Expanding Trans Media Representation: Why Transgender Actors Should Be Cast in Cisgender Roles

photo by FreeImages.com/Francesco Maglione

note added 9–7–16: It has come to my attention that some people are citing this article to justify the casting of cis actors to play trans roles. I strongly refute such misuses/misinterpretations of this piece — if you actually *read* the entire article, you will find that I’m saying quite the opposite.

Ten years ago, I was immersed in writing my first book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. At numerous points in the book (particularly in Chapters 2, 3, 9 and 14), I discuss media depictions of trans people at great length. I did this, in part, because many of these depictions create false impressions and forward misleading information about trans people, and I wanted to debunk such inaccuracies. But my other reason for doing so was to highlight how most recurring transgender stereotypes merely reflect media producers (often sexist) assumptions about women and men, and femininity and masculinity, more generally.

Since Whipping Girl was published in 2007, the media landscape has shifted considerably. Sure, the media still sometimes forwards transgender stereotypes. But at least real-life trans people are now often provided the opportunity to speak in our own voices — whether it be well-known trans celebrities who audiences have become increasingly familiar with, or numerous trans interviewees (as the media is finally beginning to understand that if they’re going to cover trans-related topics, they should seek out input and opinions from trans communities), or the many trans writers who are penning essays, articles, and books centered on transgender perspectives.

The trans-related media issue that has probably garnered the most attention in recent years is the question of whether cisgender actors should ever play transgender characters. In the original edition of Whipping Girl, I did not directly address this issue, primarily because (at the time I was writing) it was almost unimaginable that an out trans actor would be cast in a mainstream movie or TV series, given how stigmatized we were.

But this has slowly changed over time. An early sign of progress was Candis Cayne being cast to play a trans woman character in the primetime TV show Dirty Sexy Money (I had the opportunity to interview her about that in 2008). Another trans-representation watershed moment, of course, was Laverne Cox being cast as a trans woman in the hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, which first aired in 2013.

In that same year, the film Dallas Buyers Club was released, which famously (or infamously, depending on your perspective) included cisgender male actor Jared Leto cast in a transgender role. While Leto won a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance, many trans people found Leto’s performance to be over the top, inauthentic, and/or contributing to transgender stereotypes. (While I have not personally seen the film, many critiques along these lines can be found via the magic of internet search engines.)

The casting of Leto in the film was not in itself an extraordinary event — this had happened countless times before, and numerous other cisgender actors (e.g., John Lithgow, Jaye Davidson, Hilary Swank, Felicity Huffman) had previously received Oscar nominations for their transgender portrayals. What was new in 2013 was that news and media outlets were (for the first time) actually interested in what transgender people had to say about Leto’s portrayal, and some provided space for trans writers and activists to pen reviews and op-eds about it. And with a few trans actors like Cox finally garnering attention and acclaim, these opinion pieces could now cite such actors and ask the question: Why didn’t you cast — or even consider — her for the role?

To be clear, this was not the first time that anyone had ever asked this question — within trans communities, it was often raised. But 2013–14 marked the first time that there was enough trans awareness, trans visibility, and concern for trans voices, for this question to be thoughtfully considered (rather than outright dismissed) by media producers and mainstream audiences.

And over the last several years, this important question has increasingly been codified into a singular meme: “Cisgender actors should not play transgender characters.” And nowadays, this meme is repeatedly recited in response to any media production that casts cis actors for these roles.

While I believe that the question is super-duper important — and we all should be asking it — I am not a big fan of the meme. The question challenges people to think about what they are doing, what assumptions they are making, what they are potentially overlooking, and so on. In contrast, the meme is a blunt instrument — it offers a simplistic solution (don’t cast cis actors!) to the extraordinarily complex issue of transgender stereotypes and media representations.

For instance, I have heard people argue (in support of the meme) that when a cisgender male actor is cast as a transgender woman, it reinforces the notion that trans women are “really men” or “men in dresses.” Well, there are quite a few trans people out there — such as those who cannot afford or choose not to physically transition, and those who have physically transitioned but do not “pass” or “blend in” as cisgender — who probably do strike the average trans-unaware person as “men in dresses.” Does this mean that these trans people should never be depicted in the media, because they might also “reinforce” this stereotype? Or that (if they happen to be actors) they should never be cast to play transgender roles — even though they are trans?

Stereotypes (such as “trans women are merely men in dresses”) can be something that media producers create and place in their books, TV shows, and films. But these stereotypes often exist in audiences’ minds, regardless of what media producers are attempting to convey. And such trans-ignorant or trans-unaware audience members will likely see a “man in a dress” regardless of whether the actor is cis or trans, or whether it is a realistic trans portrayal or an inauthentic one.

