In 2014, Time magazine declared American culture had reached a “transgender tipping point,” with transgender people achieving unprecedented media visibility.
However, in light of recent policy shifts – such as the White House’s rollback of federal guidelines that supported transgender students and Trump’s July 26 Twitter pronouncement that the U.S. military will no longer allow transgender service members – some have questioned whether this visibility has actually meant greater acceptance of trans people.
Studies have shown that entertainment has the power to shape attitudes on health and social issues, from organ donation to the death penalty. But little research has explored the impact of portrayals of transgender people.
For this reason, we wanted to see how transgender TV characters might influence the attitudes of viewers. Specifically, we tested whether political ideology plays a role in how audiences respond to these potentially polarizing depictions.
Transgender media visibility
Time’s “transgender tipping point” from a few years ago was attributed to fictional trans characters in shows like “Transparent” and “Orange Is the New Black” and news coverage of controversial policy issues, such as discrimination lawsuits about school bathrooms. In April 2015, nearly 17 million people watched Caitlyn Jenner come out as transgender on “20/20.”
It was in this context that the USA Network drama “Royal Pains” included a storyline about a fictional transgender teen named Anna who experiences complications while transitioning from male to female. Although Anna’s subplot lasted only 11 minutes, it grappled with numerous issues: the medical profession’s historical treatment of transgender individuals as mentally ill, parental rights regarding adolescent transitions and the risks of hormone replacement therapy.
We first learned of the upcoming “Royal Pains” storyline in early 2015, when the show’s writers contacted Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S), a USC Annenberg-affiliated program that gives entertainment industry professionals accurate and timely information for storylines on health, safety and national security. (Erica is a researcher at HH&S.)
HH&S facilitated conversations between the writers and an expert in the medical treatment of transgender youth. The resulting June 23, 2015 episode, “The Prince of Nucleotides,” received a 2016 GLAAD Media Award, with transgender activist Nicole Maines making her acting debut as Anna.
Before we could study the impact of Anna’s storyline, we wanted to make sure that the audience was mixed in its views on transgender rights – in other words, that the show wouldn’t simply be preaching to the choir.
Since the 2016 U.S. election, countless stories have explored the “media bubbles” in which Americans live. This trend toward fragmentation permeates news, social media and entertainment. TV shows with broad audience appeal tend to address hot-button social issues relatively infrequently and superficially. Regular viewers of boundary-pushing series, on the other hand, may already be left-leaning.
Research by GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) indicates that transgender characters have appeared primarily on streaming platforms and premium cable channels, while broadcast network shows – which have larger audiences – tend to feature transgender characters only in brief storylines, if at all.
This means viewers disinclined to watch a show like “Transparent,” which features several trans characters, might still encounter such characters in minor storylines in mainstream programs.
“Royal Pains” (2009-2016) was about as mainstream as TV gets today. The show had no real history of addressing LGBTQ issues, so Anna’s episode was unlikely to attract a particularly trans-supportive audience. For us, this made it the ideal show to study transgender portrayals and how they might influence viewers across the ideological spectrum.
Do minor subplots make a difference?
Because HH&S had consulted on the storyline, the members of USA Network’s social media team were open to helping us with our study. They posted links to our survey on the show’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts following the episode. We supplemented this sample by recruiting “Royal Pains” viewers from market research panels. Only those who had seen the episode or one of the two prior episodes were eligible. Of the 488 viewers in our study, 391 had seen Anna’s episode.
Because there were several different shows at the time featuring transgender characters, we asked viewers which of these they had seen. We also measured their exposure to transgender issues in the news, including the unfolding Caitlyn Jenner story.
Finally, we examined several important variables that are known to impact viewers. These include identification with main characters, a sense of being drawn into the world of the story (what media scholars call “transportation”) and the emotions evoked by the storyline.
We found that “Royal Pains” viewers who saw Anna’s story had more supportive attitudes toward transgender people and policies, and we found a cumulative effect of exposure to transgender entertainment narratives. The more portrayals viewers saw, the more supportive their attitudes. Neither exposure to such issues in the news nor Caitlyn Jenner’s story had any effect on attitudes. In other words, the fictional stories we examined were more influential than events in the news.
Consistent with previous research, in our data, political conservatism strongly predicted negative attitudes toward transgender people and lower support for policies that benefit transgender people. However, exposure to two or more transgender storylines cut the strength of this link in half. That is, politically conservative viewers who saw multiple shows featuring transgender characters had more positive attitudes toward trans people than those who saw just one.
Political ideology also shaped viewers’ responses to the “Royal Pains” narrative. Those who were politically liberal were more likely to feel hope or identify with Anna, whereas those who were politically conservative were more likely to react with disgust.
Beyond the bubble
Hollywood is not a panacea for healing our nation’s deep partisan and ideological divisions. To influence attitudes on a broad scale, entertainment storylines must first reach audiences outside cloistered media bubbles.
However, our research suggests nuanced portrayals of transgender individuals – particularly in mainstream forms of entertainment – can break down ideological barriers in a way that news stories may not. Cumulative exposure across multiple shows had the greatest impact on attitudes, but even a relatively brief storyline had a powerful effect too. While politically conservative viewers were more likely to react with disgust, such reactions were tempered by seeing trans characters on a variety of shows.
