There’s been a lot of hubbub in the last week or so about this Cyberpunk 2077 game. I want to say up front that I have not played the game, but have been following the debate online, specifically in regards to transgender representation. I’ve read long and articulate arguments on both sides, with a number of people who love the game saying that its depiction of trans people is a massive step forward and a game-changer for the ongoing gender debate, as well as a number of people who are offended at the haphazard and lazy way in which the game slapped on “gender customization options” that ultimately amount to little more than stereotypes and the unrealistic sexualization of trans lives.
Rather than debate whether or not the game did a good job depicting transgender people (which, as a non-gamer, I am woefully unequipped to do; and it seems pretty clear from everything I’ve read that the answer is a loud and resounding NO), I’m going to discuss my feelings on the concept of transgender representation in our media, and how positive and negative portrayals of people who identify using my label affect the lives of real humans.
In other words: Is bad trans representation better than nothing?
A Brief History: Trans Representation in Film and Television
Western culture has experienced an unfortunate drought of trans representation in our media, mainly due to centuries-old prejudices and fears about what a trans person even is, let alone who we are and what we want. The representation that does exist is typically fearmongering, painting us with a single brush and usually as the butt of a joke that the lead characters make or are a victim of.
My knowledge base goes a lot deeper with film than it does with video games, so I’m going to talk about trans representation in those mediums. There’s a movie called The Crying Game, released in 1992, which features a traditional love story of a man falling in love with a woman only to learn, as the surprise twist ending of the film, that she has a penis! The implication in the film is that she isn’t a woman at all, and has been lying to him throughout their relationship, misrepresenting herself as a woman when in fact, she was a man the whole time!
This storyline is a reaction to what little information about trans people existed in the world. Perhaps the best-known trans person at the time was Christine Jorgensen, a woman who transitioned after having been drafted and serving in WWII. When she returned to the United States after having her operation performed in Europe (it was illegal in America), she became an instant celebrity for being a “boy who turned into a girl… using science!” People were at first morbidly curious how modern medicine could have performed such a feat, but when they found out Christine still had a penis, almost the entirety of America felt betrayed and lied to. How could you call yourself a woman if you have a penis? She was then shunned and seen as “an effeminate, limp-wristed queer” who was only pretending to be a woman.
40 Years after Christine made her debut in America, The Crying Game was released, and the storyline perfectly mirrored Christine’s public perception. For some reason, culture feels that the single most effective way to tell a person’s gender is their genitalia, despite biological sex having (as we’ve learned) very little to do with a person’s gender or gender expression. Because this is the world we’ve lived in for so long, I can see how the creators of Cyberpunk 2077 may feel like they’re being progressive in allowing you to create female characters with penises, or male characters with vaginas. From the viewpoint of the genital gatekeepers, having “opposite” genitals is the only requirement to be trans.
The Crying Game wasn’t the first film to feature a trans character, but it was a culmination of the attitudes in culture at the time and the films that came before, many of which portrayed trans women as villainous murderers or tricksters (a premise utilized by none other than JK Rowling in her most recent novel about a man who dresses as a woman to get away with his crimes).
A few years after The Crying Game came Boys Don’t Cry (what’s the deal with trans films and the word ‘crying’?) in 1999, the true story of a trans man named Brandon Teena who, when his fellow male friends found out he had a vagina, raped and murdered him. Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her work playing Brandon. That said, when Boys Don’t Cry was pitched to me, it was by a friend who described the plot as, “a girl dresses up like a guy to fit in, and when the guys find out she’s been lying, they rape her.” Without having seen the film, that’s how it lived in my mind for over a decade, which just goes to show how little the concept of “transgender” existed in the mind of the average moviegoer.
In the 20+ years since Boys Don’t Cry, a lot more people have come out as trans. The Wachowski sisters publicly transitioned. Caitlyn Jenner made her debut (not that we love to claim her; her bizarre anti-gay rhetoric and support of Donald Trump make her a particularly odd representative). Laverne Cox became somewhat of a household name. Recently, Elliot Page announced his trans identity. Sam Smith announced they are non-binary. Trans culture has exploded in a big way, but despite that, there are still misunderstandings and prejudices about who we are.
As more people came out, it encouraged other to do the same. And slowly, really just within the last 10 years, we’ve begun to see more depictions of trans people in our movies and on television. Movies like Tangerine, The Danish Girl, and Dallas Buyers Club received varying degrees of critical acclaim. Each of those movies has their own set of issues in regards to trans representation, but the presence of trans people in our media has allowed trans existence to become normalized. We’re no longer a quiet secret, lurking in the shadows, ready to trick you into falling in love with us, and people have generally begun to accept that trans people exist as a part of the vast tapestry that makes up humanity. Each problematic depiction of a trans person has allowed for another project featuring trans people to be greenlit, and with each subsequent project, the degree to which trans voices are taken into consideration has slightly increased, allowing our representation to slowly reach accuracy.
Trans creators have finally been given the freedom to create projects on their own, which wouldn’t have been possible without those early (and issue-riddled) depictions. Shows like Pose, Transparent, Sense8, Orange is the New Black, and Euphoria finally depict trans people as human, and often make sure to include trans writers and/or directors to ensure ignorant but well-meaning cis- people don’t accidentally fumble our realities.
