Tropes and tragedies | Trans + Allies talk media representation

Jerry Springer, Tyra Banks, Oprah Winfrey– why would these names come up in a conversation about transgender media representation?

When UMKC’s Trans + Allies met last week, many of the group’s members cited talk shows as their first exposure to transgender people in the media.

Think Oprah Winfrey’s infamous pregnant man episode, or Tyra Banks exclaiming, “I can’t believe you’re actually a man!” to a transgender guest.

As freshmen Andy Chapel pointed out, it is difficult to talk about interviews and other nonfictional representations as strictly positive or negative.  Most rely on the subjective experience of one person, and some people are more comfortable answering questions about themselves than others.

“If all you see is people answering questions in documentaries or interviews, it makes people think all transgender people owe them the same kind of answers,” said Chapel. “It sensationalizes, it perpetuates the idea that transness is taboo.”

When transgender characters appear in fictionalized stories, however, the group agreed portrayals often feel contrived or inauthentic.

The group discussed several stories with transgender characters, and from this discussion discerned a general pattern. Transgender stories as represented in the media are often tragic, with characters coming from broken homes and traumatic pasts.

“This makes it seem like all transgender people have bad experiences that make them trans,” said Chapel. “And we just wallow in shame because it’s so miserable being transgender.”

According to facilitator Luke Allen, recent studies show that younger transgender people have more internalized transphobia than their older counterparts. He hypothesized that media representation and the prevalence of media in young people’s lives might have something to do with this trend.

It isn’t just transgender people who pay the price for negative representations. As Flynn Howle pointed out, these harmful portrayals also affect families and parents of transgender kids.

“It can be hard for parents to accept trans kids because all they think is either their kid will be a murderer or they’ll be murdered,” said Howle. “They never see that we can just live our lives and be happy.”

Allen asked the group about ways to counter negative media representations.

“We have to tell our own stories,” said Howle. “We need to create our own media and get people interested in that.”

Luckily, students in UMKC’s Trans + Allies group live in an age when sharing original content is easier than ever.

“It’s our voice and our stories that need to be heard, and the means to get it out is right at our fingertips,” said freshmen Olivia Moore. “We just need to have the confidence to put it out there. That’s really the only tool we need, it’s ourselves.”

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