At a recent GLAAD-sponsored panel, trans actress and activist Laverne Cox noted:
“We’ve got to tell these stories better because lives are on the line. Trans people are being murdered, are being denied health care, access to bathrooms and employment and housing because of all of these…misconceptions that people have about who we really are.”
As the future of thousands of active duty service members hangs in the balance, it’s more imperative than ever to understand how the public responds to media representations of transgender people.
Erica L. Rosenthal, Senior Research Associate, Hollywood, Health & Society, University of Southern California and Traci Gillig, PhD Candidate in Communication, University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
I can’t wait to see Ryan Murphy’s Pose! The new show is breaking ground for trans actors by employing the largest cast of trans actors ever on a scripted show.
Pose is set in the mid-1980s in New York City. According to Variety, the series examines “the juxtaposition of several segments of life and society in Manhattan: the emergence of tthe luxury Trummp-era universe, the ball culture world, and downtown social and literary scene.”
Along with Murphy, Pose is co-executive produced by trans activist and director Silas Howard, and will have scripts written by Janet Mock and Our Lady J. The show will also with with Murphy’s Half initiative, which will mentor trans directors.
Rodriguez is probably best known to Marvel fans for her non-speaking role as Sister Boy in Luke Cage. She has also appeared in The Carrie Diaries and Nurse Jackie. One of Rodriguez’s latest roles is as Ebony in the film Saturday Church, which focuses on a young teen boy who escapes to fantasy to deal with his struggles with religion and gender identity. The church opened at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Moore also stars in Saturday Church as Dijon. Before film, Moore made her name as a model and recently walked in New York Fashion Week. (You can read more about her in an interview she gave with NBC Out.)
Jackson has been modeling for over 20 years and has appeared in fashion magazines such as Vogue España. Jackson has published her autobiography, The Transsexual from Tobago, and is also an LGBT and human rights activist.
Sahar is best known as Adriana in Transparent. Before that, Sahar played The Lady of The Night in Mr. Robot. Sahar is also a recording artist and was called one of Hollywood’s rising talents in OUT Magazine. She has also been crowned Miss L.A. Pride and Queen U.S.A.
Lately, Ross has been seen on TNT’s summer hit show Claws. She’s also appeared on Transparent and lends her voice to an Amazon Original animated series Danger & Eggs. She has also starred in the TV show Her Story, which follows trans and queer women and the ups and downs of their dating lives.
Pose begins filming in New York City this November!
The need for transgender books is great, and the need is only growing, especially as children become more aware of themselves, their bodies and how they identify with gender. Jazz Jennings, a transgender teen girl who was the subject of TLC’s I Am Jazz documentary series, summed up why books on transgender characters and narratives are important.
“Having transgender characters leads to more visibility which creates education,” she told USA Today. “Education can hopefully lead to everyone treating our community with acceptance and love.”
With such a need for representation, the fiction world is now beginning to cater to the underserved market of transgender kids and teens. Here are five of just a plethora of books for kids out there focused on transgender characters and experiences.
All summaries from Amazon.com.
I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel, Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas (ages 4 to 8)
Summary: From the time she was two years old, Jazz knew that she had a girl’s brain in a boy’s body. She loved pink and dressing up as a mermaid and didn’t feel like herself in boys’ clothing. This confused her family, until they took her to a doctor who said that Jazz was transgender and that she was born that way. Jazz’s story is based on her real-life experience and she tells it in a simple, clear way that will be appreciated by picture book readers, their parents, and teachers.
Why I like the book: I really like what fellow ASFA-ite Laverne Cox wrote about the book:
“This is an essential tool for parents and teachers to share with children whether those kids identify as trans or not. I wish I had had a book like this when I was a kid struggling with gender identity questions. I found it deeply moving in its simplicity and honesty.”
George by Alex Gino (by ages 9 and up)
Summary: When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.
George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part . . . because she’s a boy.
With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.
Why I like the book: The review by the School Library Journal points to what makes George a must-buy for parents–it’s a book that focuses on the power of pronouns and visibility.
…George offers more than the novelty of an LGBTQ coming-out story, however. Here, what is most remarkable is the use of pronouns: While the world interacts with George as if she is a boy, the narrator only refers to her with female pronouns, which gives her girl-ness a stronger sense of validation. In addition, George comments on the fact that, in past years, gays and lesbians have achieved a certain amount of visibility and acceptance, while the trans* community is still largely ignored and misunderstood. George’s mother remarks that while she can handle having a gay child, she simply can’t accept her as “that kind of gay.” For George, as is the case for many LGBTQ youth, coming out is a process that she must repeat until she is properly recognized. There is pain in George, but not without the promise of a better tomorrow, even if tomorrow doesn’t arrive as soon as it should.
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky (ages 11 and up)
Summary: Grayson Sender has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body. The weight of this secret is crushing, but sharing it would mean facing ridicule, scorn, rejection, or worse. Despite the risks, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Will new strength from an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher’s wisdom be enough to help Grayson step into the spotlight she was born to inhabit?
