Talking to children and teens about transmisogyny in popular media

Trigger warnings for discussion of (sometimes violent) transmisogyny, sexual harassment and assault, misgendering and forced outing

Key Terminology

Transmisogyny: the intersection between transphobia and misogyny, where the two forms of bigotry overlap. It is not simply misogyny + transphobia: trans women experience misogyny as well as transmisogyny. Specifically, it is the abuse and oppression targeted at transgender women for being transgender women.

Cisgender (cis): to have one’s gender identity match the gender assignment given at birth. I.e. not transgender.

Cissexism: the assumption that everyone is cis – most obviously manifesting in “all men have a penis; all women have a vagina”, but extending to any and all gendered physical characteristics.

Last week, we shared a trailer to The Boxtrolls, which showed a small range of diverse families. Most notable was the line, “sometimes there are two fathers; sometimes, the fathers are mothers”. On the surface, it seemed that the producers were embracing and promoting same-gender parents – and though it was clear from the trailer that this wasn’t the focus of the film, it was gratifying to see something which would send such a positive message to a young audience.

However, it later came to our attention that whilst the trailer seems to send a message of LGBTQIA+ inclusion, as is often the case, gay inclusion does not translate to transgender inclusion. Moreover, the film itself is actively transmisogynistic:

The film reveals that Archibald Snatcher is dressing as Madame Frou-Frou. [...] No real clear reason for this is given. [...] Everyone believes Madame Frou-Frou is a woman, to the point where all of the [male, upper class characters] are continuously sexually harassing her, slapping her on her bum, and alluding to the fact that they want to dance with her. [...] Finally, when all of the white hats and the whole village realises Madame Frou Frou’s disguise, the main white hat man (and many of the other characters) shudder and the white hat man says something like, “Oh, I regret SO MUCH right now.”

-Phoenix Hobbit: ‘The Boxtrolls is Transmisogynistic

That latter comment is a throwaway line, but one that resonates with one of the most deeply rooted transmisogynistic views: that of the transgender woman as “a trap”. (Madame Frou-Frou is not presented as a trans woman, but many of these media make no distinction between transgender women and cisgender men whose gender presentation defies the norms of social conventions: they are both presented under the “man in a dress” trope.) Trans women’s identities are not respected – they are presented as being “really a man”. Moreover, they are punished for men’s attraction to them. Trans women face a very real threat of violence and abuse when revealing their trans status to new/potential partners, and such tropes trivialise and blame trans women for the actions of their abusers.

This may seem, to the casual observer, something of a leap of interpretation, but sexual assault of trans women is a common trope – even in children’s media. Consider, for example, Ace Ventura. The eponymous detective, in revealing the villain, forcibly strips a trans woman – and is encouraged, even lauded, in doing so. Regardless of the character’s actions (and here we must question why trans women are far more frequently written as jokes, villains, or both than they are as women with agency and complex characters), this is an act of violence, and sexual assault.

Even without such overtly traumatic material, anti-LGBTQIA+ bigotry permeates popular media. One editor compiled nearly an hour’s worth of homophobic, cissexist and transmisogynistic jokes from ‘progressive’ show Friends. The video barely scratches the surface.

It’s present in children’s media too. David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress is a hugely popular book – every school library I’ve been in has struggled to keep up with the demand for it, and it has met with considerable acclaim. Like The Boxtrolls, it seems initially to promote positive ideas about gender presentation, and defying social conventions for the sake of personal happiness. After his mother leaves the family, Dennis develops an interest in Vogue magazine and femme fashions – initially as a means of seeking comfort and familiarity. When he is encouraged by a friend to attend school presenting as Denise, he is expelled.

But this is David Walliams, of Little Britain fame - a show criticised for lauding nearly every axis of bigotry, including frequent and rampant transmisogyny. Ultimately, The Boy in the Dress falls flat at the final hurdle: Dennis’ resolution comes as a result of humiliating and blackmailing his headmaster, whom he discovers one morning buying a newspaper in a skirt, blouse and heels. It’s not uncommon for bigotry to be passed off onto the oppressed group in this fashion: “The biggest transphobes are usually closeted trans women” or “I bet that homophobe is probably just too scared to come out”. Such tropes seek to shift the blame onto the victims, and to allow the perpetrators to distance themselves from their own bigotries.

