Investigating the representation of transgender people in the British press

In 2015, when I first began researching for my Ph.D., I was struck by the power of media discourses to quickly change and strongly impact on society, giving attention to some matters and consequently backgrounding others. By doing so, the attention of the masses can immediately be channeled on specific topics. Social media such as Twitter, have the potential to direct the attention of large numbers of people onto specific issues in a mere matter of hours.

Contemporarily, I noticed that the issue of transgender identity was becoming more and more popular, as proved for example by the increasing number of TV series and films featuring transgender characters — such as Transparent (2014). Newspapers and magazines, as well as television programs have been increasingly dealing with trans identity. I could recognize that some news stories were particularly attracting the attention of the media, including the transition of former athlete Caitlyn Jenner, or issues concerning gender-neutral toilets in the USA, which prompted a worldwide discussion. My curiosity, as a researcher, as a linguist and most importantly as a human being, was triggered by the sudden interest taken by the media on the representation of this identity about which, my knowledge lacked at the beginning of this work. Thus, I started my investigation in order to have a better understanding of the implications that analyzing the linguistic representation of this identity would have. In line with this, the idea of building the TransCor (Transgender Corpus) was born, from the desire to learn more about the issue, and contemporarily uncover the main linguistics strategies used to produce such representation. The TransCor (over two million words corpus) is a collection of newspaper articles retrieved from eight national British newspapers in the time span that stretches between 2013 and 2015. The articles were downloaded from an online platform, LexisNexis, through the use of specific search terms relating to transgender identity. From a theoretical and methodological perspective, my work can be positioned at the intersection between News Discourse, Corpus Linguistics, Language, Gender and Sexuality and Critical Discourse Analysis. This last choice was dictated by the need to look at language from a critical point of view in order to find, if it was the case, validation for the hypotheses I had in mind about the representation of transgender identity. I started my research with the assumption to find great difference in the representation given by the quality and the popular press, where the popular press was expected to give a much more negative representation in comparison to the quality press. The results emerged from my analysis proved this hypothesis wrong, showing a certainly different type of representation but not more negative than the one retrieved in the quality press.

Moreover, I believe this research, taking inspiration from major works conducted on the use of language in the representation of gender and sexual identities, could be seen as a contribution to a further understanding of the implications of the use of language in the representation of identity. Particularly in this time in history, as the current political situation becomes more terrifying by the minute, and public figures seem to underestimate the power of words and the relevance they have in the acknowledgment of gender and sexual identities, an example can be seen in the current debate about the use of gender-neutral pronouns. I decided to start investigating the British press with the aim of shedding light on the linguistic practices to which we are exposed daily and that consciously and unconsciously work in the background of our mind, shaping our knowledge of the world.

This research begun with many doubts, countless questions and some hypotheses. Nearly all of the doubts were clarified, many of the questions answered, most of the hypotheses, as we hinted at earlier, proved to be either false or strongly biased.

This investigation resulted in two different sets of conclusion. On the one hand, I was able to point out to some understandings that can be generalized in relation to the representation of transgender identity and the theoretical and methodological framework in which this study is set. On the other hand, some other results were found to be exclusively relevant for the newspapers and time span considered.

One of the most important results to highlight is that transgender identity cannot be defined and categorized according to one specific set of labels comprehensive of all individuals, corroborating the point made at the beginning of this post.

Among other results emerged form my study, the analysis of the use of terminology related to transgender identity, revealed an evolution in the use of the terms under investigation. Despite the more recurrent use of trans in recent years - and frequent use of transsexual - transgender resulted to be still used as the most common term to refer to transgender identity. On a positive note, I was also able to highlight a less frequent use of terms that can be perceived by some transgender people as discriminatory and defamatory, for example shemale and tranny were mainly used in contexts in which the article is either suggesting not to use them or where the terms are being reclaimed and used with a positive connotation, while the use of phrases such as sex change and sex swap were increasingly being replaced by the term transition.

Trough this investigation I was able to uncover a number of linguistic behaviours enacted by the British press to represent transgender identity, of which I would be more than happy to discuss further, so please feel free to write to me!




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