Why I like the book: Gracefully Grayson has been lauded by readers and reviewers as being a thoughtful story that has helped teachers and tutors better understand their students. According to one Amazon review:
“Gracefully Grayson is a must read for middle school teachers and parents. Ami must have been a wonderfully insightful and compassionate teacher. I found myself weeping many times throughout this story. Learning who you are, who you want to be is a lifelong process. No one said it is easy, especially for children who have life issues to deal with. Books like this offer all readers the opportunity for thoughtful introspection and meaningful discussion or just the experience of broadening ones horizons. I am recommending an immediate read for my former colleagues, grandchildren and their parents.Kudos to Ami. Well done.”
Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger (ages 12 and up)
Summary: The groundbreaking novel from critically acclaimed author Ellen Wittlinger that tells the story of a transgender teen’s search for identity and acceptance has now been updated to include current terminology and an updated list of resources.
Angela Katz-McNair never felt quite right as a girl. So she cuts her hair short, purchases some men’s clothes and chose a new name: Grady. While coming out as transgender feels right to Grady, he isn’t prepared for the reactions of his friends and family. Why can’t they accept that Grady is just being himself?
Grady’s life is miserable until he finds friends in unexpected places—the school geek, Sebastian, who tells Grady that there is a precedent for transgenders in the natural world, and Kita, a senior, who might just be Grady’s first love.
In a voice tinged with humor and sadness, Ellen Wittlinger explores Grady’s struggles—universal struggles any teen can relate to.
Why I like the book: Parrotfish gives readers a look at gender identity on an intimate level. According to Booklist‘s review:
“…[Wittlinger has] done a superb job of untangling the complexities of gender identity and showing the person behind labels like ‘gender dysphoria.’ Grady turns out to be a very normal boy who, like every teen, must deal with vexing issues of self-identity.”
Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark (ages 12 and up)
From the outside, Brendan Chase seems to have it pretty easy. He’s a star wrestler, a video game aficionado, and a loving boyfriend to his seemingly perfect match, Vanessa. But on the inside, Brendan struggles to understand why his body feels so wrong―why he sometimes fantasizes having long hair, soft skin, and gentle curves. Is there even a name for guys like him? Guys who sometimes want to be girls? Or is Brendan just a freak?
In Freakboy‘s razor-sharp verse, Kristin Clark folds three narratives into one powerful story: Brendan trying to understand his sexual identity, Vanessa fighting to keep her and Brendan’s relationship alive, and Angel struggling to confront her demons.
Why I like the book: Freakboy has been called a “must-have for library shelves” by Booklist, citing its verse, multiple main characters, and an in-depth exploration of gender identity.
When Brendan Chase types “Want to be a girl” into his Mac’s search engine, one word pops up: transsexual. In Clark’s raw, honest debut novel, told in verse, three voices capture a few experiences of teens on the transgender spectrum. Brendan is “not one of those people / who’s always wanted to wear a dress. / Who’s always known / he should have been born female.” Sex with girlfriend Vanessa, although confusing, feels good, and Brendan questions throughout whether or not he’s trans. Fortunately, there’s an angel in his life—literally. Angel, trans without sex-reassignment surgery (“My junk doesn’t dictate who I am”), fights against demons of her own and struggles to reconnect with her younger brother. She’s a volunteer at Willows, a center for queer teens, and eventually introduces Brendan to terms like gender identity, gender attraction, genderqueer, and gender fluid. Meanwhile, the third voice belongs to Vanessa, a girl on the boy’s wrestling team, who can’t understand why her boyfriend, Brendan, is suddenly so distant. Unlike many novels that deal with one transgender character, this movingly explores so many gender identities, from the three main characters (each appears as a different font) to Angel’s roommates. A must-have for library shelves, this will be popular with fans of Ellen Hopkins. Resources and further reading conclude.
What books do you recommend? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
Background research: Huffington Post
It’s no shock to anyone when I say that How to Get Away with Murder is, albeit a well written show, is a big “OMG” show, as in it’s all about the shock and awe and live-tweeting aspects of today’s primetime soap opera. However, there are those times when the show injects some real-world importance. The first moment was when Annalise took off her wig, revealing her tucked-away natural hair underneath, and many other moments feature same-sex sex scenes. Last week’s episode, “Two Birds, One Millstone,” gave us our first big important moment of the season, I think. We got to see a transgender woman character in an impressive storyline. To top it off, the character was actually played by transgender actress Alexandra Billings, the first openly trans woman to play a transgender character on TV.
Did you watch Fuse’s new docu-series, Transcendent? The show, which focuses on the lives of several trans women who work at San Francisco’s popular cabaret club, AsiaSF, premiered Sept. 30 and for the premiere, the women celebrated on the red carpet.
The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village has been in the news recently, and unfortunately, it’s because of the critically-panned Roland Emmerich film, Stonewall. Mostly everyone who’s seen it has hated it, either for its poor story, its whitewashing of actual LGBT history (which includes people of color at its center) or both. But now, The Stonewall Inn is in the news for a great reason: it’s now an official landmark.
Here’s some of the stuff I read this week:
Tons of videos and posters and multimedia!