TV's improving in its depictions of transgender characters, but still has a long way to go

Tatiana Maslany as Tony on Orphan Black. (Space)
Tatiana Maslany as Tony on Orphan Black. (Space)

The year's wrapping up, so it's time to reflect: how friendly has TV been for transgender characters, actors, and the community in general?

GLAAD's Transgender Images in TV report says things are "better." But not by much. Let's look at the data.

Fortunately, for the first time, there were no episodes in which transgender characters were portrayed as villains, and there was only one episode in which a transgender person was a victim -- which is huge (considering the stats are down from 19 per cent and 35 per cent from GLAAD's previous reports combined, respectively).

Meanwhile, an episode of Canada's own "Orphan Black" ("Variable and Full of Perturbation") shared "outstanding" honours with an episode of "Drop Dead Diva" ("Identity Crisis") in terms of representing the transgender community -- especially since each focused on transgender men, which is a group that's arguably very under-portrayed in popular culture.

Which is great! But unfortunately, that's about it: in addition to under-representation on television, the report found that anti-transgender slurs and dialogue were still being used (and not just once in a while: a whopping 39 per cent of television episodes contained them).

So yeah, there's still a long way to go, but TV is capable of influencing social change (while coupled with evolving laws and an understanding and educated society, of course). Here's how a few shows tackled controversial topics in ways that hadn't been done before.

Sexual assault and PTSD ("All in the Family")
When Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) was sexually assaulted in season 8 of "All in the Family," the series took additional time to tackle her guilt, her depression, her fear, her anxiety, and her anger. Was it upsetting to watch? Absolutely, but it was necessary. Instead of tying up the incident at the 30-minute mark, writers gave the assault and its aftermath a full hour (in syndication, it's now seen as two episodes) to help Edith, Archie (Carroll O'Connor), and even the viewers to process what happened. We may now see episodes like this courtesy of "SVU" all the time, but "All in the Family" changed the game in terms of giving survivors a voice and acknowledging that this is a reality that anybody can face.

HIV/AIDS ("Golden Girls")
When Rose (Betty White) is alerted that her blood transfusion may have been tainted with HIV, the "Golden Girls" characters spend a harrowing 72 hours waiting anxiously by the phone for her test results. During that time (which is obviously a 30-minute episode, and doesn't actually span the "72 Hours" that the title suggests), Blanche (Rue McClanahan) tells Rose she's been tested for HIV too -- and that "AIDS isn't a 'bad person's disease.'"

Abortion ("Maude")
When Maude (Bea Arthur) became pregnant in her 40s and decided to have an abortion (in November 1972 -- two months before Roe vs. Wade in the U.S.), it caused controversy but also prompted important discussion about a woman's right to choose. It, like "Golden Girls" and "All in the Family" proved just how common discussions and circumstances like these are, as well as how important access to safe, stigma-free healthcare is.

So is television solely responsible for changing the way we look at rape culture, HIV/AIDS, and women's rights? Of course not. But they helped bring to light important discussions that may have changed the mindsets of viewers.

In the case of the transgender community, television can also work to break down stigmas, create dialogue, and represent people in a responsible way. Slurs should be just as unacceptable on TV as they are in real life. And members of the community should be just as prominent on TV as they are in real life, and presented as the fully-realized, three-dimensional people they are.

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