The Problem With Cis Actors Playing Trans* Roles

Photo: REX USA.
Hollywood seems ready to celebrate the trans* community, and it’s about time. On top of the Golden Globes win for Jill Soloway’s Transparent, Jared Leto’s 2014 Oscar for The Dallas Buyers Club, and Eddie Redmayne’s upcoming role as Einar Wegener (the Danish painter who became Lili Elbe after the world’s first-ever gender reassignment surgery in 1930), we’re finally welcoming stories that have gone untold for way too long. Which is a great thing — as long as we remember the experiences of trans* people are more than just Oscar fodder for cis actors.

Of course, over the past year, Hollywood has made huge strides, which is a fact worth celebrating. It’s wonderful that we’re honoring a series like Transparent and actors like Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black — and that we're seeing the release of films like Boy Meets Girl (the upcoming Eric Schaeffer-directed film starring transgender actress Michelle Hendley). Hell, hearing President Obama acknowledge the trans* community for the first time in a State of the Union speech was nothing short of monumental (and historic), signaling the acceptance of trans* people as actual people — as citizens, entitled to rights, respect, and the acknowledgement of their true gender identities. (Especially in the wake of deaths like that of Leelah Alcorn, whose parents' refusal to accept her as a young woman led to her suicide.)
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Photo: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images.
To give Jeffrey Tambor a Golden Globe for his role as Maura in Transparent, or to be confident that Redmayne will do so well with Wegener’s story that he may win an Oscar (even though the film hasn't been shot yet) is pretty exciting. These works offer glimpses into lives and communities that have been largely ignored, misjudged, and far worse, throughout history. So, good: Kudos should be given to actors inspired by — and portraying — those lives.

Except (deep breath, everyone) with more and more cis actors taking on the roles of trans* people, there’s a responsibility to the trans* community not to make their stories gimmicky — not to make them the contemporary equivalent of playing a person with a mental disability in the '90s (sorry, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?). Playing a trans* character shouldn’t be a schtick, nor should these characters be looked at as “great material.” These portrayals shouldn’t be guaranteed an acting trophy, nor should they be cis actors' way of saying, “Look what I am capable of.” There’s a fine line between paying homage to someone and exploiting them. Hollywood still isn’t exactly welcoming an onslaught of trans* actors on the red carpets, so the sudden onslaught of cis people “taking on” trans* stories begins to feel a little bit self-serving.

Of course, the key phrase is "a little bit.” Progress can take a long time, and it’s important not to ignore the fact that actors like Laverne Cox and talents like Janet Mock (whose show brings issues like these to light all the time) are breaking barriers. But, we need more trans* artists — like Cox and Hendley — to share their stories via TV and film, which is probably difficult. It’s actually a kind of Catch-22: by offering cis actors a chance to celebrate trans* stories, we seem to be taking opportunities away from trans* actors. (And, by “we seem to be” I mean “we are.”) Some may argue that there are too few trans* actors to fill these roles, but in response to Jared Leto’s controversial Dallas Buyers Club award wins back in February, IndieWire offered the names of 10 trans* actors who could’ve replaced him — and those are just a handful who would’ve been great for the role.
Photo: Courtesy of Cinephile International Pictures and Red Razor Films.
Let’s also remember that trans* stories don’t always have to be dramatic Oscar fodder — they can be comedic and lighthearted. Transparent may follow a trans* woman after she embraces who she is, but it’s a comedy that also focuses on Maura’s children and their own stories. Meanwhile, Boy Meets Girl is a romantic comedy, a welcome addition to an otherwise saturated market. The overused rom-com genre is dominated by stories about the romantic trials and tribulations of cis couples. It’s time to see more trans* characters fall in love onscreen.

Fortunately, that seems to be the direction we’re heading in, albeit slowly. Yes, we can be celebratory about more stories about trans* people, and we can applaud great acting and character development, but we also need to stay aware. We need to keep in mind that telling these stories comes with a responsibility — and part of that responsibility is seeking out trans* actors, writers, and filmmakers who deserve to represent their communities, too. It’s absolutely necessary in order to welcome a younger, even more socially aware generation of trans* storytellers.
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