Growing Up Trans When There Aren’t Any Trans Characters On Screen
This is the final installment of ScreenCrush’s new franchise Our Hollywood, a month-long series about the past, present and future of transgender visibility in film and television. Stay tuned throughout June’s LGBTQ Pride Month for in-depth profiles with photos shot by Amos Mac, essays and exclusive videos.
Screens can be a lot like mirrors. If the reflection looking back at you doesn’t match who you know yourself to be, going to the movies, turning on the TV, or flipping through a magazine can be a step toward self-discovery. The ability to see yourself in someone else doesn’t just show us what’s possible, but can grant us the permission we need to exist. But what happens when the media you consume doesn’t reflect you?
The first time I saw a trans man on TV I was 15 years old, and he was one of the most notorious depictions of trans identity on screen. As a teenager, The L Word was like my queer bible, my introduction to what it meant to be gay, as well as my introduction to what a trans man looked like. But Daniela Sea’s Max, who began transitioning from female to male in the third season, was a poorly written and continually ostracized character who evolved into a caricature of a trans man. The show’s portrayal of his transition was unrealistic and insensitive, his gender dysphoria1 was glossed over without depth or nuance, and he became a constant target of transphobia by the series’ main characters. The L Word meant so much to me as a teen who, at the time, reluctantly identified as a lesbian for lack of the right language. But it also left me with the impression that being trans wasn’t welcomed in lesbian and queer communities, that identifying with masculinity and being a feminist were mutually exclusive, and that taking hormones could turn you into an aggressive, rage-fueled monster. People may say some representation is better than none, but in the case of Max, I would’ve been better off without it.
As a kid, I had no reference point for how it looked or what it meant to be transmasculine2, nonbinary3, or gender nonconforming4, words I wouldn’t learn or personally identify with until my 20s. Without seeing any trans characters on screen, and without young trans actors such as Ian Alexander of The OA, Elliot Fletcher of Shameless, and Tom Phelan of The Fosters on TV today, I resorted to identifying with the cis5 boys in my favorite kids movies. They were characters whose boyishness I felt an affinity for, and whose dissociation from their bodies can be read as metaphors for trans identity.
Disney’s 1993 live-action movie Hocus Pocus was a fixture of my childhood. One may assume I would’ve identified with Thora Birch’s Dani, a plucky, adventurous 8-year-old, or look up to Vinessa Shaw’s Allison, a independent girl-next-door type who shirks off boys’ advances. But I had more of an emotional connection to Thackery Binx, a cursed boy stuck in the body of a cat in the afterlife. I remember crying at the end of Hocus Pocus as a kid. The sweet reunion between Binx and his was sister is a classic treacly Disney ending, but there was something much deeper going on for me, though I didn’t fully recognize it at the time. Binx was a boy who didn’t get to be one. He was a boy forced to live out eternity in a body that wasn’t his own, literally dehumanized by cohabiting the body of a cat. After the Sanderson sisters are hung in Salem, Binx tries to get his father’s attention, but he kicks and shoos him away, unable to recognize him as his son. When Binx is finally released from his animal body and morphs into that of a 17th century teenage boy, the other characters actually see him for the very first time.
A similar moment of reveal happens in Casper – yes, the 1995 movie about the talking ghost, but also a story about a boy stuck in a physical entity that’s not his own. Like in Hocus Pocus, the cute and wise nonhuman character everyone’s grown to adore is finally perceived as real, as the boy he’s always been. Casper gets his Cinderella-style wish to live in his boyish body for a night. When he dances with Christina Ricci’s Kat at the Halloween party, she doesn’t recognize him at first, but once she does it all clicks into place. In that moment, Casper the ghost becomes humanized, no longer trapped behind the visage of a cartoon spectral entity, and his crush finally sees him for him.
It might be a stretch to compare gender dysphoria to a magical talking cat or an animated ghost – and by no means do those analogies fit every trans experience, just simply my experience. But they spoke to a truth that I latched onto as a kid, and that resonates with me even more today as I’ve come to understand my trans identity. There’s a power to being seen in your body, especially after years of being looked at and treated as someone you aren’t. It grants a sense of relief, and gives validation to who you are. It can strip the layers of dread and anxiety that cloud the simplest parts of daily existence, like leaving the house, crossing a street, or having a conversation with a co-worker. And being truly seen in your gender by a partner or crush, and desired for your body, regardless of how society defines that body, is an affirmation unlike anything else.
