GeekGirlCon ’15 Panel Recap: From Doom Patrol to Sense8

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Panelists Jenn Popkin, Jessica Udischas, and Alyson McManus
Image source: GeekGirlCon Flickr

Sunday morning at GeekGirlCon ‘15 brought us one of my favorite panels of the Con. Jessica Udischas of Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl, Jenn Popkin of Gender Justice League, and Alyson McManus of Trans Lifeline teamed up for a retrospective and analysis of trans representation in genre media. (They gave the caveat that all three are able-bodied white trans women, so they only speak for a small portion of trans experience.)

Trans people are more in the spotlight than ever before, and trans representation is growing, but also changing. As Udischas pointed out, more doesn’t necessarily mean better. She gave the example of older representations such as Agent Denise Bryson in Twin Peaks. The language now seems dated, and the character was played by a cis man (David Duchovny), but in some ways the representation was more respectful than some more recent depictions.

The trio were also quick to point out the differences between the representations of trans women and trans men in the media: trans men get erased, while trans women are mocked. Women are allowed to go undercover as men in order to claim power or freedom, but trans women are shunned, a result of a blend of regular misogyny, and fear of what people often see as transgressing masculinity.

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Sophia Burset, played by Laverne Cox
Image source: Orange is the New Black Wiki

One example was from Orange is the New Black. Sophia, a trans character, is the prison’s hairstylist. One of her clients, a fellow prisoner named Gloria, asks her why she is always done up. The actress playing Sophia is Laverne Cox, a noted trans activist, who would no doubt in real life have pointed out that the cis women in the prison also wear makeup and do their hair up, but Sophia was left to give a wishy washy defensive answer. The message was clear–cis women’s femininity is real, but trans women’s is suspect.

The panel gave a run-down of their least favorite trans media tropes: the trend of casting cis people in trans roles (usually aiming for an Oscar); the transition story, like superhero origin stories, being told over and over again; the ‘guy in a dress’ trope, always with an ulterior motive; jokes in everything from commercials to movies where the entire punchline is simply someone assumed to be a man, acting in a feminine way.

Popkin, riffing on this point, mentioned that she really enjoys “genderfuck expression”–a presentation that mixes different gender cues–saying, “It helps everyone to blur the lines.” However, it’s very telling that this expression, when depicted in media, is often played for laughs. For example, in the musical version of Matilda, the butch headmistress Miss Trunchbull is usually played by a man, and whenever she exhibits the slightest sign of femininity, it gets a huge laugh.

Popkin’s first experience of transmisogyny was when watching Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The villain is a trans woman (possibly just to go undercover). Her punishment is to be stripped naked in front of cops, some of whom laugh, while others vomit. “I knew if I came out as a trans woman,” said Popkin, “this would happen to me.”

These depictions, this endorsement of mocking and horror at the mere concept of a trans woman, are what fuel “trans panic” murders, especially of trans women of color.

Udischas says, “I laughed at transmisogynistic jokes, and I guarantee you all have, too.” The heavily-trans audience nods in recognition. Between them, the panelists can name many shows they have loved, which had transmisogynistic jokes: Arrested Development, The Simpsons, Archer, 30 Rock, and so on.

30 Rock is also unusual in having a terrible depiction of a trans man–an HR Director who is not masculine enough to do his job.

Some of these depictions are bad in spite of the creators’ best intentions. Orange is the New Black are obviously trying to give Sophia a sympathetic storyline, but keep slipping into merely ‘pathetic’. Transparent and Dallas Buyers’ Club miss the mark by exploiting trans stories for cis writers and actors to win acclaim.

Always Sunny in Philadelphia is about terrible people doing and saying terrible things, including transphobic jokes. At some point, though, the audience has to wonder–who is the real butt of a joke?

With other depictions, it’s hard to give the benefit of the doubt. The “crazy because they’re trans” trope is particularly insidious. Udischas brought up the Silence of the Lambs character Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who murders women in order to dress in their skin. Much ink has been spilled on discussing just how intensely transmisogynistic this depiction was, but Udischas recalls her mother’s visceral disgust at the character, not just for the horrific murders, but also for the fact of Bill’s desire to look like, or become, the murdered women.

With examples like these, is it any surprise that a recent GLAAD survey found that depictions of trans characters are overwhelmingly negative?

As Popkin says, we need to get to a world where there are enough representations of trans people that these villains and victims are just a few among many, not the only trans people we ever see.

After that gruelling run-down of distressing and exploitative trans representations, the panel are more than happy to talk about some of the more positive depictions they’ve seen.

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Sense8: Nomi (right) with her girlfriend Amanita.
Image source: The Advocate

Sense8 is a popular example. A strange, slow-paced sci-fi ensemble character piece created by the Wachowski sisters, it features a trans actress, Jamie Clayton, as a trans woman in a lesbian relationship. (At the time of the panel, only one of the Wachowskis had come out as a trans woman, but since then Lana’s sister Lily has joined her, giving rise to many re-analyses of The Matrix through a trans lens.)

Steven Universe is mentioned, to universal agreement. McManus says, “I wish I’d had Steven Universe as a kid.” But, given how many disappointments she’s had in the past, “I’m just waiting for them to let me down.”

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Steven Universe: Steven’s fused form, Stevonnie
Image source: Steven Universe Wiki

Udischas loves the show because it’s a little boy who looks up to three women, wanting to grow up to be a giant woman. He eventually combines with his female best friend to become a genderqueer fusion.

Batgirl’s trans storyline started out strong–Alysia’s coming-out issue was great, but her transness was never mentioned again. A new reader who picked up the series wouldn’t know she was trans. Then, more recently, the book made a serious misstep, in introducing a glam female villain, who turned out to be an over-the-top drag queen-esque persona copying Batgirl. The big reveal caused a lot of shock among the characters, and trans panic, thus playing into the deceptive trans woman trope, and the “crazy because they’re trans” trope. The creators did end up apologizing, so it’s clear that this is another case of troubling depictions in spite of the best intentions of cis creators.

The Q&A session follows.

“How do you have trans stories that are not about transition?” asks the first questioner. If you don’t mention it, the audience will never know.

McManus’ answer is to just have them be trans. It is mentioned in some context, and then the narrative moves on.

Transition is not the only struggle trans people face; simply existing in the world can be struggle enough. Transphobia might exist in fictional worlds as well; just make sure that characters who are uncomfortable with trans people are the ones under scrutiny.

The second questioner asks for recommendations of media to support gender nonconforming kids.

Steven Universe is the first suggestion, followed by the webcomic Assigned Male.

It’s easier to find representation of girls who are masculine, particularly of the “disguised as a boy” trope. McManus mentions the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld.

The panel ends on a hopeful note. Back in the 80s and 90s, points out another audience member, every gay story was about coming out. Now, many gay characters are just gay, and get to have other storylines. Hopefully trans representation will follow that path.

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Winter Downs
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Winter Downs

Manager of Editorial Services at GeekGirlCon.

2 responses to “GeekGirlCon ’15 Panel Recap: From Doom Patrol to Sense8”

  1. Jen says:

    Where’s the bit about Doom Patrol mentioned in the title?

    • Winter Downs says:

      Hi there, Jen. “From Doom Patrol to Sense8” was the title of the panel, but to my recollection (backed up by my rather extensive notes), the panelists were speaking off the cuff and didn’t get around to mentioning it. If you were at the panel and recall differently, please feel free to chime in with what they said about Doom Patrol!

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