Guest post: Why does the media show transgender children more sympathetically?

Welcome back Emily Manuel, of Global Comment, the Twitters, and my chat box, with a piece on the seemingly-benign “better” portrayal of transgender children compared to their adult counterparts.

Why does the media show transgender children more sympathetically?

For some reason, everywhere I go lately there’s stories about trans children.  Nightline ran an episode, while Dr Phil ran one on one trans and one intersex child.  And CNN currently has a video up of trans children about two children at the Gender Spectrum Family Conference.

Interest in trans people in general and trans children in particular isn’t really a new phenomena, of course, but what’s notable about these stories is how sympathetic and non-sensationalised these takes are.  While there’s of course the odd bit of sketchy language, the children’s rights and identities are largely respected, and in the case of CNN allowed to speak in their own words.

Of course, it’s not all hearts and puppydogs in the media–and there’s still a lot of scaremongering out there.  Just yesterday, a Canadian newspaper ran a full page anti trans hate ad that read “don’t confuse me. I’m a girl, don’t cause me to question if I’m a boy, transsexual transgender, intersexed or two spirited.”  And of course there was the “psychiatrist” on Fox in the Toemaggedon story (you know the guy).  The WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN mob always like to pretend as though there’s no such thing as a LGBT child, that we just need to violently enforce gender norms and then no child will ever be trans. Phew.

But still, compared to the mockery, bathroom panic, and blatant victim blaming of trans murder victims, trans children get a comparatively sympathetic media treatment.  As such it’s worthwhile contrasting the sympathetic treatment of trans kids with the continued sensationalist treatment of trans adults, particularly women, and why there might be a such a great disparity between the two.

An idealisation of children as innocent

We as a culture have a bifurcated view of children as either angels or demons (but rarely full human beings).  In the first view, children are idealised as innocent.  Innocence is a Christianised theological category, connoting not just a lack of culpability or experience but also purity.  A lack of sin.  In the second view, we have the monstrous child, the demonic pure evil child familiar to us from horror movies and Stephen Moffat penned Doctor Who episodes.  This is the mirror image of the angel, its opposite.

But, in realistic cultural representations, the trans child is likely to retain their innocent status regardless.  In trans negative views, the mother or father are usually to “blame” for their transness, the culpability is shifted elsewhere.

An idealisation of children as natural

If children are considered innocent, then they are also often considered more natural than adults.  The idea of childhood as closer to nature is an old one, widely popularised by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings (eg Emile) in the 18th century.  Nature is pure, culture is tainted.

So for a child to be trans is to be more “natural” than an adult transitioner.  The desire to provide a scientific explanation for any kind of LGBT identity is, in effect, to call something “natural,” innate.  It’s not a choice, baby I was born this way.  To be natural is, in effect, in innocent.  So trans children already have an advantage here in being considered more natural.   If they’re closer to nature, then their transness must be natural, too.

In contrast, the adult transitioner is easier to critique – blame – for “choosing” to be trans.  Julia Serano noted in Whipping Girl that media representations tend to emphasis the artificiality of trans women, with a focus on make-up and clothes.  Trans people, especially trans women, are considered fake.  Not “really” as real in their sexes as cis people.

A cultural idea of children as not sexual

This is a really important difference between the two.  Media images of  trans women in particular tend to be extremely sexualised–the trans sex worker of colour is a stock figure in crime fiction for instance. The cultural confusion between gender and sexuality results in people considering transness as an intensified form of queer sexuality–the trans woman as a drag queen who went “too far,” the trans man as the butch woman who did the same.  And anxieties about trans people as “deceivers” go even further, because as trans academic Talia Mae Bettcher has argued, gendered clothing itself works as a form of symbolic signalling about genital status and hence sexual availability.  It’s a code, which is why we speak, nonsensically about “women’s clothing” and “men’s clothing,” as though the cuts of clothing somehow is necessarily linked to gender and sex.

So trans adults are a threat because they “mismatch” (as Bettcher terms it) the codes of cissexual heterosexuality, the organisation of genitally-determined sexed bodies into “potentially fuckable” and “not potentially fuckable.”  Wearing the clothes of the supposed other sex is “cross dressing,” is a violation of the cultural line between sexed bodies, gender identity and gender expression.  And because heterosexuality is so frequently premised on its melancholic rejection of homosexuality, to be attracted to someone with the “wrong” genitals is a kind of psychic threat, which often results in violence to trans people (especially from cis men).  As Julia Serano says in her poem “Cocky

“My penis changes the meanings of everything. And because of her, every one of my heterosexual ex-girlfriends, has slept with a lesbian. And every guy who hits on me these days could be accused of being gay.”

In contrast, trans children are considered to not be sexual yet – their transness is not as strongly mediated by ideas of sexuality.  Sympathetic portrayals of trans children are just about gender , without a sexual component1.  Adult trans people have long battled the assumption that they transition for a sexual reason, or that they’re sexually promiscuous or sex workers, but trans children don’t hit those some fears.  They’re not considered dangerous in quite the same way.

So in conclusion.

This view of trans children as sympathetic may not be quite as progressive as it seems.  While it’s wonderful to see trans children treated as actual living breathing human beings, and more positive representations will definitely help those children gain access to blockers and hormones, what happens when they grow up?

Because at some point, most of those children will become sexually active teens and adults–and then we’re at the same point as before.  Until we start to really interrogate the ways in which we idealise children and then demonise the adults they grow into (from innocent to fallen), things won’t really have changed so much after all.

