Before you write about a transgender character, read this
In 2017, author Casey Plett has a 'brazen request' for fellow creators
Happy 2017! As we look upon this new and possibly apocalyptic year, I, as a transgender writer, have a brazen request for every creator planning to write a transgender character in the New Year: make them messier.
What do I mean by messier?
Complicated. Smart and irrational, kind and acerbic. They could be a tech worker with a love of punk rock and a history of drug use; a mother with two jobs who collects kitschy knickknacks of sheep; a musician on welfare. Write your characters like they're any average person.
Trans people don't need more visibility, we need better visibility — in all its mess.- Casey Plett
Maybe you're saying: "Aren't we doing better now? Transgender characters used to be villains or jokes — if we weren't just completely absent."
I get it. I had no conception of actual trans women growing up, only vague conflicting images in the media of mythical, freakish figures. In movies like Crocodile Dundee or Naked Gun, for instance, trans women are only there to trick hapless straight men into bed — all for the laughter of the audience.
Those images were dehumanizing and inaccurate and just generally gross, but what I think about most as an adult is how those vilified women characters — and they were always women — were functions, plot devices.
There's been some pushback against those laughing-stock jokes since (though malevolent imagery is still appearing on TV and movie screens). In 2005, for example, Transamerica was released. I was 19 when I saw it, and it was one of the first contemporary attempts to sympathetically tell a trans person's story through fiction. That said, it has its problems.
The main character is Bree (Felicity Huffman), and the entire movie is structured around whether her therapist will sign off on sexual-reassignment surgery. If someone asked you, "What does this character want?" the answer would be a neon red sign flashing "VAGINA, VAGINA, VAGINA." She isn't given any other dreams or goals.
Transgender rights and culture are still under threat, but they have experienced an enormous level of growth since that movie came out. Still, 10 years after Transamerica, one-note characters keep appearing.
The 2015 movie The Danish Girl, for instance, is a heavily-fictionalized biopic about painter Lili Elbe. Eddie Redmayne stars as a trans woman whose sole desire is transition and whose only trouble is transphobia, in addition to other demeaning tropes. There are a few obligatory references to Elbe's real-life art career, but there's no other complexity to her character. Just like the women in Crocodile Dundee and Naked Gun, she's not a person — she's a plot device.
It doesn't have to be this way.
I want cis creators to write complex trans characters. It is possible. (Zoe Whittall's novel Holding Still for as Long as Possible is one excellent example.)
What it takes is not only knowing actual trans people — and by the way, if you don't, maybe just leave this whole subject alone — but also consuming culture in which trans people had a hand. Movies like Tangerine or the short film "Roxanne," books like jia qing wilson-yang's Small Beauty or the "novelettes" of Morgan M Page.
In these stories, transgender people rescue runaway children, meet long-lost family friends and are consumed by unnameable sea monsters. They have messy, strange, three-dimensional lives — which being transgender certainly colours in many aspects, but it's only one part of a bigger story.
"Visibility" is a buzzword one hears a lot in discussions like this one. The underlying argument seems to suggest that if you put more trans people on magazine covers and in movie roles (who are then played by cis people, but that's another article), then the wider society will be challenged to think about our wellbeing and consequently treat real-life trans people better.
But the effect is never that cut-and-dry. After all, to those who hurt us, aren't we maybe too visible? Who decides what version of visibility is the right one? Senator Don Plett seemed to be very aware of us when he blockaded a trans rights bill last year, as he appears eager to soon do again. The Public Health Agency of Canada must have been aware of trans people when they cut funding to ASTTeQ, which provides vital frontline services to poor and HIV-positive trans Quebecers.
Trans people don't need more visibility, we need better visibility — in all its mess.