Eddy Chen, HBO
Trans and non-binary people have always existed in the real world. However, this reality has rarely been portrayed on-screen-at least, not accurately, and barely at all until more recent years. According to GLAAD's 2019-2020 "Where We Are on TV" report, only 8% of regular and recurring LGBTQ+ characters on broadcast, cable, and streaming programs are transgender or non-binary. This means that out of the 488 LGBTQ+ characters tracked for the study, only 21 were trans women, 12 were trans men, and 5 were non-binary characters-a grand total of 38. While this number represents a 2% increase from the previous year's findings, overall representation is still low, and it's up against a long history of harmful narratives about trans and non-binary people on-screen.
A different study by GLAAD, found that when trans people are represented on television, they're most commonly portrayed as one of two common tropes: victim or villain. After a 10-year period of analysis conducted from 2002 to 2012, GLADD found that "transgender characters were cast in a 'victim' role at least 40% of the time," and "were cast as killers or villains in at least 21% of the cataloged episodes and storylines."
Furthermore, in 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 70% of Americans believe they don't know someone who is transgender. So, without real-life examples, the education that the majority of the population is getting about trans and non-binary people is coming from media depictions, which, as shown above, have been largely problematic.
While trans visibility in the real world has greatly increased in recent years, the media still plays a critical role in shaping both the public's view and understanding of trans and non-binary people, as well as the way that trans and non-binary people see themselves. So, we decided to take a look at some recent TV shows that are doing representation right. We tapped trans and non-binary people to share some recommendations and researched TV's current offerings to round up shows that feature accurate and non-stigmatizing portrayals of trans and non-binary characters. Keep reading to see what you should be adding to your queue this Pride Month and every month.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Sure, the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the darker twist on the story of the beloved half-witch, half-mortal Sabrina Spellman (aka, the "teenage witch" to '90s kids) but it's also a coming-of-age tale. Part of the high school drama follows the experience of secondary character Theo Putnam, who realizes he's trans, comes out, and transitions throughout the show. Theo is played by 20-year-old non-binary actor Lachlan Watson, who helped inform the character's storyline based on their own personal experiences with gender identity.
"[This character] is very much the kind of representation I wish would have been around when I was in high school," says Kat Palmer, an associate producer at Meredith Corporation, who is transgender. "I didn't know being transgender was a thing when I was in high school; I just felt like something didn't fit, but I didn't know what it was." If Palmer, now 37, had the representation of a character like Theo when he was in high school, he says, "I might have caught on to my own identity sooner."
All four seasons of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are available to stream on Netflix now.
Though it just wrapped after only three short seasons, Pose has been a groundbreaking show for trans representation. Exploring ballroom culture in 1980s New York, the series features the largest cast of trans actors in TV history and boasts Janet Mock-who became the first trans woman of color hired as a writer for a TV series-as writer, director, and producer. Pose portrays the tragic and heartbreaking experiences of the LGBTQ+ community during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, while also celebrating the beauty, innovation, and joy of the ballroom scene.
The first two seasons of Pose are available to stream on Netflix.
BBC's The Watch is inspired by the work of fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett and follows a group of misfits who work together to save their world from catastrophe. "In [The Watch], there's a transgender dwarf who left the all-male dwarf mine to live as a woman in the city," Palmer explains. "There's even an episode where she returns to the mine and confronts their blind conformity and fear of anything different."
The character, Constable Cheery, is portrayed by non-binary actor Jo Eaton-Kent. "I particularly like this character because they don't play up the 'man in a dress' angle for laughs," Palmer says. "They treat her as a full and complex person with dignity."
The first season of The Watch is available to stream on BBC.
Wandering Son is the adaptation of a Japanese manga series following two trans children as they grow from elementary school to high school graduation. Stop motion animator Cressa Maeve Beer, who is a trans woman, says that the series is "the most soft and sensitive and lovely handling of a trans child," that she's seen.
"Wandering Son takes a wholesome and sweet (without being too candy-coated) slice of life approach to coming to terms with your gender-a narrative usually fraught with trauma and overly dramatic tokenizing," Beer continues. "Because of the gentle and honest approach by the author (an only openly queer woman manga artist), the story avoids falling into the easy trap of only having the characters be defined by their transition-instead they are fully defined and just simply are who they are, and it's impossible not to fall in love with them all."
Beer recommends the series for both "trans people looking for positive and honest representation as well as cis people looking to grow their understanding."
Wandering Son is available to stream on CrunchyRoll.com.
HBO Max's Euphoria made a lot of noise after its 2019 release, largely for being a teen drama that deals with heavy, complex storylines (like main character Rue's addiction) rarely shown in high school narratives. The show also features Jules, a 17-year-old trans girl, played by 22-year-old trans actress Hunter Schafer, and while the show explores her gender identity, it doesn't make it the entirety of her storyline. The nuance of Jules' character, who isn't explicitly revealed as trans until Episode 3, provides important representation for other trans youth.
In 2019, Teen Vogue talked with trans teens about their reaction to the show. "Jules is absolutely one of my favorite characters on television right now," Clementine, a 15-year-old trans girl said. "Before the show started I was worried because a lot of transgender characters in the media are represented horribly, but I was blown away by her portrayal."
However, another trans teen interviewed by TeenVogue noted that Jules' character, who is "white, skinny, conventionally attractive, and passes well," comes from a privileged background. "She also was able to transition at 13 and have a safe place to live, and this is not the reality for many trans teens, including myself," 17-year-old viewer Zoe said. Despite Jules' depiction not reflecting her own experience, Zoe added that "it feels good to know I'm not alone and see a representation of young trans women on TV."
Euphoria Season 1 is available to stream on HBO Max.
Shrill stars SNL's Aidy Bryant as Annie Easton, a struggling young journalist writing about her experience as a fat woman, and features trans actress and comedian Patti Harrison as Ruthie, a staffer at the same newspaper with scene-stealing one-liners. While the show doesn't explore Ruthie's experience as a trans woman, and she doesn't formally come out as trans until Season 2, it's refreshing to see a trans woman get to just exist and be hilarious on-screen.
For Harrison, this is the goal she's ultimately working towards. In a recent interview on Ellen, the actress responded to a question about what it meant for her, as a trans woman, to play a woman who isn't explicitly trans in the 2021 comedy film Together, Together. "In an ideal world it wouldn't be a big deal [that I'm trans]," she said. "And hopefully we're getting to a place where there's more opportunities for any sort of marginalized actors, not just trans actors, having those opportunities outside of what people box them in as."