Hollywood Needs To Stop Stealing Trans Stories
And it definitely needs to stop dismissing and gaslighting trans people who speak up.
For a long time, the trans community has been in an abusive relationship with Hollywood. There are good times, sure, but more often than not, we are treated poorly, and then made to feel guilty — or unhinged— when we speak up.
Recent years have seen an increase in trans stories on screen, but not all of these are legitimate victories for trans representation. Yes, Laverne Cox became the first trans person nominated for an Emmy in 2014, but Jeffrey Tambor won two in a row for his portrayal of a trans woman — a role he, as a cisgender actor, never should have played.
Tambor closed his 2015 Emmy acceptance speech by dedicating his win to the trans community, specifically saying “thank you for your stories.” That statement, which I’m sure was meant with sincerity, takes on a more sinister note when you consider that Tambor’s starring role in Transparent co-opted a trans story, amidst outcry from the community. It’s like being robbed, and as the thief runs out of your house, he calls back “Thanks for the television!”
Hollywood has made very clear that it is in fact our stories, and not us, it is interested in. As “trans” becomes a talking point the world over, the appetite for our stories seems to be growing, but the opportunities for trans actors and actresses have not grown in parallel. The reason is simple: Trans roles continue to go to cisgendered people. And every time we cry foul, cis producers insist that they’re on our side, that there’s a perfectly good reason, that we just have to give them a chance. Sometimes, they even assure us it won’t happen again.
Hollywood has made very clear that it is our stories, and not us, it is interested in.
Trans roles going to cis actors has been happening as long as trans roles have been available, but the tipping point of trans visibility in media came in 2013, thanks to the launch of Orange is the New Black and its role in making Laverne Cox a household name. Also released in 2013: Dallas Buyers Club.
Dallas Buyers Club is a heavily-fictionalized retelling of Rob Woodroof’s illegal AIDS medication smuggling operation. Among those fictionalized elements is Rayon, a trans woman who does not exist in Woodroof’s story. Unchained from the pesky limitations of translating a real-life person, the writers were free to create any kind of trans character they wanted. What we got, then, was a trans woman who was obsessed with beauty, depressed, addicted to drugs, had AIDS, and was a sex worker. In trans character bingo, this is called a full house.
Did they at least try to find a trans actress to take on the role, which may have offered some authenticity to this clichéd character? When asked this very question on CBC’s radio show Q, director Jean-Marc Vallee answered: “Never. [Are] there any transgender actors? I’m not aiming for the real thing. I’m aiming for an experienced actor who wants to portray the thing.”
He found that actor in Jared Leto, who claims to have consulted with several trans women about the role (though no trans women have, to this day, confirmed this). When finally confronted in person about his audacity in portraying a trans woman, he shot back: “Because I’m a man, I don’t deserve to play that part? So you would hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian — they can’t play a straight person?”
This quote single-handedly throws Leto’s self-proclaimed credibility out the window, as anyone who did the smallest amount of legitimate work to understand trans people would immediately recognize the difference between gender and sexuality. His comparison to gay or lesbians playing straight roles is like comparing apples to car tires: They are unrelated in any fashion.
A few years later, another high-profile example hit the presses: Eddie Redmayne, a cis man, would play the role of Lili Elbe, the first recipient of gender confirmation surgery. So, not only are trans people seemingly unqualified to play fictionalized trans people, we are also erased from historic trans stories. Tom Hooper, director of the film, had this to say when confronted about his casting:
“Access for trans actors to both trans and cisgender roles is utterly key. In the industry at the moment there is a problem: there is a huge pool of talent of trans actors, and access to parts is limited. I would champion any shift where the industry embraces trans actors and celebrates trans film-makers.”
This may be where the trend begins of producers gaslighting trans critics, trying to evade blame by making the aggrieved parties question their sanity. “I would champion any shift where the industry embraces trans actors,” Hooper says, but his actions show no interest in helping to create this shift. The evidence is right in front of us, and saying otherwise is at best intended to cast himself as an ally to the trans community without putting in the work to actually be one. At worst, it’s intended to make criticism look misguided and hysterical.
Instead of getting better, this trend is actually getting worse, with three high-profile instances of transphobic casting coming out in 2017 alone: (Re)Assignment starring Michelle Rodriguez, Anything starring Matt Bomer (first footage for which was just released), and Three Generations (formerly About Ray, formerly Three Generations) starring Elle Fanning. Members of each production team and cast have come out to claim their ally status, but have taken actions to further deny trans people space in telling their own stories.
