Who Should Play Transgender Roles?
When considering the question ‘who should play transgender roles?’ when working in television, film and theatre it seems the answer should be obvious. However, unless the director or writer is trying to make a creative statement, most roles are filled by people of the same gender as the character and in the case of transgender characters, cisgender actors are largely filling these roles.
It has only been in recent years that transgender stories have been told in mainstream media, with the recent success of Orange Is The New Black, Transparent, and Dallas Buyers Club to name a few. However, in the majority of these recent productions the transgender characters (almost always transgender women) have been played by cisgender men.
There has been much debate as to whether cisgender men should play transgender women characters. The loudest voices in these debates often arising from transgender individuals frustrated with their lack of representation in acting roles, from LGBTQ people or straight cisgender people who have worked on pieces with transgender narratives.
Discussions and debate comes down to personal opinion, defensiveness of the work created, anger at misrepresentation and not considering LGBTQ experiences when casting. We can hope to improve this situation by examining what has worked well up until now and why it has worked well. We can also look at the nature of gender and how its performative nature can be worked with in an ethical way to best represent transgender people.
Transgender narratives are rare in media and theatre and when they are told, transgender women are often portrayed in a negative light.
Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Media Defamation (GLAAD), a US LGBT media monitoring organization, examined transgender television representation over a ten year period and found transgender characters were cast in a “victim” role at least 40% of the time. Transgender characters were cast as killers or villains in at least 21% of the catalogued episodes and storylines. Transgender characters were most often depicted as sex workers, ‘a fifth of all [transgender] characters were depicted as 20%’
It is important that transgender women actors have access to realistic transgender roles. If the only roles available to them are stereotypes and damaging to the LGBTQ community, they are forced to choose between work as an actor or ethical representation.
Only this year has a transgender woman played the role of a transgender woman in a television show in the United Kingdom. Bethany Black plays Helen in an episode of Channel 4’s Banana, which tell the story of a woman who becomes the victim of revenge porn. Helen’s story is not overshadowed by her transgender identity, unlike many other popular portrayals of transgender woman. These progressive roles are so rare and when they do come along they are not being given to transgender people to play as positive representations and role models.
In an example given in Cracked’s podcast Unspoken Stereotypes Movies Trick You Into Believing a contributor explains how the in television show Doll House, the lead character loses her sight. To play the part, the actress Eliza Dushku met with a blind woman on set. Dushku copied the woman’s movements but the director said she did not look ‘blind enough’, so she was asked to be clumsier and ‘more helpless’ so that audiences would think “ok, we believe she’s blind now”. ‘The acting didn’t look realistic, so they made her seem more helpless to conform to what people expected’. This sends a message to both the public and actors that these signifiers are what we should expect from blind people, consequently spreading misinformation.
This misinformation can have serious consequences. For example in Italy this escalated to the media sensationalism, accusing people of faking being blind, but the accusations were based on ignorance of the capabilities of blind people. This same problem can be applied to transgender representation. For many of us, our first exposure to minority groups is through television, film and theatre. It is the responsibility of these mediums to clearly show the context of their portrayals of these groups. If creating a narrative that the writer wants to be natural, realistic and believable, then the representations should correlate with the acting style. It can be argued that if transgender people are involved in the production of their stories, then the stories are more likely to be well informed and realistic.
In 2014, Jared Leto won an Oscar for his portrayal of Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, although the film is a biopic, the character of Rayon was created for the film. In Time magazine, Steve Friess says of the character
She’s a sad-sack, clothes-obsessed, constantly flirting transgender drug addict prostitute… there are no stereotypes about transgender women that Leto’s concoction does not tap into….she’s an exaggerated, trivialized version of how men who pretend to be women, as opposed to how those who feel at their core they are women behave…. she’s the only figure played consistently for comic relief, as when fake-Woodruff points a gun at Rayon’s crotch and suggests he give her the sex change she’s been wanting… hilarious.
Although Leto said he had spoken with transgender women (none of which have been credited or come forward) the problem of the stereotypical transgender woman could have been avoided if a transgender woman had played the part of Rayon or transgender people had been involved in the production of the film.
