Thoughts on transgender representation

I spent the weekend in London, at Pilar Alessandra’s masterclass on writing for television, put on by London Screenwriters Festival.

It was a fantastic class. I’ve listened to Pilar’s podcast for years, so I was really excited about the course, and I’ve managed to do a lot of significant work on the next script I want to write. I find her approach to story – of knowing the rules but not being constrained by them – refreshingly accessible; I write from character, and structure is something I struggle with, so the weekend has given me a strong backbone for my new story, and lots to think about.

The guest speaker on Saturday was John Yorke. There aren’t enough superlatives for his book, Into the Woods, which is a fascinating look at the how and why of stories, and the only screenwriting book I know that uses a Muppets song to illuminate storytelling theory.

muppets

One of the exercises Pilar got us to do invoked – involuntarily – my favourite subject, transgender representation.

To get a sense of some of the different ways you can develop episode ideas based on a series logline – pulling from theme or turning character relationships – Pilar set us a task to work on the longline for a series about a disgraced professor who is fired because of some sort of scandal and goes to work at a high school.

A good half a dozen people pitched premises where the ‘scandal’ was that the professor was trans – either a trans woman who’d left the college in disgrace, or a trans man who’d taken on someone else’s identity in order to escape their past, and a slew of trans identities in between – so many that Pilar joked, after the third or forth, that ‘transgender storylines have already become cliche!’

She was joking, but I don’t think she was wrong.

With trans issues so prominent in the media at the moment – and with trans people as main cast members in some of the most popular dramas on television – television is going to chase the trans issue as a ‘trend’. I imagine that – at story conferences up and down the country – every soap is figuring out who and how they can introduce a trans character, and I know there are a number of TV projects on their way with trans characters at their heart (and I am so, so excited about Boy Meets Girl coming to BBC 2 later this year).

As much as I want to see transgender people on television, part of me worries. I’ve seen – first hand – trans people have their lives pillaged for stories; friends who’s entire existence has been shrunk down to their trans identity – their ‘journey from man to woman’ – in 500 words and a before-and-after picture. I don’t think that’s fair.

Equally, I’ve seen trans representation done wrong on television; so frequently, trans people are the butt of the joke – the pull back and reveal – presented as perverts or deceivers; Rantasmo has a great video on trans representation in film, which presents some of the worst offenders.

Being trans is not a scandal.

Representation is always a journey, and we seem to be moving away from the trans deceiver, the hysterical trans woman (because it’s always a trans woman, but misogyny is a story for another day) sex worker killed off in the teaser. For anyone writing – or thinking about writing – trans characters, All About Trans is a really useful resource. They put together a great infographic, in the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out, that covers some of the basics of trans representation:

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I did a lecture earlier this year with student screenwriters at GCU on trans representation on film and television, and put together an article for Bang2Write on 11 notable trans characters and the 11 things experts want to see next in terms of trans representation.

And for an example of trans representation done well, check out Sense 8, a brilliant, bonkers Netflix epic from the Wachowskis.

jamie

Writing queer characters and telling queer stories is my passion – check out the first 10 pages of my Trans Comedy Award script.

If you want to chat about trans representation, please send me an email!