By Leigh Monson
As the transgender community becomes more visible as a distinct and separate entity among gender and sexual minorities, the question of how transgender folks should be represented in media becomes as equally important important. We are thankfully seeing an increase in visible transgender actresses such as Laverne Cox, Jamie Clayton, and Trace Lysette, though you’ll note that representation of transgender men and non-binary folks is still abysmal and the increase of trans performers’ visibility isn’t exactly keeping pace with the number of trans-centric stories being told in the cinema and television of recent years. So that begs the question:
Is it ever appropriate for a cisgender actor to portray a transgender character?
The gut reaction to this question is to immediately answer no. Transgender people have been continually demonized and ridiculed in popular cinema for about as long as popular cinema has existed, and in many ways that hasn’t gone away. The transgender community, like any minority population, would like to be in charge of how its cultural perception is cultivated, and if persistent attitudes of bigotry and marginalization are to be combated, education through one of our country’s most popular art forms seems like a good place to start.
(I should say at this point that the language used below largely assumes that the roles being cast are portrayals of transgender women, but the same holds equally true of portrayals of transgender men or non-binary characters, assuming the film industry gets to a point where it deigns to shine a light on their stories.)
There are, of course, some issues that complicate that pursuit, the biggest being financial. Films are expensive to make, and not every shoestring budget iPhone flick like Tangerine is bound to garner enough buzz to receive distribution. So if you have a film that explores transgender issues, what’s the best way to get a studio interested in producing it? Get a big name star attached to lead the film! Thing is, though, if Laverne Cox isn’t available, interested, or right for the part, you’re pretty screwed. Realistically, you have to have a cisgender actor step into the role, at least if you want your film to reach a wide audience.
But here’s the thing: recent films that star cisgender actors portraying transgender characters have placed their focus on all the wrong things. Take, for example, 2015’s The Danish Girl, in which Eddie Redmayne continued his streak of cultural appropriation in the name of pulling in Oscar nominations. That film portrayed the story of Lili Elbe’s transition, but it wasn’t so much interested in Lili’s realization of her womanhood as it was in Redmayne’s mimicry of womanhood. The film’s cinematography constantly focuses on the sexuality and movement of female dancers whom Lili admires, then focuses on Redmayne’s approximation of their movements. However, the film never emphasizes Lili’s sexuality in the same way, instead content to portray her as Redmayne in a dress, which detracts from the notion that Lili Elbe was a woman.
So how do we rectify this? The answer should be obvious: if you don’t have transgender people in front of the camera, the least you can do is put them behind the camera. I can guarantee you that there are transgender people out there dying for the chance to contribute to cinematic production, whether as writers, directors, cinematographers, or even consultants. But even more than just hiring transgender folks, producers need to listen to them, and realize that even if an actor is putting their own spin on a transgender character, it isn’t that person’s story to tell. The show Transparent offers a great example of how to do this right. Even though star Jeffrey Tambor is not a transgender woman, many supporting players in the cast are, and the show features many transgender people in the writing and production staff.
But when casting for a transgender role, who do you choose? Well, that largely depends on the story you’re trying to tell. Let’s say you’re telling a story that features a transgender character, but it isn’t about their transition and their transition isn’t prominently featured. As terribly flawed and offensive as the film Transamerica is, they had the right idea with casting their protagonist: if your transgender character is a woman, cast a woman to play her. This reinforces the idea that trans women are, in fact, women, and it doesn’t cast a shadow over the role by making a big deal of how “brave” or “important” a male actor’s portrayal of trans femininity is.
But what if the purpose of the story is to portray a transgender character’s coming into their own through transition? (And let’s momentarily ignore that these stories are extremely over-represented in trans issue cinema already.) Well, considering that the whole point of acting is to inhabit the persona of another person, I don’t see any reason why someone of any gender wouldn’t be able to portray the physicality of a transition, so long as it was handled tactfully and with creative input from actual transgender people. Perhaps that’s a controversial opinion, but consider what inhabiting that sort of role could do to a transgender actress. The requirements of the role would force her to relive the traumas inherent in the gender she was assigned at birth, and though it is of course up to each actress to determine what stress they can or cannot handle, I don’t think that’s a consideration enough people take into account when advocating for blanket transgender casting for transgender roles.
That having been said, I think it’s probably appropriate for us as a culture to take a break from casting men as transgender women. Considering how the comic trope of “the man in the dress” has been used to belittle and humiliate transgender women in Western cultures for centuries, to continually reinforce the notion that transgender women are men in dresses isn’t helpful to changing the cultural narrative to one that accepts them as women. So while I think that a man can effectively inhabit the character of a woman, the risk of that portrayal reinforcing a demeaning cliché is too great to be entirely comfortable. Let women portray women for a while, and then maybe when we live in a society that is enlightened enough to recognize gender for the construct that it is we can revisit the issue.
So, in summary, here are what I think are good rules to live by when casting for a transgender role:
1. When at all possible, offer transgender characters to transgender actors. If one is to err in casting choices, it’s better to err toward social progress.
2. If casting a transgender person isn’t possible, consider the type of story you’re trying to tell. If the character isn’t actively transitioning or the transition isn’t a part of the story, then cast a performer whose gender aligns with the character’s as much as possible.
3. If your story features a transitioning character, theoretically anyone can fill that role, but in the greater social context of the “man in the dress” trope, avoiding male actors in portraying transgender women is for the best.
4. Most importantly, if you don’t have a transgender person on camera for your transgender story, you sure better have transgender people behind the camera to call out any bullshit and offer corrective advice.
What do you think? Am I too forgiving in my allowance for cisgender influence in transgender storytelling? Or do my allowances make sense? Leave your thoughts and alternatives in the comments below.
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