This is an argument that comes up every now and again on social media. Typically, whenever a cisgender person plays a transgender person. Usually there are two main schools of thought on this question. The first one, states that anyone should be able to play any role what so ever. That it should only be based on the actor’s talent. The other school argues that trans actors should play trans roles because they would have an inside knowledge on what it is like to be a trans person. The more extreme version of this argument states that cisgender people whom play trans people are guilty of ‘trans face’ similar to that of black face. The otherside of the argument often points out that a trans person often does begin their life as their assigned sex. So that it makes sense to have someone of their assigned sex take the part.
As a result, whenever a trans character makes an appearance in media, there is constant arguing about who should have played this character. This makes for a massive headache for anyone who attempts to even get involved in the argument. The examples I will use here are ones I am personally familiar with and all of them will be trans women. As those are the ones I am most familiar with. I let someone else handle the topic of trans men in film and tv-there are plenty of trans men whom would be better suited to that then me. This isn’t intended as a representation of every trans woman in film and media but just as one person’s take on the whole situation. If you want to get a conversation going, please feel free to drop a comment down below, if you enjoy what you read give this post a like and subscribe for more.
Cis men playing Trans Women
Casting a cisgender man to play a trans woman is probably the most controversial choice one can make in terms of casting to play a trans woman. Unlike most other cases where this is usually frowned on, I am going to discuss two examples of this, one which I consider positive and the other negative. In the 1999 film, Better then Chocolate, a trans woman, Judy Squires is played by a cis man, Peter Outerbridge. Would it have been better to have a woman play this role? Yes, but this film came out in 1999 and even though the representation of Judy does not hold up to a modern standard of say Orange is the New Black it still has a lot of positives to it. Judy’s identity is not treated as a joke, she is respected by friends and they fully support her. Whether that means being there to talk or else standing up to transphobes in the restroom for her.
Judy herself is quite a go getter, throughout the film she prepares for surgery, deals with family rejection and find the love of her life. She is one of the few trans characters in media to get a happy ending. Judy’s identity both as a woman and as a lesbian is treated with respect both by other characters and the narrative. She is a person with depth, not a punch line. There are some jokes but never as her expense, she sings a pretty hilarious song explaining the differences between trans women and drag queens (rightly called ‘I am not a fucking Drag Queen’). The difference here is, we are laughing with her not at her. But even though this representation is pretty good considering that this film came out in 1999, there are still problems with casting a cis man to play a trans woman.
I have nothing against Outerbridge as an actor but when he puts on a wig, makeup and a dress to play a trans woman, I have to willing suspend my disbelief to accept that Judy is a woman. Which shouldn’t be the case with trans women ever. Trans women should not have to ask cis people to suspend their disbelief to acknowledge that we are women. That shouldn’t even be considered-society needs to learn that when someone describes their gender identity that what they are saying is truthful- no, ifs, ands or buts about it. While I am willing to give Better then Chocolate a pass because of when it came out more modern examples of this are just insulting, it is no longer 1999 people, it is 2018.
I am tired of having to see cisgender men in wigs, makeup and skirts acting as though they are trans women. That is not my idea of accurate or respectful representation. Perhaps one of the worst offenders of this was back in 2013, when a trans woman, Rayon was played by Jared Leto. While Rayon’s identity was at least no used as a punch line-probably the only good thing about it-everything else about her character was cliched and done. She makes a living as a drug dealer, she is played by a cis man, her face is covered in makeup and you can still see stubble, she is an addict, who dies to motivate the cis people to do better. Check, check, check, check and check. There is nothing new here and hardly anything progressive. Rayon does not feel like a trans woman to me and I am a trans woman.
When you ask me to accept that a man in a wig, dress and makeup is a trans woman, it means I have to willingly suspend my disbelief to see this person as a trans woman. I have to do the same thing with witches, goblins and elves but the difference here is that they are not real people whose lives will be impacted by this representation. Transgender people are. When it comes to casting of other minority groups one could make the same argument. We don’t cast white people to play racial minorities anymore, because we have accepted that when you want a character who looks like a particular racial group it is better to hire from that group. When you want a character who is a woman, hire a woman to play her.