Instead of getting better, this trend is actually getting worse, with three high-profile instances of transphobic casting coming out in 2017 alone.
Michelle Rodriguez might take the award for worst defense, however, as she simultaneously condescended to trans people while also claiming allyship: “It’s an entertainment piece, guys, calm down. I’m on your team,” she said when confronted with the damaging narrative of her new film. She further dug herself into a hole by (incorrectly) deadnaming and misgendering Caitlyn Jenner: “Thank Kris Jenner [sic] for becoming who he became. And now you have a popular subject matter than nobody wanted to make a movie about, and now everybody’s on it.”
This says nothing of the transphobic comments she made prior to the film’s announcement, wherein she proclaimed the need for a trans category in the Olympics, spreading the false narrative that hormones give trans people an unfair advantage.
(Re)Assignment screenwriter Denis Hamill fared no better in his defense, pointing out that the financing for the film was secured before trans issues became a national talking point. The mindset here is the importance of money over morality. “Someone gave us money. What were we supposed to do? The right thing?”
Three Generations, starring Elle Fanning, a cis woman playing a trans man, has also come under fire recently. Gaby Dellal, director of the film, seems to feel like she is qualified and deserving of telling the sensitive story of a trans man coming to terms with their identity, but has admitted the whole concept is new to her: “Three and a half years ago that was news to me. [W]e all think we’re working in a generation where transgender issues are very normal — but I don’t think they were as little as three years ago. They weren’t as transparent. I’m not saying they didn’t exist, but I didn’t know about them.”
She makes her inexperience clear in her defense of Fanning’s casting: “The part is a girl and she is a girl who is presenting in a very ineffectual way as a boy…she’s just girl who is being herself and is chasing the opportunity to start hormone treatment. So to actually use a trans boy was not an option because this isn’t what my story is about.”
The only conclusion to draw from this statement is that Dellal has no idea what her story is about. If she did, she would know that the story of a young trans boy is not the story of “just a girl being herself.” Once more, we have a story centered around the trans identity being told by people who haven’t done the slightest amount of work to understand what that is.
Once more, we have a story centered around the trans identity being told by people who haven’t done the slightest amount of work to understand what that is.
And once more, cis producers deny what they’re doing, right to our faces. By way of justifying her actions, Dellal says:
“I would never discriminate against a trans kid or actor coming up to audition, but in this day and age in cinema, where it’s almost impossible to raise the financing, unfortunately we have to have some people that mean a certain amount of money.”
Deliberately choosing a cis actor over a trans actor for your personal gain is, in fact, discrimination. Dellal is claiming otherwise in order to make critics seem naive, when in fact she’s the naive one. (And it’s worth noting the film also stars Susan Sarandon and Naomi Watts. The film is not short on star power with or without Fanning’s involvement.)
Not satisfied to leave it at that, Dellal goes so far as to pat herself on the back and tell the trans community that not only does she not deserve this criticism, but that she’s doing us a favor: “Actually, I think I should be credited for trying to make this issue be as accessible as I hope it can be.” It’s not her actions that are at fault, it’s that we’re not grateful enough for them.
The latest example of this blatantly transphobic casting practice comes in the form of the film Anything, wherein Matt Bomer, a cis man, plays a trans sex worker (surprise!). After numerous high-profile casting controversies, the community’s patience has worn thin at this point. While Bomer himself has remained pretty mum on the subject, the film’s producer, Mark Ruffalo, offered his apologies for the misstep: “To the trans community. I hear you. It’s wrenching to see you in this pain. I am glad we are having this conversation. It’s time.”
Keep in mind, this statement was made in September 2016, three years after Jared Leto, and a year after Eddie Redmayne. The community has been having this conversation for years. Legitimate allies have been having this conversation for years.
The community has been having this conversation for years. The problem is no one is listening.
The problem is no one is listening. What it’s time for, if anything, is for the filmmakers hell-bent on telling our stories to bring us to the table and make good on this support and love they claim to have for us.
When describing The Danish Girl, the film about Lili Elbe, director Tom Hooper said “It’s about inclusion made possible by love.” This quote resonates strongly, because in many ways, inclusion is, at its very core, an act of love. Actions speak louder than words, though, and Hollywood has proven time and again that they don’t love us nearly as much as they like making money off us. “Thank you for your stories.”