Sebastian Lelio 01, A Fantastic Woman
Sebastian Lelio 01, A Fantastic Woman

Even the Director of Trans Film ‘A Fantastic Woman’ Misses the Point of the New ScarJo Drama

Numerous trans celebrities have spoken out against American actress Scarlett Johansson for playing a trans man in the upcoming crime drama Rub and Tug. But Sebastian Lelio, a director whose 2017 Academy Award winning film A Fantastic Woman featured trans actress Daniela Vega playing a trans woman, said a cisgender actor in a transgender role “may be … ethically debatable,” but should be an option.

Sebastian Lelio told The Hollywood Reporter“It’s true [that] cultural representation has been scarce so far. And it’s also true that the gesture of casting a cisgender actor to play a transgender role can be aesthetically or ethically debatable — but it should never be prohibited.”

He said that he only cast Vega to play Marina in A Fantastic Woman as “an act of artistic freedom, not political correctness.” He said, “I wasn’t telling the world that transgender roles should be played by transgender actors. I was only doing what I felt was right for my film.”

He continued, “Whenever the decision to cast Daniela Vega is interpreted as an authoritarian gesture, a gesture that tells people what to do, I always raise my hand and say, ‘No.’ I’m not commanding anyone to do anything, I’m exercising my artistic freedom.”

“If I said transgender roles should only be played by transgender actors,” he added, “I would be implying that Daniela Vega shouldn’t play a cisgender role. And I believe she has every right to play a man or a woman.”

Sebastian Lelio said that he sympathizes with the plight of transgender actors “who have little chances of exercising their craft,” but said that he’ll never “empower any idea that aims to restrict one of society’s most precious assets, which is the freedom of its artists,” adding that any restrictions on artistic freedom are basically authoritarian principles “that start to smell like fascism.”

Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Lelio 04
Scarlett Johansson

Sebastian Lelio is entitled to his opinion, but he’s also mischaracterizing the debate

Let’s unpack what Sebastian Lelio said. He said he won’t push for other filmmakers to only let trans actors play trans roles because that’s authoritarian and slightly fascist. We wonder if he’d say the same thing about actors playing characters of different races, a longstanding practice that is increasingly falling out of fashion.

Times and tastes change. Some people could say that the call for more racial diversity onscreen or equal wages for male, female and non-binary actors is a form of “authoritarian fascism,” but that’s ridiculous. The call for trans roles played by trans actors is merely a reflection of changing social values.

No one is going to impose or enforce a trans-only law (as if they could), and even if they did, let’s not kid ourselves: Transface (cis people playing trans roles) would still happen, just like brownface still happens, just like whitewashing still happens and just like unequal pay for men and women still happens. So even if people demand an end to “transface,” filmmakers will still be allowed to be as shitty as they like to trans people … and they will.

Also, on a semantic point: Authoritarians and fascists tend to be against gender fluidity, historically speaking. So advocating for trans people to play trans roles isn’t really be authoritarian or fascist. But anyways….

If Sebastian Lelio isn’t willing to be an advocate to help open Hollywood roles to trans actors, then it’s up to trans actors, their industry allies and the consumers to pressure film producers to change or else it nothing will ever change.

Daniela Vega, A Fantastic Woman, Sebastian Lelio 02
Daniela Vega in ‘A Fantastic Woman’

Trans actors are barely being asked to play trans roles let alone any others

Lastly, Sebastian Lelio said, “If I said transgender roles should only be played by transgender actors, I would be implying that Daniela Vega shouldn’t play a cisgender role. And I believe she has every right to play a man or a woman.” But he’s horribly mistaken on two counts.

First, trans people aren’t being asked to play cisgender roles. Daniela Vega has only two film acting gigs to her credit — both playing trans roles — and that’s it. So while Lelio may think that Vega “has every right to play” any role, his peers apparently don’t agree.

Second, actresses are rarely asked to play men’s roles, and when they are, it’s often in a dramatic Shakespearean gender-switching plot. So yet again, while Lelio believes Vega “has every right to play a man or a woman,” she’s most likely only going to be asked to play a meagre number of trans roles, if she’s asked at all. (We hear Scarlett Johansson would be interested.)

Unless Sebastian Lelio steps up and starts encouraging his industry peers to start hiring trans actresses for trans and non-trans roles, Vega’s career will remain sadly brief — and countless other trans people will never have the opportunity to act onscreen at all.

What do you think of Sebastian Lelio’s reasoning on this issue?