Media Portrayal of Transgender & Non-Binary Individuals

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    • 00:00


    • 00:10

      JOSUE SILVA: Hello, my name is Josue Silvafrom SAGE Publishing.And today, I'm here with TJ Billard,a PhD candidate from USC Annenberg.Hi TJ.

    • 00:19

      TJ BILLARD: Hi.

    • 00:19

      JOSUE SILVA: Tell us a bit about yourself.

    • 00:22

      TJ BILLARD: So like you said, my name's TJ Billard.I'm a PhD candidate in the Annenberg Schoolfor Communication and Journalism at the Universityof Southern California.I'm a political communications scholar whose researchfocuses primarily on transgender mediarepresentation and politics.

    • 00:37

      JOSUE SILVA: So what would you saygot you interested in transgender politics?

    • 00:41

      TJ BILLARD: So before I kind of becamean academic professionally, I was heavilyinvolved in activism, particularly around transgendermedia representation in Washington, DC, which is whereI lived and went to undergrad.And I kind of oriented all of my undergraduate studiestoward what then was a really more or less unexplored

    • 01:05

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: area of transgender media and politics.And I kind of saw, like, there's an entire domainof the world where there are so many of usfighting to change the way that all of this is happening.And there's not really the kind of attention on itfrom an academic background to kind of understandwhy things work the way they do and howto effectively change them.

    • 01:26

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: And so I decided to start doing that.I happened to be decently good at it.And I was encouraged by a lot of mentorsto go and pursue that as kind of an avenue.And I saw myself as having that skill set betterthan I was as an activist.And so I ended up going into academic research.And I oriented all of my work, of course,

    • 01:48

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: towards contributing to academic conversations,but always wanting to make sure that those academicconversations fed back into actually being sure to orienttoward effective social change.

    • 02:01

      JOSUE SILVA: With all of that in mind and all of your research,what would you say are the main narrativesin transgender and non-binary individual representation?

    • 02:09

      TJ BILLARD: So there are four kind of key issues,I guess I would say, and then different narrativesthat fall within them.The first major one is about misnaming and misgendering.It's obviously quite an obvious thing to be wrong.If you are calling someone by the wrong nameand by the wrong pronouns, you are referring to themincorrectly.

    • 02:30

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: But beyond that, there's a really important delegitimizingdynamic that goes on with that where the refusalto call somebody by their names and pronounsis related to trying to make a statement that their identitiesare invalid.And we've seen this kind of less frequently in media discourse.

    • 02:51

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: But it is a relatively recent changethat journalistic style guides and journalistic professionalnorms have changed to make it that it is the acceptable normto acknowledge trans people's self-identifications.And that's really only happened within the last 10 to 15 years.There are also just kind of abundant mischaracterizations

    • 03:12

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: of what transgender identity is ranging from characterizingtrans identity as drag performance,or characterizing it kind of more insidiouslyas a mental illness of some kind,or as some kind of social perversion.The big kind of narrative trope that comes up

    • 03:36

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: is what's called the transgender trickster trope, whichis this idea that transgender people live outtheir identities in order to deceive cisgenderpeople frequently with kind of a sexual undertone to it,this idea that people want to deceive heterosexualsinto sleeping with them, which is obviously verywrong for a variety of reasons.

    • 03:58

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: But it's something that creeps ineven into places where people aren't thinking about the factthat this is something that casts doubton someone's entire identity.So for example, in the coverage of Brandon Teenaafter his murder, who's a transgender man in Nebraska who

    • 04:18

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: was murdered and then portrayed by HilarySwank in the film Boys Don't Cry,the narrative around his death was very muchfocused on he was a lesbian who posed as a manin order to trick women into sleeping with him.And then that followed up with and that'sthe reason why he was murdered.It's not just saying that transgender people are

    • 04:39

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: tricksters, but using that as groundsfor legitimating the kind of rampant violencethat transgender people face in society.And we see that over and over again.And that also relates kind of to the final point, whichis the ways in which transgender identities are cast

    • 05:02

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: as being kind of inferior facsimilesto cisgender or non-transgender identity.And a lot of times, the narrativesaround transgender identity in those casespose really retrograde ideas of whatit means to have a particular gender identity.So it will be quite common to see people

    • 05:23

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: focus on physical appearances.Do they look cisgender?If so, they're successful at being their gender.And if not, they're not.There's a heavy focus on genitalsin this case, which is incredibly dehumanizingto reduce someone's entire existence to their genitals,which presumably you have no business knowing anyways.