In contrast, audiences who are trans-aware and who respect trans people’s identities should not have any problems viewing a trans woman character who doesn’t “pass” as cisgender for the woman she is, provided that the portrayal is at least somewhat realistic. When I watch trans depictions, I am less concerned with the actor’s identity or “pass-ability” than I am with authenticity: Does this trans character seem like someone I’d likely encounter in my own community? Are their actions and experiences seemingly based in reality? Or does the portrayal merely seem fabricated out of cisgender assumptions about gender and trans people?

A decade ago (before there was so much readily accessible trans art and media), when people asked me for suggestions of good (or at least decent) transgender portrayals, I would often mention Ma Vie en Rose and The Crying Game. These movies are not without flaws, nor are their trans characters (to the best of my knowledge) portrayed by trans-identified actors. But those trans portrayals did feel authentic to me. And still to this day, I would prefer them over a movie in which a trans character was played by a trans actor, but where that character (due to writing or directing) seemed like a two-dimension stereotype rather than a well-fleshed out trans person.

The meme — which seems to put the emphasis on the actor’s identity as transgender or cisgender above all else — does not address this crucial matter of authenticity. Nor does it address the media’s apparent disinterest in telling trans men’s and non-binary trans people’s stories (as the meme only comes into play once a trans character has been created, and these characters are almost always trans women, for reasons that I discuss in depth in Whipping Girl).

Furthermore, the meme does not take into account the inclusion of trans people and perspectives at various other levels of media production. It is true that when a cis actor is cast in a trans role, that essentially means that there is one less job for trans actors — a point that is routinely raised by those who tout the meme. But what about the dearth of job opportunities in TV and movies for trans writers, directors, producers, film crews, set designers, and so on? Shouldn’t we be discussing these deficiencies too?

People who focus solely on the meme tend to lump Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl, and Transparent together as being similarly problematic because they all feature cisgender male actors cast as trans women. But what gets lost in this grouping is that Transparent (unlike the others) has actually made a point of hiring transgender people at many different levels of writing and production (including numerous trans actors who play trans characters on the show). This does not make Transparent beyond reproach — trans people are free to critique any aspects of the show they dislike. But I do worry that the meme — which compels us to dwell on the casting of Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, rather than consider transgender representation behind the camera — favors visual appearance and superficial visibility over the inclusion of trans voices and perspectives at all levels of Hollywood and the media.

As a writer myself (of both non-fiction and fiction), it seems obvious to me that the creation of authentic transgender characters and the expression of genuine transgender perspectives is most likely to arise from trans artists and media creators who are working behind the scenes. This is not to say that actors are irrelevant — obviously, they can greatly shape a character. I’m just saying that they are not the only position that we should be talking about.

And I believe that trans artists and actors alike have numerous insights — about life, about being a person in the world — and it would be wonderful for us to finally have the opportunity to share these insights and ideas with audiences in the overwhelming majority of instances where the show or story is not explicitly about transgender people or issues.

Anyway, I’ve thought about writing about all this in the past, but found it difficult: It is always easier to be for (or against) a meme than it is to encourage people to consider more complicated issues. But when my publisher approached me about putting out a second edition of Whipping Girl, and when we agreed that there should be a Preface to the Second Edition that discusses what has changed (or not) with regards to transgender activism, awareness, and acceptance since the book’s initial release, I decided to formally address this matter. Here is what I wrote (which now appears as an endnote in the book):

Over the last couple years, there has been a growing chorus of activists calling for trans characters to only be portrayed by trans actors. I sympathize with this sentiment, not because I believe that cis actors are incapable of portraying trans people in a realistic and respectful manner (they sometimes do, despite the many who have failed), but rather because trans actors are (at this point in time) systematically denied any opportunities to play cis characters. Personally, I’d rather see the focus of this debate shift to championing trans actors being cast to play cis roles — this would provide trans actors with far more opportunities while simultaneously challenging societal cissexism (i.e., the notion that our genders are inherently inferior or inauthentic). Also, I’d like to see calls for increased trans representation throughout all levels in Hollywood and the media, rather than only raising the issue on those rare occasions where a film or TV show is casting an actor to play a trans character.

I can imagine some members of the media being tempted to misinterpret my critique of the meme here. They may point to this essay and say, “See, Julia Serano said it’s okay for cis actors to play trans characters.” So let me be explicitly clear: I am not saying that — in fact, I am saying quite the opposite. I am saying that, if the *only* time you ever consider hiring a trans person or including trans voices in you project is when you’ve created a transgender character, or decided to do a special transgender-themed episode or issue, then you are *not* promoting trans-inclusion. You are merely pigeonholing us.

Ten years ago, I would have marveled at the recent increase in mainstream transgender characters — particularly the fact that quite a few of them are portrayed by trans actors and/or come across as fairly authentic. But given how far we have come since then, I am really looking forward to moving beyond this stage where the media is finally interested in what trans people have to say, but only when it comes to transgender-related stories and issues.

I am looking forward to a day when the cisgender mainstream sees trans people as simply people, who require no explanation, and who have myriad and diverse talents to contribute.

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