The Lack of Trans Representation in Media

Author's Note (2023): The following is an article I wrote for a website my friends and I ran dedicated to North American social and economic issues.

It's no secret that trans representation is often overlooked in today's world. While we're slowly improving, there's still a long road ahead of us. Trans people are still often forgotten about or extremely misrepresented in today's media. It runs rampant in almost all media, however, one of the major examples I'll be using today is the recent video game, Cyberpunk 2077.

We Exist, Get Over It.

Before I get into the bulk of this situation I want to briefly talk about the misconception that trans people are just a result of “the SJW movement,” or that trans people are “just men who think they're women.” To say trans people are just men who think they're women completely undermines the existence of trans men and non-binary identities.

The next installment of one of the biggest video game franchises, Call of Duty, was released last year on November 13th. The game follows U.S. soldiers during the 80s portion of the Cold War and allows players to choose non-binary as a gender option in the story mode.

This for some reason caused a frankly ridiculous controversy because people are under the impression that it “broke immersion” because “non-binary people didn't exist back then.”

I don't think there were "non-binary" people back in the 1980s, Call of Duty.

- Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray)

via Twitter (November 13, 2020).

If we completely ignore the fact that it's a video game, and also features things like zombie outbreaks and dramatized parkour, non-binary people did exist in the 80s. In fact, they've existed for quite a long time. One of the examples we can look at is the twospirited people of many native American cultures, which is commonly recognized as a third gender. Another example to mention is the mahu identities found in Hawaiian culture. These two examples are just from North America and only scratch the surface. With this knowledge, to say non-binary people didn't exist until recently or are just a result of “SJW Culture” is not only false but extremely disrespectful to the people and cultures that have recognized or identified outside the male/female binary for centuries.

We Aren't Just “Another Fetish.”

Trans people are often portrayed in mainstream media as just a fetish. The narrative is often men dressing up as women to satisfy their own sexual desires, there was even a term coined for this, autogynephilia, or more commonly known as AGP. This is not only a false representation of the trans community but again completely ignores the existence of trans men or non-binary people.

That's just one side of the constant fetishization of trans people. Trans women in the sex work industry (and by extension the real world) are often seen as a taboo fetish and are commonly referred to by transphobic and dehumanizing terms such as (note: do not say these, they are slurs): trap, shemale, tranny, etc. These terms only serve to separate trans people and dehumanize them, or imply that they aren't “normal.”

Even when we're promised actual representation in mainstream media, we're often still under-represented, and constantly fetishized. The case we'll be looking at today is CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077.

For a company that used trans people as such a big part of their social media marketing, they really dropped the ball when it came to representing us. The game has hypersexualized trans people plastered all over the in-game world, but rarely any trans characters that you meet in the game.

In my 40-plus hours in Night City, I never met a single character of any significance whom the game made clear was trans, and one of the only queer-coded characters I encountered was an extremely unsavory cybernetic surgeon who does extremely unsavory things.

- C. Petit, Polygon

Cyberpunk 2077 is dad rock, not new wave

People often make the argument that the ads are supposed to be oversexualized because that's the whole point of the game and the cyberpunk genre. And while that's true, the problem lies in the fact that it doesn't show how it's negative. We trans people see that as a negative thing and can make the distinction, but most people outside the queer community are simply unaware. It just makes the ads transphobic with nothing to balance it. I hate to draw comparisons to racism, but imagine if someone said something overtly racist, and didn't say it in a tone that denoted it was satire, they'd just be saying something racist and leaving it at that.

How to Properly Represent Trans People:

So, trans people just shouldn't be shown sexually, right? Not exactly, but we'll get into proper NSFW representation later. For now, let's focus on the basics. A great example of trans representation in a modern video game is a character from the popular game Undertale named Napstablook. They're a non-binary character that uses they/them pronouns and treated like a normal person. No one points it out or makes a big deal about it. Another character is Mettaton, whose identity isn't explicitly stated, but they constantly break gender norms without anyone judging them. And of course, everyone in the game uses gender-neutral pronouns toward the player, which should always be the case unless the player specifies otherwise. (And if there's an option, there should at least be they/them).

My point is, you can't normalize trans people by constantly sexualizing us, you have to depict trans people as normal people. Not calling us “weird” or “trendy” or anything. And part of being inclusive also means providing gender-neutral pronouns, and not locking things like hair and clothing to gender (something not even Cyberpunk 2077 can manage).

Now, let's talk about how trans people can be represented in a sexual scenario. There is an NSFW dating game called Hardcoded, and the game focuses on trans women in a dystopian cyberpunk future. The difference is trans women aren't fetishized, they're represented as normal people with normal relationships and exploring sexuality in an environment that doesn't portray trans women as sexual objects.

Why This All Matters.

When I talk about this topic I often get asked “who cares?” or “why does it matter?” Stereotypes are one of the biggest perpetrators of violence and discrimination against really any minority group. Trans women are still seen by many as “just men dressing up as women to assault real women,” or seen as a “gay fetish,” but those are just labels you'll hear if you're alive. Things like the “Gay Panic” defense are still completely legal in 39 states, and permit the literal murder of queer people based on assumed unwanted “sexual advances.”

For as long as queer people are portrayed in mainstream media as sex fiends or predators, that's how the uninformed (and vast majority of) people will perceive us in the real world. And for as long as the real world perceives us this way, it'll be extremely hard to obtain healthcare or proper education. There are still many children growing up today that don't know they're queer, and likely won't find out for a very long time if at all because we're so negligent to teach our children about any of it. I'm not saying we should go in-depth on gay sex to children, just that “marriage can be between people of any gender,” “people who aren't a boy or a girl exist” and that both of those are completely normal.

Why This is a Problem Rooted in Capitalism.

The constant sexualization of the oppressed in mainstream media doesn't just stop at trans people. I just use trans people as the focus for the article because I am directly affected by it, but it's been going on for decades and happening to everyone. Lesbians are still constantly sexualized in the media without anyone batting an eye. This is undoubtedly an indirect result of Capitalism, however.

I'm sure you've heard the saying “Sex Sells,” and there's a reason for that. It's true. And unfortunately, under capitalism, you need to “sell” to stay afloat. A study from the Grady College Of Journalism shows that there is an undeniable correlation between sexual imagery and product sales.

In almost every study I've seen, sexual content gives a purchase advantage…

- T. Reichert, Grady College of Journalism

Does Sex Still Sell? What Marketers Should Know

The unfortunate truth is that for as long as corporations can get away with sexualizing people's bodies for profit, they'll do it. They do not care what the effects are, their goals are simply to make a profit. Before moving on I want to make it clear that I am not talking about sex work, if someone wants to partake in it I think it is totally up to them and I support it. The problem is when people are forced into it and must give control to a corporation, which is why I strongly support sex workers producing their own content, but that's a discussion for another day.

In Conclusion,

At the end of the day, the exploitative sexualization of various minorities by major corporations is a serious issue deeply rooted in capitalism, and for as long as it's legal it will continue. The recent video game Cyberpunk 2077 is a great example of this in the case of trans people, however, it extends to many different minority groups.

~ Ruby J. Casey

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