Entertainment Long Read Opinion

Transgender Actors for Transgender Roles

Written by Malachy Harris

“Tell them that they can be referred to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Hoffman’s reps for comment,” said Scarlett Johansson, infamously, on 3rd July 2018. The comment was in response to calls from the transgender community for her to quit her role in the upcoming movie, Rub and Tug, in which she would play Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender gangster and manager of a massage parlour, a role that many felt inappropriate for Johansson to play (as she is a cisgender woman – a person with a uterus who identifies as female), voicing that a trans-masculine actor should have the role instead of her. Johansson’s initial comment mentioned the names of three other cisgender actors that have played transgender roles in film and television: Jeffrey Tambor played Maura Pfefferman – a transgender woman – in Transparent (but had to leave the series due to allegations of sexual misconduct); Jared Leto played Rayon – a transgender woman – in Dallas Buyers Club (a role that won him eight awards, including an Academy Award for best supporting actor); and Felicity Huffman played Bree – a transgender woman who discovers that she fathered a child when she was a teenager a week before she has sexual reassignment surgery – in Transamerica. Johansson was effectively saying “others have done it, so why can’t I do it too?”, but also unexpectedly raised a question that has accompanied this kind of casting decision for quite a while – “should cisgender actors be allowed to play transgender roles in film and television?”

The practice of casting cisgender actors for transgender roles has existed for over sixty years – although the first film to feature a transgender character was Glen or Glenda (1953), a docudrama about crossdressing and transsexuality well known for how awful a film it is, directed by and starring Ed Wood (who was a cross dresser), the second was Adam est… Ève, a 1954 French comedy starring Micheline Carvel (a cisgender actor) playing the role of a biologically male boxer who gets knocked out and, when they wake up, realises that they are a woman. Neither of these films were, interestingly, blatantly transphobic (unlike Irving Rapper’s The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970), which had a strapline of “did the surgeon’s knife make me a woman or a freak?”, starring John Hansen – a cisgender “female impersonator”), but some could argue that Adam est… Ève is disrespectful to the problems faced by transgender people in society due to its light-hearted nature and its lack of research into the topic of transgender people’s experiences (more using “a man who becomes a woman” as the punchline to a joke). However, the film was made in 1954, where transgender people and cross dressers were regarded as “freaks” by society and didn’t really have any real presence or power to cause change or speak up against underrepresentation (or overly negative representation) in film and television, so Adam est… Ève may have just been a snapshot of the opinions and views of a pre-Stonewall world.

Post-Stonewall, however one would think that transgender characters and actors would bemore prevalent in film and TV, but if you (like me) thought that initially, you are almost completely wrong. 9,387 films were made in 2015: how many of these featured a transgender character? Three. One of which, Tchindas, was a documentary, and only one of which, Tangerine, featured a transgender actor in the lead role. The other 9,384 films made no mention of transgender characters. At all. The percentage of people in the United States who identify as transgender is 0.6% of the adult population. The percentage of films produced in 2015 that featured a transgender character is 0.032% of the total cinema made that year, which is just under twenty times smaller. And that was a good year. This means that that year, only one transgender actor in the world played a transgender character in a film, which is often the only part a trans* performer can get because it is extremely hard for transgender actors to get the same auditions and performing opportunities as their cisgender contemporaries.

One of the reasons why cisgender actors have to be used to play transgender parts is because there are so few transgender actors, some would argue. While this is true (an IMDb page lists only 70 transgender celebrities), this is actually caused by a deeper problem: it is extremely difficult for LGBTQ+ people to succeed unless they remain closeted. According to a UK Government survey published in 2018, 40% of transgender women and 43% of transgender men aged between 16 and 64 had been out of work in the past 12 months (for the rest of the LGBTQ+ community, the average was 20%), and according to a survey done by Stonewall (a UK-based LGBTQ+ charity), 12% of transgender people that are in work have been physically attacked by a co-worker or customer in the past year. These rates are similar for the entertainment industry. Combined with the fact that most film and TV that deals with transgender issues portrays a transgender person’s experience in a negative light (or makes it the main focus of the film), which would mean that a transgender actor would be having to relive the more painful parts of their transitioning for other people’s entertainment, resulting in very few trans* people going for acting careers. This is an aggressive cycle and it’s not limited to the entertainment industry: the majority of society is pointed against transgender individuals.

Despite Johansson’s comment being ignorant, dismissive, and portraying her as refusing to admit that she was adding to a serious problem in the entertainment industry, two positive things came out of it: firstly, the transgender community erupted and made her change her mind extremely quickly and quit the role, saying that a trans-masculine actor should get it; and secondly, she brought an important question back to the forefront: one that I think that the entertainment industry, and in fact society as a whole, should ask itself – the question of why we treat cisgender people preferentially over transgender people. Trans* people are more at risk in terms of receiving hate crime than anyone else in the LGBTQ+ community, denied jobs because of their gender, rejected by most major religions, and are under-represented in film and television – and the representation that they do have is always about the problems that they face, rather than having a plotline featuring a trans* character where their dysphoria and treatment doesn’t take over the whole story. More than anything else, trans people should not have their stories taken away from them, because in doing so would erase the acknowledgement that transgender people exist. And, unlike how Donald Trump’s administration would have you believe, nobody chooses their gender, in the same way that nobody chooses their sexuality, and nobody should be oppressed or treated badly because of it.

About the author

Malachy Harris

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