Hollywood's Big Bad History of Trans Erasure
As we near the last stretch of 2015, it’s safe to say that this has been the year of the transgender revolution. Laverne Cox slayed everywhere from Litchfield Correctional Facility to her celebrated Time Magazine cover, Caitlyn Jenner brought trans issues to an entirely new demographic, Janet Mock landed an MSNBC web show, and Hari Nef became the biggest trans model in the industry after signing to IMG. But the flip side of this success is the sobering statistic that most of the country still treats trans people with disdain at best, and deadly violence at worst.
There are only four months left of 2015, and there have already been more reported murders of trans people than last year. These acts of violence occur frequently partly because of a distinct lack of trans representation in pop culture – people fear what they don’t recognize or understand. Hollywood has habitually cast cisgender (i.e. a person whose self-identity conforms with their biological sex) actors in transgender roles, which only serves to enable trans erasure in the media.
With the upcoming releases of The Danish Girl starring Eddie Redmayne and About Ray starring Elle Fanning, filmmakers have continued the trend of casting cisgender actors as transgender characters. As each movie preview was released online, a firestorm of controversy ignited over the long-running arguments for and against these casting decisions. To make some sense of the problem, Milk’s Chris Thomas is here to sort through the multifaceted issue the best he can as a cisgender man. Before going into current arguments, it’s best to serve up some hot trans pop culture history.
The Quick History of Hollywood’s Cis Misrepresentation
Now known as one of the worst films ever made, 1970’s Myra Breckinridge has the distinct honor of being one of the first movies to focus on a transgender character, played by cisgender actor Raquel Welch. Since then, trans erasure has run rampant, as cis actors have stepped into trans roles over the past several decades. Everyone from David Duchovny on Twin Peaks, Jaye Davison in The Crying Game, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Rebecca Romijn on Ugly Betty, and—most recently—Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club. It was Leto’s roll as Rayon, a trans HIV-positive woman, that landed him Golden Globe and Oscar wins in 2014, and unleashed a wave of backlash that brought the ‘trans versus cis representation’ argument to the mainstream.
During his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, Leto chose to joke about the waxing procedure he had to go through, stating that: “I’m just fortunate it wasn’t a period piece, so I didn’t have to do full Brazilian. Ladies, you know what I’m talking about; and so do some of you men, I think.” It didn’t go over well. During his Oscar speech, he left the jokes at home but still kept the focus on himself—failing to thank or even mention the transgender community.
‘The Danish Girl’ and ‘About Ray’’s Directors Try (and Fail) To Justify Their Casting
With two major films about transitioning set for release in time for award season, it was a prime moment for Hollywood to show honest and responsible transgender representation. But again, Hollywood continued its bad habit of engaging in trans erasure. After igniting backlash for their casting for The Danish Girl and About Ray, directors Tom Hooper and Gaby Dellal took the Internet to explain their decisions.
“I think also there’s a certain gender fluidity that I sensed in him,” Hooper told Screen Daily about Eddie Redmayne. “I felt that there was something in him that was drawn to the feminine. That was something that I felt he might be interested to explore further.”
“The part is a girl and she is a girl who is presenting in a very ineffectual way as a boy,” Dellal explained to Refinery 29 in response to Elle Fanning’s role. “So to actually use a trans boy was not an option, because this isn’t what my story is about.”
It’s hard to decide what explanation was more offensive to the trans community. Hooper completely fails to acknowledge transgender actors, and instead digs himself further into a ditch by focusing on the inner femininity that Redmayne seems to have. Newsflash: everyone has a masculine and feminine side. You don’t need to take away opportunities from a trans actor in order to experiment with your feminine side. A bit less infuriating, but no less problematic, was Dellal’s explanation for About Ray. She used the classic explanation that a trans actor wasn’t fit for the role because the character is pre-transition, which ignores the fact that you don’t have to go through surgical or hormonal changes to be transgender. To be transgender means that you don’t identify with the body you were born in and there is no better actor to portray that struggle on screen than one who’s gone through the same journey.
The Complex Case of Amazon’s ‘Transparent’
If Orange is the New Black brought a trickle of trans representation, Amazon Prime’s breakout (and Golden Globe-winning) show Transparent has brought the flood—but not without some controversy. The show was created byJill Soloway as a portrayal of her own dad’s struggle with transition and has taken off as one of the best representations of trans characters on TV. The problem, though, is that the starring role of transitioning dad was given to cisgender actor Jeffrey Tambor—a move that echoes the past history of cis men in dresses playing trans women. Soloway is well aware of the backlash against this decision, and has worked to rectify it by insisting that all other transgender characters in the series be played by trans people (including Hari Nef) that trans people be hired for the crew, and that famous trans musician Our Lady J be the writing consultant for the next season. Through these moves, she hopes to normalize trans inclusion in Hollywood.
“The more trans people produce their own shows, direct their own shows, star in their own shows, be in charge of their own images, the less it’ll have this feeling of being special,” Soloway explained.
While it’s great to hire trans cast and crewmembers, having the title role of a show about a trans women go to another cis man leaves a problematic shadow on what is generally a pretty stellar example of trans representation.
The Rise of True Trans Representation
Despite the setbacks that come with the decision to cast cis actors as trans, some TV shows and movies have shown the right way to achieve true trans representation. Besides #1 Queen Bae Laverne Cox on Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, transgender actors have been cast for transgender roles in a number of upcoming features this year. Jamie Clayton for Netflix’s Sense8, Tom Phelan on ABC Family’s The Fosters, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine, an indie movie with major Oscar buzz, are all bringing true trans representation to the screen.
As transgender representation continues to grow in pop culture, it’s vital to make sure that true representation occurs and that transgender actors are given a fair chance at showing their talents. Hollywood is an industry that struggles with casting diversity, not just in terms of trans actors, but for all minority groups, and the trend will not change without honest and fair representation. As inspiring as it is for trans youth and trans actors to see characters like themselves on the screen, it pales in comparison to the knowledge that the trans character they’ve connected so deeply with is played by an actor who has shared their struggle, survived, and thrived.