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Transgender families on screen

Dr Jennifer Power, La Trobe University 

In recent years celebrity and popular culture has delivered stories about transgender people and their families with an increasing level of sophistication and nuance.

This is patchy of course (I am not going to talk aboutCaitlin Jenner and the Kardashianshere, plenty of people have done this), but there are some notable high-profile dramas which have offered insightful and positive representations of the family relationships of transgender people.

Felicity Huffman’s portrayal of Bree, a transgender woman, in the 2005 film Transamericawas a heartbreaking, although ultimately heart-warming, story about reconnection between Bree and her estranged son. But the film presented a perspective on transgender parentingthat was, at the time, unique in mainstream popular culture. In particular, Bree’s resolution of what initially presents to her as a contradiction – being both a woman and a father – implicitly introduced the possibility that parenting identity does not need to be fixed to one gender.

More recently, The Danish Girl, explored the relationship between a heterosexual couple navigating the gender transition of one partner. The 2015 film is a fictional depiction of real-life Danish artists, Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Elbe was one of the first (known) recipients of sex reassignment surgery in the 1930s although, tragically, she died from post-surgery infection in 1933. The Danish Girl explores the challenges faced by both Elbe and Wegener as they negotiate Elbe’s transition in the early 20thcentury (although the privileged and progressive artist world in which Elbe and Wegener live perhaps facilitated this more readily than might have been the case for many others at this time).

While there are critiquesof the way in which the relationship between Elbe and Wegener is depicted in The Danish Girl (and the tragic end notwithstanding), the film portrays an aspect of trans family lives – the experience of trans people’s partners – for which there are few available stories. It also introduces complexities to this experience with Wegener shifting between enthusiasm, uncertainty and insecurity about Elbe’s transition.

Leading the charge in transgender family dramas in the past few years (2014-2017) is Jill Soloway’scritically acclaimed dark comedy series Transparent, which chronicles the lives of a Los-Angeles based family after their recently-retired parent comes out as a transgender woman.  The series is based loosely on Soloway’s own family and deals freely – and with good humour – about a range of trans parenting and family experiences from the perspective of both parents and children. This includes the experience of a parent who put their gender transition on hold while their children were young. Soloway has describedthis aspect of the story as showing the ways parents often subsume parts of themselves to exist within a family (as we all do in some way). There is often fallout from this that may be bad or good in the end.

Transparent has overtly political aspirations– overtly challenging representations and expectations of gender on screen – and Soloway has bucked Hollywood trends by insisting on employing transgender cast and crew as much as possible. All this creates a modern cultural depiction of transgender people and their families like none before it. Importantly, Transparent locates transgender experiences within a family. Transgender people have partners, parents, grandparents, siblings, children, grandchildren and the rest of the family network. We don’t hear much about this in public or creative depictions of trans lives. There is also very little researchon the experiences of people who have transgender family members or partners.

The family is traditionally a highly gendered structure. When someone comes out as transgender, it may disrupt well-established dynamics within their family and their intimate relationships – dynamics that are usually based on unquestioned assumptions about gender roles and sexuality. In Transparent, this disruption is certainly not depicted as a bad thing, but it does engage with the ways in which a parents’ gender transition might reveal tensions and pain (and hopefully the potential for liberation) when gender is challenged within that family system.

There is so much more that could be said about the representation of transgender people on television and in film. Felicity Huffman is a cisgender woman. Does this detract from, undermine, or negate the story presented in this film? Is it appropriate for transgender people to be portrayed by cisgender actors? Was the portrayal of Lili Elbe an overly sensationalised or simplified portrayal of her transition? My intention with this post was not to engage in these discussions so much as to make the point that transgender people’s experiences are often embedded within their families and relationships. Yet, so often in public discourse, the media, or even research about transgender people’s experiences, their families are not part of the discussion. There is very little written about how being a parent or a partner might affect someone’s experience of gender or gender transitioning. The television and film portrayals I mention here undoubtedly have their weaknesses. But, they do play a role in creating some cultural imagery of transgender people within their families, which is potentially a unique and important addition to existing narratives.

 

Keep the conversation going – Jennifer Power can be found on twitter at: @jen_j_p

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