We as human beings are susceptible to the thoughts, opinions and ideals of others around us, especially to what we see in the media. Motion picture works have acted as a mirror in which individuals try to find a reflection of their lives. The cinema has the potentiality of influencing us more than any other art form. Movies have a subtle impact on the manner in which the society thinks. Therefore, it is necessary and important to understand how a community, it’s people and their hopes, desires and expectations are portrayed in the film industry.
Representation of gender stereotypes in movies shapes society’s perception of gender roles. The over-saturation of gender stereotyping in the movies causes misrepresentation of gender roles which gets implanted inside a person’s mind and can be passed down from generation to generation as an acceptable or suitable view.
A powerful new documentary called ‘Disclosure’, examines how transgender people have been depicted on screen over the past century. The “Orange Is The New Black” star, Laverne Cox, teamed up with Netflix as executive producer and, along with more transgender folx, spoke about the experiences and struggles faced by trans folx. This documentary was released to coincide with the Pride Month.
“I think for a very long time the way in which trans people have been represented on screen have suggested that we are not real, have suggested that we are mentally ill, that we don’t exist. And yet here I am. Yet here we are, and we have always been here”. — Cox says in the documentary.
Disclosure summarizes the grotesque manner in which the transgender community is represented in the film industry, a history full of destructive misconceptions. Disentangling over a century’s worth of representation, the documentary reveals that even though cross-dressing was illegal, numerous silent movies starred men dressing in women’s garb. With narration from a group of transgender celebrities like Laverne Cox, Trace Lysette, Yance Ford, Candis Cayne and Tiq Milan, Disclosure revisits early Hollywood’s misleading, dangerous, problematic and stereotypical depictions of transgender community.
In a series of examples, from Murder! In 1930, Psycho in 1960 to Silence of the Lambs in 1991, the documentary reveals an inferno of depictions adhering between the pinnacle of tragic victims, a comic relief or a spectacle, but seldom as grounded people, which conditions the audiences to counter or respond to transgender folx with fear and apprehension. The ensemble ranges from destructive and threatening to clumsy representation such as the transgender casualty or crime victim in every cop and medical drama; an addictive focus on the questions regarding the surgery and biological structure in talk shows and news programs and the assumptions made by the audience that any question, no matter how personal or invasive it might be, is acceptable; the presupposition that ‘disclosure’ of ones sexual orientation should be a plot line or a storyline; cis/het men’s reaction to trans womxn with ingrained or visceral revulsion like puking or recoiling in horror; and cis/het actors getting recognition or commendation for playing trans characters on screen such as Jared Leto winning the Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club or Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar nomination for The Danish Girl.
“According to a study from GLAAD, 80% of Americans don’t actually know someone who is transgender. That means most people learn about trans people from ways they are depicted in movies and TV”. Most of the information we receive about transgender folx comes from media, and the more roles and visibility there is, the better information available, not only for cis/het individuals, but also for transgender people who are going through their own self perception.
Transgender Representation In Indian Cinema:
India is one of the countries which produces the most number of movies in a year and consists of an astronomical amount of cinema going public. Hindi films are the most widely and extensively distributed form of motion pictures in India. Over the years, filmmakers have tried in terms of the perception, interpretation and representation of the transgender identity. However, there has been little to no proper portrayal of transgender and hijra community, as it is the subject which is still considered to be a taboo in this country. Representation of the life stories, experiences and issues of trans folx in Bollywood deviate between sarcasm, denial, biased, comic, criminal and stereotype.
The transgender and hijra community, which has been marginalised for a long time and were deprived of their true identity and representation in this social and cultural composition of society, deserve the rightful and justified attention. They have to deal with so much discrimination due to the lack of acceptance in the society. Among several issues, they also struggle in trying to discover or seek out a sector in society where gender nonconformity is not regarded or condemned as abnormality. In the movies and dramas, they were portrayed as outlandish characters.
The representation of transgender folx in Indian cinema has mostly been portrayed as objects of mockery and denial. Their real life sufferings and experiences have always been dimmed or faded in the manuscript of the movie. There is a long history in Indian cinema where cross-dressing cis/het male characters were featured in song and dance sequence or in funny scenes such as Rishi Kapoor in Rafoo Chakkar (1975) or Amitabh Bachchan in Laawaris (1981). Although the Indian film industry tried to, in some rare cases, stay realistic and sensitive while portraying transgender community in movies, they failed to challenge the myths and the misconceptions circulating them.
In most of the movies that we watch, transgender people are portrayed as either a horrifying villain or a comic relief. There is a continual othering that takes place, where a trans person is portrayed outside of ‘normal’ bounds. For instance, Mahesh Bhatt’s film, Sadak, consists of one of the most jarring violent depictions of a transwoman named ‘Maharani’. Depicted as a villain, an evil brothel owner, who tortures young women, this movie consists of the reiteration of the worst kind of misconceptions associated with the trans community.
How many transgender celebrities exist in the mainstream cinema in India? And How many of them have been protagonists? The fact that not many cis/het people interact with the transgender people while representing their community becomes pivotal because then the queer message becomes fabricated and hollow. When a cis/het individual plays the role of trans person in a film, they are stealing the opportunity where the trans person, themselves, could have voiced their story. This is something Akshay Kumar has done in his latest movie Laxmmi Bomb. Through this movie Akshay Kumar will receive applause, and not to mention money, for the struggles of trans folx, a cis/het male who has not experienced their struggles representing them on screen.
The struggle and the stigma, be it social, personal or economic, faced by trans folx are mostly due to the cis/het patriarchal gender structures of the society. They are denied college admissions, they are discriminated at jobs and the small amount that overcomes these problems are still discriminated against. The struggles they face at every stage has an adverse effect on their mental health. The mere thought of being discriminated against is sufficient enough to trigger stress and anxiety.
Even though the times are changing, trans folx still face a lot of stigma within the society, despite being legally recognized as third gender. The community is still at the receiving end of hostility and distaste. While it is true that many individuals don’t talk openly about their identity and sexual orientation, more and more people are breaking the silence and coming out to share their experiences, to represent their own community, providing the much needed representation and a platform to interact with the people who are still figuring themselves out. In today’s world, there needs to be more space for the marginalized communities to live the way they want to, instead of just surviving.
Written by our writer Insha Fatima.