Jun 7, 2023 - Podcasts

Trans visibility in television today

This year, GLAAD reported there are 596 LGBTQ regular and recurring characters across broadcast, cable and streaming shows -- 32 are trans. For Pride month we’re looking at trans visibility in TV and film today, and how we got here.

  • Plus, destruction in Ukraine at a critical time in the war.
  • And, Saudi influence now looms large over professional golf.

Guests: Axios' Dave Lawler and Jeff Tracy, Bentley University's Dr. Traci Abbott.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi, Robin Linn and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Go deeper:


NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Wednesday, June 7th. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Today on the show: trans characters in TV and film today. Plus, Saudi influence now looms large over professional golf. But first, the collapse of a key dam in Ukraine is today’s One Big Thing.

The collapse of a key dam in Ukraine

NIALA: A critical dam along the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine was destroyed in an explosion yesterday morning, triggering flooding and mass evacuations. Just upstream is a nuclear power plant that depends on the river to cool its reactors. Russia and Ukraine are each blaming the other for blowing up the dam. Axios’ Dave Lawler has the latest.

Dave, what do we know about this explosion on a river that has been separating the troops?

DAVE LAWLER: So, uh, there are accusations flying back and forth.There had been warnings before the Ukrainian side claimed that the Russians had mined this dam when they retreated across the river previously. Of course, Russia has accused Ukraine of a sabotage attack, basically blowing this dam, which was under Russian control. Obviously this all comes at a critical time with Ukraine gearing up for its counter-offensive. So, not only do we have the humanitarian side of things, you also have potential battlefield implications to this, as well. But no firm explanation, as yet, for what triggered the explosion.

NIALA: We've been talking about this expected counter-offensive by Ukraine for months. Is it finally underway?

DAVE: It does seem so. So starting on Sunday into Monday, we got reports of an increase in violence elsewhere. The Russians claimed that they repelled an attempted Ukrainian operation. The Ukrainian side says that's fake news. But basically we know fighting is ramping up a bit. There are signs that if it's not fully underway, it's certainly starting.

NIALA: That nuclear power plant I mentioned is Zaporizhzhia, which we've talked about in the past. Are we worried about what's going on there?

DAVE: So certainly we're worried because anytime you're talking about the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, there are concerns when its security is potentially compromised. Right now, the UN nuclear watchdog says, there is enough water initially to cool the reactors, at least for, sort of, the short and medium term. There may need to be some thinking about long-term securing of this nuclear facility. But we're not expecting any sort of imminent nuclear meltdown as a result of this explosion.

NIALA: That’s Axios’ Senior World Reporter Dave Lawler. Thanks, Dave.

DAVE: Thanks Niala.

NIALA: A few headlines we’re watching today…

President Biden has announced $115 million is headed to Jackson, Mississippi to repair its water infrastructure. The outdated system has had issues for years, and last summer tens of thousands of people had no water for days. It’s the first of several payments Congress approved to address the crisis.

And, yesterday, for the first time in the organization’s 40-year history, the Human Rights Campaign officially declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. The HRC says the declaration was in response to a "unprecedented and dangerous spike in anti-LGBTQ+ legislative assaults sweeping state houses this year.”

Also yesterday, a federal judge blocked a pair of Florida bans on gender-affirming care for youth. Axios’ Oriana Gonzalez reports that U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, a Clinton appointee, wrote that "gender identity is real,” and agreed with the plaintiffs that gender-affirming care is "medically necessary." The block is temporary, while a legal challenge plays out.

Coming up: for Pride month, we’ll look at the state of trans representation…in TV and film.


Trans characters in TV and film today

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

This year, there are 596 LGBTQ regular and recurring characters across broadcast, cable and streaming shows, according to a recent GLAAD report… And out of those characters – 32 are transgender. That’s up from 26 five years ago.

Back in 2007, Candis Cayne was the first openly transgender actor with a regular recurring role on a network television series, ABC's “Dirty Sexy Money”…where she played a trans character.

DR. TRACI ABBOTT: Candis Cayne in many ways represents somewhat of the stereotypical or classic transgender character. She's a white woman. She's blonde. She's very stereotypically feminine.