    • 05:44

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: And also that frequently entails counting a trans persononly as being valid in their genderif they've undergone some form of operationto transform their genitals.And so those are kind of the key narratives thatare told historically and, thankfully,with decreasing frequency.

    • 06:05

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: But we do still see them across a variety of media,including even some progressively-intended newsmedia.And those narratives have an impact not onlyon transgender people themselves whothen see themselves reflected in media as being

    • 06:29

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: in some ways inferior or wrong, and thathas a massive psychological impact,but it also has a profound impact on cisgender people'sperceptions of trans people, their opinionsabout the political and civil rightsthat transgender people deserve.And it has a really profound just social impact in generalon the way that we think about trans identityand about trans people.

    • 06:50

      JOSUE SILVA: So with these narratives in mind and thesefour issues, do you think that itis a societal relationship that contributes to these narrativesor an individual one?

    • 07:02

      TJ BILLARD: I think it's really hard to divorce those two.I think in many ways, obviously, people's individual behaviorsare structured by their social environment.And society is nothing, really, but the aggregateof individuals at the same time.I think a lot of times, when we see individuals perpetrating--or not perpetrating, propagating particular narratives

    • 07:23

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: about trans identity, it sometimesis reflective of individual positions in the social world.So to go back to this idea of the transgender trickstertrope, a lot of the reason that this narrative gets advanced,this idea that transgender people trick cisgender people,

    • 07:44

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: particularly when it pertains to sex and romance,is about protecting the social status of the cisgender person.So we frequently will see narrativesof this transgender person tricked their romantic partner.And that's why xyz happened.But we know that that's also not the case.

    • 08:04

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: In most of these cases, their partners knew they were trans.This wasn't a surprise.This wasn't a shock.But in the aftermath, there is a lot of discursive workthat goes into protecting the status of that cisgender personbecause they're viewed as being taintedby their affiliation with a trans person, right?

    • 08:24

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: Their privileged status as a memberhigher up in the social hierarchyis tainted by the influence of someonelower on the social hierarchy.So this narrative of trickery enters into kind of,for want of a better way to put it, absolve the cis personand protect their kind of privileged social status.

    • 08:48

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: And so I think there's always a really intimate relationshipbetween the individual and the social structural in the waythat these narratives play out.And we can't ignore that media is made by people, right?Of course, there are systems in place.There are professional norms and other things like that.But at the end of the day, it is an individualwho writes a news story.

    • 09:09

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: And that individual is in turn influencedby their individual relationshipswith sources and other things like that.And so there's a very complex interrelationbetween the individuals who operate in these fieldsand the social structures that kind ofgovern the way we're expected to behaveand the things that are consideredacceptable discourse.

    • 09:29

      JOSUE SILVA: How do you think this relationship canbe changed, though, because there is a lot of--I mean, there's a lot of emerging newsmedia and fictional media that obviously contributesto both the ways that the individual sees it,but also society.And there's also enduring factors, like thingsthat we feel like we've seen time and time again,

    • 09:52

      JOSUE SILVA [continued]: as you've noted.But how can we change them?

    • 09:56

      TJ BILLARD: So the big key to changing these narratives issomething astonishingly simple.And it's allowing transgender peopleto speak to the transgender experience.It's about decentering cisgender opinions and cisgenderperceptions of trans life and trans existenceand allowing trans people to tell their own stories.

    • 10:17

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: And that happens both in journalismand in fictional media.For example, obviously, not every journalistwho writes on trans issues was goingto be trans, though there are plenty whoare very good at their jobs.But if journalists work with transgender individuals,with transgender organizations, to make

    • 10:37

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: sure that are talking about trans identityin the correct ways, to make sure that they're representingtrans people's stories authentically,that goes a huge way to influencing the discourses thatflow through our kind of social systems, right?But beyond that, there are also fictional representations

    • 10:57

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: where maybe it is really important notjust to tell trans stories, but to have transgender peopleinvolved in those stories.And we see this with shows like Pose, right?It's a fictional show where severalof the writers on the show are trans.And all of the trans characters are portrayed by actors.

    • 11:17

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: And there's such a rich authenticityto the narratives of transgender life that are presented in thatbecause trans people are speaking about their own lives.It's kind of strange.If we think about other domains of life,we wouldn't kind of allow the processesthat currently govern transgender representation

    • 11:38

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: to govern those, right?We wouldn't allow a medical doctorto not have their opinion on effective medicinebe the one that prevails, right?We wouldn't say, well, what does this journalist thinkabout cancer treatments?Like, that's not how we would function.

