Transgender Television: Media Acceptance or Corporate Exploitation?

 

By Sean Glendon

41% of transgender individuals attempt suicide. That’s two out of every five, which is staggering, especially when compared to the general population. Up to 20% of the LGB community attempts suicide, meaning the T community is double the rates of the other counterparts in the movement. The overall population suicide attempt rate is only 4.5%, meaning a transgender individual is nearly 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than a person chosen at random. And this number doesn’t change much with age for the transgender community. Bullying, misinformation and an overall feeling of isolation could be behind this insanely high number. So the fact that transgenderism is making its way into television shows should help to decrease this rate, right?

The first experience I had with a transgender person in the consumable media was in 2005, when South Park’s homosexual teacher Mr. Garrison had a sex change, became a lesbian, and eventually became a man again with a now unknown sexual preference. Like South Park tends to do, it poked fun but got people thinking years before other outlets did.

The next encounter came much later, in 2013 when Netflix released Orange is the New Black. The show, focusing on a women’s prison, featured Laverne Cox playing Sophia Burset, an inmate that is the prison’s hairdresser. Both Laverne and her character as transgender women, and the show features Laverne’s twin brother as pre-transition Sophia in flashbacks. Sophia fits fluidly in the large and varied ensemble of inmates coming from various backgrounds, and wasn’t used as a talking point to promote the show. This is the kind of relatable, depiction that is needed to decrease the suicide attempt rate. It also helps bring light to the fact that not only are transgender individuals likely to attempt suicide, they are likely to be incarcerated. 16% of transgender individuals, and 47% of black transgender individuals have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. Looking at those statistics, the show would be less authentic if it didn’t feature a Sophia.

Recently, 1976 Olympics Decathlon winner Bruce Jenner came out as a transgender woman in a 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer. Jenner revealed a new image and name – Caitlyn – on the June 2015 Vanity Fair cover, and has become the subject of the 8 part documentary series I Am Cait. Caitlyn received Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPYs, which created a lot of controversy as false rumors circulated that she the runner-up was double-amputee Iraq War veteran and Dancing with the Stars contestant Noah Galloway. ESPN released statements saying there is no runner up for the award, but critics still flooded social media with pictures of Noah Galloway. In her acceptance speech, Caitlyn highlighted the suicide statistics, gave examples of murders of transgender youth, and shared from personal experiences. I Am Cait and the Jenner situation as a whole has the potential to raise awareness and be a genuinely good thing – but it also has the potential to become a sideshow of the Kardashian circus.

Once the focus shifts to CBS, things get a bit odd. For those unfamiliar, Big Brother is a reality show on CBS that throws a bunch of strangers into a house and they compete for $500,000 throughout the summer. The show is named after the all seeing presence in George Orwell’s 1984, because the houseguests are constantly being watched, with the ability for viewers to purchase 24/7 live feeds. Since its 2000 inception, Big Brother’s 17 seasons have featured 186 houseguests. Among this season’s houseguests, was Audrey Middleton, a 25 year old Digital Media Consultant from Villa Rica, Georgia – who was born as Adam Middleton. Audrey was purely as a typecast by CBS to gain publicity, and when TMZ received this information, CBS stopped allowing her to talk to reporters. They wanted the fact that Audrey was transgender to be revealed live on air, to intrigue viewers. There’s also math to prove that Audrey was purely a publicity stunt: while this season’s houseguests range in age from 22 to 33, there have been houseguests up to age 75. But considering the vast majority of houseguests have fallen around this range, let’s take the demographic information for people between the age of 21 and 34: 58,332,747 people. This is 18.4% of the American population. Data isn’t easily collectable on the size of the transgender population, but the most frequently documented number is 700,000 Americans. Assuming the age breakdown is the same for transgender individuals as it is for the general population, there are 128,800 transgender individuals that fall under Big Brother’s prime age range, or .22% of the prime age range population. Using this percentage, assuming Houseguests are chosen at random, the first transgender houseguest could have came as late as the 455th houseguest, starring in Big Brother 42. But, CBS decided to get in on the media discussion that has been beginning regarding transgender individuals and casted Audrey up to 25 seasons early for the publicity that would result. Audrey was very open with the other houseguests, and was accepted with open arms as a person, but was overall a terrible person when it came to gameplay. She was a manipulative liar, and played too hard too fast, leaving her voted out early – coming in 14th place out of 17 houseguests. In fact, many houseguests wanted her out sooner, but others didn’t want to be responsible for the eviction of the first transgender houseguest, fearing America would view them negatively.

Another CBS show, The Briefcase, featured a transgender individual in its season finale. The controversial show gives two needy families briefcases full of money and they have to determine how much to keep, and how much to give to the other family. Each family is unaware that the other family has a briefcase, and this episode in particular featured a devout Roman Catholic family and a formerly lesbian couple that now consists of one woman and one transgender male. These families were both chosen as their sharp contrast in beliefs, in hopes of creating a conflict and increased viewership. This backfired, as the families gave away roughly the same amount of money to each other and this episode was the least viewed of the season.  

Of the four examples, two of the shows are solely publicity stunts, and they both happen to fall on CBS. Is this a coincidence? CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, has featured transgender characters twice, negatively both times – through Paul Millander, a serial killer who murdered his mother, and in an episode that focused on illegal sex changes. Two and a Half Men features a woman that slept with Charlie, became a man and then started dating Charlie’s mother. Finally, NCIS a transgender criminal who was shot in the head at the end of the episode. CBS depicts transgender characters far more than other networks, but almost does so exclusively in a negative light or as a publicity stunt.

So, while in recent years, there has been an increase in the portrayal of transgender characters in television and movies (look to Jared Leto’s character in Dallas Buyers Club), it is important to look at the light in which these characters are portrayed and the motivations of the funders and the distributors of these projects – if these characters are consistently villainized, it may be possible that the 41% suicide attempt rate isn’t a peak for this group.

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