“As an actor I should be able to play any person, or any tree, or any animal, because that’s my job and the requirements of my job.”
Last month, the highest paid actress in Hollywood, Scarlett Johansson made this statement, and was promptly met with backlash. Her failed attempt at playing a trans man had taught her nothing. She confirmed what most of us had assumed: she stepped aside because she had to, not because she understood.
There are a lot of reasons cis actors shouldn’t play trans characters. You’ve probably heard these reasons before. Trans actors are rarely cast as cis characters, so cis actors are taking away some of the few jobs they can get. Cis actors playing trans parts dangerously suggests that trans people are simply wearing a costume. Trans actors can bring a level of authenticity to a part especially when the writer and director are cis.
Of these reasons, the one that is most quantifiable, and, therefore, most understood by cis people, is the matter of giving trans actors parts. This also allows cis people to imagine a world where we achieve a level of equality where actors can just be actors. You wouldn’t believe how many people on the internet cherish the craft of acting.
It’s not that I don’t care about this. I, of course, want trans people to be employed in every field, including the entertainment industry. But a world where trans people are cast as cis characters in exchange for cis people getting cast as trans characters is not the world I dream about. Because there’s another really important reason it shouldn’t happen.
Cis actors are absolutely terrible at playing us.
Today is August 13, 2019, which means a lot of things. It’s Leo season. It’s International Left-Handers Day. It’s Andrea Gibson’s birthday. And, most importantly, it’s the 20th anniversary of lesbian classic Better Than Chocolate.
Better Than Chocolate is not a good movie. But if you were gay in the late ’90s or early ’00s you’ve probably seen it. Or you’ve seen it if, like me, you watch a lot of gay movies, regardless of quality.
Maggie is a lesbian. She works at a gay bookstore. She lip syncs at a local club. And she moves, falls in love, and begins hosting her mother and brother all in the span of about 24 hours. Chaos ensues. It’s a wild few days in Vancouver and we’re just lucky to bear witness.
Most people probably remember the movie for the sex scenes between Maggie and her new girlfriend, Kim. Notably there’s a scene where they paint each other’s bodies to make art and make love. They also fuck in a bathroom stall and are met with cheers by the lesbians in line, a reaction that seems… unlikely.
But the movie is ultimately an ensemble. Maggie and Kim are joined by Maggie’s recently divorced mother, her teenage brother, a horny bisexual who hooks up with her brother, Maggie’s boss Frances who is fighting to keep her bookstore alive, and Judy, a trans woman eager to have surgery and desperately in love with Frances.
Better Than Chocolate is silly and fun, especially when you’re accompanied by a group of friends and a bottle of wine. But the ’90s were a monumental decade for queer cinema. 1999 alone had Aimée & Jaguar, All About My Mother, But I’m a Cheerleader, Chutney Popcorn, The Matrix, Set Me Free, and the US release of Show Me Love. There’s really only one reason to revisit this movie that’s mediocre at best. And that reason is Judy.
Better Than Chocolate is the only piece of media that portrays a trans woman as a member of a lesbian friend group. Correct me if I’m wrong. Please, I beg of you, correct me.
When trans people are included in lesbian ensembles it’s always trans men. From The L Word to Itty Bitty Titty Committee to the latest Tales of the City to The L Word again, this has been the case. This isn’t inaccurate. Anyone who has spent time in cisdominant lesbian spaces knows there are more transmasculine people than transfeminine people. But if accuracy was truly the goal there would be far more than one transmasculine person, one or two transfeminine people, and a few more non-binary people thrown in for good measure. Turns out, in real life, we’re not all fighting to be the only one.
But in this Canadian cult comedy we get Judy. And her storyline is handled surprisingly well, despite some usual tropes.
After backup dancing Maggie’s opening number, Judy is introduced sharing a letter from her parents. She’s been estranged from them for years but now they’ve offered to buy her a condo so she has someplace to stay post-surgery. Maggie responds by complaining about her own mother coming to visit and telling Judy she should find a place for her mother too.
This happens throughout the film. The conversation is hijacked from Judy and she quickly adapts. Trans women and non-binary AMAB people often take on a caretaking role, so while it’s frustrating to watch, it feels realistic. Maggie and her mother lean on Judy. Her problems may be more serious, but she’s used to decentering herself.
Even though most of the film is very light, it doesn’t know how to tell Judy’s story with the same touch. She’s getting surgery, she’s trying to navigate estrangement from her parents, and, in one especially painful scene, she’s physically assaulted in a women’s bathroom. The movie cuts from this bathroom harassment to Maggie and Kim kissing on the dance floor and that juxtaposition sums up the difference in how we think cis stories and trans stories can be told.
While there’s value in watching Judy navigate her position in lesbian spaces and confront her family trauma, the reason I care about this movie is because Judy gets a love story.
At first, it seems like Frances isn’t interested. Judy boldly asks her out and Frances mutters something about being busy.
Then she sees Judy perform.
