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Victims or Villains: Examining Ten Years of Transgender Images on Television

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In recognition of Transgender Awareness Week and the Transgender Day of Remembrance, GLAAD has reviewed its archives of transgender-inclusive television episodes over the past ten years, and found that a great deal of progress still needs to be made for fair and accurate depictions of the transgender community.

Since 2002, GLAAD catalogued 102 episodes and non-recurring storylines of scripted television that contained transgender characters, and found that 54% of those were categorized as containing negative representations at the time of their airing.  An additional 35% were categorized at ranging from "problematic" to "good," while only 12% were considered groundbreaking, fair and accurate enough to earn a  GLAAD Media Award nomination.

The release of these findings coincides with the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is an annual observance on November 20 that honors the memory of those whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence.   You can find more information at http://glaad.org/tdor or http://transgenderdor.org.

Over the ten-year period examined, offensive representations and storylines were found on every major broadcast network and seven different cable networks, demonstrating that the problem remains widespread.

Additionally GLAAD found:

  • Transgender characters were cast in a "victim" role at least 40% of the time.
  • Transgender characters were cast as killers or villains in at least 21% of the catalogued episodes and storylines.
  • The most common profession transgender characters were depicted as having was that of sex workers, which a fifth of all characters were depicted as (20%).
  • Anti-transgender slurs, language and dialogue was present in at least 61% of the catalogued episodes and storylines.

Some of the exploitive and negative representatives included:

  • CSI (CBS), which not only featured a transgender serial killer who murdered his own mother, but scenes in which transgender murder victims were openly mocked by the show's lead characters while examining their bodies and crime scenes.
  • The Cleveland Show (Fox), in which a man vomits onscreen for a lengthy period of time after discovering he had slept with a transgender character.  The episode also contained anti-trans language and defamatory characterizations.
  • Nip/Tuck (FX), which featured a storyline about a transgender woman who regretted her transition, a transgender sex worker being beaten, and an entire season about a psychopathic trans woman depicted as a baby-stealing sexual predator who sleeps with her own son.

Earlier this summer, GLAAD had to downgrade the Showtime network from an "excellent" score in this year's Network Responsibility Index because of several examples of transgender content on the network that was stereotypical or negative in nature on shows like Californication and House of Lies.  In fact of the ten scripted television episodes catalogued in 2012 so far which contained transgender content, six have been largely defamatory. 

"We hope that representations of transgender people on television evolve to become as diverse, nuanced, and inspiring as the community those images reflect," said GLAAD President Herndon Graddick.  "Media has a history of telling the world a story that transgender people are always victims or villains, instead of true depictions that show the transgender community as citizens worthy of equality and respect.  On Transgender Day of Remembrance -- a day on which we remember those who lost their lives due to anti-transgender violence -- we hope television networks will think about what they can do to combat ignorance by improving their depictions of trans people." 

There have been several high points as well, however.  Episodes of shows like Grey's Anatomy (ABC), Cold Case (CBS), and Two and a Half Men (CBS) have demonstrated that transgender storylines can be depicted very well in both comedy and drama, and received GLAAD Media Award nominations for doing so.

For the purpose of this study, GLAAD excluded the few regular or recurring transgender characters that have appeared over the years.  Although not always perfect, the groundbreaking storylines on shows like The Education of Max Bickford (CBS), Degrassi (Teen Nick), The Riches (FX) and Ugly Betty (ABC) deserve credit for their more fully-formed and complex representations of transgender people.  GLAAD also has high hopes for the potential storylines developing on shows like Glee (Fox) and the scripted series the Sundance Channel is currently developing about a young transgender man.

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