Transgender issues gain prominence in contemporary TV

Essentially Essex

Now more than ever, the transgender community is more visible on television and in social media, and yet more trans women are being murdered than ever before. Popular culture and media have opened a portal to a community that has not received enough attention in the past. There are currently five on-air TV shows bringing attention to the transgender community, “Pretty Little Liars,” “I Am Cait,” “I Am Jazz,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Becoming Us.”

Pretty Little Liars is known for being a show with a lot of twists. The latest twist was when “A” was finally revealed as a trans woman, who used to be the brother of the main character Ali. Marlene King, who wrote the episode said, “I didn’t want people to think that this person was a villain because of their gender identity. She was a villain because she was from a very, very crazy family, so genetically she is probably a little crazy too. It was really important for us as a show and as a studio network that people took that message exactly. We didn’t want to go backwards for the trans community, we wanted to go forward.”

Although not everyone clearly understood the message, as Twitter was ablaze with the responses to A’s gender identity. @Grizzlei tweeted, “The villain in PLL was revealed to be a trans woman counting to what’s essentially a caricature of what people think of us.” Similarly, @Queerights tweeted “Great, PLL just made the Trans person, Crazy A ... Seriously? Do you know the disturbing history of this? @ABCFpll”

“I Am Cait” is also receiving a lot of attention because of the celebrity factor. Caitlyn Jenner may be trans, but she is also very new to this journey and does not know a lot about it. I recently attended an interview with Laverne Cox, a trans woman, who stars in “Orange Is the New Black.” When asked what she thought about “I Am Cait” she said, “What I loved most about the last couple of weeks are when we hear from other members of the community. About two episodes back when Caitlyn visited an organization that helps families of transgender youth, it was really powerful hearing from the parents of these young people about their own struggles to love and protect their children and understand more about what it means to be transgender. Those moments are really the most powerful for me.” I think the most important thing we can take from “I Am Cait” are the wise words from Jenner’s friends who have been transitioning for years and are in invisible positions that pale in comparison to Jenner’s fame.

The important thing to realize is that judgment never stops, as seen in “I Am Jazz.” Jazz is a 14-year-old trans girl who has been living as a girl since kindergarten. She is about to enter high school, and doing so is going to be a very rough path to take because she will be comparing herself to other girls her age and having to deal with rejection from boys in her grade. Whether you are as old as Jenner, or as young as Jazz, it doesn’t make transitioning any easier.

Listening to Cox speak the other night gave me goosebumps. The way she talked about her life and what trans people go through everyday was inspiring. At the end of the talk, the audience was allowed to ask questions. I asked if there is anything she would say to the students of Rutgers about trans people in the media, as well as advice for other people going through this transition, what would it be? Her answer was, “What strikes me about the cultural moment that trans folks are having in the media, in terms of visibility, is that we are really having an unprecedented trans visibility. In that same environment, more trans women are being murdered than in any other time in history. It’s the best of times and the worst of times when it comes to trans folks. For me, that juxtaposition is really important, and when talking about gender without race or class, I think we’re not getting the whole picture. Then, in terms of transitioning, it’s really about support. If you have one person who loves and supports you, hold onto that person for dear life.”

Diana Essex is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in Women’s and Gender Studies. Her column, “Essentially Essex,” runs alternate Wednesdays. 

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