Tropes to Avoid When Writing Trans Characters

Tropes to Avoid When Writing Trans Characters

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative! This week, we’ll be continuing our discussion about writing trans characters by focusing on some important tropes to avoid in your writing.

Trans characters are often shown as deviant, disgusting, mentally unwell, and/or evil, and this has left its mark on how the public perceives trans people — meaning a LOT of cis people have internalized prejudices against trans trans folx, and those come through in how they write them. 

These harmful ideas come through most often as a handful of toxic tropes which can alienate and disturb trans viewers. When writing trans characters, I would highly recommend that you avoid — or at the very least subvert — these tropes.

The Sex Worker

Because they are largely seen as “taboo” or “exotic,” trans people are often fetishized in modern Western society. Because of this, sex work is often portrayed as the natural state for a trans person — and plays into the perception that we are deviants whose gender expressions are completely tied to our sexual desires. The reality, however, is that trans folx throughout history have been forced into sex work due to employment discrimination.

screen grab of Bob's Burgers Season 1 Episode 6, showing Bob driving a cab with three transgender prostitutes in the back of the cab
It’s funny because they’re trans! (Bob’s Burgers S1E6)

To this day, there persists an idea that transgender people will either fall into prostitution or willingly choose it. While there is nothing inherently wrong with sex work, it’s harmful to assume that an entire group of people is predisposed to it. When writing trans characters, I would recommend avoiding making them a sex worker (or otherwise exploited/hypersexualized).

“The Trap/Trick”

Perhaps the most enduring and toxic trope about trans people in fiction is that we are “really” our birth sex, and are just trying to “trick” or “trap” innocent people into trusting/being intimate with us.poster for the Netflix documentary "Disclosure"

Oftentimes, this is unmasked with a “reveal” near the end of the narrative, where the trans person — man or woman — is outed by revealing either a penis (for trans women) or breasts (for trans men). Sometimes the joke is that an oblivious character doesn’t notice the “obvious” signs the audience is meant to see, and sometimes it’s used as the “big twist” at the climax of a narrative. Either way, please don’t do this.

For a more thorough explanation on why it’s so bad, check out Netflix’s documentary Disclosure, which focuses on the history of trans portrayals in media. While it isn’t perfect (there’s some issues in how they address nonbinary folx), it’s a good starting point.

Also — dating a trans person does not make someone gay (or, for that matter, straight). A man dating a trans woman is dating a woman, and is not “secretly gay” because of who they’re dating.

Mentally Unstable

Western Society — and Western Media — has a long history of pathologizing transgender people. Up until very recently, being transgender (“gender identity disorder”) was classified as a mental illness. In fact, gender dysphoria is still considered a mental illness in the DSM-5. 

Though this sometimes comes through as the idea that a trans person might be “cured” (like Nomi Marks’s storyline in season 1 of Netflix’s Sense8), it is also often used to portray trans people as dangerous, murderous, and psychopathic.

Perhaps the two best-known examples of this trope are Norman Bates in Psycho and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. While neither of these characters are actually trans, they reinforce the idea that a psychotic man would dress in women’s clothing, and that there is a violent pathology connected to that desire.

Screen grab of Buffalo Bill's "Would You Fuck Me" scene from The Silence of the Lambs
This scene set back my coming out by like 2 years (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)

A less dramatic example is Max Sweeney from The L Word, a trans man who became violent, sexually aggressive, and mentally unstable after beginning testosterone treatment. This portrayal, though far less murderous than either Norman Bates or Buffalo Bill, still serves to reinforce the idea that trans people are dangerous, violent, and untrustworthy.

The Predator

Related to “The Trap,” this is the assumption that a trans person is just someone “pretending” to be the opposite gender in order to gain access to the sex they’re attracted to. Perhaps they’re a predatory lesbian trying to get in an innocent straight woman’s pants, or a pervy dude infiltrating the lady’s locker room. Either way, this trope is actively harmful to trans people in real life

It’s a large part of why trans “bathroom bills” have been running rampant recently in American politics — people assume that trans women are actually just men trying to perv on cis women. This is fundamentally untrue, and has never been shown to be the casetrans people are far more likely to be harassed or assaulted while using the bathroom of their assigned gender.

That this trope has infected modern political debate about the lives and bodies of trans folx is an example of how influential media can be on public opinion, and how important positive and nuanced representation is. PLEASE do not perpetuate this trope.

Justified Violence

A common response to trans folx in fiction is some form of physical, emotional, or sexual violence. In some cases, this is even portrayed as righteous and justified — because the evil trans person was trying to trick the good, honest cis character!

This trope has painful echoes in real life, where trans people — especially Black trans women — can be murdered or assaulted for their gender expression. There is even a legal precedent called the Gay Panic Defense which can exonerate those who perpetrate this violence. Because of this, I would recommend avoiding this trope when writing trans characters, or at least considering why you believe it is necessary or justified in your narrative.

Conclusion

Many cis people have internalized negative ideas about trans people, and in turn utilize these tropes when writing trans characters. This contributes to the overall public opinion of trans people, and puts us in actual danger of violence or discrimination. So, before writing trans characters, take a moment to consider what messages you’ve received about trans people throughout your life. (You should, frankly, be doing this with ALL your characters).

That’s all I’ve got space for this week! I’ll be back next week with some more tips on how to write queer characters — but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!

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