Not being seen for who you are, and being treated differently because of it, is a feeling I knew well throughout my childhood, an outsider quality that left me with confusion and shame that shadowed me into adulthood. I was raised, socialized and perceived as a little girl, but when I saw characters like Binx and Casper, they were reflections of who I could become. I tried to channel that boyish energy and resist being viewed as traditionally feminine in any way I could. I strode into my first day of preschool wearing a Harley Davidson jean jacket, my earliest memory of feeling confidence and comfort. Then during kindergarten at a uniformed private school, one day I walked into my bathroom, grabbed a pair of scissors, and chopped off my long hair. It was one of the most exhilarating decisions, and one of the first of many steps to align my internal self with what I saw in the mirror.
That isn’t to say I subscribe to the common trans narrative of being “trapped in the wrong body,” though that is a valid experience for many. I don’t view my body as wholly “wrong,” just that it was never quite right; whoever I felt I was inside, a constantly evolving mixture of masculinity and femininity, was a mismatched puzzle piece that I spent most of my life forcing to fit into an external set of expectations. I grew up with the notion that being masculine and expressing femininity were mutually exclusive. The first time I saw that challenged was in a character who championed the unity of both.
Mulan was Disney’s first distinctly feminist role model for young girls, a woman who rejected the subservient, sexist traditions of her Chinese culture and proved that bravery and heroism aren’t defined by sex or gender. Mulan has always been my favorite Disney movie, but it only hit me a few years ago why: Mulan is super trans.
The film, and the Chinese poem it’s inspired by, can be translated as a feminist tale about a young woman who dons male drag to subvert the sexism of her culture and prove her worth as a woman. But another reading, and one that makes even more sense to me today, is that Mulan was a trans boy struggling to understand his identity in a world fixed to the gender binary, where there was only room for feminine women or masculine men. From the beginning of the film, Mulan sings about the discomfort of her physical appearance and the misalignment between how she feels inside and looks outside. Just look at lyrics of “Reflection”:
Every day, it’s as if I play a part
Now I see, if I wear a mask
I can fool the world, but I cannot fool my heart
Who is that girl I see staring straight back at me?
Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?
Must I pretend that I’m someone else for all time?
When will my reflection show who I am inside?
During the song, Mulan is literally looking at a split reflection in the mirror, half her face covered in makeup, half natural, and she eventually wipes off the makeup. She continues to sing about the strain of hiding a secret and pretending to be someone else. It may not be the most nuanced metaphor, but it speaks directly to the very black-and-white perspectives of gender I had as a child, and what I now understand as gender dysphoria. But that’s not all; the rest of Mulan has moments that allude to the trans experience, from notions of passing to imagery that evokes gender confirmation surgery.
When Mulan first meets the army, she attempts to pass as male by walking more masculinely, standing up with firmer posture and dropping her voice. When she introduces herself with the name “Ping,” she reassures the others that “it’s a boy’s name.” The desire and need to perform behaviors associated with masculinity have been a constant in my adult life as I’ve worked to figure out what it means to be and embody masculinity, (Still not sure, by the way, so I’ll get back to you on that.) Though I identify as nonbinary, that scene speaks to my experience of preferring to pass as male in certain situations and social environments, for reasons of both comfort and safety.
When Mulan goes swimming in the lake, she’s scared of being spotted in the nude by the cis male soldiers, which feels a lot like walking into a men’s locker room or a men’s restroom as a transmasculine person, and especially as one who doesn’t always pass. Like Mulan nervously slipping in out of the water, those are public spaces I often enter and exit swiftly and with my head down to ensure no one spots me or notices I’m trans. Mulan’s fear of being outed, and of exposing a body that doesn’t fit under society’s biologically determined definitions of “male” or “female” is a distinctly trans experience for many people.
