Now, I am no fan of Corrie. My shameful soap secret is occasionally Eastenders, but Hayley Cropper (played wonderfully from what I have seen by Julie Hesmondhalgh) has had a positive effect on my life. Why? Because for over fifteen years, she has played the world’s first regular transgender soap character. Often, people have cited ‘Hayley from Corrie’ as an example when I have told them I am trans, and it has been a massive point of reference. Her very existence has provided a context for members of the public who otherwise would have had none.
In the rest of the media at large, trans characters are one of two things; Phil Mitchel in a bad wig for comic effect, or a woman by all appearances but with a ‘terrible secret’ or a ‘dark past’ to provide a cheap salacious thrill. We tend to be characters in one-off dramas, or one-off characters in continuing dramas where we are a walking punchline, a victim of brutal crime or some kind of sex worker.
Even Corrie’s sister soap, Emmerdale, recently courted controversy when they cast actress Samantha Valentine who happens to be trans, for a role which she later found out was solely there to be a joke at the expense of the Trans community. Samantha strongly objected and producers apologised profusely and changed the scene, but the fact that the joke still got past all the equality guidelines and into a shooting script in the first place is very disconcerting.
Of course, had they not cast a genuine trans performer in the role, the joke would have been shot and aired as normal. Of that I have no doubt.
I was fortunate enough, before Christmas to have a chat with fabulously funny comedian and outspoken trans-ally, Ava Vidal, and we ended up talking about a rather cogent point. Namely that there is little to no difference for a cis person to play a trans person, than for a white actor to perform in Blackface or Yellowface.
One could argue ‘the best actor for the part’ but if Robert DeNiro or Benedict Cumberbatch (face it, he’s in everything anyway) had pushed for the role of Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, would they have been accepted for showing up with boot polish on their faces Ala Gene Wilder in ’Silver Streak’?
It’s not like playing a different faith or sexuality, those things are internalised. A gay man, for example, is physically the same as straight man who leads the same lifestyle. But in reality, most trans women don’t look comedy crossdressers or femme fatales (and yes everyone in media, Trans men actually exist too!).
The next Transwoman you notice walking down the street won’t look like a plastic pornstar, she’ll look like most people look; uniquely ordinary. She may be tall for a woman, she may have a visible Adams apple or masculine hairline. She might have broad shoulders, her voice might be deeper than most womens’. How do people relate these things to the two different types of trans woman the media feeds us? Well we probably don’t fit into the sultry femme fatale category so what’s left? Ah yes, the comic relief ‘bloke in a dress’ thing. It’s okay, have a good laugh like the telly says you should. Remember, we’re dangerous if you don’t spot us, and hilarious if you do.
People don’t ever see real Trans people in the media unless we are on some daytime talk show talking about how we had our ding-a-ling split and tucked into a foo-foo to fill the gap between a moronic competition question and the next episode of verbal diarrhea from Katie Hopkins, or some salacious documentary about sex tourism in Thailand.
Julie Hesmondhalgh as Hayley Cropper did wonderful things for creating public awareness of transgender people, but now is it not time for mainstream dramas to have regular trans characters who are indeed played by actual trans performers? Most people’s conception of us is that our existence begins and transition and ends with surgery, but it is not the case. We have to deal with the same shit as everyone else, as well as the regular shit that being trans brings with it. Show us living our day to day lives as human beings. Don’t just spirit-gum a latex dong onto Chloë Sevigny and tell us she’s a single parent/assassin. That doesn’t help.
‘Orange is the New Black’ has a trans performer, Laverne Cox, playing a trans character which is a groundbreaking move. But not many of us are in jail for committing fraud to finance our transitions. Prison, for most of us at least, is not a day to day reality (although in some parts of the world…).
We need Eastenders or Corrie or Emmerdale even to give us a trans character who does all the things the other characters do, but just happens to be trans. We need Drama to diversify and show us more than the usual stereotype, and we need it to be genuine trans people getting the visibility.
My advice to any TV producer. You want a Trans character? Great. Two things; are you doing it for the right reasons, and how authentic are you going to be with the casting? People want realism in soaps and drama. Stop putting truck drivers in frocks or glue penises on actresses and we’ll have something authentic.
Julie, I thank you.
Let’s build on that legacy.