How Netflix and Amazon became leaders in humane portrayals of transgender characters

Maura is transgender, but she’s also a lot of other things.
Maura is transgender, but she’s also a lot of other things.
Image: Amazon Studios
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Amazon’s new show Transparent stars Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender woman who is transitioning late in life. The show follows Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, which features Laverne Cox as a transgender prisoner—the first truly multidimensional transgender character on American television.

Transgender portrayals on TV, when they show up at all, tend to render the characters as victims or villains. Or they are portrayed as sex workers: GLAAD found that from 2002 to 2012, one in five transgender TV characters was a sex worker. More nuanced stories of gender transition by adults, especially when that adult is one of the show’s stars, haven’t been told.

So Netflix was breaking ground with Cox’s Sophia, a prisoner with a wife and son. She was arrested for financial fraud. Her character, and now Tambor’s in Transparent, are adults with full backstories. Cox earned an Emmy nomination for her portrayal, making her the first openly transgender actress in the category, and both Orange and Transparent have received critical approval for their treatment of transgender characters. Why are Amazon and Netflix, both new online studios, the only ones producing these stories?

The power of youth

Amazon and Netflix are young, and that’s an advantage. ”They have no historical boundaries in which to butt their heads against,” British comedian Claire Parker tells Quartz.

Parker was the project manager of the Trans Comedy Award, which has yielded a romantic comedy series for BBC2, Boy Meets Girlthat will start filming next year and features a transgender woman as one of the main characters. Parker says working on the project was difficult at times because the network continuously told them to keep their expectations low, and at each level of bureaucracy, there’s less of  an emphasis on the reason for the show, which is to represent a story about a transgender character in a full and responsible way.

Transparent creator Jill Soloway says she was able to stay true to the characters and to a strong transgender portrayal because  Amazon didn’t strictly oversee the project. Rhys Ernst, an associate producer and transgender man who worked as a consultant on the show, says he was able to make adjustments without executive interference. “On a bigger studio production there would have been a lot more executives around the monitor,” he tells Quartz.

They’re online, and so is the trans movement

The increase in awareness of transgender issues and the move for increased rights has largely taken place online, among young people who see that the transgender community is far behind the lesbian and gay communities in terms of rights, says Matt Kane, GLAAD director of entertainment media. Amazon and Netflix are building a loyal audience of young, web-savvy people by investing in shows that address what they want to see in TV.

The shows “reflect a very modern awareness of identity in our culture, and … the challenges of it, but also the unexpected emotion and humor that can come out of it,” Kane says.

Laverne Cox’s Sophia is no transgender stereotype.
Laverne Cox’s Sophia is no transgender stereotype.
Image: AP Photo/Netflix/Eric Leibowitz

It’s one story, not everyone’s story

Successful portrayals of transgender characters include storylines beyond the fact that they are transgender. Transparent focuses not just on Maura (Tambor’s character) but on her family, which includes three selfish children who have their own internal struggles with gender and sexual identity. Laverne Cox’s role in Orange is similar in its depth: she has a wife and child, and her personal storyline centers around those relationships, rather than the fact or science of being transgender.

Orange is at its very base a show about women in a prison, and one of them happens to be transgender. Transparent is a show about a family reacting to change.

It’s important to note that there have been occasionally awareness-raising or complex portrayals of teen transgender and gender identity stories —Glee and House of Lies come to mind. What sets Orange and Transparent apart from those is that they address a population of transgender people that’s sizable and absent from the media—those who transition later in life.

This is the perfect time

Transgender stories are also being told in these online spaces for the most obvious reason: They haven’t yet been told on TV. Amazon and Netflix need to set themselves apart from traditional media and prove their worth as original content providers, and the way to do this is through framings that are new. Transgender characters, other than the tropes described above, are close to invisible in TV and movies. It’s become normal to see lesbian and gay characters on TV, so this is the next step, Ernst says.

Because the new online studios have less bureaucracy and can turn shows around quickly, they can stay with the pulse of the trans movement. “Trans people are becoming galvanized and outspoken,” Ernst says. ”And not accepting disparaging or unfair portrayals anymore.”