Surprisingly pretty

Something I’ve seen a few times now is people (including staunch trans allies) expressing their surprise when someone in a TV programme is revealed to be trans.

It’s interesting to analyse that, because it says a great deal about how trans people, particularly trans women, are usually portrayed. I think for many people, the words “trans woman” doesn’t make you think of someone like this:

Teddy Quinlivan

Or someone like this:

Janet Mock

Or someone like this.

Nicole Maines

Of course, you don’t need to be conventionally pretty to be valid. But I think one of the reasons that people are surprised when someone conventionally pretty is trans is because many people’s idea of what trans people look like is based on what they’ve seen on TV before. So depending on your age, I suspect it’s likely to be something like this:

Les Dawson

Or this:

Matt Lucas and David Walliams

Or this.

Brendan O’Carroll

You’ve probably picked up on the fact that Dawson, O’Carroll, Lucas and Walliams aren’t playing trans characters (the Little Britain characters are apparently supposed to be cisgender crossdressers; Dawson and O’Carroll were playing women); they’re just in drag. But that’s kinda the point: until very recently, that was the closest thing to representation trans people could expect.

As the excellent documentary Disclosure demonstrated, trans representation in media, when we were represented at all, was largely limited to psychotic murderer, dead sex worker or man in drag. So if your mental image of trans people is 20-stone truck drivers in tights then of course you’re going to be surprised by someone who looks like a supermodel.

Most of us don’t look like supermodels, of course, but neither do most cis people. The difference is that nobody’s ever surprised to discover that someone beautiful is cis.