Ayaan Shams Siddiquee
Mainstream media has always played an influential role in society’s perception towards a certain community or a sect of people. People tend to shape their opinions towards a community based on how they are portrayed in mass media. In an age where movies, TV series, books, and news reports serve as the frontiers of information, misrepresentation and lack of representation are two equally detrimental aspects.
Throughout the course of this article, the different factors of misrepresentation and lack of representation of transgender people in mass media and how they lead up to gender based violence will be discussed.
According to LiveScience, “Transgender is an umbrella term that describes people whose gender identity or expression does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.”
In Bangladesh, Hijra is a local community that consists mostly, but not entirely, of transgender people. Transgender people are seen to be a “forgotten class” in the socio-economic demography of Bangladesh. While some legal rights for the Hijra are recognised, they are considered social outcasts and are looked down upon because they do not belong to a socially approved gender. More so because of preconceived social norms and traditions, transgender people are abysmally secluded from popular media.
The way a group of people are depicted in the media can reflect upon society’s (often stereotypical) perception towards them. When they are wrongly represented, they are subjected to prejudice and negative stereotypes, and the entire community faces the repercussions. But what happens when they are not represented and portrayed at all?
The portrayal of transgender people in popular media has been overwhelmingly problematic. Historically, the representation of transgender characters in western fictional television and media have featured stereotypical and negative portrayals that do not accurately reflect the true experiences and lifestyles of transgender people. However, in a more local context, it has been observed that the proper media representation of Hijra people has not been adequate or accurate. While representation matters, complex representation and characterisation hold a more significant position as it encompasses representation outside of shallow stereotypical portrayals and tokenism.
The Global Gender Gap Report 2014 placed Bangladesh eighth in terms of the gender-gap within political empowerment. However, gender is typically portrayed as male and female only in our country. Starting from popular news and media portals to mainstream information outlets, gender is pervasively restricted to the typical binary genders. Alienating the “third gender” (which is what non-binary genders are regionally called) in local films, series, books, and news reports is rather common in Bangladeshi media. Knowing and understanding the magnitude of inadequate media representation of Hijra people is essential to ensuring a more inclusive society for them.
In Bangladesh, there are primarily two books, one popular movie, and a handful of problematic dramas featuring transgender people. In a country which hosts around 10,000 to 1 million trans men and women, this amount is highly insubstantial. Not portraying gender diverse communities contributes to the rapid marginalisation and dehumanisation towards them.
Following the legal recognition of the Hijra community as the “third gender” by the Bangladesh Cabinet on 26 January, 2014, the unclear policy on the clarity of qualifications to be a Hijra led to constant abuse and violations for the community. Issuing mandatory medical checkups paved the path for ineligible medical staff to take advantage of the situation and sexually abuse and harass Hijra people. One of the core reasons behind this situation is the lack of media representation of transgender and non-binary people. Misconceptions of this sort surrounding members of the Hijra community, which comprises of trangender and other non-binary people, reinforces the already-deplorable taboos and stigmas surrounding the community.
More so, a substantial amount of media representation is necessary to educate the populace about the trans and non-binary individuals. Growing up, children are introduced to Hijra people through mediums of fear and hate, which gradually stem into misconceptions and cultural superstitions. Amongst the plethora of shows intended for children in our country, not one portrays or features gender diverse people.
An unparalleled way of putting to rest typical prejudices and stigmas would be correct and thoughtful representation of these communities in media outlets. Due to the lack of media representation, the entire Hijra community is dehumanised. In the absence of proper knowledge towards the community as a whole, they become victims of social negligence and abuse. Many Hijra people can be afraid to open up about their gender identities because they fear that society will not accept them. Most of them are banished from their houses or coerced into tolerating the abuse and suppressing their true identities.
After discussing the negative effects of the lack of media representation for a certain marginalised community, one cannot help but ponder the possible negative outcomes which arise from erroneously representing them in popular media.
