Is It Ever OK for Cisgender Actors to Play Transgender Roles?
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Transgender actress and filmmaker Jen Richards recently spoke out on Twitter over the casting of openly gay, cisgender actor Matt Bomer in a transgender film role, that of Freda Von Rhenburg, a trans sex worker who forms a relationship with a straight man in the film Anything. But Richards’ argument against Bomer’s casting wasn’t the usual complaint about cis actors stealing roles from trans people. Instead she made a compelling argument it perpetuates violence against trans women.
So, let’s explore why casting directors cast cis actors in trans roles, the logic behind Richards’ argument and what happened when a pro-trans audience advocated for a trans actor to play the lead in Boys Don’t Cry, a 1999 film about the 1993 murder of trans man Brandon Teena.
The long history of cis actors in “trans-face”
Bomer’s casting continues a depressingly common trend of cisgender actors in transgender roles. The most recent instances of this include Elle Fanning playing a trans teen boy in 3 Generations, Jeffrey Tambor playing an older, newly transitioned women in the Amazon TV series Transparent; and Eddie Redmayne playing a trans woman in The Danish Girl, but it’s happened numerous times in movies and television before.
The arguments for cis actors in trans roles are as common as the practice itself: Studios want big name actors, not unknown trans ones; trans actors aren’t experienced enough to handle the demands of a large scale film shoot; the pool of available trans actors is too limited to give producers their choice of age and body types; and trans actors might be traumatized if they’re required to portray a pre-transition individual.
But all of these are perpetuated by not hiring trans actors. If there were more opportunities for trans actors, producers would have bigger pool of varied, experienced and well-known trans stars to choose from. As for traumatizing trans actors with pre-transition scenes, Slate’s June Thomas put it best: “Trans actors should decide for themselves if they’re comfortable with that kind of storyline.”
But keeping trans people from trans roles has a worse consequence than just limiting their ability to thrive in the acting world, in Richards’ opinion….
How “trans-face” perpetuates anti-trans violence
In Richards’ opinion, Anything‘s producers casted a male actor because the film’s “whole premise is ‘OMG! A straight dude likes a trans woman! What does this MEAN?!'” She considers this premise overblown because straight men sleep with trans women all the time.
“[Straight men] always have been [attracted to trans women],” she tweeted in August 2016. “Always will be. We are some of the most popular sex workers. It’s a fact.”
Here’s a clip from Anything:
Richards worries that a cisgender man playing a trans woman reinforces the idea that transwomen are really just men, a misconception that results in violence against trans women. After decades of seeing cis men play trans women, Richard says, straight men worry that being with a trans women makes them gay or less masculine. As a result, straight men panic about their masculinity after having sex with trans women, and “then reassert their masculinity,” Richards says, “through violence aimed at” trans women.
“Cis men playing trans women leads to death,” she tweeted. “Any cis men who do this have bloody hands.”
While one can quibble over the cause of anti-trans violence and whether trans-face contributes, one cannot deny the violence. At least 13 trans people have been murdered in 2017 alone.
The case against Boys Don’t Cry
Interestingly, the backlash against cis actors in trans roles has also affected older films. In December 2016, students at Oregon’s Reed College shouted down lesbian filmmaker Kimberly Peirce during a screening of her 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, a biopic about the 1993 murder of trans man Brandon Teena.
Displaying signs that read, “Fuck your transphobia,” “You don’t fucking get it,” “Trans Lives Do Not Equal $$” and “Fuck this cis white bitch!” students yelled at Peirce during a public Q&A about her film. Specifically, they disliked the casting of cisgender actress Hilary Swank in a trans role and abhorred the idea that a cis director benefitted off the rape and death of a trans body.
Peirce ended the Q&A early after twice being shouted down by students.
The Reed College protest revealed a generational divide: These internet-era young people expected an older queer activist to be a perfect vessel for social justice and wokeness, living up to impossible and very modernly defined standards of representation. While one can fault modern films for not casting trans actors, can you really fault a film that’s now nearly two decades old?
Here’s a trailer for Boys Don’t Cry:
In 1999, there were no out trans male actors of any bankable profile (at least, not to my knowledge). Most Americans had no idea what a transgender person was and almost all trans depictions that existed were of trans feminines or trans characters so coded as to not even count.
Then (as now), the film’s funding was dependent on casting a certain bankability (that is, a big name star that would lure paying crowds), a roadblock to hiring a lesser-known transgender actor. Nevertheless, Peirce reportedly spent three years casting the lead role of Brandon.
While any artwork is open to criticism, one could see Peirce’s film as an act of trans allyship. In 1999, there were almost no other movies about trans lives, let alone ones that received as much attention or acclaim as Boys Don’t Cry. As such, Peirce helped make mainstream audiences more aware of the issues of anti-trans violence.
No matter how one views it, it’s no longer 1999, and the practice of casting cis actors in trans roles is long past its usefulness or social responsibility. We have little tolerance for blackface, whitewashing or blocking openly gay, lesbian and bisexual actors from roles in films, so why should we tolerate it for trans roles?