Hollywood Is Ready For Trans Characters, But Not Trans Actors

feature image via shutterstock


Over the next year or so, two major films focusing on transgender characters will be making their way into theaters. One, The Danish Girl, will focus on Lili Elbe, often thought to be the first person to undergo genital surgery to alter their physical sex. The other, Three Generations, will focus on a young trans man’s journey through transition while his family copes with the news. Sounds great, right? Hollywood is finally taking an interest in trans characters, and these are opportunities for increasing trans visibility. But, in a frustratingly predictable plot twist, the focal trans person in both films will be played by… dun dun dun… cis people! That’s right, Eddie Redmayne will play Elbe, and Elle Fanning will play the lead in Three Generations.

Of course, there’s a long history of trans people being portrayed by cis performers in film and television. Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Felicity Huffman in TransAmerica, and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club all earned significant accolades for their portrayals of transgender characters. All three of them were nominated for Academy Awards for these roles, and Swank and Leto both took home an Oscar statue. Jeffrey Tambor is currently receiving piles of praise for his role in the new Amazon series Transparent, and is already been hailed as Emmy-worthy performance. Let’s face it, playing a trans character is basically award-bait for cis actors. But, why aren’t these groundbreaking roles going to trans actors instead?

In the grand scheme of things, it’s been a really good year for trans visibility. Laura Jane Grace released her incredible True Trans documentary series on AOL Originals last month. Laverne Cox’s documentary on trans youth, The T Word, just came out over on LogoTV. Former Navy SEAL Kristen Beck released a best-selling memoir about her transition. Fashion Model Andreja Pejic will be releasing a documentary about her experiences. Hell, even Tyra Banks is producing a trans-focused documentary.  Considering how completely ignored and invisible the trans community has been for so long, it’s extremely encouraging to see so many of our stories coming to light. So, what gives? Why is it that we can get all kinds of documentaries about trans people, but we can’t get trans actors playing trans characters?

Andreja Pejic via  kickstarter

Andreja Pejic via kickstarter

I think it’s a problem of audience, money, and exploitation. In general, documentaries are seen by fewer people — documentaries that appeal to massive audiences are few and far between. Plus, they’re considerably less expensive to produce than a feature film. With those things in mind, it’s relatively easy to green light smaller documentary projects like the ones we’ve seen cropping up all over the place in the last year. It’s safe to show real trans people in a documentary. Even if it makes a lot of people uncomfortable, you aren’t out a ton of money. A big budget film is an entirely different situation. Hollywood is clearly sitting up and taking notice of the increased attention being paid to trans experiences. But this makes it even more clear that all that mainstream filmmakers are more interested in trans stories, but not exactly very interested in actual trans people. What we’re seeing from Hollywood is not a celebration of trans lives, but instead an appropriation and exploitation of trans identities.

In current entertainment climate, there’s a degree of hip-ness, of dare-I-say sexiness, to projects that include LGBT themes, and transgender themes in particular. For decades, the wider public has harbored a degree of fascination with lives of LGBT people because of their “otherness,” and films with LGBT themes provided voyeuristic windows into lives and cultures that remained a relatively mystery to the straight public until very recently. While there’s been a large degree of assimilation of gay and lesbian culture over the last 10-15 years, the experiences of trans people are still quite novel to a great number of people. After all, the vast majority of people now have at least one LGB person in their lives, but only a small percentage of the world is aware of any trans person within their immediate sphere of reality. Given that, there’s still a lot of curiosity and fascination about us in the public mind, for good or for ill. The problem is that the cis, straight world is still deeply uncomfortable with trans people. We’re still so powerfully othered by mainstream culture that many people are made profoundly uncomfortable by seeing or interacting with actual trans people. Ask any trans person about the characteristic shifts in facial expression and body language of most cis people when they disclose being trans if you need confirmation of this fact. With that in mind, it’s somewhat clearer why there has been only minimal movement towards casting trans performers to play trans roles in films geared to large audiences. While Hollywood is happy is exploit the public’s fascination with trans experiences, they’re not willing to risk their film budgets to elevate the standing of trans actors because they need to sanitize the film experience to ensure the comfort of their cis, straight moviegoers.