Studies show that various forms of recreational media portray fictional characters in real-life settings, and consumers base their ideologies on what they see. Thus, they inadvertently make absurd and false assumptions about misrepresented groups which are both completely untrue and unjustified. These false assumptions can become prevalent prejudices and stereotypes if reinforced enough. Therefore, the media has become so deeply integrated into the roots of our lives that the misrepresentation of any environment, person, or group can lead us to assume the worst.
A major research paper conducted under the University of Windsor states, “After analysing a wide array of shows using a combination of Content Analysis and Critical Discourse Analysis, results showed that transgender characters are often used for comedic purposes, often as part of jokes that solely rely on their ‘shocking’ gender identities. Additionally, their gender identity is portrayed as mentally unstable and unpredictable, often as abusive and manic.”
In Bangladesh, Hijra people are characterised predominantly on the basis of their over dramatic and comedic flair, showing little to no depth in their characters. The problems of such negative portrayal are manifold.
Firstly, a lack of understanding about these marginalised communities can lead to a greater reliance on media stereotypes when formulating ideas about said community. Opinions shaped on the basis of stereotypical misrepresentation in popular media are greatly biased and do not reflect the true standards the community holds. Due to such preconceived stereotypes, these communities are dehumanised by society. Following the process, studies showed that dehumanisation did not contribute to moral violence because morally motivated perpetrators wish to harm complete human beings who are capable of deserving blame, experiencing suffering, and understanding its meaning. Therefore, those who actively abuse Hijra people physically, verbally, and/or sexually do not feel any moral guilt, simply because they think that the hijras deserve the abuse.
Secondly, prejudiced media representation stigmatises the entire community. Such stigmas and taboos generally deter trans and non-binary people from coming out publicly with their gender identities. Not conforming to “normal” gender identities engulfs trans people with an overflowing sense of fear and dubiety. The conventional portrayal of trans people in the media leads to members of the Hijra community not being able to come out publicly with their gender identities due to the fear of embarrassment, rejection, and humiliation. Besides the rejection from our already-narrow minded society, trans and non-binary people rarely get support from their families, partly because of notions of societal-prestige, and partly because of their tightly-knit religious beliefs. They face abuse and prejudice in their own homes, and are forced to hide and suppress their true identities.
Recent surveys show a greater amount of media consumption in Bangladesh inclining towards television (over 80%). This bolsters the notion that media, especially television media, plays an integral role in the spread of information and culture amongst the Bangladeshi people. This is why wrongly representing the Hijra community in popular media spreads a sense of misinformation among the masses. Starting from comedy films to dramas, negative portrayals of gender diversity run deep in our society.
However, there is still a subtle ray of hope amongst clouds of uncertainty. Common Gender (2012), is a pioneering Bangladeshi film which portrays the lives of Hijra people. It is also one of a kind in that it stars two transgender people (Dolly Zahur and Chitralekha Guha) in the lead roles. It vividly captures the essence of the life of a transgender person living in Bangladesh — the struggle, prejudice, abuse, and negligence they have to face on a daily basis. Also, two books — হিজড়া শব্দকোষ and রূপান্তরিত মানুষের গল্প — written by author Selina Hossain, talk about the lives of transgender people in Bangladesh through an analytical lens.
The socio-economic exclusion of the Hijra community is seen as a normal aspect in the mainstream heteronormative society of Bangladesh. Hijra people face discrimination in all spheres of their lives, be it employment opportunity, healthcare facility, social inclusion, etc. Besides legal reformation, mainstream media can play a substantial role in disseminating and normalising the social inclusion of the legally-recognised “third-gender” in our country.
- What Is Transgender?
- “Recognize Me”: An Analysis of Transgender Media Representation
- Abuses in Bangladesh’s Legal Recognition of Hijras | HRW
- (PDF) The Rights of Hijras in Bangladesh: An Overview
- Why is Equal Representation in Media Important?
- Dehumanization increases instrumental violence, but not moral violence
- Transgender Representations in TV and Movies
The writer is a part of the TDA Editorial Team.
This piece was created in collaboration with CGSRHR – BRAC, BLAST, and CREA under their project “Strengthening voices and capacities for addressing gender based violence”.