I’m not a fucking drag queen
I’m in another bracket
What you see before you
Is not some midnight racket
Judy’s song is vulnerable and angry. It’s delicious that Judy’s sexy performance is centered around this level of openness. She doesn’t win over Frances by hiding her transness. She wins her over by owning it.
When the performance ends, Frances is even more frazzled than usual. She is awash with confused cis horniness. “That was great! Really!” she shouts to no one in particular.
But then the doubts come back. “Judy, I’ve never been what you would call sexually adventurous,” Frances says. “I’ve had three girlfriends. All of them were exactly like me.”
“I’m exactly like you!” Judy insists. She shares that she was an English major and that they both love Gertrude Stein. Judy is trans. But she is more than that identity. She is also a literature dyke and wants to be treated as such. Frances, once again, seems stunned. Judy coolly lights her cigarette and they decide to leave together.
Back at Frances’ place, Judy kisses her hesitantly. There’s a beat. And then Frances lunges. They make out for a few moments before Frances’ doubts sink back in. This is the same night as the incident in the bathroom and watching Judy leave hurriedly with a bruise on her face and another on her ego is heartbreaking.
But during the climax, after Maggie has chained herself to the front of the bookstore, a gang of skinheads has tried to blow it up, and Kim has returned after the mandatory third act dip, Judy also gets a happy ending.
Frances tells her that she loves her. And they kiss.
This triumphant moment has only one problem. Judy is played by Peter Outerbridge, a cis man. This affects every moment in the film, good and bad.
It also happens to be my favorite performance of a cis person playing a trans character.
No trans actor has ever been nominated for an Oscar.
But Chris Sarandon, John Lithgow, Jaye Davidson, Felicity Huffman, Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, and Eddie Redmayne have been nominated for playing trans characters, and Hillary Swank and Jared Leto won.
Most of these performances are terrible.
The reason why I prefer Outerbridge’s performance to this acclaimed list is because he was decidedly not trying to win an Oscar. The strained importance that’s felt in those other performances is exhausting. Every single choice is meant to highlight the tortured inner struggle of being transgender. They perform femininity and masculinity like aliens mimicking human behavior.
Outerbridge is not without some of these tics. He pitches his voice up to near-Doubtfire levels and he moves his hands as if limp wrists were a core tenant of womanhood.
But there are moments where Outerbridge forgets to play trans, when he gets so tied up in being in love or being afraid that he’s just a person. This is when his performance is at its best. It’s also when he’s most obviously a man.
A man is ultimately a person and that’s what’s felt deepest. And that’s what’s most important. He’s a person. She’s a person. But it still feels fake. It becomes a heightened theatrical experience where the pleasure is not found in an immersion into the world, but rather in watching a story told. It’s like a parent reading all the parts in a children’s book. They aren’t convincing, but it’s the thought that counts.
Part of the problem is obviously medical. While every trans woman does not medically transition, this character is about to have surgery meaning she’s likely been on hormones for years. The subtle changes that occur to your face, your body, your mind, simply cannot be replicated by throwing some makeup on a cis man.
Then there’s the performance itself.
It’s nearly impossible to discuss whether or not acting feels authentic. Because of that word: feels. How does one quantify that feeling?
I have certainly met trans women who sound like Judy and move their hands like Judy. Maybe this is natural to them. Maybe they too are trying to perform femininity in a world that demands it from trans women. I might cringe when Outerbridge acts this way, but I cannot point to these tangible choices as a mark of inauthenticity.
Whenever I talk to cis people about this topic, I can see them salivating at the possibility of presenting me with a Pepsi-Coke Challenge. What if I didn’t know? Would my oft-said declaration that I can just tell hold true?
I think it would. I think it has. I also think it doesn’t matter.
Cis people act like trans stories are new. But since 1975 nine cis actors have been nominated for Oscars for playing us. So many more were nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes. So many more weren’t nominated for awards because their roles were little more than a joke or a one-note villain. Acting is not always about authenticity, but all of the performances listed above were intended to be so. And the ones that aren’t tend to be mean, portraying trans people for laughs or scares.
The first hundred years of cinema were cruel towards trans people. I will not apologize for my inability to watch a cis person on screen trying to be me, and not feel in constant danger of being mocked.
Better Than Chocolate is a lighthearted lesbian comedy. And yet we’re still beaten up, we’re still abandoned by our parents, we still have to convince someone who likes us that we’re dateable, and we still don’t get to have sex on screen.
My favorite moment in the movie happens during the climax when one of the skinheads punches Judy. She punches him back. He calls her a dyke. And she says thank you.
I like watching her fight back. I like her sense of humor. I like how it shows a specific trans experience: being harassed as a woman, as a lesbian, can be more validating than a compliment.
But I’m still aware that my favorite moment in this movie, the only movie to portray a social circle like my own, features a cis man.
For a moment, I am on screen. Yet, I’m nowhere to be found.