Cis Women playing Trans Women
There are three examples I personally am familiar with where cisgender actresses have played trans female characters. Those are Anna Madrigal from Tales of the City (1993), Alexis Meade from Ugly Betty (2006-2010) and Bree from Transamerica (2005). Each of these stories has their own problems but the difference between them and the cases where cisgender men take on these roles is that these are women regardless of how I view them. Which is at least a start-casting a woman to play a woman. Tales of the City and Ugly Betty do not focus on their character’s transitions as part of the storyline. Indeed, the two women have both undergone GRS by the time the narrative begins. However, rather then being treated as just another aspect of these women instead the fact that these women are trans is treated more like a plot twist. Something that these women have hidden away, and that the other characters uncovers during the story. Yes, it is an improvement on the one hand to have women in these roles but their trans identities are also sensationalised.
Ana Madrigal character is presented as the motherly land lady to the other characters in Tales of the City. Later it is revealed she is the bio-parents of one of the main characters: Mona Ramsey. Throughout the series her trans identity is hinted at, through old photos and comments about her past. At one point she uses an expression that men whom served in the army used. It isn’t until the very end of series that she tells her married lover about her past because someone is threatening to expose them. Refreshingly, he simply accepts this part of her history and who she is. I rather enjoyed the character of Ana Madrigal, but I wish this aspect of her could have been handled differently. She is a trans woman living in deep stealth, not even those close to her know about her history. The mystery added to her identity sensationalizes it, rather then gives us an insight into who she is and why she chose to live the way she did. Like with Judy from Better than Chocolate there are a lot of positives to her story and considering it came out in 1993 it was pretty good considering the time.
However, Ugly Betty’s Alexis Meade is far more sensationalistic then Tales of the City’s Ana Madrigal. In the former, Alexis Meade kills off her male identity very literally, by faking her own death and going into hiding to pursue her transition. She later emerges to take revenge on her father for rejecting her, by framing him for murder and taking over his company. The first glimpses we get of her in series are those of a badged woman, hinting that she has undergone heavy plastic surges as part of her transition. She is also very wealthy, flirts with her brother before revealing who she is and organizes a (failed) hit on her father. That results in her and brother ending up a car crash (I could not make this up if I tried people). It isn’t as if there are no good elements to this representation, Alexis is being played by a woman, her identity and struggles are portrayed as valid and with sympathy. Ugly Betty aired between 2006 and 2010, so at least it got those things right.
Lastly, we have Bree from Trans America. Bree’s identity isn’t sensationalized like with Ana’s and Alexis’, but she is portrayed as doing femininity and femaleness very badly. She comes off as more of a cliché then an actual person. Her face is covered in makeup, her nails painted pink and all her clothes are pink. The entire film is her quest to have GRS, resulting a road trip with her long-lost son. The entire film seems to be going out of it’s way to portray Bree’s identity as fake-this representation feels like it has more in common with the examples of cis men playing trans women then those of cis women playing trans women. While it is great to see a woman playing a trans woman, it is undermined by all these attempts to make Bree’s femaleness seem fake.
Even with the sensationalistic elements, Ana and Alexis were never undermined as women, the narratives they were in never attempted to make them look or feel fake. This is further driven home by the several real trans women such as Calapra Adams and Andrea James whom briefly appear in the film. The cases of cis women playing trans women fall short because either the character is sensationalized or else her identity is undermined. Again, this isn’t what I would call respectful or accurate representation. But at least they were steps in the right directions with women playing women, instead of taking a cisgender man and putting him in a dress and wig.
Trans Women playing Trans Women
There are four examples of trans women playing trans women that I will look at here. Sophia from Orange is the New Black. Ricky from Boy meets Girl. Naomi from Sense8. Jen and Paige from the web series Herstory. Sophia Burst played by Laverne Cox is considered one of the best examples of a trans person in media. She is portrayed well; her identity is treated with respect and she is a character with depth. However, there is another side to this representation, every single one of her storylines focuses on the fact she is a trans woman. Not a single episode she is in focuses on some other aspect of her character. Not to mention it is made clear, she is only in a women’s prison because she is post-op. While the series does seem to be trying to use her to draw attention to the issues transgender prisoners often face, she feels less like a real person with each passing season. She is also the only trans woman on the show, no other trans women visit her in prison or show up her flashbacks, just her wife, her son and cis male friends.
