Transgendered people have never received much media attention in the U.S., but according to a new study, that’s starting to change.
In a report that came out late November titled "Transforming Coverage" by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), more transgendered characters are popping up in films and TV shows than ever before. (The report cites examples such as Bree, the main character in the film Transamerica, and Zarf, from the soap opera “ All My Children.”) The author of the report, Julie Hollar, notes the discussion of transgendered individuals and transgender issues are no longer relegated to exploitative forums such as “The Jerry Springer Show” and instead are talked about on more reputable, mainstream media outlets like CNN. Perhaps most impressively, FAIR reports the major network and cable news programs have nearly doubled their coverage of transgender issues in 2007 compared to last year.
Not all the publicity is nice.
Last year, MSNBC's Tucker Carlson let loose a bevy of negative remarks concerning transgenderism, including his belief that being transgendered is a "profound personality disorder" and saying the decision to have sex reassignment surgery is "the act of a crazy person" much like “setting your hair on fire or blinding yourself.” He also told the transgendered community, “Just because you’re castrated and have a fake set of boobs does not make you a woman." It's hard to imagine Carlson could find nastier things to say about ax murderers.
Additionally, just as the media is constantly shaping and being shaped by the public's perceptions, when dealing with the topic of transgenderism, the media's focus on genitalia mirrors the public's adamant fascination with the subject. FAIR notes media members consistently ask transgendered guests extremely intimate and personal information about their genital status. Hollar writes that when guests say they have not had surgery, they're seen as somehow less authentic, as crossdressers or as people simply pretending to be the opposite sex. The only legitimate claim to identity, it would seem, is through genitalia.
But when media members justify these personal questions by saying people are interested in this information, as FAIR mentions Larry King and other hosts have done in the past, they may be right. After all, one of the first things asked about newborn babies is their sex, and the blue and pink baby clothes donned by newborns speak further to the need to immediately label our children as male or female. Additionally, even though anesthesia is potentially lethal to newborns, many doctors are still willing to risk using it for sexual reconstructive surgery if a baby is born with a mixture of male and female genitalia.
Nevertheless, the media has a choice in how it covers transgendered people. The press has to remain sensitive to the privacy of its subjects. It must also recognize that the public's right to know and the public's interest in knowing are two different things. The media deserves kudos for beginning to put transgendered individuals in the spotlight rather than condemning them to the shadows. However, our unhealthy obsession with genitalia--the possibly least important component of the transgenderism discussion--won't end until the media recognizes it has no right to fuel the fire.