“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.