Unit 8: Venus | Research – Transgender Characters in the Media

Over the years, trans people have been one of the most targeted minorities in history and one of the reasons for this might be the fact that it hasn’t be “normalised” and the media plays a big part in this. Representation is an important thing for two reasons, not just normalise it so people become more accepting therefore stop being so against it in a way and the other is so trans people feel included and validated.

For this project, one of my main characters/actors is trans, I didn’t create the character to make it all about being trans. No, I did it because I wanted my friend to be in the film and he is trans. And in a way, I want things like this to be more common and normal, things like having trans characters without being a big deal or having a bad ending, or casting trans actors/actresses. So I decided to a little research on the representation of trans characters within the media.

Boys Don’t Cry (1999)


Hillary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) dir. by Kimberly Peirce

Boys don’t cry was the first film to portray a believable trans character in a mainstream film, but over the years there is been a lot of discourse on whether it’s correct or not.

The film was based on a true life story about a murder that took place in 1993 of a trans man called Brandon Teena, who moved to Nebraska after his ex-girlfriend’s brother physically threatens him after it is discovered that he is transgender and then getting into a bar fight. After moving, he befriends ex-convicts John Lotter and Tom Nissen, and their friends Candace and Lana Tisdel . Brandon becomes romantically involved with Lana, who is initially unaware of his biological sex and troubled past. Brandon is the happiest that he has ever been with his new friends, he was one of the boys and with his lovely girlfriend. It all starts to go down the hill when Brandon gets arrested and of course, detained in the women’s section of the Falls City prison, as he had not yet fully transitioned into a male and in his documents he will still Teena Brandon. Because it was a small town, soon the news was all over the papers which lead to everyone finding out that Brandon was in fact Teena.

Lana bails Brandon out and asks why he was placed in a women’s prison. Brandon attempts to lie to her, saying he was born a hermaphrodite (intersex) and will soon receive a sex change; but Lana stops him, declaring her love for Brandon regardless of his gender. However, while Brandon is in prison, Candace finds a number of documents listing Brandon’s birth name, Teena Brandon, and she and her friends react upon these news with shock and disgust. Tom and John violently confront Brandon, forcing him to remove his pants and reveal his genitals. They try to make Lana look, but she shields her eyes and turns away. After this confrontation, Tom and John drag Brandon into John’s car and drive to an isolated location, where they beat and gang rape him. Afterwards, they take Brandon to Tom’s house. Though injured, Brandon escapes through a bathroom window. Although his assailants threaten Brandon and warn him not to report the attack to the police, Lana persuades him to do so. This, however, is of no help whatsoever, as the police chief focuses not on the crime but on Brandon’s ‘sexual identity crisis’. Later, John and Tom get drunk and decide to kill Brandon. Lana attempts to stop them, but the pair drive to Candace’s remote house where they find Brandon, who has been hiding in a nearby shed. John shoots Brandon under the chin, killing him instantly. Tom shoots Candace in the head as Lana fights with them, begging them to stop. Tom stabs Brandon’s lifeless body and tries to shoot Lana but John stops him.

The film is loosely based on the true events as some things were changed by the director. After reading about the case while in college, Peirce conducted extensive research for a screenplay, which she worked on for almost five years. Peirce was inspired by All She Wanted, a 1996 book about the killing written by Aphrodite Jones; however, she chose to focus the story of the film on the relationship between Brandon and his girlfriend Lana Tisdel. The script took dialogue directly from archive footage in the 1998 documentary The Brandon Teena Story. Many actors sought the lead role during a three-year casting process before Swank was cast. Swank was chosen because her personality seemed similar to Teena’s. Most of the film’s characters were based on real-life people; others were composites.



Recently, there was a special screening of the film in Reed College where the director showed up and there was going to be a discussion about it. The film being controversial within the transgender community for Peirce’s choice of actor for the role of Brandon Teena, the fact that she chose a cisgendered actress to play a trans man angered a lot of people since the movie came out and when this event took place, of course, the trans community in the college took it upon themselves to manifest by putting up signs saying “F*ck your transphobia” and “You don’t f*cking get it”.


