Laverne Cox's New CBS Role is a First that Will Shake-Up Trans Stereotypes

February 12th 2015

Aron Macarow

Network television just got a little more awesome with the announcement that CBS' pilot Doubt will be co-led by transgender actress Laverne Cox in a role that was created explicitly for a trans performer. And her casting is more revolutionary than you might think.

Simply by winning the role, she has acheived an historic first, as a transgender performer has never before led a show on network TV. More exciting, the new legal procedural will feature Cox as trans attorney Cameron Wirth, described as a "fierce and funny but compassionate Ivy League-educated attorney whose own personal experiences with injustice make her fight harder for her clients." At the center of a boutique law firm, Cox will play one of their top attorneys, who will reportedly become romantically involved with a client during the course of the show.

This news is huge, but for more reasons than you think.

It goes without saying that Cox — an award-winning performer, Emmy award nominee and vocal advocate for the trans community — taking a starring role on CBS, the highest-rated network currently on TV, speaks strongly of mounting public support for transgender people. The last time that primetime broadcast TV featured a trans character was Unique on FOX’s Glee, who was absent last season. Going back further, 2007 was a big year for the trans community, with both ABC’s Ugly Betty and Dirty Sexy Money including plots with recurring trans characters.

But that actually leads to why Doubt could be so groundbreaking.

Transwomen are frequently stereotyped in a variety of wrongheaded and offensive ways.

It's much simpler to write about minority populations if you parody them via narrow stereotypes. For transwomen, these frequently include being:

  • deceitful (and possibly trying to 'trap' or 'trick' straight men into having sex with them)
  • pathetic or tragic victims of violence, often of their own making
  • mentally ill or confused
  • employed as sex workers or being addicted to drugs
  • gay men in drag
  • outcasts or undesirable by straight cisgender (non-transgender) people

What a list. These stereotypes are commonly held as truths, both in the entertainment sector and in real life — where they are sometimes potentially dangerous.

Returning to Dirty Sexy Money, do you remember their trans character Carmelita, who was celebrated for regular inclusion in a prominent story arc in the show? Portrayed by trans actress Candis Cayne, the role wasn't all bad news because the network actually cast a transwoman to play a transwoman. But it still relied heavily on negative assumptions — for instance, Cayne played the mistress of another character on the show and included a throwaway line calling Carmelita a "tranny hooker." (Those words even hurt to type.)

Crime shows, like CSI and Law & Order, are another genre that more frequently sees trans characters — but either as a victim or as the perpetrator of the cimre. (Never as the investigator or other law enforcement professional.) Over the decade between 2002 and 2012, one study found that transpeople were written as the killer 21 percent of the time in what trans scholar Susan Stryker has called "psycho-killer-in-a-dress stereotypes." The same study also reported that one-fifth "of all non-recurring transgender characters in that same period were sex workers."

Outside of the writer's room, these stereotypes also play out in harmful ways. The Feb. 10 death of New Orleans trans resident Penny Proud was reported as though prostitution were related to her death, although no such link to her homicide exists. (Proud was also repeatedly misgendered by reporters; it's worth noting that she's the fifth transwoman of color to be murdered in 2015 nationwide.)

The inaccurate and negative media speculation about the cause of death in cases of violence against transgender people is so commonplace that a national LGBT media organization even released guidelines, "Doubly Victimized: Reporting on Transgender Victims of Crimes," in an attempt to curb the problem.

Although we don't know much yet about Doubt, we do know that early signs point to it obliterating many of these stereotypes.

Cox's character, a high-powered professional with a college education and seemingly average life, certainly doesn't sound like any of the normal stereotypes encountered by transwomen today. And since a 2014 study of Millennials suggested that a majority of respondents felt transpeople were "gross," "abnormal," "freaks," "outcasts," and "a joke," I certainly hope that my generation watches the show and sees a different side of the trans community. A less victimized, more empowered, less negatively imbued representation of transgender people as your friends and co-workers.

That's why I'm truly excited about this show, and I hope it makes it beyond the pilot stage. Also, it doesn't hurt that Cox is one amazingly talented advocate and actress.

We'll know if it gets picked up later this year.