When I was growing up, I saw transgenders in Bollywood movies mostly as “Hijras” collecting money from families when they have a newborn or a new bride and giving blessings. I was also told they curse and that scared me a lot. It was only when I grew up and learned more about the world, I got to know more about them and that there are transgenders beyond just collecting money. Today, we find transgenders as professors, doctors, lawyers, police, soldiers and so on. They are just like any of us, being a citizen and performing their duties. However, transgenders have been misrepresented in various ways and shown in a bad light in media since the emergence of film and television. Here are 5 ways how media has misrepresented transgenders.
1)Depiction of transgender men and women as criminals and murderers
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
Not only the transgender role is essayed as a criminal, but the disgusting feeling shown in the scene is also a sign of transphobia.
In the movie “The silence of the lamb”, they portrayed a transgender as a serial killer who kidnapped women, murdered and skinned them to make suits out of their bodies.
In “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” Ventura exposed Lois Einhorn, a psychotic football player, a police lieutenant and later turned out to be a dolphin kidnapper as a transgender by stripping off her clothes in front of the entire police force, making everyone feel disgusted and wanting to throw up. Not only the transgender role is essayed as a criminal, but the disgusting feeling shown in the scene is also a sign of transphobia.
2)Another common portrayal of transgender character is sex workers
Not only is the character stereotyped as evil but also highlights the patriarchal mindset that women are supposed to serve men.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is an organization that monitors LGBTQ+ representation in media.GLAAD reports that only a few percent of transgender acting roles have been considered accurate and groundbreaking. Nick Adams, director of transmedia and representation for GLAAD talked about transgender characters' roles appearing as just guest stars and most roles being that of sex worker.
In the Bollywood movie ‘Sadak’ (1991), Maharani is a transgender brothel owner who is cunning and evil. The movie not only showed a transgender working in a brothel but also as a criminal. If that was not enough, in one of the scenes, Maharani talks about herself being half-male and half-female and she does not have beauty but brains, therefore, she serves the males and sells the females. Not only is the character stereotyped as evil but also highlights the patriarchal mindset that women are supposed to serve men.
3)Crossdressing and cisgenders in drag for comic relief
It also defies gender fluidity by making crossdressing look amusing. It also becomes objectification and stereotyping for both trans women and cis women.
In many movies, cisgender male actors are seen crossdressing. Especially in Bollywood, many A-lister male actors are dressed in drags, to name a few, Rishi Kapoor in Rafoo Chakkar (1975), Aamir Khan in Baazi (1995), Shah Rukh Khan in Duplicate (1998), Govinda in Aunty No 1 (1998). Men dressed in drag are put up as an act of comic relief trying to amuse the audiences. It also defies gender fluidity by making crossdressing look amusing. It also becomes objectification and stereotyping for both trans women and cis women. And men dress in drag in Bollywood films, have to transform back into their masculine selves to perform more physical strength highlighting part.
Talking about the transgender role as comic relief, Akshay Kumar in the movie “Laxmii” (2020), plays a Muslim man (Asif) whose body got possessed by a transgender spirit “Laxmii”. Asif’s character is ridiculed and looked upon as a comic when the spirit possesses him and starts showing effeminacy traits. In most movies, transgender roles are seen with heavy makeup and overt femininity with a limp wrist and the need to wear accessories. This nature of depiction itself makes their femininity look artificial and reduces them to aspiring to be a woman.
4)Great transgender storylines would still have flaws
The Danish Girl (2015)
the issue is that it tends to focus on the impact of a trans person coming out on the people around them instead of focusing on the trans person.
In the film, “The Danish Girl”, the issue is that it tends to focus on the impact of a trans person coming out on the people around them instead of focusing on the trans person. Eddie Redmayne plays the trans woman Lili, but the film focuses on Gerda, Lili’s wife and how she feels when she lost her husband. The emotional and social struggle faced by the main character Lili herself is ignored.
In another Bollywood movie, Tamanna, Paresh Rawal plays the role of Tikku who is a transgender (hijra) and adopts an abandoned child. The movie is a positive step taken in the representation of the hijra community. However, the movie portrayed Tikku as not able to be her honest self as she does not participate in the practices of his community and hide his identity from her daughter. It failed to highlight the important message that it’s okay to be transgender.
5)Cisgender actors playing transgender characters
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
The lack of transgender actors acting in these roles can impact transgender audiences, of not being fully accepted and depriving them of work.
There are movies that have a great storyline and bagged Oscar awards but cisgender actors played these roles. Hillary Swank’s performance as Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry,” and Jared Leto as Rayon in “Dallas Buyers Club.” are a few of them. The lack of transgender actors acting in these roles can impact transgender audiences, of not being fully accepted and depriving them of work. These actors performed excellently and portrayed the characters realistically and so the highlight is more on the performance and reduced the character to being just a role more than an identity.
The portrayal of transgender characters in media strongly influences the way cisgender people view the trans community, and how members of the trans community views themselves. By misrepresentation of them in film and television, transgender people are subjected to depression, anxiety and psychological distress, (2021 publication by the peer-reviewed journal LGBT Health).
It’s time the media and film industries take a more responsible step towards LGBTQ+ representation and be more inclusive. Not only they should be offered roles, but there should also be thorough research and consult them on any transgender-related project. They shouldn’t be looked upon as different people but as normal just like any of us.