NIALA: That’s Bentley University's English & Media Studies Professor Dr. Traci Abbott.

DR. ABBOTT: One of the reasons it was important is actually the romance between her and a cisgender male character, which was quite unusual at the time and still is very unusual today.

NIALA: But in the 16 years since…the landscape has changed. For Pride month, we’re looking at the state of trans visibility in TV and film…and how we got here…with the help of Dr. Abbott.

DR. ABBOTT: There have been a great increase in the number of regular recurring transgender characters, and fortunately there are more characters on television who are trans-masculine, as we tend to say. For a long time there were very few, or they would only pop up in certain circumstances, uh, say as a witness on a television show rather than a main character. And so, it's also very important to note that now there are a lot more roles that also take place after someone's gender transition. That's particularly true for younger characters.

NIALA: I'm curious, your thoughts about depictions. And the effect of characters who may not have been openly trans, but who have challenged gender norms on TV and movies with cross-dressing or otherwise.

DR. ABBOTT: What happened when you start tracing the line through the history of trans representation, particularly in television, people begin to see all men in dresses the same. And so cross-dressing character who's cross-dressing for another reason, like “White Chicks,” right? “Mrs. Doubtfire,” like there's a plot reason and then a character who's actually trans during the seventies, the eighties, the nineties, they were still played by cisgendered men. So, it would be very hard for someone to recognize that trans women should be validated in their gender identity and not reduced to the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans people are not performing their gender anymore than anybody else.

NIALA: Certainly one of the biggest headlines that we see around transgender issues is around transitioning, especially with children, which is a very divisive issue right now in America. How do you see that depicted in film and television?

DR. ABBOTT: I think one of the things that's somewhat ironic about depictions, particularly of teens transitioning on television, is that they do follow the guidelines, which is primarily social transitioning. And then maybe for mid-teens it becomes some cross-sex hormones but not surgery. And they do that, I believe, because it makes for a more controversial storyline. When you have a trans character who retains their genitalia, for example, and you throw in a romance storyline, it becomes an issue. We also saw that recently with “Euphoria,” so I find it somewhat ironic then that the laws are using misinformation because at least the representations acknowledge that many types of physical transition options for trans people aren't allowed in the United States for people under 18, primarily genital surgery. So I would hope that trans representations in scripted television maybe could have an impact in clarifying this misinformation that is behind some of these laws.

NIALA: Dr. Abbott, we often talk about how representations in popular culture help change popular opinion for many groups. Do you see that now as we're discussing different trans characters, whether it's in television or film?

DR. ABBOTT: Well, as a media study scholar, I like to believe that positive representations change people's minds positively, and we have a long history of that. In particular for roles for women, for LGBQ characters… and I have genuine excitement for Gen Z. I think that they identify now as the queerest and most diverse generation in American history, and I think their television also reflects it.

NIALA: Dr. Tracy Abbott is an associate professor at Bentley University and author of the “The History of Trans Representation in American Television and Film Genres.” Thanks Dr. Abbott.

DR. ABBOTT: You're so welcome.

Saudi influence now looms large over professional golf

NIALA: The golf world dropped a bombshell on Tuesday…when the PGA tour and Saudi backed LIV golf, bitter rivals since LIV’s launch last year, announced that they'd agreed to a merger. Axios’ Jeff Tracy has why it matters.

JEFF TRACY: The immediate impact is that both sides have agreed to put an end to the legal battles they've been embroiled in for the past year. But the bigger picture is how inextricably Saudi Arabian money will be tied to men's professional golf despite the PGA tour having regularly decried the nation's record on human rights abuses over the past year.

Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, which owns LIV golf will, at least for the time being, be the sole investor of the new entity with the right of first refusal on any outside investment. And the players who'd already accepted that money to join LIV in the first place, will be right back alongside all the golfers they split from just last year. Further details would be hashed out in the coming months, but the bottom line is that professional golf in this country might have changed forever on Tuesday.

NIALA: That’s Axios’ Jeff Tracy.

That’s it for us today! I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

Go deeper