The media as a whole has a pretty upsetting history of exploitation the fascination of the public with trans people for attention, even when it involves spitting on the dignity of murder victims. In many ways, it feels like that’s what films like The Danish Girl and Three Generations are doing — using the spectacle of a trans character as a marketing ploy, and I think the trans community is right to be skeptical about these films. Despite his Academy Award for the role, Leto’s performance in the Dallas Buyers Club was a disappointing, highly-stereotyped, and fairly offensive portrayal of a trans woman. But, while I have some seriously mixed feelings about the casting of Tambor in Transparent, I must admit his portrayal of a trans woman is nuanced, sensitive, and touching. Transparent director Jill Soloway deserves a lot of credit for casting all of her other trans characters with trans performers, and working to bring several trans writers on board for the next season. We’ll simply have to wait and see whether Redmayne and Fanning fall into the Tambor or the Leto camp.

Of course, things aren’t all gloom and doom for trans performers. We’ve got Laverne Cox being absolutely amazing as Sophia on Orange Is The New Black. We’ve got amazing folks like Alexandra Billings on Transparent. Both shows have been wildly successful. There are also really awesome things bubbling up out of the independent film world. Currently making the festival rounds is the film Boy Meets Girl. It stars an actual trans woman, Michelle Hendley, as a young trans woman named Ricky who is beginning to explore the complications of dating for the first time. In an interview, director Eric Schaeffer explains why he felt it was important to cast a trans actress for this role:

“I also wanted to make sure every moment of this story rang true and was never false. Doing a lot of research in the transgender community taught me a tremendous amount and taught me there are many differing viewpoints within that community about certain issues. Having a transgender actress play the part made me feel confident that while the story could not reflect every transgender woman’s experience, at least I would not be making up an experience from my imagination that was not vetted by a transgender woman so I could make sure it was at least germane and authentic to her experience and therefore valid.”

Boy Meets Girl has received excellent reviews from its first festival screenings, including glowing praise for Hendley’s performance. (We liked it here at Autostraddle, too.) So, we can get supporting trans performers in hugely successful TV shows, and we can get transgender leads in indie film. It’s about time for mainstream filmmakers to move into the present day and cast their trans characters with trans performers.

Michelle Hendley in Boy Meets Girl via  the film collaborative

Michelle Hendley in Boy Meets Girl via the film collaborative

It’s disappointing and frustrating to see that Hollywood is ready for trans characters, but still almost completely closed to trans actresses. The directors of The Danish Girl and Three Generations had the opportunity to take a real step forward for trans inclusivity, and to potentially launch the careers of one or more trans actors. Instead, they chose to simply exploit trans experiences for benefit of the acting careers of established cis performers, and of course, their own bank accounts. Directors and producers taking on projects that feature trans themes would do well to study the ways that Soloway and Schaeffer tackled the subject matter, and focus themselves on including trans people in their process, particularly if cis actors are cast in trans roles.

Mari is a queer lady scientist and educator from Detroit, who skillfully avoids working on her genetics dissertation by writing about queer and trans life, nerd culture, feminism, and science. You can frequently find her running around at science-fiction conventions giving panels on consent culture and LGBT topics or DJing at fantastically strange parties. She is a contributing writer for TransAdvocate, maintains a personal blog at TransNerdFeminist, and can frequently be found stirring up trouble (and posting selfies) on Twitter.

Mari has written 36 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. Thank you for this excellent article Mari.

    Hollywood is just trying to cash in on trans stories because we finally have a voice and we’re getting attention, but they still don’t want us around… just our potential as a box office draw.

