Part Two: Background and The Importance of the Problem: From My Masters Dissertation Project at Denver University (2018)

The Importance of The Problem

This blog series will be focused on the Transgender community, I would like to share some gender theory to help with some terms used. Sex, gender identity/expression, and sexual orientation are components that makeup everyone’s identity. Sex refers to physical characteristics (i.e., genitals and other secondary features). Gender identity /expression refers to an individual’s “mental” gender and how they choose to present themselves. Sexual orientation refers to a preference of sexual partners. Not strictly binary (female/male, feminine/masculine, heterosexual/homosexual), each of these characteristics can be seen as ranges that represent a wide variety of identities and expressions.

Transgender is an umbrella term that refers to those individuals whose gender identity and expression does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. The transgender umbrella includes a wide range of individuals and can encompass identities ranging from transsexuals (those who undergo medical procedures to help live as their desired gender) to crossdressers, drag performers, genderfluid/genderqueer individuals, and even those who identify as androgynous. Gender identity can be simple or complex, but for many it is a key part of their identity, as Van Burnham (who wrote a great piece on androgynous modeling) explains: “I don’t feel like a boy, and I don’t feel like a girl, but I love both of these things.” Many transgendered individuals openly and proudly embrace trans as a part of their identity, while others – most frequently those post-transition – may prefer to simply identity as male or female” (Teich 2012 pg 34). 

“Transition” is the term most often used for the social and medical changes that an individual can make to match their presentation with their desired gender identity. A transition can involve counseling, hormonal therapy, gender reassignment and other surgeries depending on the individual’s needs. Not every trans-identified person transition and many opt for only some of the available medical options both out of cost (gender reassignment costs can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars) and out of personal preference. (Teich 2012 pg. 38)

Transgender models have found it difficult to find work within the modeling community in many of the same ways other models can.  While the fashion world has begun to embrace more male-to-female (MtF) trans individuals in prominent roles. Also, female-to-male (FtM) trans people have become more visible recently with the high-profile coming out of Chaz Bono and through the work of magazines like Amos Mac’s Original Plumbing and well-known adult model Buck Angel, among others. With the small but growing ranks of fashion models like Andrej Pejic and Casey Legler who identify as Transgender models, there still lacks opportunities for models who work outside of the traditional gender lines.

There are as many reasons to work with trans models as there are variations of transgendered identities. Working with trans models is not dramatically different than working with any other type of model, but a little extra sensitivity, respect, and openness will go a long way to creating the excellent rapport between photographer and model.

One of the most significant challenges for trans and gender variant models is still exposure, according to Chelsea Von Chastity. Trans and gender variant models still face challenges in finding photographers and both professional and amateur opportunities. “The only challenge I have experienced is being asked to model for a photographer only for them to come back and say they didn’t look at my portfolio. They sometimes do not want to shoot because they realize I am a TS [transsexual],” (Wolstencroft 2017 pg67)

However, these attitudes are changing. Both in the United States and abroad, the prevalence of high profile trans models and entertainers, as well as the growth of alternative modeling, has made for a more receptive environment in the social media arena. With the social media platform, trans and gender variant models are often in a position of representing trans individuals, on the whole, making social media intimidating. The expectation to represent an entire community as a fashion model is unique to Transgender models. Chelsea Von Chastity elaborated in the book Transgender: Anjali Lama: The World’s First Transgender Runway Supermodel by Dauphin Wolstencroft, “One is placed in a situation to represent a group of stigmatized individuals who are often stealth in their presentation but can be rather beautiful as well,” Chelsea Von Chastity

Many of these models have a strong sense of pride in their identity and work, which might be the largest theme of the trans community in the 21st century. Shelby Chang sums it up nicely: “My goal is to empower the transgender community and allow our voices to be heard through acting, dialogue, and photography.” (Wolstencroft 2017 pg 98). Ultimately those voices are becoming heard, and trans and gender variant models are finding more opportunities in a variety of fields.