God Drew, I got into film making because I wanted to do something like this. Something surreal and funny like Monty Python but trans, or gritty and sexy like Bound but trans. I never found anyone to work with, and I’m much more a photographer than a script writer, so…. nothing happened and I stopped trying years ago. I spent a decade lost in imposter syndrome wondering if I was even trans, if I could ever be a real person. I can’t imagine the balls it takes for cis people to think they can – or should – portray that. I love that there are so many great shows coming out with straight trans women in them, but we need to see ourselves too.
Well, the good news is if no one else does it I will.
BUT I think there are a lot of people who feel that way which is exciting. I also think we’ll see more from cis people. I mean Bit basically has a trans girl with a lesbian friend group, they’re just vampires. haha
The lighting in that still looks like a zombie movie….and I am here to say I’m all for a remake of this as a trans lesbian friend group taking out cis zombies, with “How does this feel? Better than chocolate!” being shouted out every time they dispatch another one. With trans actors, obvs.
I’m seeing a scene with zombies corralled into a bathroom facing a flamethrower.
“Guess who’s using the ‘wrong’ bathroom now?” BOOM!
Sorry, got distracted. Love reading your reviews!
I mean also with at least one lot of exes, one frenemies with hot intense conflict, and one slow but sweet poly romance buildup in the group.
I am ready to see this in theaters with friends.
Please make this movie.
Also I think you’re going to love Bit.
I can’t wait!!! I want it to have a regular theatre release BUT I also want it to come to VQFF, bc the 10 days of Vancouver queer film fest are about to begin and I LOVE seeing movies surrounding by other queermos, and I am PUMPED. Hope to see Bit there another year!
I see Toronto got it for their film fest, but we didn’t; that bites.
Maybe next year…
I have a question about this. I’m trying to use inclusive language – but English is not my native language, so please forgive me if I mess up.
Actually I have two questions: first – you mentioned Glenn Close? Are you referring to the film Albert Nobbs? Because I remembered it being about a woman pretending to be a man, not a trans person. That’s how it’s summarized on IMDB too. So, doesn’t in make sense that they chose an cis actress for that role?
Second question: say you were making a film about a trans person, but have it focus for whatever reason on the pre-transition period. Would you cast a cis actor or a trans actor? Or if you were making a historical film – before hormones and surgery and whatnot- how would you cast a trans character then? Because it’s not everything, but it does make a difference in how a person looks.
I’m not trying to be confrontational, I am actually curious what you (or trans commenters) would do if you were directing a major film and an umlimited budget.
I decided to include Albert Nobbs, because trans identities are often erased from history when in fact there’s a lot of evidence that “women” who dressed as men out of necessity were not just doing so out of necessity. I highly recommend Morgan M Page’s podcast One from the Vaults which covers a lot of true life cases. Albert Nobbs traffics enough in these narratives that I feel comfortable calling it a trans story.
To answer your second question, I think trans actors should always be cast. Before transitioning even though I ostensibly looked like a cis man, I was often treated differently. I think casting trans actors can capture this.
Ava DuVernay’s series When They See Us casts Isis King to play a trans woman before and after transitioning. During the earlier scenes there is something a bit off about her, but I think that’s far more true to life than if a cis man had been cast for those moments.
“Better than Chocolate” is highly underrated. It changed my feelings about Sarah Maclachlan just because of the end credits. Ugh! Love that movie!
As a trans lesbian myself, I have an almost identical reaction to this movie. And yeah, so far as I know, it’s the _only_ film that features a trans lesbian character (except *maybe* Elvis and Madonna, though the titular Madonna is both bi and a travesti, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as being a trans woman)
Wow I can’t believe I haven’t seen Elvis and Madonna. I will be watching that soon.
There are some other examples of lesbian trans women, and a handful more queer ones. Sense8 and Her Story are probably the best in my opinion.
omg yessss. speaking as a cis(ish?) person who will never get tired of making fun of this movie, or of loving this character despite all the problematic aspects you hit on, reading this is already the best part of my week. also “awash with confused cis horniness” really succinctly sums up my personal brand
RIP Karyn Dwyer. You are still thought about. <3 She is from my province of Newfoundland which I think is a reason I connected with her.
I own this movie on DVD. It was so hard to find a movie back then that I felt good about watching as a trans woman. It might not be a good movie but I felt good about myself after watching it. I didn't feel like a joke.
I have several books written by Ann-Marie MacDonald, one of them signed. She is so talented.
Finally Christina Cox, love her. I watched her in F/X: The Series because I enjoy her so much.
Those were just a few random thoughts. This movie holds a special place in my heart.
Christina Cox has a special place in my heart, she was part of Nikki & Nora, a never-aired/never pick-up pilot that is one of the cornerstones of the fanfic world
Huh, I was put off by this movie because of the big eye roll it seemed to give every character who wasn’t a hot young cis girl. In particular I didn’t like how they treated the trans character. Maybe it was more self-aware than I took it to be at the time and I should give it another chance.
Thank you for this piece.
@Drew- I have felt like that about this film since I saw it 20 years ago, but nobody seemed to agree. So thank you for pointing this out :))