In contrast, in Transparent, an Amazon online series, the lead character Moira (a transgender woman) is played by Jeffery Tambour but the series is produced with a great amount of influence from transgender individuals. The creator of the show, Jill Soloway said on the production of the show
We have one gender-queer writer and three trans consultants, … we’ve had six or so trans people come through the writer’s room and inform how we’re telling the story. I would say the most important person in creating Moira is Jenny Boylan [a transgender woman] … she really had an empathy for the late-in-life transitioner. All of our trans consultants helped us be aware of the victim or villain path that most trans characters fall into. So we just wanted to make Moira the most normal person in the family.
Soloway based the story on her father’s own transition and cast all other transgender parts to transgender people. Amy Landecker who plays Moira’s daughter said of the casting of Tambour, a cisgender man, as Moira
[Soloway] casts from a very personal place … in her mind, she would see Jeffrey through the years and he reminded her of her father and I think she felt very deeply that he was the right actor for this part.
Transparent has been received well by reviewers and the LGBTQ community, being praised by the LGBTQ website, Pink News and Time Magazine.
Tambour brings a lot to the role, being the appropriate age and able to play Moira as a woman who has not taken estrogen. He also stated that he recognizes transgender people should play transgender roles. Soloway said of his casting ‘I think he’s got a kind of gender-queerness. He’s a big tall man, but he’s very feminine and very vulnerable and soft and sweet. He just seemed to embody the contradictions that I wanted Mort to have. Mort/Moira.’ Both Soloway and Tambour, informed by the transgender community, put a lot of work into the character of Moira. Consequently, this meant that Transparent avoided some of the issues that can arise by casting a cisgender man as a leading transgender women whereas other works, such as Dallas Byers Club, did not.
When receiving his Oscar Leto was heckled, ‘Trans-misogyny does not deserve an award’. Leto asked ‘What do you mean by that?’ (It is worth noting that as someone who researched a transgender role, Leto should be aware of the meaning of ‘Trans-misongyny’). The Heckler replied ‘you don’t deserve an award for portraying a trans-woman, because you’re a man.’ His response was “because I’m a man, I don’t deserve to play that part? ‘So you would hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian – they can’t play a straight part … you’ve made sure people that are gay … people like the Rayons of the world would never have the opportunity to turn the tables and explore parts of that art’.
This type of response from someone outside the LGBTQ community encourages the attitude that the opinions of minority groups about their own portrayal are equal to, or less than, those who are appropriating their identities. A Cisgender person playing a transgender character has been compared to blackface, and is sometimes informally referred to as ‘transface’. Friess compares Leto’s role and the award he received to Hattie Mcdonald’s award for her ‘authentic’ portrayal of a black woman in ‘Gone With The Wind’ for which she received an Oscar (while sitting at a segregated table during the ceremony). Society does not consider it acceptable for a white actor to change their skin colour and play a character that is a person of colour. When acting in blackface there is a significant change in appearance and voice, as well as the character being an offensive black caricature.
It is argued that cisgender men playing transgender women are appropriating the bodies and experiences of transgender women. Leto’s response to being heckled is a good example of people’s differing views about gender, and if it is something that can and should be performed. He argues that the same argument with regard to cisgender individuals playing transgender roles can extend to gay people not being able to play straight roles. When acting with a love interest you are (most likely) acting out this attraction, no matter the sexuality of the actors coupled. When a cisgender man acts as a transgender woman they are acting as another gender and modifying their body. The portrayals of cisgender men acting as transgender women can, as previously discussed, lead to a character and performance based on stereotypes. When analyzing the problem of ‘transface’ this way, it is easy to see the parallels to blackface.
However, if gender is perceived as just another character trait that can be captured in a performance, just as any other character trait can be, does that justify cisgender people playing transgender roles? Feminist philosopher, Judith Butler, pioneered the idea of gender being performative, creating the term ‘gender performativity’ in her book Gender Trouble. Butler explains gender as ‘the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of sub- stance, of a natural sort of being. … there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results’. Butler means by this that gender is created by our actions and the way we present our bodies, and that there not an innate gender within us that makes us act a certain way. If this is true then a cisgender actor can act out the ‘set of repeated acts’ and stylize their body with costume, and take on a transgender role just as they would take on charter traits from any other role.
Repeating gendered acts to experience what it like to be another gender is a good starting point for cisgender actors playing transgender characters but transgender people have had an entire lifetime of repeating these acts to inform and shape their gender. It would also seem that film and television do not want a transgender women character that could not, in some way, be read as a man.