That said, I don’t think we’re “there” yet. We’re still stuck on the idea that trans people must “pass” in order to be taken seriously. We still have far too many cis actors playing trans people, ignoring the thousands of trans actors who exist and see their identities as more than a costume one can put on. The implication behind the casting choice is still the belief that it is the genitals that define our identities. “A trans woman has a penis, so a cis- man should play her.” Why not a cis- woman? Better yet, why not an actual trans woman? Do the creators believe the character won’t be taken seriously if the character’s birth sex doesn’t match the character’s?
Representation as Stepping Stone
Here’s where I think my opinion differs from a lot of people: I’d rather have a poorly done, negative portrayal of a trans person in media than no portrayal at all. Without the negative portrayal, millions of average people who don’t know a trans person in real life would continue to live in a fantasy world where trans people don’t exist, don’t take up space, and don’t have lives or personalities of their own. Without The Crying Game, we might still be years ago from a Tangerine or Euphoria existing.
I also see the opposite argument: Without The Crying Game, we might have had those depictions a lot sooner. Personally, I don’t see it. It took decades of gay people being “the quirky best friend with the one-liners” before they were allowed to have storylines of their own. People need time to warm up to new ideas, and even a negative stereotype of a gay person forces viewers to live in a world where gay people exist, a world that they may not ever encounter if it weren’t for their media.
I think those early, negative portrayals of trans men and women are what made it possible for more accurate depictions to exist today. Not only did it open up the minds of the viewers, but content creators as well. Trans people watched The Crying Game and thought, “I can do this better, I need to speak my truth.” Negative inspiration is still inspiration, and the desire to fight against negative ideas can be a powerful motivator. If it weren’t for negative depictions of trans people in the media, I’d be writing about something else. I might not have been inspired to start this blog at all, and the currently dozens of people who read it may not be exposed to the ideas that I’ve been exposed to over the past 5 years of my own personal gender exploration.
When it comes to video games, which haven’t existed nearly as long as film or television, and whose industry has largely been defined by toxic “bro” culture (anyone remember Gamergate?), the inclusion of trans characters is a win. Allowing trans people to merely exist, even if the portrayals aren’t accurate or positive, forces people who likely don’t know a trans person in real life to share space with us. Sure, they’re only being exposed to a single idea of trans identity (chicks with dicks! Dudes with a vag!), and many of the trans characters in the game seem to be over-the-top sexualized versions of trans people, but the people who play the game and fetishize our existence were likely already doing so, probably through pornography. At least here the trans characters are doing a little more than just getting fucked:
See? She’s smoking! And being used an an advertisement! Get it? It’s… meta, or something.
Video games have a long way to go in terms of trans representation, but they also have a long way to go in terms of female representation in general. It’s not like creators are going to go from “no trans characters ever” to “a wholly accurate and multi-layered depiction of the vast tapestry of trans lives” overnight. It’s going to take a lot more blunders like Cyberpunk 2077 before we get anywhere near the level of quality we’re getting with trans lives on television. But then, it took almost 50 years of failures before the film industry started to get it right. I’m willing to forgive, so long as the creators of future video games featuring trans characters are willing to listen to the complaints of trans people who feel betrayed by Cyberpunk 2077.
The company that made the game doesn’t seem like it’s going to be the one that gets it right. Everything I’ve seen from them just seems to double down on their insistence that, no, the game does do a good job, and we are so woke for making it, despite an overwhelming majority of trans gamers saying, “no it does not.”
If I’m wrong, and there are games out there that actually feature multilayered, complex trans characters, please let me know. I am truly out of the loop when it comes to video games. I got a Dreamcast a few years after they stopped making games for it, and then a PS2 shortly before the PS3 was released. It wasn’t until the end of 2016 that a friend convinced me to buy a refurbished PS3, and the only other gaming system I own is the Nintendo Switch, on which I pretty much only play Pokemon games (and Super Smash Bros, I love that game). I’ve tangentially heard of some of the big, popular games of the last few years, but I haven’t played any of them. It’s possible I’m off the mark, and Cyberpunk 2077 is the shitty version of something everyone else is doing well… but somehow I seriously doubt it.
Thanks for reading! If you want to hear more of my thoughts about trans representation (and how things change over time), check out my podcast Modern Eyes w/ Skye & Stone, where Jupiter Stone and I look at movies from 10 or more years ago and discuss how they’ve aged with time. Our biggest episode so far is about Harry Potter, which looks a lot different now that we know how JK feels about trans people. Some of the issues really feel like I should have noticed them sooner…
That’s all for me today. Share this blog with your Cyberpunk 2077-loving friend and watch his mind melt in anger at my “SJW bullshit.”
—Chloe Skye, December 12, 2020
PS! I’m going to be writing a few more blogs today and scheduling them for release over the next few weeks so that I have a more consistent output on here. There should be more Star Trek: TNG reviews (including one about the first episode I didn’t hate!), as well as a blog about being polyamorous and one about how sexualizing trans identities prevented me from acknowledging my own truth. See? It isn’t just cis- bros who do it, sometimes we do it to ourselves!