Yes, Hollywood Has A Huge Problem With Trans Stories; Here’s What You Can Watch Instead
Spoiler: it doesn't star Jared Leto, Matt Bomer or Eddie Redmayne.
With the likes of Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner becoming household names over the past few years, it seems like trans people are more visible in mainstream culture than ever before. This is happening on-screen too. From Jared Leto’s character Rayon in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club and Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili Elbe in last year’s The Danish Girl, to Jeffrey Tambor’s leading role as Maura in Transparent — narratives that highlight trans women in particular are increasingly prominent.
However, what those who champion these “milestones” often neglect to call attention to is that, historically, the wide majority of those mainstream roles for trans women characters have been given to cisgender men. This is a serious problem, leading to violence and discrimination against trans women in the real world.
Matt Bomer And The Facts Behind The Backlash
Last week it was announced that Magic Mike XXL star Matt Bomer had been cast as a trans woman in Anything, a forthcoming drama executive-produced by Mark Ruffalo. The film features Bomer as a transgender sex worker who forms “an unlikely friendship with a suicidal widow”. Labelled as yet another example of Hollywood’s refusal to acknowledge trans people as legitimate choices to play trans characters, the casting decision provoked deserved criticism on social media.
Cis men playing trans women in movies is so 2015. pic.twitter.com/JhnqKOhLhd
— Raquel Willis (@RaquelWillis_) August 28, 2016
Let’s look at the reasons why.
Firstly, these choices pose a real problem for transgender actors in a field where opportunities are already often extremely limited for them. When the decision is made to hire a cisgender actor (‘cis’ describes someone who identifies with the conventional gender identity they were assigned at birth) for a trans role, that directly denies employment to a trans actor.
Some people argue that cis actors who play trans people are just doing their job — that is, acting — but cis actors often have a far wider pool of potential roles to be regarded for and we rarely see trans actors playing cis people. Until trans actors are given equal opportunities to their cisgender counterparts, it doesn’t really stack up.
Dear Matt Bomer,
You're great, but you're neither strong nor brave playing a trans character. You're just taking a role from a trans actor.
— Cecil Baldwin (@CecilBaldwinIII) August 30, 2016
While this alone is enough reason to demand Hollywood’s casting habits change, cis men’s portrayal of trans women also has an insidious impact on the broader trans community. It perpetuates one of the most damaging cultural stereotypes about transgender women — that is, when all is said and done, we are “actually” men.
What is communicated when men portray trans women on-screen, time and time again, is that our identities are pretend. It stops letting us dictate our narrative, and throws doubt at the validity of our self-actualised genders, suggesting that who we are is some kind of deception.
The idea that trans women are “really” men is a destructive, pervasive cliché that puts our lives at risk of discrimination and is the root of violence perpetrated against our community. It is a tacit justification for every time a trans woman is denied access to services like women’s shelters or thrown out of a women’s bathroom, and it is the foundation of the “trans panic” defence — a legal defence that makes trans women culpable in their own murders by claiming their attackers attacked in “panic” once learning of their victims’ trans status.
Ultimately, that’s what make these casting decisions not only insulting, but inherently toxic. While Redmayne and Leto pick up award nominations and are praised for their “brave” performances, actual trans women — predominantly trans women of colour — are routinely targets of harassment, assault and homicide.
These two experiences don’t exist in vacuums; we know that popular culture plays a significant role in shaping our real-world attitudes as a society. Film and television hold power in influencing the way we perceive groups of people and think about issues — film and television are huge reasons the mainstream is talking about trans stories at all.
Because of this, producers have a responsibility to make sure marginalised groups are depicted on-screen in a way that is accurate, fair and representative of the real people who make up those groups off-screen — and that means hiring us. It should not mean further endangering the lives of those people by maintaining attitudes that harm us.
But What Can We Do About It?
Don’t support these films. Instead, we should all redirect that money to financially supporting the work of talented, creative trans people who are telling trans stories with authenticity.
Last year, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor were both incredible in Tangerine, a comedy/drama film that followed two trans sex workers, that picked up, among others, two Gotham Independent Film awards.
Later that year, Jen Richards (whose recent tweets regarding the issues with cis men playing trans women are a must-read) co-wrote, co-produced and co-starred alongside actress Angelia Ross in a six-part web series called Her Story. Directed by trans filmmaker Sydney Freeland, the show centred on two trans women experiencing the intersections of identity and finding love.
With trans people involved in almost every aspect of the development process, its characters feel complex and three-dimensional, instead of caricatures played by cis folk. From portraying the immense anxiety and fear that often comes with disclosing trans status to a cis partner, to tackling transphobic attitudes within cisgender queer communities, the narratives in Her Story are actually representative of real trans experiences.
Freeland actually made her debut back in 2014, with a film called Drunktown’s Finest. The film, following the lives of three young Navajo people, is groundbreaking in its authentic representation. Freeland, herself a Navajo trans woman, wrote and directed the film, and it co-stars actress Carmen Moore — a trans woman of colour playing a trans woman of colour.
Closer to home, passionate Australian film 52 Tuesdays centres on a teenage girl named Billie coming to terms with the transition of her mother, a trans man. Identifying as gender-nonconforming, Del-Herbert Jane, who plays Billie’s mother, was originally brought onto the project as an advisor, before being cast to play the role. Released in late 2013, the film picked up a slew of accolades, including awards at Sundance, Berlin International Film Festival and Melbourne Queer Film Festival.
Finally, while Transparent has rightfully received criticism for its casting of Jeffrey Tambor in the lead role of Maura, the show’s active employment of trans people is a positive step forward. With trans women such as Hari Nef and Alexandra Billings portraying trans characters on-screen, and the likes of Our Lady J and Silas Howard appearing in the writing and directing seats, it is a positive response to justified critique.
This is what it looks like when trans characters are given the powerful, genuine performances they deserve, informed by the lived experiences of the actors who deliver them. It’s what happens when trans people are given the resources to tell our stories in a way that is honest and compelling.
On Thursday, in response to all this recent criticism, Mark Ruffalo tweeted “to the trans community, I hear you. It’s wrenching to see you in this pain. I am glad we are having this conversation. It’s time”.
It sounds like a genuine attempt to reach out, but it fails to acknowledge that this “conversation” has been happening. Trans people have been condemning the continual silencing of our voices; it would be impossible for us not to. It has been “time” since well before this film was announced — perhaps it’s just time to start listening.
Allison Gallagher is a freelance writer and artist from Sydney. She tweets about gender and sexuality at @aewgallagher.