THE BLOG

Trans Storyline on BBC 'Casualty': Half a Celebration?

11/03/2016 16:38 GMT | Updated 12/03/2017 09:12 GMT

Visibility is an important factor to raising awareness of trans issues. Currently in the UK mainstream media, there's very little representation of trans people, let alone non-binary people. With the rise of a few American shows (Transparent, OITNB) there's a few more trans characters in existence, and sometimes they are even played by a trans actor!

 

This time last year, the Trans Acting course was a tiny thread of an idea. Once I got past the first few turbulent years of my medical transition, I was keen to do some acting and I wanted a bespoke course which covered the basics whilst being aware of the issues trans people may face (potential anxieties and having been socialised differently, when younger).

After firing off an email to All About Trans and Gendered Intelligence about collaborating with My Genderation on a course, Catherine McNamara utilised her connections at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and a Trans Acting course was implemented in the summer/autumn of 2015. As you may imagine, we were an incredibly mix-bag of actors, ranging in previous ability, age, identity, personal transition and overall confidence. The course has benefited everyone and there's even been cameos in the 2nd series of Boy Meets Girl, as well as The Danish Girl last year.

 

As part of my commitment to Trans Acting, I created this film featuring many of us which took part, the various workshops we took part in and also features Monica and Misia who were invited to audition for acting roles on Casualty. 

 

On Saturday, an episode of Casualty aired, featuring and trans story line. There is an accident at a local Pride event.

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Misia, who is 16, plays a 16 year old trans guy in the episode. I asked him what connection he felt with his character Robert. Misia says, "He was very similar to me in personality as well as age and gender identity. The fact he's not the most outgoing person also made my first acting job easier as I was nervous as hell already. Being trans has affected my self esteem but more and more I am becoming proud of who I am and acting really helps that, especially when I can play realistic trans characters like him."

I was keen to find out what response he's been getting from his peers and those who connected with his character. "So many young trans people have sent me messages saying how the scenes brought them to tears as they felt they were being properly represented and the emotions surrounding the trans storyline were authentic because I am trans. Some said that it even helped their parents to accept them or change their name legally."

Expect to see more of Misia, who already has an agent keen to sign him. "I've always wanted to be an actor but the idea of actually becoming one was too scary and didn't seem applicable to me. But the response to Robert from young trans people saying how the representation affected them really hit home and has given me a new drive."

So that's extremely positive for Misia and it's also one of the few fictional representations of trans masculine people that I've seen. However, despite seeing this representation of a trans guy in a mainstream drama, there is a the overall storyline in this Casualty episode is clearly problematic.

Sarah Lennox, who has been a massive force for change via Trans Media Watch and later All About Trans, shares her analysis. "It's not all about you ..." says the young trans guy to the young cis woman but clearly the storyline is all about her and her *struggle* to accept her trans friend's authenticity... and that would be OK except that in the process a trans woman is introduced as a dramatic device in a transmisogynistic way which is as smelly as a piece of old cheese. The two dimensional trans woman is portrayed as a bitter aggressive bitch who the cis woman is 'goaded' into striking out at, causing her to fall from a balcony and possibly fracture her spine. The young cis woman shows not the slightest remorse about this and it's dramatised in such a way that we are implicated in feeling the trans woman deserves no pity.

In the last shot of her the trans woman is lying in a hospital bed staring daggers at the young cis woman who is smiling triumphantly. Would this not have stood out as deeply problematic if the trans woman character had been cis unless the character was being intentionally set up as a villain? Casting trans women as two dimensional villains or without redeeming qualities is problematic at a point when that is virtually the only role we've seen them play for the last half century.

 

Why was the young cis girl not faced with a possible charge of assault? If I knocked somebody off a balcony potentially causing them life threatening injuries and this was done with NO self-defence justification, I would assume I'd be facing a possible prison sentence. There's not even a suggestion that this might be the case. Tara Hudson received a prison sentence for a less serious assault on a man in a pub. What are we therefore supposed to take away from this scene? That trans women are lesser people who can be assaulted with impunity?

The wider implication of this is reflected in the number of trans people who find themselves involved in violent altercations as a result of being on the receiving end  of transphobia in a public space. Trans women especially are frequently assumed to have initiated violence because their 'dishonest' presentation as a woman 'goaded' their attacker into resorting to physical violence. A trans person defending themself can easily result in an entirely unjustified criminal record for assault which can negatively impact on the difficulties they already face being trans in a depressing vicious cycle ... ie. employment, housing, family relations etc.."

Anyone who knows Monica will know how glamorous and well-presented she usually is. Was it a deliberate move to dress Monica as a trashy, false-eyelash, wig-wearing woman called Daisy? Monica tells us "I think it was brilliant as my first acting job. I do however feel that the character played was deliberately dressed and made up to look like a charichature of a trans-woman. I also felt like Daisy was portrayed as someone who was misguiding Robert and generally an unsavoury and manipulative character who ever after being thrown off a ledge, got no justice. On a more positive note, I think the story touches on the real life issues of my life and many trans people who watched."

As an emerging community of trans people, we are generally well-versed in evolving language and issues affect our quality of life. Because there is not enough representation and these are early days, we are impatient to see aspects of ourselves represented in the media. We often get angry or upset when we don't see ourselves reflected in a mainstream character, no matter how authentic they may be.

And, as Sarah Lennox states, "Getting more trans actors on screen is defective if it does not include an equally important drive to encourage more trans writers and directors into creating the stories or cis writers and directors into including trans actors as emotionally rich equals to cis people in their dramas as Elliott Kerrigan has done in BBC Boy Meets Girl (as has been done in the USA Boy Meets Girl, Tangerine and Sense8). Having said that I'm very aware of the way Laverne Cox for instance played stereotype trans dramatic devices for years until she got into the position of choosing her roles."

Rachel Benson, the powerhouse behind Youth Cymru and Trans*Form (a trans support group) explains how the BBC Casualty team reached out to them last August. "They were in the very early stages of developing a storyline featuring a trans character and were keen to meet with trans young people to hear their experiences first hand. Some of the Trans*Form group met with a researcher and script writer. The conversation was a more general one around gender and identity and the young people's experiences rather than on the specifics of the episode. The young people emphasised the importance of casting trans actors in the roles, the importance of being aware of language and pronouns and being aware of the episode's educative role (for example, if showing a character binding, the importance of promoting good practice and not showing the character using ace bandages for instance). This was part of a much wider conversation around the representation of trans people in the media and the importance of positive portrayals and role models on the wellbeing and self esteem of young people."

Rachel states she wasn't involved in the development of the episode beyond those early conversations but we were really pleased that the young people's comments had been taken on board and two trans actors were cast in the roles.

While we're plodding in the right direction, but there's clearly a long way to go for accurate and positive representation. The solution seems to be for the gatekeepers to keep up communication with actual trans people (I'm a proud consultant on Riley Carter's character Riley in Eastenders) as well as becoming the creators of media ourselves, from writing to acting to to film-making. So get involved! And, if you're a cis-creator of trans content, why not ask someone trans to have a peek and advise throughout?

Join in the conversation at BFI FLARE! Come along on the 20th March to a panel chat and more.