On December 1st, Elliot Page came out as transgender. Through social media, Page detailed his gratitude for the support he had received so far as well as an important reminder of the continued struggles and discrimination transgender people face. Page stated that politicians and leaders who vilify the transgender community have “blood on [their] hands”, emphasising the need for greater reform and social change in connection to violence against trans people.
Page is known for his famous role in the 2007 award-winning film Juno, as well as in the more recent Netflix series The Umbrella Academy, in which he will continue to play the protagonist Vanya Hargreeves in the upcoming third season. But what is the broader significance of Elliot Page coming-out in the context of trans representation in television and film?
Sam Feder’s latest Netflix documentary Disclosure provided an enlightening insight into the history of trans people within film. However, the documentary highlighted how visibility and general awareness is simply not enough: greater inclusion must always be the end-goal. Over recent years there has been an apparent increase in trans representation within the media; examples include Hunter Schafer’s character, Jules, in the 2019 HBO hit Euphoria, or the countless accolades The Danish Girl received back in 2015.
In particular, the success of the 2018 show Pose exemplifies positive developments in LGBTQ+ media representation. Set in 1980s New York, Pose explores the rise of ballroom culture within African American and Latinx communities; not only does it provide a well-rounded portrayal of transgender history, but also has the largest trans cast of any scripted television show.
Janet Mock, (director, producer and writer of Pose) became the first out transgender woman with significant creative power when she signed a deal with Netflix, within a global media company. This highlights the potential for even greater future advancements in trans and non-binary media representation as it is vital that trans people obtain positions both in front of and behind the camera.
Regardless of these recent positive developments, there is still a long way to go in trans representation. Since 2002 the organisation GLAAD has been analysing and archiving approximately 102 episodes of television with single storylines featuring a transgender character; 54% were viewed as upholding negative representations of trans people. Whilst contemporary documentaries such as The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson have been extremely effective in sharing the continued prevalence and interlinked challenges posed by both racism and transphobia, it is vital that institutional change actually occurs.
Furthermore, although shows such as Orange is the New Black have often been praised for their depiction of trans experiences, with characters like Sophia Burset, they can also have a tendency to adopt stereotypes about trans women being either criminals or victims, both of which can lead to additional societal prejudice.
It is necessary for improvements in the entertainment industry to be instituted sooner rather than later, so as to alter pre-existing social prejudices before more trans lives are lost. Given that only 20% of Americans claim to know a transgender person, it is crucial that the media increases its positive and authentic depictions of transgender experiences and lives.
Whilst Elliot Page’s coming-out has definitely had a significant and generally beneficial impact on the growth in a trans voice within modern media, it is essential that such a pinnacle moment is able to initiate broad, long-term changes within an established industry in which entrenched transphobia has unfortunately become the norm. At the moment, the long-term impact of Elliot Page coming-out is ultimately unclear; however, such an influential and talented representative for the trans community will hopefully only increase awareness and trans presence within television and film.
What is certain is that Page is a notable further step in the ongoing struggle for trans rights that has been fought for decades. The outstanding work of charities like GLAAD does at least suggest that issues surrounding media representation are forming part of a more central debate over the extent of acceptance within contemporary society and the entertainment industry.
Image: Ninha Morandini via Wikimedia Commons
In a previous version of this article, we referenced Elliot Page’s former name. This was innapropriate, did not adhere to our standards, and we apologise.