Image credit: Shortland Street / South Pacific Pictures
Take a step back for a moment, and think about this: who’s the first person that comes to mind when you think of trans people on television?
Chances are, it’s probably Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black. But as talented a thespian as she is, there’s still a problem, explains actor, writer and activist Cole Meyers: her character is in prison. And that, he says, can be a negative depiction of trans people if there isn’t a serious discussion about why the character is being portrayed the way she is.
“Culture creates narrative, and narrative creates culture,” he says, adding it can be quite easy for showrunners and other writers in media to misrepresent – or even harm – a group when they’re not interacting with that group to better understand their experiences. As an example, he says, a lot of people writing about trans characters will focus on surgical or medical aspects of someone’s transition – which fails to accurately portray the whole experience of being trans, or show that people are defined by more than simply their genitalia.
“I think there is a responsibility there. Whenever I talk to people, I always go, ‘how much more can you do?’ Because I don’t think we’re at a place in history where we can say ‘oh, I just want to write about this thing because I think it’s interesting,’ and then do it without actually considering the effect.”
Meyers would know: he’s trans himself. He was one of the speakers at Same Same But Different, a three-day celebration of Aotearoa’s top LGBTQI+ writing talent held at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in February.
Meyers spoke as part of a panel about the popular soap opera Shortland Street. Though the show might be as Kiwi as Pineapple Lumps and pavlova (sorry not sorry, Australia), it had never had a trans lead until Tash Keddy and his character Blue Nathan joined the main cast in 2016.
Keddy, producer Maxine Fleming, former Shortland Street star Harry Dickinson, panel chair Andrea Kelland, and Meyers all stressed that, although Shortland Street is a show that “people love to hate” because of the ridiculous (and not terribly realistic) situations the characters often find themselves in, it was important not to inaccurately portray trans people by stereotyping them, but also to be aware that every trans person – like every cisgender person – is different and not everyone’s experiences are the same.
“Meeting someone in real life and representations in media… it’s not even comparable,” explained Keddy.
“I’m sick to death of seeing sick transgender characters, dying transgender characters, homeless transgender characters. We need to have an open dialogue. There’s no point shedding light on trans people’s experiences if you’re shedding light on non-trans people’s versions of trans people’s experiences. There’s a real danger of perpetuating inaccurate stereotypes.”
As Meyers explains, the stereotypes of trans people on TV and in the media (sad, victims or dead) can also sadly be realities because of factors such as violence and discrimination. If we see only negative depictions, he says, both trans and cis people never see the possibility of trans people being happy, successful, and loved. Negative depictions, he adds, contribute to a negative cycle of culture influencing narratives.
As a writer for Shortland Street, Meyers says he’s also keenly aware of the popularity of the show among younger Kiwis – and the influence it can have on how they perceive the real world and people living in it.
“It is subconscious learning you pick up from fictional narratives like Shortland Street,” he says. “If you want to tell these stories [with trans characters], you have to do them right.”
Ultimately though, he says media can be a force for good, and that more and more people are realising that trans people, like everyone else, are just that: people.
“Culture and society is getting better, but there’s still a huge amount of discrimination.”
One way to fight that discrimination is to be aware of privilege.
“[There are] people who are more privileged within the trans and gender diverse community, and I definitely am. I’m white, I’m male passing, even though that’s not how I identify. I have a family that’s really supportive. I have relative financial stability. And it’s a lot safer for me to be out. So I feel like I have a responsibility in that sense, of being out, talking about that, talking about my struggles and my successes, opening up the door through the privilege I’m afforded to bring in people who are less privileged. Which is why I’m always talking about how we can have more opportunities, like how we need more transfeminine representation, more representation of trans women of colour. These are the stories we need to be seeing.”
And when it comes to a more positive character played by the kickass Laverne Cox, Meyers recommends the US series Doubt. Cox’s role in that? A lawyer.