It’s easy to believe that pop culture has the power to change the world, but it’s rare to witness that change in real time. And yet, this year, that’s what happened.
Across the country, our minds were opened to the varied experiences of transgender people by watching television. Laverne Cox—Litchfield’s beloved hairdresser, Sophia, on Orange Is the New Black—endeared herself to both inmates and the Television Academy, becoming the first openly trans actor ever nominated for an Emmy. Then on Amazon, the new drama Transparent, about a transgender woman named Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) and her troubled family, was a hit with viewers and was hailed as one of fall’s best TV shows by many critics (including this writer). On Broadway, Neil Patrick Harris sold out nearly his entire run in the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and won a Tony award for starring as the title character, a trans singer in a glam-rock band. These fully formed roles suggested that trans people aren’t heroes or villains. They’re just human.
For a certain generation of Americans, Sophia and Maura might be among the first transgender people they had ever let into their homes. And when postshow conversation turned to Cox’s and Tambor’s performances, we all learned something. Cox schooled talk-show hosts on trans etiquette, telling Katie Couric that it’s impolite to ask about the state of a trans person’s genitals, and then corrected Gayle King when she insisted that Cox had been born a boy. “I was assigned male at birth, is the way I like to put it,” the actress said. “Because I think we’re born who we are, and the gender thing is something someone imposes on you.” Hailed by Glamour magazine as a 2014 Woman of the Year, Cox now uses her celebrity to give trans activism a public forum, such as making headlines for standing by CeCe McDonald, a trans woman who used deadly force to protect herself from attackers.
It’s no longer enough to simply put trans characters on television. Transparent creator Jill Soloway, whose father is transgender, has made a point of hiring trans people as consultants and crew members. When she couldn’t find a trans female TV writer for the second season of Transparent, she fielded short stories from trans women and hired the most talented writers. “We’re helping make trans women TV writers,” she told EW.
Of course, not everyone agrees on what qualifies as “progress.” Orange Is the New Black‘s showrunner, Jenji Kohan, opposes Soloway’s “trans affirmative action” policy. “I think great writers should write great shows,” she said at the New Yorker festival in October. “What you are in life shouldn’t automatically make you what you do in your art.” During an interview at SiriusXM, Cox ran into Neil Patrick Harris in the hallway and told him that she had “issues” with his musical because the character Hedwig changed her gender simply to get a ticket out of Berlin. Cox later told EW, “That’s why it’s important to have diverse trans stories out there, so that we don’t just get one idea of who trans people are.”
We still have a long way to go when it comes to telling those stories. Just two years ago, GLAAD released a 10-year study of trans characters on television and found that 54 percent of them contained negative representations. Anti-transgender slurs and dialogue were present in at least 61 percent of the story lines. But the fact that trans characters are slowly evolving, along with the public’s ideas of what trans people are like, suggests those numbers will improve—and that Hollywood can use its powers for good. So can you. Change the channel. Change the conversation. You might end up changing your mind.