Apart from the reception of the trans community and the controversy behind the choice of actors, the real life people from the movie also had their own reactions to the film, and not very good ones as well. One of them being Brandon Teena’s mother, JoAnn Brandon, who was upset that Hilary Swank referred to “her daughter” in her speech as Brandon Teena, “her daughter’s male alter ego”. “That set me off,” JoAnn Brandon said. “She should not stand up there and thank my child. I get tired of people taking credit for what they don’t know.”
JoAnn Brandon, Teena’s mother, was upset that the filmmakers failed to explain that for several years when Teena was a young girl, Teena had been sexually molested by a man. JoAnn said that Teena sought counseling in 1991, and began to dress in men’s clothing and date women as a defense strategy. “She pretended she was a man so no other man could touch her,” JoAnn said in an Associated Press article.

Obviously this is ignorance in Brandon’s mother’s part and even after he died, she seems to still not understand her son or even accept him as her son, not her daughter.

The real Lana Tisdel sued the filmmakers, claiming that they depicted her as a drug-addicted drunk, citing that the movie makes references to her as “lazy, white trash and a skanky snake.” The film also falsely depicts Tisdel falling asleep at the murder scene and “doing nothing about it after it has occurred,” as stated in Tisdel’s lawsuit.


Other films


3 Generations (2015) dir. Gaby Dellal

A film about a trans boy Ray in the middle of his transition, the film is one of the most lighthearted films about transgender people that I have seen as it doesn’t focus on the tragedy but the journey. The story follows as Ray pursues his true identity as male and his mother Maggie, lesbian grandmother Dolly (and her girlfriend) and absent father Craig must learn to accept him for who he is. Ray’s character was very well portrayed by Elle Fanning but the issue is that he was portrayed by Elle Fanning, who is a cisgendered female which caused a lot of controversy. In an interview with Refinery29 in 2015, Gaby Dellal stated that Ray is a character who has not yet transitioned during the story, saying, “The part is a girl and she is a girl who is presenting in a very ineffectual way as a boy.” Dellal’s statement led to criticism from the trans community, accusing her of misgendering. In 2017, Dellal denied misgendering and stated that the comment was “misunderstood”, saying, “When I did that Refinery29 interview, it was because I was talking about Elle Fanning as an actress, and I kept referring to her as she.

This seems to be the most recurring thing, trans characters being portrayed by cis actors which is what causes the controversy.


The Danish Girl (2015) dir. Tom Hooper

The Danish Girl is a film based on the 2000 fictional novel of the same name by David Ebershoff and loosely inspired by the lives of Danish painters Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. The film is mainly about Lili Elbe who was one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery. The film received some criticism for its inaccurate portrayal of historical events.

The film is based on the novel The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff. The novel, as Ebershoff has stated, does not try to tell a true story. He not only imagined most of what he wrote about Elbe’s inner life, but also created all of the other characters in the book, such as Hans and Henrik, both characters present in the film. Despite many inaccuracies, the film was marketed as a “true story” and “a true love story”. Director Tom Hooper stated that the film is closer to the real story than Ebershoff’s book.

Like every other film about a transgender person, the film received some criticism for the casting of a cisgender man to play a trans woman. It has also been criticized for being written similarly to forced feminization erotica, obscuring the actual story of a historical trans person, and for being based on a fictional book that does not tell the true story of Lili and Gerda Wegener.



Ma Vie en Rose (1997) dir. Alain Berliner

It tells the story of Ludovic, a child who is seen by family and community as a boy, but consistently communicates being a girl. The film depicts Ludovic’s family struggling to accept this transgressive gender expression.

The film starts with the Fabre family move into their dream house with wonderful neighbors, everything seems perfect except for one thing – the youngest child Ludovic wishes to function as a girl; while he was born a boy, he feels that he is a girl and wants to live as a female. The rest of the family humor him as best they can, rationalizing that Ludovic is only trying to find his identity and will soon be over it .