    • 12:00

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: We would defer to the authority of the medical doctors'opinions.And that's because we view there being a kind of credential thatgoes along with that.We need to reframe the way we think about this in that, OK,maybe what makes somebody an expert on transness

    • 12:21

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: shouldn't be whether they're a medical doctor, whether they'rea psychologist, whether they are a politician, as is frequentlythe case.Maybe the ultimate authority on trans identityshould be being trans.And that really goes a long way to changing the waythat these narratives work.

    • 12:38

      JOSUE SILVA: You recently wrote a piecefor you discussed how legacy pressoutlets are starting to write more about transgender issues.What do you think about that?Like, how do you see their coverage?

    • 12:48

      TJ BILLARD: So I think there's kind of a lotto unpack with the way that legacy media--and by that I mean kind of the traditional institutionsof the news media we typically think of,the New York Times, the WashingtonPost, these kind of old standbys.Their content is both evolving in its quantity

    • 13:09

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: and its quality.We see them increasingly turning new pages with the waythat they discuss issues of gender identity.We see them decreasing the amount that theymisname and misgender people.We see them increasingly representing transgender people

    • 13:30

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: in their coverage of transgender issues.The New York Times, for example, has a seriesin their editorial section in which they've kind of focusedexclusively on trans issues.And while not everyone in that has been a trans person,and there have been some perhaps problematic op-eds thathave been published through this platform,it's allowed a lot of trans people platforms

    • 13:54

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: to talk about their own experience.And this is the New York Times.Like the standard call the New YorkTimes the gray lady, like this symbol of kind of old,conservative, not in the political sense,but in the sense of arcane institutions.

    • 14:15

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: But we see the changes that we see in the legacypress for a variety of reasons.We see it because of the hard workof advocates who have worked with these media institutionsto change the way they work.We see it because there's an evolving cultural consensuson transgender issues.And there are changing cultural narratives in general.

    • 14:35

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: And one of the things that I looked at in the articlethat you're referencing is the influencethat the emergence of digital news outletshas on putting kind of economic and competitive pressureon legacy institutions to cover transgenderissues because they're always competingfor a share of the informational market, right?

    • 14:56

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: If I want to know what's going on in the world,and I feel like the New York Times isn't giving me somethingthat I'm getting somewhere else, I'm going to go somewhere else.And so the New York Times, as a key example,increased its coverage of transgender issues followingan increase of attention to transgender issuesin digital native media, by which I mean news

    • 15:18

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: outlets like Vox, BuzzFeed, news outlets that were bornand live online and that have a much clearer connectionto kind of progressive social trends,that they focus more on things that are at,

    • 15:40

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: for want of a better way to put it,like the cutting edge of society,the changes that are emerging.And so the amount of representation of transgenderpeople and discussion of transgender issues you seeis so much greater there.And so these legacy outlets see themselves

    • 15:60

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: kind of falling behind these other outlets.And so they've in turn started increasingtheir representation.Not all representation is equal.So they cover different things.And so one of the things that I foundthat was quite interesting to me is the New York Times,the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle,different newspapers that come from the print world, focus

    • 16:24

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: a lot more on transgender youth and on non-binary peoplethan the digital native press does, whichis more likely to focus on political issueslike bills that are coming up or court cases.I don't have a kind of finite answer for why that is.

    • 16:46

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: But I think it's interesting that wesee these differences emerging because it goesto show that while there is this pressure that pushes themto contribute to a conversation, it doesn't necessarilyaffect what they contribute to the conversation.And it'll be interesting to see if and how

    • 17:06

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: that unfolds over time, will these differences persist?And if so, what are the consequencesof that for the way that people think about trans issues?Because the audience for the New York Timesand the audience for BuzzFeed are different audiences.And so they may now both be getting an increased mediadiet of transgender issues.But they're getting different issues.

    • 17:27

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: And so it's unclear what consequences theremay be of that.

    • 17:34

      JOSUE SILVA: With these large contributions,both hits and misses, wins and losses, beingmade in legacy press outlets, howwould you describe the representationof transgender and non-binary individuals in fictional media?

    • 17:49

      TJ BILLARD: So they differ in a variety of ways.There are obvious limitations to different mediain terms of what they can afford you the opportunity to do.You get a lot more depth if you have a narrative arcon a serial television program than a 500-word news

    • 18:10

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: story obviously.But even beyond those types of limitations,we see differences in who's represented.So for example, non-binary peopleare represented perhaps surprisingly a lot morein news media than they are in fictional media.There aren't a ton of representations of trans peoplein fictional media in general.

