An Open Letter To Mark Ruffalo On Casting For Trans Roles
I hope you don’t mind me calling you Mark. You and I haven’t ever met and we probably won’t, but you seem like the kind of guy who wouldn’t be bothered by a little genuinely casual candor from a stranger. Which is to say, you seem like a decent guy.
That’s why many of us were surprised this week when you had a bit of a fracas with the trans community over the casting for your newest movie “Anything” where cis guy, Matt Bomer, was cast as a trans woman in a film about a transgender sex worker. Both of you caught a lot of flack, and by way of an apology you posted this to your twitter account:
A lot of us in the trans community are justifiably upset by the choice, and the reasons have been enumerated by others on social media. To summarize though, there are concerns that casting cis men to play trans women propagates the unfair and incorrect stereotype that trans women are “men in dresses”.
It’s a mentality that we feel endangers us and could lead to violence against us not just verbally and physically (as if those aren’t bad enough) but also politically as we’ve seen with arcane laws like North Carolina’s “bathroom bill”, House Bill 2 that have been popping up across the country. These laws are built on the incorrect assumption that trans women are mentally ill or sexually deranged and predatory men.
I for one though, am not mad at you. Again, I don’t know you personally, but I don’t believe your intent was to cause harm. It would take a someone fairly vicious to do something for the expressed purpose of endangering the life of another person, and I like to give people the benefit of the doubt that they don’t intend that kind of malice unless they prove they do.
Having said that, I’m disappointed. I’m not just disappointed in the choices made for the casting of “Anything”, I’m also disappointed in you distinctly.
Over the past few years, you’ve been an up-and-coming name as an advocate for liberal causes. You stood up for the gay community during the fight for marriage equality, you spoke out against fracking in LA, and even made a case for Black Lives Matter earlier this year. You’ve been so successful in your advocacy for liberal causes that you’ve caught the attention of alt-right publication Breitbart.com who recently ran a slasher article with their particular brand of journalistic professionalism about how you “hate cops” … or something. But this issue of trans women in film seems to have stumped you, and in turn, I am stumped by why you are stumped.
You are perfectly capable of understanding why it would be important for an authentic trans woman to be chosen for a role playing a trans woman. You know how I know you understand that? I know, because in 2014 you had the same concern about a role you took in the movie “The Normal Heart” where you played a gay man. You said of your role as the main character, Ned Weeks:
‘Aren’t we at the place in our culture, in our development, where a gay man should be playing this part?’
You recognized the importance of stepping aside and letting a voice in the community that a role is meant to amplify take the microphone. And in answer to your question, YES! we should have been at that point in society in 2014. But we don’t get there without actions to give purpose to our words.
Look, It’s not that you played the character of Ned Weeks badly. Personally, I think that you’re an impressive actor. I’ve been following your career since 2004's “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” and as an impressive actor, I think that you’re certainly capable of playing any role you’re given…but that’s not really the point.
In my last essay about “Anything” I was critical of what I called “window dressing progressiveness.” What I mean is, speaking loudly in support of people in the transgender and gay communities, but not really following through with real action. I said that not only is window dressing a cheap gimmick to set your work apart by saying what you’ve made is a milestone in social advocacy, but one could also make the case that it’s exploitative. One could make a strong argument by pointing out that by standing on the shoulders of minorities while waving a banner for them is more about self-promotion than it is advocacy.
In regards to “Anything” and many other movies featuring transgender main characters, it’s particularly obnoxious to hear someone hammer on about the incredible walls you’re breaking down by virtue of just making these movies. When you step back and look at what was actually made, you realize that in reality you haven’t broken anything.
Instead of breaking down walls, directors of movies like “Transamerica” and “The Danish Girl” have merely hopped over them on a magic sleigh powered by white dude privilege. They’ve declared victory from the other side while the transgender community waits wistfully for the day when someone will finally make a hole for us by giving us an opportunity to speak for ourselves on the main stage.
Instead of breaking down walls, directors of movies like “Transamerica” and “The Danish Girl” have merely hopped over them on a magic sleigh powered by white dude privilege.
When you spoke up about your feeling that the role of Ned Weeks was “too important for a straight man to play” (as the Towler Road article points out) I thought I was reading an article about why you had turned down the part. To my surprise, I read on and realized that you had actually decided to take the part anyway. “…oh” I thought to myself. It was a missed opportunity to do something spectacular. Instead of practicing what you preach, you went and played the role anyway despite your progressive misgivings.
Here again with “Anything” is an effort along similar lines. You could have cast any one of a hundred uniquely talented trans actresses (not necessarily named Laverne) to play this lead role. Jamie Clayton (@msjamieclayton) or Jen Richards (@smartassjen) just to name two right off the top of my head.
You say you hear us, you say you understand and that you’re sympathetic to the concerns we raise but it seems that this is where the road ends. There is no follow-up, there is no course correction. Only a hollow acknowledgement that our complaints have been heard without the courage of your convictions to do something truly disruptive to address them.
Now with the windows of social progress fully dressed, and “Anything” moving into the second half of production, you have let another opportunity to be the man you say you are pass you by. I’m not upset, I’m just disappointed.
Like a child who is promised fireworks and only gets a lousy sparkler, I feel let down. You didn’t promise you were TRANS JESUS riding in on a sparkling unicorn… You just said you’d be there for us, and you flaked out.