half, and Feder can confidently say that no Hollywood film has ever lent the trans community the visibility they deserve.
“Nothing has really done it right. Some things have been less offensive than others,” Feder tells me over the phone after having scrolled through the piles of clips from as far back as 1903. This is in reference to big Hollywood blockbusters — when it comes to independent films, the compass is more closely aligned. Feder cites the 1953 film Glen Or Glenda, about a trans woman born Glen, as a halfway decent representation of trans lives, but even it makes Feder sigh.
“[Glen] is just kind of sad,” Feder says. “But the character is not a joke. The character is not a deceiver, is not killing anyone or being killed. So, that's better than what else is out there at that time.”
Feder explains that these are the ungainly buckets into which media representations of trans people often fall. There’s the trans person as deceiver — the person who dared to “mask” a true identity, and the trans person as killer. There’s the trans martyr who dies in the end. This was The Danish Girl’s crime. Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) succumbs to an early death in the highly acclaimed film. In the narrative on which the film is based, Elbe died much later. The trans person also commonly functions as a joke. Feder cites Tyler Perry’s character Madea as a modern example of this trope. Also included in this bucket: Lt. Lois Einhorn from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent turn as the non-binary character All in Zoolander 2.
“The fact that being trans is the joke, it’s the punch line...as a trans person, that just sucks,” the filmmaker admits. “That your identity makes people laugh.”
The Brooklyn native isn’t just collecting these clips for fun — Feder has made it a mission to increase transgender representation in the media. Feder's first feature documentary, Boy I Am, explored the experience of the female-to-male transition via three FTMs living in New York City. Up next, Feder documented the life and times of transgender theorist Kate Bornstein, in a film titled Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger. (Bornstein is largely seen as a pioneer of the idea that being trans doesn’t have to indicate a lurching switch to the opposite gender, that a trans person can exist outside the binary.) Feder's current project of collecting clips is pre-production for yet another feature that will be titled Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen.
Visibility is a very basic human need...When you're invisible, that causes a very deep emotional and psychological harm. Personally, socially, politically — the consequences are really evident.
We take in a lot of television and film in America. In fact, America largely subsists on a steady diet of media — if we fail to represent trans lives in media, we fail to represent them at all.
“Media is an avenue to be a part of the social fabric to be part of society, and to be seen as fully realised human that has a stake in our entirely mediated culture,” Feder tells me. A nuanced portrayal of self on-screen begets a nuanced portrayal of self — full stop. “Visibility is a very basic human need...When you're invisible, that causes a very deep emotional and psychological harm. Personally, socially, politically — the consequences are really evident.”
By “consequences,” Feder is referring to the political repercussions we see today. You may recall that the Justice Department recently withdrew an injunction against limitations on the rights of trans students. This move means that trans students may be forced to use bathrooms that do not align with their gender. It was a political event, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a result of poor media representation. When the trans body is misused in film, it ceases to be seen as human. You can trace that effect to the dehumanising legislation we see today.
Or, in Feder’s words: “Trans characters in film have historically been used as the butt of a joke, as someone to be dissected, feared, and destroyed. We can see how the mythologies of trans lives on screen have informed ideas about trans people in society. And something like the bathroom bills come from decades of media representation of trans women as predators, as something to fear.”
Even lauded works like Transparent fall short sometimes. Feder recognises the value of the show, but, like many trans activists, feels ire at the casting of a cisgender actor in a transgender role.
Feder prefaces the criticism with this: “I think Jeffrey Tambor is a phenomenal actor, and I understand that they had to cast someone known in order to get the show made.” Feder adds, “But that's really hard for me. It's hard for me to watch a cisgender person play a trans person. Cause that does echo a lot of the tropes that are used historically.”
That being said, the show is a step in the right direction. Part of what makes Transparent notable is the efforts the showrunners have made to support trans creatives both on and off camera. Activist Zackary Drucker produces for the show, and Silas Howard has directed a few episodes. (Feder cites Howard’s 2001 film By Hook or by Crook as a successful portrayal of trans lives on screen. It is an independent film.)
At its core, visibility is complex. As Feder points out, it’s not just about trans actors. It’s about trans writers, like Lady J, who writes for Transparent. It’s about trans directors and producers like Feder. It’s about cisgendered creatives doing the homework necessary to portray trans lives. Do not conflate “complicated” with “impossible,” though. Visibility is complicated, but it is imperative.
“[Visibility is] not only to be celebrated — it's be understood and to have a conversation around [transness]. But ultimately, it means to be part of the social fabric. We want to be a part of art and culture and politics,” Feder says plainly. It’s complicated, but it’s simple. Cast trans actors. Hire trans writers. Lend the voiceless a place to communicate. Feder sees film as the ultimate pulpit: It’s 70 to 90 minutes of unadulterated attention. It’s the greatest lecture hall and has a mic louder than the presidential podium, if we support it. So, support queer work. Listen to podcasts — Feder recommends One From The Vault, a series cultivated by Morgan M. Page dedicated to trans history. And when trans representation in film is lacking, turn to the more progressive platforms, like the web, where you can find the show Herstory.
For the record, Feder is optimistic — and still combing through the Hollywood archives. "I'm still doing research," Feder tells me. "I haven't given up. I'm still really hoping."