Film Forward

When It Comes To Transgender Representation, Cable And Streaming Are Leading Network TV

Two recent examples demonstrate.

This February, CBS premiered Doubt, a new legal drama starring Katherine Heigl, Steven Pasquale and, most notably, Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black fame. Cox's role as Cameron Wirth marked the first time a transgender actor has been a series regular on a network television show.

Show creators Tony Phelan and Joan Rater were inspired by their trans son Tom, and in order to more accurately and respectfully depict the trans experience, the show hired transgender writer Imogen Binnie and also welcomed Cox as a consultant.

"I think that any kind of diversity, but especially diversity about gender identity and sexual orientation, on television, especially network television, is incredibly important," Phelan told The Advocate prior to the show's history-making premiere.

Unfortunately, that history was short-lived. After only two episodes, CBS pulled Doubt from the schedule due to poor ratings. Nick Adams, director of GLAAD's Transgender Media Program, tweeted his frustration over the sudden loss of such a promising transgender storyline.

CBS later confirmed to GLAAD that it would air the remaining 11 episodes of Doubt later this year. Still, to many, this news feels like a slight to an already vulnerable and underrepresented community. As Daniel Reynolds of The Advocate wrote, "Ratings aside, there is no doubt the move is a missed opportunity to be on the right side of history."

The decision is especially disheartening considering the current state of transgender rights in the United States. News of Doubt's cancellation came just days after the Trump administration revoked Obama-era guidance to allow transgender public school students to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity. Just this week, the Supreme Court announced it would not hear the case of Gavin Grimm, a Virginia high schooler fighting for the right to use the boys' restroom. (Fittingly, Laverne Cox gave a shout-out to Grimm during last month's Grammys.)

Around the same time Doubt was premiering, the second season of Billions was making history of its own on Showtime. The financial drama introduced a new character to the cast — a brilliant hedge-fund intern named Taylor, the first-ever gender non-binary TV character. Taylor is played by Asia Kate Dillon, a non-binary actor who, like Cox, consulted with the showrunners.

Dillon told Entertainment Weekly of their role on the show, "I feel very proud to represent something on television that hasn't been represented before. I know it would have meant a lot to me, as a younger person, especially. Visibility and education are so important — particularly now in the face of the current administration."

In exciting news for fans of the show and for the future of non-binary characters in media, this week Billions was renewed for a third season on Showtime.

Doubt and Billions' concurrent milestones (and subsequent fates) are part of a wider context of transgender representation on television, and demonstrate the disparity that continues to exist between network TV, and its cable and streaming counterparts. While Doubt struggled to stay put in a broadcast landscape already lacking in trans characters, Billions and its non-network counterparts have continued to push forward in new and refreshing ways.

A GLAAD study of the 2016-2017 TV season showed an overall improvement in transgender representation on television — with 16 trans characters appearing in scripted series, more than twice as many as the previous year. (Non-binary characters are not mentioned in the report, as it was released prior to Dillon's casting on Billions.) When you look at the breakdown of that number — three in network television, six in cable, and seven in streaming — it's apparent that broadcast TV has some catching up to do.

Turn on cable networks Freeform and MTV, and there's a good chance you'll see transgender characters on youth-oriented shows such as The Fosters and Faking It, the former of which has starred Tom Phelan, son of the aforementioned Doubt creators.

The Fosters also currently features former Shameless actor Elliot Fletcher, who has also appeared as Noah on MTV's Faking It. Fletcher told Affinity magazine that it's difficult to find roles as a trans actor because it's "still being perceived as a new concept" to casting directors. He added, "I find it upsetting that there isn't enough accurate trans representation in media but I'm hoping that that's starting to change now. I really hope it is."

It's also worth mentioning recent reality shows such as I Am Cait on E! and I Am Jazz on TLC, which have also helped give a voice to the transgender experience — although neither series has been renewed for a new season.

Streaming sites, meanwhile, are leading the pack, with 11 percent of scripted series' LGBTQ characters having been transgender this season. "While cable and broadcast have posted improvements in this area since last year, GLAAD would like to see them catch up to streaming series which remain far ahead," the aforementioned study reads.

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis offered some insight, explaining in 2015, "Streaming services aren't shackled to the same revenue models as television, which gives them more freedom to be creative and tell more rich and diverse stories."

Netflix is a particularly powerful demonstration of this. The network has made diversity a priority across many of its original series, and that includes LGBTQ representation. Orange is the New Black, which is premiering its fifth season this year, is likely to come to mind first, but it's far from the only example.

In the supernatural series The OA, which was just renewed for a second season, one of the regular supporting characters is Buck, a transgender boy played by 15-year-old Ian Alexander — the only Asian American trans actor on TV.

"I'm really blown away by how much people love and connect with the character," Alexander told Vulture of the public's response to the show, which was his first professional acting role. "People have messaged me saying that I helped them come out to their family or helped them to be more confident with their identities. It's everything that I ever hoped the show could do for people." 

Representation is just as important behind the camera as in front of it, which is what makes fellow mind-bending series Sense8 so special. The show, which premieres its second season this year, was co-created by transgender sisters Lana and Lilly Wachowski, famous for the Matrix series, with J. Michael Straczynski. The ensemble cast also includes a transgender character named Nomi, played by trans actress Jamie Clayton, who made an important point about giving trans characters varied storylines.

"There has never been a trans character in a movie or on a show before whose story didn't revolve around the transition. Nomi is the first," Clayton told The Wrap. "She's living her life, she has a job, she's in love. No one cares, because at the end of the day, we shouldn't care that she's trans. She's a human being."

One streaming series which does largely focus on the transition is Transparent on Amazon, which has received critical acclaim and awards attention for depicting the experience of a transgender protagonist. However, the casting of cisgender actor Jeffrey Tambor in the role was met with some controversy. For what it's worth, creator Jill Soloway — who based the show on her father coming out as transgender — has since expressed complicated feelings about the casting decision, and while accepting his second Emmy for the role in 2016, Jeffrey Tambor shared, "I would be happy if I were the last cisgender male to play a transgender female."

Of course, there's always more work to be done across the board, and media representation isn't the be-all and end-all of the fight for transgender rights. But including more transgender characters in popular media not only gives opportunities to talented trans actors and helps members of the community feel recognized — it also gives cisgender viewers insight into an experience they may not understand.

As The Fosters actor Tom Phelan told GLAAD, "I think the audience should just take away that transgender people exist, we're here, and we are not going away. And I really would love for people to kind of take away a sense that they need to educate themselves on these issues and be more respectful of the community."

That's why increased visibility in more mainstream broadcast television is so important. Thankfully, the loss of Doubt isn't the end of the road. The recent ABC miniseries When We Rise focused on LGBTQ activism and featured several transgender characters. Laverne Cox, meanwhile, already has another pilot in her future, this time as a co-lead in an ABC comedy.

We look forward to seeing how representation across all platforms continues to change and develop — hopefully sooner rather than later.

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

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