It’s the opening of a movie or a book. A tall woman with long, beautiful blonde hair enters the scene. She’s fixing her makeup, tousling her hair and adjusting her flowing, fashionable dress in the mirror. It’s only afterward that you look back with scrutiny - her build was pretty muscular, wasn’t it? Her makeup was on just a little too thick. You tell yourself that you saw “the signs” before the big reveal - the woman you’ve just witnessed is transsexual.
Why is this a scene that plays out so often in film and literature? In Whipping Girl, author and activist Julia Serano coins the concept of “effememania,” which explains this phenomenon in terms of sexism against women (129). Effememania involves a fear of femininity, especially when transgender women or gay men express femininity. For many, masculine or feminine traits are assumed to be natural and related to one's sex. To those who promote traditional gender roles and expression, it seems unnatural for males, who inherit privileges related to their masculinity, to “lower” their status by “choosing” to live as feminine and/or female.
In this way, the lives of transgender women are sensationalized. Femininity, unlike masculinity, is exploited in mainstream media - and this only intensifies with a lack of understanding when it comes to gender diversity. Transgender women are assumed to want to portray traditionally feminine characteristics, displayed often in movies and books that contain extremely feminine transgender characters. But just like cisgender (non-transgender) women, transgender women can be girly or androgynous or even masculine; they can paint their nails or paint buildings; they can have long, flowing hair or short, choppy locks. Assumptions about femininity in transgender women promote a narrow view of what it means to be transgender and a woman.
It is my belief that these kinds of perceptions are popular because they display normativity – that is, they appear “normal” enough to make people comfortable with them. Viewing transgender women as exclusively feminine reinforces gender roles, just like only portraying cisgender women as feminine does. It's my hope that media will soon reflect our uniqueness and diversity as individuals. More and more, people are accepting that long-held assumptions about gender can be wrong. When gender diversity is represented fully in our media, we will be one step closer to ending gender oppression.