Thursday, August 14, 2008

From Transamerica to Top Model: trans people’s increasing visibility on film and television

In 2005, I could not contain myself when I heard about a movie which was slowly getting Oscar buzz: Transamerica. Transamerica is the road movie starring Felicity Huffman (from Desperate Housewives) who plays a transsexual, Bree Osbourne formerly Stanley Schupack, on her way to genital reconfiguration surgery (GRS). On the eve of her GRS, Bree gets a call from a boy claiming to be Stanley Schupack’s son. What follows is a journey that takes Bree back to her roots and then ultimately to herself. When I saw it and saw Felicity Huffman portray her transgender character with grace and depth, I couldn’t help but cry. I was so moved. I was moved to tears again when she won the Golden Globe best actress the next year and she said the following when she accepted her award: “I know as actors our job is usually to shed our skins, but I think as people our job is to become who we really are, and so I would like to salute the men and women who brave ostracism, alienation and a life lived on the margins to become who they really are.”

Before Transamerica, trans people were slowly inching their way to mainstream visibility on film and television. There was The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert in 1994, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar in 1995, Different for Girls in 1996, the tragic Boys Don’t Cry in 1999, and Soldier’s Girl in 2003. One of the more memorable trans characters I’ve seen on film so far is the Lady Chablis in Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil (1997). In the book, Lady Chablis was a trans woman with an attitude and I had so much fun reading the sub plot involving her. She was so sexy and sassy.

After Transamerica I knew it was just a matter of time before trans people became visible on TV as well. And true enough, in 2006 ABC in the US gave the world Ugly Betty where Rebecca Romjin plays transsexual heiress, Alexis Meade. After Alexis came Candis Cayne’s character in Dirty Sexy Money (2007), Carmelita, the transsexual mistress of William Baldwin’s character, Patrick Darling. Let’s also not forget, Max, a trans man who joined The L Word’s stable of character on its 3rd season and the transgender character introduced in 2006 on ABC’s day time soap All My Children.

On the reality TV front, recently I read on my favorite blog, TransGriot that there will be two exciting trans people to watch out for: La Verne Cox who is competing on a show called I Want To Work For Diddy and Isis who will be on Cycle 11, the latest season of America’s Next Top Model(ANTM) competing with 13 other women. Although the Diddy show sounds obscure, I hope that it will get shown here in the Philippines some time in the future on cable as ANTM is. I know that ANTM has a worldwide following of young people because when I used to do consultancy work for an English language learning institute here, it’s all my 14-15 year old female Korean students could talk about. So Isis, who is 22, has the chance to represent us all in a big way and I can only hope she will do a great job at it. We all know how catty the girls can be on that show but let’s not expect Isis to be a saint. I just want her to stay true to herself.

In the Philippines, we have our own trans successes on film. There’s The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela (2008), which is being touted as a trans Cinderella story and Thank You Girls (2008), which takes a comedic look at the beauty pageant culture in the Philippines. Although I have not seen Raquela, members of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP) have given it their seal of approval after a special screening here with the movie’s director, Olaf De Fleur. Thank You Girls meanwhile will be shown at the University of the Philippines Film Institute (UPFI) later this month. As I work inside UP, I am sure I won’t miss it. As well, there’s a transgender contestant in Project Runway Philippines. Her name is Jaz Cerezo and she’s done quite well in the first three episodes of the show. She follows in the foot steps of the beautiful Rianne Barrameda, the reigning Miss Amazing Beauty, a prestigious beauty pageant for trans women, who competed in a dancing show called Shall We Dance also this year.

I am just glad that more and more trans people are playing trans people or themselves in movies and television. We’ve always been a part of the human story so it’s about time we saw ourselves more both on the big and small screens. Yes, it's about time indeed!

1 comment:

Monica Roberts said...

There's still a lot to be desired for transpeople of color in terms of how we're portrayed on TV, but it will hopefully get better.