By Katelyn Burns
Note: This article was written for the #BigBodyPosi project on kivabay.com. I encourage you to read all of the project’s articles as they come out. I’m very excited and honored to be able to add my voice to this issue, it is very important to me.
My name is Katelyn and Hollywood thinks I’m a joke (or a murderer). I’m a transgender woman and I’m about thirty pounds overweight. I used to be much, much heavier, but we’ll get into that later. Back to Hollywood though, putting men in dresses for a laugh is just about the oldest joke in movie history. Man puts on dress, struggles to perform femininity, audience laughs because men can’t be women. What man would want to be a woman anyway? Women have to deal with so many things that men never do. “Oh look he’s struggling with that bra! Bahahaha!” “Oh my god he can’t even put those stockings on! Tee hee!” “Look at his body! He’s obviously not a woman, everybody laugh at him!” That last one is particularly dangerous and harmful. In our society, body shape rules passability when it comes to gender identity. It is reinforced in our movie culture as well. Fat men in dresses means we laugh at them, the fatter the funnier.
If you polled all of the trans women in the world, you’d find that a good portion of us went through a phase where we consumed every little tiny piece of trans media that we could get our hands on. From Rocky Horror Picture Show or Mrs. Doubtfire to THAT episode of NCIS. When I was young, my excitement in knowing I wasn’t alone outweighed the absolutely horrific portrayals of trans lives on screen. There’s only two allowable cross gender depictions on screen for us, it’s either serial killer or as the butt of the joke. Every. Single. Time. Time and time again, I saw murderous villains or deceptive sexual punchlines rolled out in the media and never even thought to question it. Can you believe I used to actually watch those Jerry Springer shows where trans women revealed to their boyfriends that they were trans, or “Guess which one is trans and which one is a ‘real’ woman?” Just knowing I wasn’t alone though was enough for me. After awhile however, a major revelation hit me, why was I always depicted as a monster or a joke? From Ace Ventura Pet Detective to Psycho to Pretty Little Liars, trans people are constantly shown as killers and monsters. Is it any wonder that a majority of Americans believe trans women are too dangerous to use the women’s room? We’ve been shown killing people on screen literally since screens were invented.
When cis men wear dresses on screen as a joke, it reinforces the notion that trans women are really just pretending. That our genders are literally laughable. When fatness is added to the mix, the joke gets even funnier. When a fat cis male actor puts on a dress, you see the disproportionately small chest, the large belly and the narrow hips. It’s the reverse of a feminine shape. Not only does it look like too much sausage stuffed into too little casing, but even the sausage bulges out in the wrong places. The worse the dress fits on screen, the funnier the joke gets, because the joke is that male bodies can never be female, fat bodies especially. I see this joke every time I put on a dress. It is this joke alone that told me that I was too fat to transition for over twenty years. This is the joke that had me telling myself that no one would love me as a fat trans woman, that no one would ever have sex with me as a fat trans woman. This is the joke that told me that I would have to lose over 100 pounds before even thinking about transitioning. It was this joke that had me eating a bowl of plain spinach for lunch every day for three months to start a major diet. This joke told me that despite losing 110 pounds, my body shape is still all wrong for a woman.
Growing up, I was rail-thin, but when I hit my teenage years, my body betrayed me in more ways than one. I was actually foolish enough to believe that I might have ovaries hidden inside of me that would develop me into the girl I always knew myself to be. Not only did I not magically turn into a girl, I was also overweight from the start of puberty onward. I’ve always loved food. Food was my comfort. Food never misgendered me. Food was my emotional outlet. Despite playing three sports in high school (and carrying my golf bag at least 18 holes a day in the summer time) my body has always been overweight. During track season my senior year, I remember stretching before practice while talking about how excited I was to play college soccer the following fall when my coach actually said to me, “I don’t think your new coach will like all those fat rolls under your shirt.” Oof, seriously coach? I’d go home at night and flip through the TV channels, thin woman after thin woman on screen. Even the serious cis male actors playing trans roles were thin. I mean, even Robin Williams wore a fat suit for Mrs. Doubtfire, because remember, fatness makes the joke funnier.
The trope of trans people as a joke on screen is just so dangerous. That trans women, especially fat trans women, are complete jokes; that we are invalid as our genders. This “joke” is especially insidious when you consider how many trans women are killed each year for “not being real women.” How many men have killed trans women out of embarrassment? So many men have watched movies their whole lives that depict trans women as a joke or have shown cis men in dresses pretending to seduce straight men as a gag. These men kill to save face because our existences as trans women are the oldest joke going. Nobody wants to be the joke.
The so called “trans tipping point” has been a celebrated event in media. They say it’s nice that so much attention is finally being paid to our needs as a group. They trumpet positive portrayals of trans lives like Laverne Cox’s role in “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix and the popularity of Amazon’s “Transparent”. Glee’s character Unique, played by Alex Newell was a step in the right direction, but her character was played by a cis man and her depiction was filled with issues. I agree it’s a good start, but representation and storytelling of trans lives and particularly fat trans lives are still found wanting. Transphobic tropes are still being produced. There’s still Pretty Little Liars and Zoolander 2. There’s still jokes and murderers.
So what needs to change? We’re slowly starting to see more serious trans characters pop up on screen, but they’ve almost all been thin and mostly played by cis actors and actresses. There’s still no one there that I could have looked at as a trans teenager and said “Yes she looks like me, I could be her.” I want that for the next generation of fat trans women. I want the next generation of bigger trans kids to not ever have to worry about losing 100 pounds to be able to transition. I want fat trans women characters played by fat trans actresses and I don’t want them to be a joke. These characters should be loved by committed partners. Let’s see them having sex on screen. Countless closeted trans women think that they’re too fat to transition to their true genders at this very moment. When trans women delay their own transitions, the results can be very deadly, as 41% of all trans people (myself included) will attempt suicide in their life times. How many have done so because they believed themselves to be too fat? How much of that belief stemmed from constantly being the butt of Hollywood jokes?
I can see the responses formulating already. That I should just learn to take a joke. That everybody gets made fun of. No. I have never seen my body on screen in a positive way. Not even once has it happened. Even now, after losing over a third of my body weight, I’ll need a serious waist cincher just to move from “Hollywood joke” to “Hollywood serial killer.” Those are my two categories in film to look up to, to find role models from. You have no idea how humiliating that is. It’s really no wonder that fat trans women are laughed at by cis men and feared by cis women when that has been our portrayal in movies and television since the two mediums have been invented. It needs to stop. The sooner the better.
Reminder: This article is part of a larger project on fat body representation in media culture which can be found on kivabay.com. Please read and share all of the articles for #BigBodyPosi as they come out. Thank you.