What's Behind the Rise of Transgender TV

Trans TV Illo - H 2014
Illustration by: Vasava

Trans TV Illo - H 2014

Gay couples? Gay kisses? Yawn. New sexual boundaries are being broken as Amazon’s 'Transparent' is the latest to tackle a once-taboo topic

This story first appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Television viewers looking for transgender characters traditionally had to settle for periphery prostitutes or psychopathic serial killers. But with the Sept. 26 premiere of Transparent, Amazon Studios is betting that audiences are ready to watch a transgender character take center stage.

It's a bold move for Amazon, which entered the original content game in 2013 with mainstream fare — the political satire Alpha House and the workplace comedy Betas — that failed to register with critics and awards tastemakers. But Jeffrey Tambor's portrayal of family patriarch Mort and his transition into Maura is earning the streaming service and show creator Jill Soloway their best reviews yet. And Transparent is just one of several trans-themed projects breaking one of TV's last sexual barriers.

Just as gay and lesbian characters moved into the spotlight in the 1990s with such shows as Ellen and Will & Grace, transgender characters increasingly are in the spotlight, from Alex Newell as Wade "Unique" Adams on Fox's Glee to Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black (for which she made history in the summer as the first openly transgender Emmy acting awards nominee and snagged a Time magazine cover). "There have been trans people represented on TV for a very long time," says Cox. "But people are having empathy for these characters. That's part of this moment that shifts things a bit."

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Amazon comedy head Joe Lewis says he didn't set out to make a transgender show, but he concedes that the hook is a big part of Transparent's allure. "It allows you to tell a story that you haven't told before," he says. "I think that makes it more exciting to watch." Whereas featuring unmarried couples or gay characters might have once felt fresh or edgy, it takes a lot more to surprise or intrigue today's audiences. "It's the role of art in any society to look forward and break down walls and really assess what's happening in the present," adds Lewis.

The trend is a marked difference from past trans portrayals, which GLAAD says are overwhelmingly negative. In fact, of the more than 100 episodes with nonrecurring transgender storylines that the media watchdog group tracked from 2002 to 2012, 54 percent contained negative representations, and another 35 percent were classified as ranging from "problematic" to "good."

It's no coincidence that instead of airing on TV networks, many of these new trans-friendly shows have found homes on digital outlets such as Amazon and Netflix. The latter is prepping an upcoming sci-fi drama, Sense8, from Andy Wachowski and transgender sibling Lana Wachowski that will feature trans actress Jamie Clayton. Soloway explains that the nontraditional greenlight processes at these outlets open the door for shows with unconventional stars. "With the networks, everything that's made is questioned with: Who will buy ad time on this?" says Soloway. "Whereas, Netflix and Amazon only need to appeal to people." Adds GLAAD entertainment media director Matt Kane, "The very nature of how they're creating the shows and how they're delivering them lets them break a lot of the old molds."

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At the same time, cable and other digital outlets also are jumping on the trans bandwagon. MTV, which is introducing an "intersex" character (who has both male and female chromosomes) in season two of its teen drama Faking It, will air Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, a documentary that will tell the stories of seven transgender youths. HBO is prepping Three Suits, a documentary from executive producer Lena Dunham about the transgender clients of a bespoke Brooklyn tailor. And AOL has True Trans with Laura Jane Grace, a docuseries that follows the trans Against Me! lead singer as she meets with trans fans while on tour. In many cases, scripted depictions of trans characters have paved the way for these projects. "In scripted and comedy, there's a way to introduce topics and make us comfortable with them," says AOL originals vp Nate Hayden, citing Cox's Orange character. "It gets sneaked into the cultural awareness and really does open our eyes."

Still, despite TV's progress, transgender characters are largely niche fare. And the challenge for Transparent will be in finding an identity beyond the hot-button themes it addresses. The show, which has a number of trans people in the cast and in the crew, has received some backlash for casting Tambor in the role of Maura instead of a trans actor — a critique that Soloway brushes off by explaining, "Jeffrey was always this role."

But Amazon, which doesn't reveal ratings numbers or even how many people subscribe to its Prime video service, doesn't necessarily need to worry about going after a large audience. If Transparent turns into the kind of transformative show that House of Cards was for Netflix, the risk will be worth it. Says Lewis: "We're not going to be judged by over-night ratings. We're going to be judged by the impact that we have on television."