    • 18:32

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: But there are very few who are non-binary in that kindof sphere of media.And so you get differences in demographics.You also have differences in the types of stories that are told.So there are some parallels.There are kind of a high focus on kind

    • 18:53

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: of criminal justice in general.You get New York Times articles about transgender murdervictims.And you get kind of CSI or Law & Order storiesabout transgender criminals, transgender victims,transgender sex workers who are backgroundcharacters in the program.

    • 19:14

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: And so there's kind of a very long-standing, and often quiteproblematic, focus on the criminal justiceelement of some transgender people's existence.And that's kind of consistent across both.But you see very different storieswhen the news media is much more focusedon the politics of trans life, whereas fictional media is

    • 19:37

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: much more focused on the human element of trans life.There's a difference between reading storiesabout discrimination and court casesversus stories about how a family comes to understandtheir transgender relative.And those are really different stories.And I think if we're thinking about the way people feel

    • 19:59

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: about trans issues, fictional media kind ofhas a much bigger influence on that, right?If I am able to get to know a transgender characterand maybe to identify with the relative who's strugglingto understand them, but eventually, they get there,and I kind of go along that journeywith them, that has probably a much more profound impact

    • 20:21

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: than a 500-word story that makes me feel bad for this kid whowas bullied at school, but doesn't necessarily havethat same depth of engagement.But there are kind of key differences in the waythat trans people are represented,whether it's demographics, the types of stories told,

    • 20:41

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: and the depths of stories that are told.

    • 20:44

      JOSUE SILVA: Could you think of any positive or successfultransgender representations in fictional media?

    • 20:51

      TJ BILLARD: So I think it's hard to define success.And it's hard to define success specificallybecause no single representation canrepresent all of a diverse kind of quilt of experience.And this isn't unique to trans issues, right?

    • 21:13

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: I think Constance Wu had a really great quotein an interview.And I can't remember what it was exactly.But people asked her about her character in Fresh Off the Boatand whether or not it was a good or a bad representationof an Asian mom.And she said something along the lines of,

    • 21:35

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: it's an authentic representation.But it is not a representation thatrepresents every Asian mom.And it's unfair.But unfortunately, the burden whenthere is only one representation that thatis expected to represent everyone.And I think you get that a lot with trans identityand various other identities as well.No single trans representation can bear the burden of I

    • 21:58

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: think the estimate is 2.4 million people in the UnitedStates alone, right?So there are representations that maybe are reallyheartening to see, right?Nicole Maines plays the first transgender superheroon the television show Supergirl.And like that's really exciting.But she's also playing a young, white, beautiful trans woman

    • 22:21

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: who works in the media industry in a major cityand has superpowers, which is not particularlyrelevant to large portions of the transgender community'slives.But by that same token, you've got shows like Posewhere you have a dozen trans charactersof various experiences.But they're largely people of color

    • 22:41

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: who are low-income in the 1980s.And so that's not authentic to all transgender experienceas well.And so what having successful representation meansis about having diverse authentic representationand not having single representationsor a few representations kind of overburdenedwith the responsibility of representing an incredibly

    • 23:02

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: diverse set of experience.

    • 23:05

      JOSUE SILVA: Do you think the strides that you previouslymentioned where having transgender individualsor non-binary folk actually contribute to news stories,do you think that same practice can be marriedin fictional media to further emulatethese positive traits you just outlined?

    • 23:25

      TJ BILLARD: I think in a lot of ways, yes.It's, of course, a lot harder to represent oneselfin fictional media.It's easy to give an interview with a journalist.It's not so easy but relatively easier to write an op-edand send it to your local newspaper.It's a lot harder to produce your own television show,

    • 23:46

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: right?And so the dynamics around self-representationare a lot harder.And there's definitely a lot more burdenon the industry actors in the entertainment industryto do the work of finding and uplifting transgender voices,relative to somewhere like the news

    • 24:07

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: media where you can kind of take a moreactive and involved role.That is also to a certain degree changing.We see a lot of--it's not fictional media, but certainly entertainment media,for example, people producing web series, whichis a heavy lift, but a lighter lift than a network televisionshow.We have people who are famous on YouTube.