Cisgender women playing transgender women in film often ends as a shock gag, with the men who have been lusting after them throughout the narrative reacting in disgust. Examples of this can be found Ace Venture (multiple people throw up after a transgender woman is stripped to her underwear in front of them, and her tucked penis can be seen through her underwear), Naked Gun 33 1/3 and The IT Crowd (after finding out the woman he has been dating is transgender, a character starts to cry and then has a physical fight with her, despite being very much in love with her beforehand). By casting cisgender men as transgender women the audience are always being ‘warned’ of the true sex of the actor, so as not to fall into the ‘trap’ of being attracted to a gender sex or gender they would not typically be.
Other arguments that transgender characters should be played by transgender actors relate less to artistic integrity and the quality of work being produced, but instead focuses on the positive effects it would have on transgender people. Laverne Cox is currently one of the most famous transgender actresses, also well known for her work as an LGBTQ activist. She plays Sofia in the television series Orange is the New Black, her story line showing many of the realties faced by transgender people, especially those in prison. Cox is the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy as well as the first to be on the cover of Time Magazine. She is a prominent face in the transgender community, as well as an inspiration to transgender people. Cox is producing a documentary about CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman in a men’s prison.
McDonald spoke about her excitement at Cox being cast in Orange is the New Black, ‘I was like really in awe that a trans woman is getting this opportunity to shine and to be put in a more positive light because usually roles of trans women are filled by cis men and also, roles that are portrayed by trans women are usually sex workers or drug addicts. So to know the story of Sophia and what she’s been through and to have it sound so familiar … to know that this beautiful strong woman who I look up to, finally got her chance in life ’.
Cox is only one actress and yet she has had a large impact on the transgender community, a community that desperately needs role models and representation. Paris Lees, a writer, and trans activist said on representation, ‘it’s looking at the matrix, the mix, where everything is happening and not seeing people like you and me … You look for people that are respected, people that are taken seriously, people that are a part of things, and that can be very isolating when you look for yourself and you’re not there.’
Statistics from a survey taken by Pace in 2014 reveal that 59% of transgender people under 26 had consider taking their lives in the last year. Having positive and visible transgender representation in media and theatre could contribute a great deal to helping young people feel less isolated, and having transgender people play these parts would provide them with inspiration and role models. Jeffrey Tambour recognized the importance of authentic transgender narratives, ‘lives are at stake, … the conversation needs to go forward, and their needs to be freedom.’
Big names in the film industry will always pull more audiences than little know transgender actors, with recent examples like Eddie Redmayne being cast in The Danish Girl as a transgender woman, after winning multiple awards for his portrayal of Steven Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Since 1988, fourteen out of twenty seven Oscars for best actor have been won by actors portraying characters that have ‘significant mental or physical barriers to what people would consider a normal life’. This has included autism, blindness, ALS and living with HIV.
Through exposure and greater education these subjects may have become more normalized to the general public and the curiosity factor has died down. So now writers turn to society’s new curiosities, transgender people. The exposure of transgender narratives is helpful to educate and promote sympathy from the audience. However, it is these stories that are giving cisgender men recognition and awards for transgender struggles that they have not experienced, whilst transgender people are have fewer acting roles available and little recognition.
The nature of the film industry means slow progress for transgender actors playing transgender roles. Laverne Cox commented ‘It’s about business and we are in … [a] Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, so that market forces can’t be dismissed when casting decisions are made.’ Currently transgender actors aren’t being considered for roles that could instead use big name cisgender actors. However, it is possible that the breaks transgender actors need will come from the theatre and not film. There is the freedom in theatre to have greater autonomy over creative choices, especially in fringe productions. Transgender roles should go to transgender people when possible, it is clear both the transgender community and the productions in question benefit from casting transgender individuals in transgender roles. The production gains greater authenticity and avoids tired or offensive character traits, whilst the transgender community gains representation and strong role models.
If casting a cisgender person in a transgender role, it is important to follow the example set by Transparent, by consulting transgender people and having transgender people involved in the production.
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Felicity Huffman Discusses Cisgender Actors Playing Transgender Roles, The Huffington Post – James Micheal Nichols
How Amazon’s Latest Pilot Could Reshape Public Understanding of Trans People, advocate.com – Parker Marie Molloy
21 Times Actors Who Aren’t Actually Transgender Have Played Trans Characters, Buzzfeed – Rafe Posey
Cisgender Males Playing Transgender For Oscar Bait Is Still A Thing, Pajiba – Kirsty Puchko
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