According to the book Transgender: Anjali Lama: The World’s First Transgender Runway Supermodel, in 2012, trans model and Vancouver, BC, native Jenna Talackova registered to compete as part of the Miss Universe Canada pageant but was initially barred from competition. News media quickly picked up on the story, and within days a petition collected tens of thousands of signatures to get Talackova in the pageant. Amid mounting pressure from lawyers and the general public, the pageant ownership reversed its decision and allowed Talackova to compete. She reached the top 12. (Wolstencroft 2017 pg 22). 

Ultimately the work of all these models, high and low profile, helps to shift attitudes and make trans and gender variant modeling an established piece of the modeling world. “Generally, the biggest reward is seeing people’s reactions to the photographs. It means a lot to me when people write and say that one of my photographs opened their eyes to gender,” Van Burnham said in the published book “Transgender: Anjali Lama: The World’s First Transgender Runway Supermodel” 2017. 

One of the leading public stages for gender norms and gender acceptance is within the platform of the fashion modeling industry. This inherent quality gives me an opportunity to question and examine the ideas of gender normative culture. Fashion modeling also shows how it relates to gender identities outside the normative spectrum of male and female representation in new media. As a result, the fashion industry is slow to represent Transgender models. The fashion world can become a visible platform to express the Transgender lifestyle and move this community towards social acceptance in the fashion industry. According to a case study conducted by Entwistle and Mears, 2012, on gender-normative culture, “This study examines gender performativity among men and women who work in the highly gendered occupation of fashion modeling. Gender, as ethnomethodologists and feminist theorists argue, is a matter of ‘doing,’ and not passive being.” (Entwistle and Mears 2012). In the fashion world, the matter of doing is based on the visual representation of Transgender individuals in the fashion modeling industry.  Ethnomethodology, or the study of social order in which people live in, are focused on the social order or gender normative culture as it relates to gender presentation. 

In an industry that follows inherit rules of gender representation, the fashion world provides a glimpse of the social acceptance of transgender models.  This reveals an opportunity to use transgender fashion models as a platform for social awareness and social change.  Entwistle and Mears 2012, research states, “Our case study extends this scholarly work to non-organizational practices inside the freelance world of fashion modeling. In modeling, there are no prescribed organizational rules or codes, yet there exist normative gender scripts which models must perform.” (Entwistle and Mears, 2012).  

This negotiation of transgender inclusion has presented an inherent problem as the labor market of models struggles to be appealing to potential clients. Entwistle and Mears 2012 continue to state “Indeed, modelling is a prime site to examine the ongoing reproduction and negotiation of discursive and embodied gender regimes: modelling practices constitute one important arena for reproducing discourses about gender, in imagery often criticized by feminists, and these representations result from mundane everyday work on the part of models, their agents and other key figures (photographers, editors, etc.). (Entwistle and Mears, 2012)”.  

Due to lack of transgender inclusion, transgender models struggle to find agencies to represent themselves. In pursuit of a professional modeling career to be used for personal financial gain and the much-needed social awareness for this community to challenge the gender scripts outside the professional fashion world. In Entwistle and Mears 2012 research article “Gender on Display: Performativity in Fashion Modeling, they state “Fashion modelling is the professionalization of multiple types of gender performance; it is a market in which performances of masculinities and femininities are used to sell commodities and, in addition, a labor market where models commodify themselves to clients – fashion designers, photographers, and casting directors and are promoted as such by modelling agents.” (Entwistle and Mears, 2012) 

With this background in place, the social media arena is still an unexplored subject to examine and study to bring these theories into the digital world where the influence new media and social media platforms have on the industry. Social media can be an area where we can examine how gender is interrupted and used in the fashion industry in the social media realm. Entwistle and Mears continue to state, “Bringing these two ethnographies together provide insights into the comparatively different ways that male and female models ‘do’ gender within the same industry.” (Entwistle and Mears 2012)

 

 

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