The Media’s Punching Bag: Loving Yourself While Transfemme
Finding compassion and confidence when you’re the butt of every joke.
“You’re just tricking men, aren’t you?”
“That’s not a woman, that’s a whole man.”
“You’re a man. XY chromosomes. Open a biology textbook.”
“I don’t think you’re fit to be around my kids.”
“Sorry, I just don’t get it…”
We are deprived of love in all its forms. Trans people, and trans femmes in particular, have been here for as long as time and have been denied love and compassion for just as long. Well, that may not be entirely true, but at least with the coming of the colonial perception of gender, we’ve been seen as aberrants, transgressions, gay men, drag queens, stains on a clean society, and more for just being ourselves. The outrage of our existence is even communicated to us non-verbally with eyes following us down the streets wherever we go, should we not be “lucky” enough to pass.
Passing isn’t the goal for every trans person. Rather, we just want to grow into the person we see on the inside, whether that just involves switching our pronouns around or transitioning medically in some capacity. Some may think that this is an act of self-hate, changing everything we couldn’t accept about ourselves. I don’t understand how it could be thought of as anything other than an act of self-love. We choose ourselves despite the consequences. We choose ourselves despite all the laughs, the shouts, the beatings, the blows, the disappointments, the discrimination, and all the hate. Our love for ourselves is stronger than that, and we’re tough enough to bear it all to be who we really need to be.
Obviously, it’s not a journey to the pinnacle of confidence. Just like cis people, trans people feel insecure even when we reach general contentment with ourselves. While sort of a flawed narrative, when we “finish” our transition, we’re not immediately cured of our self-doubt, insecurity, and other issues. However, transition provides the general baseline confidence and attunement with the self that cis people have on a daily basis. It takes a lot of introspection, self-examination, and love to put in the necessary work to find a place of self-love even when the world feels that they can revoke our identities. However, even when we are assured in our perception of ourselves, finding romance can be difficult especially for transfeminine people. One of the biggest culprits is the media that shows our stories in such a skewed manner.
There are countless examples of movies that do trans women and transfemmes extremely dirty. After just watching the documentary Disclosure on Netflix, it really opened my eyes to how normalized this violent portrayal of trans narratives is accepted. Femininity, especially for people perceived as men, is something that is a joke. It’s a costume. For example, men dressing in drag in a movie is something that’s apparently inherently funny, going against the whole principle of drag as a means of exploring gender as art. This contributes to the false narrative that trans women are men, that we’re just something to laugh at. Even when transfemmes are portrayed in movies as explicitly trans, we’re often shown as either a “prostitute,” a “dead prostitute,” or exposed as trans in a negative light. There’s even more that can be said about this, but all in all, the portrayal is not that positive.
The most striking examples are the endings of Ace Ventura and Sleepaway Camp. Luckily, I haven’t seen these movies personally, but they’re emblematic of two common attitudes towards transfeminine people in movies. In Ace Ventura, it’s revealed at the end that one of the characters we thought was a woman is in fact “a man.” I hadn’t seen the scene until watching Disclosure, and let me tell you- it was jarring, to say the least. They forcefully strip her of her shirt to reveal breasts and a bra. Since that wasn’t “convincing,” they turn her around and reveal her underwear from the back, which has the outline of tucked male genitalia. As if this humiliation and sexual violence wasn’t enough, everyone begins to vomit. A lot. It wasn’t even just the assault that shook me to my core, but the disgust that came after it. The sad part is, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Imagine growing up watching these movies as a transfeminine person. If you liked crime shows, there was always an episode where a “Jane Doe” sex worker was revealed to be a “John,” oftentimes rationalizing the violence against her while misgendering her in death. If thrillers and horror were more your speed, like Sleepaway Camp and Silence of the Lambs, their femininity and transness were often inextricably tied to the shock of their gory behavior. The “big reveal” was not just that they were a “psycho killer,” but also that they were spicy-evil because their transness made them even more perverse. Even if you liked something like anime, there’s a huge toxic use and fetishization of “traps,” or boys that look like girls. This term is then wrongfully applied to trans women who are treated as mere characters in a show rather than whole people.
All these narratives pointed to one thing: transness is wrong, no matter what situation you’re in. If you’re a young trans woman watching Ace Ventura, you’re shown that any violence against you is excusable and deserved because it’s brought upon you by yourself. Your transness is to trick men, and you’re wrong the way you are. You should hide it or not allow yourself to express it at all. You’re a man, and you always will be. I’m lucky to not have watched these programs, and I still had trouble getting rid of the internalized transphobia inside me. In fact, I still do. Now, if I had watched these as an even more impressionable young kid or teenager, I may not have even realized that what happened was wrong. This is how important media is in providing proper representation and stories for people like yourself. To us, the media is like a small slice of this big world we live in. If society basically spits at us that we’re not worthy of anything and deserve the horrid treatment directed at us, who are we to say otherwise? This darkness grows inside of many trans people, sometimes forcing them in the closet for years or even forever.
When all you see left and right is poor caricatures of the deepest essence of your soul, it can be impossible to love yourself. That’s why I’m so grateful for shows like POSE and other programs with great representation. Also, all the trans YouTubers making great, free content for trans kids to watch on their own like I did can’t be counted out. Seeing someone like you love themselves and be loved can be life-changing. I almost had to rewind three times when I saw someone in POSE not only be okay with a trans woman’s transness, but embrace it. I’m still learning every day how to love myself when I look in the mirror and see what the most bigoted parts of society see, but having proper media representation has helped me immensely. If I can’t be loved in my own shoes by myself or someone else, having a healthy depiction of it for other people is something that’s really contributed to learning to love myself again.