A similar problem pops up in Boy meets Girl. Even though Ricky is a character with depth, portrayed empathically and well written there are still some problems. She is the only trans character in the film, she lives in a small town so another trans person being in life that way is very unlikely. However, she is a youtuber and there is a huge number of trans youtubers, she could have a community to connect with but doesn’t seem to. Not only that but similar to Sophia emphasis is put on her surgical status. There is an entire scene, where she is unclothed, unrevealing that she is pre-operative or non-operative. She is the only one in the scene to be disrobed as well. There is an over emphasis placed on the genitalia of trans women in media. So, to improve on these two examples of representation two things need to happen. Firstly, trans female characters need to be shown as having a community and secondly, the surgical status of the character needs to be left alone-the genital of a trans woman is no one’s concern, except for her whether she is real or fictional.
Sense8 handles the idea of a trans person far better than the previous two do. Naomi is shown as having a community. From her girlfriend and her a close circle of friends. She later forms a connection with a gay man through their shared experiences as LGBTQ. But there are also other aspects of her characters that are given focus-her hacking skills, her identity as a lesbian and her psychic powers as a member of the cluster. Her trans identity, isn’t overly focused on but rather is put of her character and is integrated into her narrative and who she is as character. Also, she gets a happy ending with her soon to be with wife. But while all of this is good, there are still some problems with her character.
She is first introduced during a sex scene with girlfriend-the first thing we learn about her is that she is post-op. Also, while some of the other characters she interacts with maybe trans it is never state if they are. So, yes big improvement but still some ways to go. The difference between Naomi and characters like Sophia or Ricky is that there are trans women behind the production, the Wachowski sisters, so is there a better example of trans female characters whom were created by trans women, well yes actually there is. A web series called Herstory, which is the best representation of trans women I have seen.
Herstory was written by a trans woman, directed by a trans woman and has trans women in the leading roles. The two trans characters of Paige and Violet are each other’s friends and confidants, the series focuses on their dating lives and their trans identities are interwoven into the narrative not overly focused on. The issues trans women face are highlighted but do not overtake the narrative, that focus remains on the budding
romantic relationships in the series. Jen and Paige exist in a community of other queer women, of both cis women and other trans women. Their surgical status is never mentioned in the story, because it isn’t important to the story, for once. The reason why Herstory is able to do all these things right is because it was created by trans women to tell their own stories. Herstory needs to be seen as the model to follow, because it is trans women telling their own stories, proving that trans women are the best people to tell our stories.
Having a trans woman actress play a trans female character is what I would consider best practice in terms of casting. Even if the character is ‘pre-transition’ it should be down to the actress whether she is comfortable with presenting as male (there are trans women whom are Drag Kings that wouldn’t be a problem for them). Now, it won’t be every case where a trans woman will be cast, there maybe many cases where a cis female actor could do a good job, but a trans actor would be able to bring an insider’s knowledge to the role a cis person would lack. But with that all being said, we need to stop having cisgender men in wigs and dresses play trans women, because that ultimately that undermines what trans women have been fighting for, that we are women, no ifs, no ands, or buts about it.
Secondly, why yes having trans women actresses is important but what is also very important is having trans women as writers and directors. So that the character is as fleshed out as possible by people who understand there is more to this person then their gender identity. The talent behind the camera is just as important as the talent in front of it when it comes to Film and TV. Otherwise, we end up with characters being treated like Sophia, where only her trans identity is focused on with nothing else being looked at. Or else with Bree, where the story focuses overly on her feminine appearance. While reading this, some might be thinking ‘but what about a trans woman playing a cis woman is that not the same thing?’
Well, no it isn’t because cis women are everywhere in media. Yes, the portrayals of cis females are not always good but there is a huge selection and cis actresses are hardly short of roles in comparison to trans women’s roles. Trans women on the other hand are massively unrepresented. Yes, it is all acting, but this is a question of whom is best suited to the role, it isn’t about talent, and for this, transgender women are best suited to tell our own stories.