This movie gets even more trans after Mulan is slashed by a Hun during battle. Her chest wounds are wrapped with bandages, a familiar image for transmasculine folks who bind their chests. And out of all places, Mulan is injured across the chest, a place some trans men and transmasculine people wear scars after top surgery6. But there was another reason that scene felt particularly traumatizing to me as a kid: When Mulan is outed, it’s a moment plagued by shock and disgust. Scored to melodramatic, mournful music, when Li Shang (B.D. Wong) learns of Mulan’s identity, he looks down at her with disappointment and humiliation. It’s a common reaction many cisgender people have when learning someone is trans, often saying they’ve been fooled or deceived, similar to what James Dixon told police after brutally killing Islan Nettles, or the motive behind the murder of Brandon Teena, as depicted in Boys Don’t Cry. I, of course, wasn’t aware of that as a kid, but even as a 7-year-old I associated the scene with a feeling of hopelessness, that Mulan being Ping was something shameful and wrong, and to be a girl embodying masculinity was unacceptable. Eventually Mulan triumphs and saves the country, though she does it as her father’s daughter and not as Ping. But even if the Disney movie wasn’t about an explicitly trans narrative, looking back at it today, it did show me that there were ways to embody masculinity and femininity outside of traditional gender roles.
In the last several years I’ve finally started to see trans experiences depicted with authenticity and grace. Two years ago I wrote about the impact stories like The Danish Girl and Transparent had on me, and even since then so much has changed in my own journey. But the closest I’ve come to seeing my struggle with gender on screen, and specifically what it’s like to wrestle with that as a child, was in Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy. The 2011 French film captures the confusing and traumatic discovery that how you perceive yourself is not always how others perceive you. Zoé Héran plays a 10 year old who goes by Laure and female pronouns at home, but introduces himself as a boy named Mickael to others. He’s young enough that he can pass as a boy without suspicion, and gets to flex his identity in the new town he’s moved to. The image of Mickael trimming his hair in the mirror captured the same overjoyed victory I felt when chopping off my own, and the freedom that flows through him when he plays outside shirtless mimicked my own joy of doing the same as a kid. But that latter scene also triggered one of my most distinct memories – the day my mom told me I was getting too old to go outside shirtless with my brother. It was the first time I realized there was a difference between me and him, that I was being treated and seen differently, and was now expected to behave a certain way because, eventually, my bare chest wouldn’t look like his.
Movies like Hocus Pocus, Casper and Mulan were the gender epiphanies that partially filled the void of not seeing myself on screen. Like Tomboy, the films I discovered later gave validation to my experience. But as much as those movies helped me feel less alone in the disconnect between my gender and body, there’s no denying that seeing an actual trans person or trans narrative could have helped me understand myself a lot sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have carried so much shame about wanting to present masculine if I didn’t see Li Shang repulsed by Mulan, or if the women of The L World, foundational queer icons of my teenage years, didn’t paint Max as an example of feminist betrayal and toxic masculinity.
What we consume for entertainment can have a significant effect on how we come to understand ourselves and learn about the world. What we see on screen has the power make us feel less isolated in our inner conflicts, to validate who we are, and offer possibilities for who we can become. At 26 years old, I’m only just beginning to recognize pieces of myself in the mirror. I hope the screens around me start to catch up.
1Gender dysphoria: An experience of emotional, psychological, and/or physical discomfort or distress that some transgender and gender nonconforming people have when their gender identity or how they feel internally is not in accordance with how they are perceived externally.
2Transmasculine: An umbrella term for a person who identifies on the masculine side of the gender spectrum who may or may not identify as male.
3Nonbinary: A term used by some people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the conventional categories of man and woman, and/or outside of the male and female binary. They may define their gender as falling somewhere in between man and woman, or they may define it as wholly different from the above terms.
4Gender nonconforming: A person whose gender expression does not conform to conventional expressions of masculinity or femininity. Not all gender nonconforming people identify as transgender, and not all transgender people identity as gender nonconforming.
5Cis or cisgender: A person whose gender identity matches the biological sex they were assigned at birth.
6It’s worth noting that not all trans-identified people choose to undergo gender confirmation surgery or hormone therapy; that is just one among numerous trans experiences.