  1. Though we should note in the negative portrayals the fear that gender variance signals a future homosexuality is made explicit. It’s just not as dominant a motif.
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10 Responses to Guest post: Why does the media show transgender children more sympathetically?

  1. It never fails to amaze me how, according to gender conservatives, gender is simultaneously inborn/immutable and so fragile that a chance comment or painted toenails could destroy it.

  2. This is so on-point. I think that, whenever criticism is voiced of the comparative kid gloves (no pun intended) with which children who fall into a certain demographic are treated by the media (I am thinking, here, of perceptions of children with disabilities versus adults with disabilities), some people tend to bristle: thinking the equation must have an either/or, instead of a both/and, outcome.

    I am also struck by how little mainstream media attention is paid to the idea of introducing adult trans rolemodels (whether actual figures, or those represented in popular culture) for trans and cis children — particularly those being raised by cis parents. In fact, if the attention given to the protests voiced by some conservative groups over Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing With the Stars is any indication, trans adults are portrayed as “influences” from which all children need to be actively shielded.

    That, to me, speaks to the unstated undercurrent of these “sensitive” profiles of trans children: many adults are holding out hope that it is “only a phase” or, as you suggested, the product of overly-progressive or permissive parenting.

  3. My personal take is that the more sympathetic view of transgender children is a good start. Maybe it’ll lead to a better acceptance of adults.

    Perhaps the media should be more actively encouraged to show well-adjusted families where one parent has finally come to terms with his/her transgender identity? So many of us were born before such a thing was heard of. You had tomboys and nancyboys, both insulting and inadequate terms. I only fully realised what I am a couple of years ago, having felt uncomfortable in my body all my life.

    Feud-fixated psychoanababble doesn’t help, either, but that’s another rant.

  4. This is really interesting. I had never considered the disparity between the way children and adults are portrayed, but you’re absolutely right, there’s definitely a difference.

    I agree with the previous commenter that portraying children sympathetically is a good start, but it’s clear that we still have a long, long way to go.

  5. what an excellent article!

  6. Pingback: Food For Thought: Transgender Children, ‘Men’s Crisis,’ Hilary Winston’s Frozen Eggs | Vagina Dentwata

  7. I live in Canada (BC), and heard about the ad that ran in the Toronto paper. I wanted to apologize for that disgusting, offensive ad, and wanted to mention that in no way does it represent every Canadian’s views. All of the people I spoke to who saw it were just as ashamed and upset as I was upon learning of its publishing.

  8. There has been even more attention to trans kids lately and I have been sent three links to the same article about a set of twins, one of whom is trans. People send me this in order to tell me that they recognize that I was always female. Somehow, this makes me a bit uncomfortable. When I went to Thailand for my SRS, after I had already submitted 4 letters from my doctor, therapist, and a psychiatrist, I had to pass a written gender test before I could see the Thai psychiatrist at the hospital. The test essentially asked me to say that I had always only seen myself as female, and that as a child I had always only ever wanted clothing and toys associated with little girls. People in the general public now ask the same of me, the more that trans kids are seen in the media. I am not sure how true this was for me, and I don’t think it’s fair to expect me to identify myself as having been absolutely sure I was female from birth. I was definitely male looking from birth but felt rather androgynous from the very beginning. I sort of identified with both boy and girl identities at the same time, which was already transgressive. It wasn’t that I wanted to wear girl clothes from an early age, even if I did want to play with dolls; I was too young to know much more than that my parents were very upset if I let myself do anything that was “too” feminine, and I learned to try to suppress that side of myself. It didn’t work completely, and however much I may have played with boy toys or wore boy clothes, I was still doing these things with a somewhat “sissy” flair. I couldn’t let myself even think about having girl things instead because that would have been so outside the rules that it was simply unthinkable. I was confined to small modes of feminine expression. Growing up in a conservative military family in the deep south, being a trans child or even thinking about it just was not an option. By the time I was 13, I caught myself expecting my breasts to start growing and being secretly disappointed when they stopped and my body began to change; I resisted my voice changing and refused to lift weights because I wanted to keep my body at least androgynously shaped, knowing I could never make it female. It wasn’t until college at around age 19 that I finally had the freedom to openly question my gender because everyone else was questioning my sexuality, and that went on until I was 35. It has taken me years to settle into my female identity, and it has not been an easy journey. To say now that I was always female would be an attempt to simplify a very complicated journey. My life is unique and special because it has unfolded the way it did. Implying that it simply should have been a girl’s life from the beginning erases all the interesting things that have happened along the way.

  9. As a TEEN transman, I have to say GENDER CONSERVATIVES ARE CRAP!!
    If I could ask a gender conservative some stuff, it would be this:
    “You say gender does not exist, that there is only biological sex- at least that’s what it seems like. So what would you do if your daughter came to you and said ‘I’m a bot and I can’t do this anymore’ or your son tells you ‘Why am I a boy instead of a girl’? Reinforce their birth sex? But what will you do when he or she dies by suicide at eight and leaves you a note saying ‘I told you I couldn’t take it’, or worse, leaves no note at all because they were so angry at you?”

    Soo… yeah. It’s freaking annoying. I just want them to lay off. I am a boy, have always been a boy and always will be a boy.
    Since I was little I’ve known. I was jealous of my little brother for his toys and clothes. My fave playmate was a boy…
    And look at me now xD haha 16, depressed and wishing my parents would accept me! (they’re not conservatives surprisingly)

  10. Pingback: Love to hear others thoughts on this! | Second Son

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