Trouble begins when Ludovic befriends Jérôme, the son of her father’s boss, and expresses a desire to marry him when Ludovic is finally a girl. When visiting Jérôme’s house, Ludovic enters his sister’s room and puts on one of her dresses, not realizing that the sister is deceased and the room was merely kept in memory of her. Jérôme’s mother sees this and she and the rest of the neighbors are horrified. The community turns against Ludovic and, by extension, the rest of the Fabre family. After Ludovic stands in as Snow White in a school play, the parents of the other students send in a petition to have her expelled. The family then undergoes a series of mistreatment by the town. They move houses yet again – at their new house, Ludovic is befriended by Christine “Chris” Delvigne, a young girl who prefers to be seen as a boy. Chris’ mother invites Ludovic to Chris’ dress-up birthday party, which Ludo attends in a musketeer outfit. Chris, unhappy in a princess outfit, asks Ludo to swap and has the other young party guests force Ludo to do so upon refusal. When Ludovic’s mother sees her in the dress, she fears that their troubles are beginning again and lashes out by hitting Ludo until the other party guests restrain her.

Hanna follows Ludovic to a billboard where she is shocked to see Ludo in the picture, running away with Pam, the protagonist of a program he used to watch. When she tries to follow, she falls through the ground and awakens at home. She and Ludovic’s father assure Ludo that he may wear skirts if she wishes. In turn, she assures her mother that she never really intended to run away with Pam.

Despite the film having little to no violence, language or any type of sexual themes, in fact the film is very sweet and innocent in nature yet it received a R rating by Motion Picture Association of America.


Now vs Then

In the past years, it has been more common to feature LGBT related characters and themes in the media, it’s starting to become more acceptable and “normal”. But there is still a lot of incorrect representation and the use of a lot of negative stereotypes in films and tv shows, but compared to 20 years ago or worst 50 years ago, it’s a lot better.


Sandel, A. (2015). 27 Transgender Film and TV Portrayals That Helped Turn the Tide. [online] Advocate.com. Available at: http://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/2015/07/21/27-transgender-film-and-tv-portrayals-helped-turn-tide

Smith, M. (2017). Feature: Transgender people in film and literature. [online] PinkNews. Available at: http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/01/27/feature-transgender-people-in-film-and-literature/

ANDERSON, T. (2015). Visibility matters: Transgender characters on film and television through the years. [online] Timelines.latimes.com. Available at: http://timelines.latimes.com/transgender-characters-film-tv-timeline/

Tison, J. (2015). The Best Portrayals Of Trans Characters In Movies & Television That Are Worth A Watch ASAP. [online] Bustle.com. Available at: https://www.bustle.com/articles/78872-the-best-portrayals-of-trans-characters-in-movies-television-that-are-worth-a-watch-asap

Kinkead, M. (2008). Negative Transgender Imagery in Horror Films Explored. [online] GLAAD. Available at: http://www.glaad.org/2008/10/23/negative-images-of-transgender-people-in-film-explored

Jacques, J. (2017). 10 great transgender films. [online] British Film Institute. Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/10-great-transgender-films

En.wikipedia.org. (n.d.). Boys Don’t Cry (film). [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boys_Don%27t_Cry_(film)

Dry, J. (2017). ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ Protests: Why We Should Listen to Trans Activists Criticizing The Milestone Film — Editorial. [online] IndieWire. Available at: http://www.indiewire.com/2016/12/kimberly-peirce-boys-dont-cry-reed-transgender-1201757549/

HistoryvsHollywood.com. (N.D.). Teena Brandon / Brandon Teena – Boys Don’t Cry. [online] Available at: http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/boysdontcry.php

En.wikipedia.org. (n.d.). Ma Vie en Rose (film). [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ma_vie_en_rose

En.wikipedia.org. (n.d.). 3 Generations (film). [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3_Generations_(film)

Harrod, H. (2016). The tragic true story behind The Danish Girl. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2016/04/14/the-tragic-true-story-behind-the-danish-girl/

Ross, D. (2016). The Danish Girl is a film that is killed by good taste | The Spectator. [online] The Spectator. Available at: https://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/01/the-danish-girl-is-a-film-that-is-killed-by-good-taste/#

En.wikipedia.org. (n.d.). The Danish Girl (film). [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Danish_Girl_(film)




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