    • 24:28

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: And that's a great platform.It's neither news nor fiction, but it'sa place where trans people can speak about their own lifeexperience and sometimes to millions of people.And so that's something that digital mediaaffords an opportunity for that kind of representation.But that's also kind of limited because very rarely

    • 24:51

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: do you accidentally find someone's YouTube video, right?Whereas you may accidentally stumble into transgenderrepresentation elsewhere if you're justreading the news, and a news storyhappens to be about something related to trans people.Or you're watching a TV program, and therehappens to be a trans character introduced.So there's a lot of different ways

    • 25:15

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: that trans people can get represented.But not all of them are necessarilyas accessible to trans people.And a lot of times, it places an outsized burden on trans peoplethemselves to put in the work of getting represented.And that's great if they're trans people whowork in the media industry and not great if they're

    • 25:36

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: trans people who are just trying to live their lives kindof in their daily life and don't wantthe burden of being an ambassadorfor their entire identity category.

    • 25:46

      JOSUE SILVA: So with this larger narrativein mind, and with developments both in press outletsand fictional media, how do you think the transgender communitymaking these strides toward a more all-encompassingrepresentation of the community empower other minoritygroups to do the same?

    • 26:06

      TJ BILLARD: I don't know that it necessarilygoes in the direction of trans peopleempowering others or setting an example.I think particularly in the pressbecause it's more politically-oriented,but I think this is true across media,there are really strong kind of coalitional relationshipsamong different movements seeking diverse representation

    • 26:29

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: and kind of voice on their issues.And so I've spent a lot of time in Washington, DC,in the movement.And there's so much coalitional work that happens.Particularly right now with the Trump administration,you have movements that maybe weren't as actively alignedbefore, but who are now and who aren't working

    • 26:50

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: in isolation taking notes from one anotheror being inspired by one another,but are actively working together to lift each other upat the same time.And so you see transgender rights organizationsactively speaking out against Trump's Muslim ban.And you see young Muslim advocateswho are standing up against the Trump administration's

    • 27:11

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: kind of declaring that transgender identities are notlegally valid.And you see them showing up at ralliesand being interviewed by journalists despite the factthat they're not trans.And this isn't their fight.And I think that it isn't so muchan instance of example setting or things like that.But it's about movements realizing

    • 27:32

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: that the same logic that underpins disregardingor misrepresenting trans identitiesis the same one that underlies ignoringor under representing other groups as well.And so I don't know that this is going to be a permanent change.We can perhaps hope so.But we see a lot of intermovement work

    • 27:53

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: and intergroup work that says, no, it'snot about fighting for an increase in my representation.It's about fighting to change the way that decisionsabout representation get made, or changingthe culture, the kind of dominant cultures of whatis considered important, who is considered important,

    • 28:14

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: and how we talk about people who are currently facingmarginalization, whether it's politically or sociallyor both.

    • 28:25

      JOSUE SILVA: Would you say this unionof collective representation and activismis what inspires you to continue to explore the relationshipsof media portrayals?

    • 28:36

      TJ BILLARD: I think that for me, Ientered this realm of research because I cared about fightingfor transgender rights issues.I came to realize in the course of doing all of this workthat in a good way, not in a diminishing way,my work isn't just about trans people.

    • 28:56

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: Because doing the work that I'm interested in,studying the things that I'm interested in,doesn't just apply and shouldn't justapply to fighting for transgender representationchanges.It really is something that universalizesand that it's important to not staysiloed in fixing single problems because problems aren't single.

    • 29:23

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: They never are.And that goes-- in some ways, it's almost obvious, right?Every trans person also has a race, religious affiliation,cultural identities.And to say that a black Muslim trans woman is trans and notthe other things is absurd.Because no, she's all three of them.

    • 29:44

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: And the oppression that somebody facesis based not on any single identity category,but on all of them.And so I've definitely found myself kind of,for want of a better metaphor, zooming out from the focusthat I had on trans issues to lookingat how all of these different kind of allied struggles

    • 30:05

      TJ BILLARD [continued]: can be fixed and doing so by studyingthe example of the transgender rights movement.

    • 30:11

      JOSUE SILVA: Thank you so much, TJ, for being hereand for walking us through the main narratives and issues thatare involved when we look at fictional media and news mediawith transgender and non-binary individuals.It's been a real pleasure.

    • 30:25

      TJ BILLARD: Thank you so much.It was great talking with you.

Media Portrayal of Transgender & Non-Binary Individuals

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TJ Billard, PhD candidate at USC Annenberg, discusses his research on the portrayal of transgender and non-binary individuals in legacy press outlets and fiction media.

SAGE Video Experts
Media Portrayal of Transgender & Non-Binary Individuals

TJ Billard, PhD candidate at USC Annenberg, discusses his research on the portrayal of transgender and non-binary individuals in legacy press outlets and fiction media.

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