Transnormative Television: Does Social Responsibility Benefit the TV Industry?

Transnormative Television: Does Social Responsibility Benefit the TV Industry?

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A Study of Transgender Characters in Scripted Programming Then and Now

By David Olsson
Department of Radio, Television, Film Honors Thesis

There is an oft-discussed concept in political media that is referred to as the “gay agenda.” It alleges that the cultural normalization of gay and lesbian citizens by LGBT advocates is part of an organized endeavor to indoctrinate youths into a so-called “gay lifestyle.” Phil Burress (2012) of the anti-LGBT group Citizens for Community Values, like other proponents of this belief, supposed that “it’s going to continue to confuse children. This is the way the homosexual activists continue to build their numbers – is to get people confused about their gender identity and start acting out.” This concept, along with the terminology that was used to describe it, villainized the notion of supposed media advocacy. Media monitoring organization GLAAD called the comments “rhetorical inventions of anti-gay extremists seeking to create a climate of fear by portraying the pursuit of equal opportunity for LGBT people as sinister.” By 2015, however, more than half the country had grown to support same-sex marriage, and on June 26th, the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage legal in every state across the country. If there was a media agenda to normalize gay and lesbian people, it clearly worked.

Laverne Cox, star of Orange is the New Black

Laverne Cox, star of Orange is the New Black

In 2014, a similar, lesser understood civil rights movement emerged in the media, this time centralized around the representation of the transgender community. It was promptly labeled “the trans-agenda” by those who were critical of the movement, and further subjected to the same defamation that plagued the gay rights movement. In her article, “How the Trans-Agenda Seeks to Redefine Everyone,” author Stella Morabito (2014) claimed, and not in a positive light, that America was in the midst of a transgender revolution, citing media-based events such as ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK star and trans woman Laverne Cox’s appearance on the cover of Time Magazine, and the appearance of a cross-dressing Maleficent on the red carpet of the premiere of the eponymous movie. Like Burress, Morabito not only claimed that these were conscious tactics to manipulate audiences, but also that they would be effective in doing so.

This research first began with the intention of fact-checking Morabito’s claims, namely, asking whether or not television actually does have some form of trans-agenda, and whether or not it could work. Preliminary examination of the television landscape, particularly in 2014 and 2015, proved that regardless of partisan opinions on the subject, there was an indisputable growth of transgender representation on television. Noting this increase, the research question deepened: since there was a decidedly conscious effort to depict more positive transgender characters on television, was it that this effort truly was motivated by agendized social responsibility, or did television distributors and the industry as a whole have something to gain from it – perhaps something monetary?

Today, with the decades-old civil rights movement finally finding new footing in the media, public interest has been sparked. Transgender advocates and allies have been given a media platform through which to speak and raise awareness. Ultimately, though, television is an industry, and industries are primarily driven by their profit margins. One must consider what underlying fiscal benefit distributors aim to reap from their advocacy. To use Morabito’s example, Laverne Cox’s Time Magazine cover photo and her Emmy win are demonstrations of her success not only as an actress but as a representative of the transgender community and its movement. However, they also serve other purposes aside from civil rights progression, such as promotion for ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, the expanded consumption of which is in the interest of the show’s distributor, Netflix. A spark of public interest is exactly what the television industry wants.

The assertion that the industry is monetizing social responsibility is dependent on the cynical assumption that it is incapable of forwarding civil rights progress for purely moral purposes; however, the point can also be made that, were that the case, it would not have taken until 2014 to reach this point, and that the industry’s machine-gun induction of the movement indicates that it may be looking to capitalize on a programming “trend.” Cameron Kadison (2016), founder of Mortar Media and executive producer of reality show TRANSCENDENT, called transgender-centered reality shows “unfortunately a fad,” citing examples such as I AM JAZZ, I AM CAIT, and BECOMING US as properties built off of the zeitgeist interest in the transgender community following Caitlyn Jenner’s media-enveloping transition. On the other hand, Kadison says that scripted content is a different story. “Thanks to TRANSPARENT and Laverne Cox on ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, transgender characters are now being woven into several [scripted] series as media is finally accepting this community that had been fairly quiet and misunderstood for so many years.”

Following the first inklings of this “woven in” LGBT representation in 2005, GLAAD began its annual “Where We Are in TV” report, which serves to qualify and quantify all LGBT characters across all networks and distribution platforms. Their hope is not only that trans men and women will be able to see themselves and their experiences positively represented, but that non-transgender people will be able to be educated by these instances. “While the actual number of transgender characters on television remains small,” said GLAAD Entertainment Media Director Damon Romine in the 2007-2008 study, “the introduction of these few characters is a move away from the stereotypical and marginalized roles transgender characters have occupied, and toward a more diverse and accurate range of representations. These characters play a role in making the unfamiliar familiar to television audiences.” Kadison, Morabito, and GLAAD all assert that trans representation fosters acceptance by viewers that are unfamiliar with the community, but the reports do not measure the number of viewers, nor whether or not acceptance is impacting ratings.

This paper examines what can be deemed “transnormative programming” (to be defined in detail in the next section) and the impact that it may or may not have on the television industry. To this end, research will delve into the historical quantity of positive transgender characters on scripted television, and the way those have evolved over time. Viewer ratings and distribution platforms will be used to determine who is watching these shows, and if the audience reach is actually tangible, and whether some distribution methods are more successful than others. Further, by analyzing the impact that society has had on the evolution of this programming, and in turn, the impact that this programming has had on viewers, this research will show that the TV industry does have some kind of trans-agenda, and how effective it is at aiding society in understanding the lives of and issues surrounding the transgender community. In addition, research will show how the television industry benefits from being socially responsible.

The full paper can be accessed and downloaded here.