The Boy in the Dress enforces the idea that ‘good’ characters are allowed the freedom of gender expression; ‘bad’ characters are not – an issue of gatekeeping that many trans women face, from being ‘punished’ by misgendering to refusal of medical care. Furthermore, the hero is lauded for ‘passing’ – that is, other characters take him to be a cisgender girl. The headmaster is not afforded this trait. Coupled with the representation of the stock comic character, who also does not pass (“What gave [me] away?” “The stubble[,] the Adam’s apple[,] those big hairy hands” – in a chapter titled ‘Big Hairy Hands’), it is evident that this non-passing is presented as something to ridicule. Note, as aforementioned, that trans women are often punished for passing under the ‘trap’ trope; yet not passing is often punished with equal severity.

Even media that doesn’t feature gender non-conforming characters is by no means immune. Harry Potter has come under fire already from LGBTQIA+ activists for its lax ‘representation’: Rowling cites Dumbledore as gay, with no explicit reference to this in seven books, and whilst Lupin is queercoded (his being a werewolf being analogous to the HIV epidemic, which disproportionately affected LGBTQIA+ communities), he also provides no representation. Moreover, he serves as a platform for transmisogyny. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, he teaches the third year students about boggarts – and encourages Neville to force the boggart, who takes the form of Professor Snape, into Neville’s grandmother’s clothes: the aim being to humiliate the boggart with laughter. And if there were any doubt as to the intent of this scene, the verbal incantation that accompanies this is “Ridikkulus”.

A common response to criticism of transmisogynistic media tends to involve a flat dismissal of the concerns: to borrow from my year tens, “It’s just banter!” But for many children, their first message about gender non-conformity is a negative one: one that places transgender people – and overwhelmingly, transgender women – as the butt of a joke.

 

 

 

 

-Tweets shared with permission

Nor is it possible to simply avoid transmisogynistic messages in media. They are entirely too ubiquitous for such an approach. And even if a parent manages to diligently keep transmisogynistic media from their child, that does not protect them from the messages their peers are taking in. (It’s also nigh-on impossible: as with The Boxtrolls and Harry Potter, the very inclusion of such ‘jokes’ tends to entail, at best, a lack of sensitivity on the producers’ part. The likelihood of warnings, or for such content to amp the age rating, is slim to none.)

For example, misgendering of male peers among adolescent boys is, in my experience, as common as – if not more than – the use of “gay” as a pejorative. There are of course links to misogyny – the implication that their peer is somehow “lesser” for being “like a girl”; but there is also a considerable amount of transmisogyny – the hilarity, or, again, the “banter”, derives from a man being perceived as a woman.

But children are not born innately transmisogynistic; instead, they absorb these insidious bigotries that are presented to them without criticism. Somewhere, children have identified that being trans is something strange, scary and wrong, and that, like Rowling’s boggart, the slightest hint must be met with repulsion and ridicule.

How then can we tackle transmisogyny in media when it is so ubiquitous?

The key is honesty. We cannot brush the issues under the carpet and pretend that transmisogyny does not exist; we cannot pretend that these issues do not affect children; we cannot put these discussions off. Instead, we must tackle them frankly, and head on.

In encouraging students to explore the issues and attitudes presented, we help them develop empathy and social awareness – as well as validating transgender students. “How would you feel if that were you?” is a simple starting point, and removes the barrier of Othering. “Do you think it’s fair to tell someone’s secret? Even if they’re really mean? Why not?” and again, “How would you feel in their place?”

Young people can be encouraged to develop their creativity in finding better resolutions to plot points: how else could Snape have been made to be funny? How could Dennis’ problem have been solved in a better way?

With more advanced readers, we can encourage them to think critically about the media, and the intent in creating it: what do they imagine the writers were thinking? What advice might they give the writers? And to consider the impact on the audience: what messages does it send to transgender viewers about themselves? What messages does it send to cisgender viewers about acceptable treatment of their trans peers?

This is not to say that young people should be discouraged completely from enjoying these media pieces: children can still admire Dennis’ bravery, or they can fall about with laughter at Jim Carrey’s exuberant persona as Ace Ventura; they can lose themselves, as I did, in seven years of magic and mayhem at Hogwarts.

But they can also see that their favourite characters, their favourite authors, are fallible. They can see the effect that our pervasive transmisogynistic culture has, even on their idols. And they can strive for better.