    I can’t say as I am surprised…we saw this with African-American, Native American, and Asian actors in the past… It’s just sad that rather than make the push to bring in and build up good trans actors, they are content to recycle popular cis folks in trans roles.

    They are also still hung up on incessantly casting cis men as trans women and cis women as trans men.

    One hopes they might eventually see the light.

    • Just popping in to mention that this still happens, FREQUENTLY, with non-white actors and actresses. Look at this year’s “Exodus,” which cast white actors as Egyptian main characters (and black actors as slaves), or last year’s “Forty-Seven Ronin,” which plonked a random white male lead into a Japanese story about Japanese historical events. I’m disgusted but not at all surprised at the lack of trans actors and actresses in trans character roles. Hollywood has a LONG way to go.

  2. Thanks a lot for this article, Mari!

    I just wanted to plug in the Swedish film ‘Something Must Break’, from this year, whose lead actress, Saga Becker, is a trans woman in real life.

    (I overall liked the film, although it had a lot of faults. It’s the basically the story of two emotionally immature young people – as in, they still think it’s funny to shoplift beer and end up in the hospital – who have a lot of sweet moments, but whose relationship is fundamentally obsessive and unhealthy. At the end of the movie, Ellie eventually recovers from her self-destructive tendencies and gets tired of Andreas’ ‘Am I still straiiiight?!’ whines, and leaves him.)

  3. For me, as a trans actor and filmmaker, its not so much being played by cis people that I’m tired of seeing its the cross gender play of it all. If Elle Fanning was playing a transwomen I wouldn’t really care all that much (not to say other people wouldn’t rightly be upset), but i would be maybe a little put out if a transwomen was passed over for the role. Women playing women makes sense and they would better understand what its like to be a women than a man, obviously. Men put on a wig and a dress and they think they know what its like to be a women but i can assure you that that women is just as much herself outside of the “trappings of femininity” and may even have felt closed in by it. Tambour did an amazing job, and mad props to him, but his presence certainly has made it hard for interveiwers and media persons alike to use the proper pronoun with reference to Maura and that will always happen when a man plays a women. Men need to stop playing women unless there is a GOOD reason for it, and it has to be a great one. The whole “not famous enough for the role to bring in an audience” doesn’t work because there are plenty of women out there (cis and trans alike) that would better deserve the part. This just hearkens back to Shakespearean patriarchy bullshit, if men could play all the parts and get away with it, I’m sure they would. When it comes to men playing women in film its all about misogyny.

      • Those are still inappropriate castings, but there was a reason at the time for hillary swank because it makes sense for the story, its a story about transistion and it would be hard to find someone that early on or a man to convincingly play the part for a mass audience in the 90s but still women shouldn’t play men unless there is a good reason. You cant really compare trans men to trans women though in this situation. There is a really important conversation to be had about the fact that trans men are mostly erased from media all together, compared to trans women, but that doesn’t negate the fact there are countless examples of men playing trans women (not in transition on screen and it very much does look and feel like they are consistently putting men on screen to play women in order to boost the male ego of the stars. They are saying time and again that men are better at playing women than women.And i know this isn’t the case 100% of the time but those that it isn’t are the exception not the rule.

        • I responding to this comment.

          “This just hearkens back to Shakespearean patriarchy bullshit, if men could play all the parts and get away with it, I’m sure they would. When it comes to men playing women in film its all about misogyny.”

          It makes little to no sense if they are willing to cast women in the role of men. They would just cast men. I’m sure even in the case of Boys Don’t Cry they would have found a man to play through the transition if they were truly inclined to.

          • It still plays into the misogyny of it all, those men are not “real men” and trans women are not “real women” according to Hollywood so I don’t think its much of a stretch to say its plays into the fact that male actors/ men in general are more valued in main stream Media. but understand some people wont see it that way.

    • Very interesting response to already interesting article.

      I was original going to say that the probably is largely due to like of actors with “star power” as we’ve seen before with other marginalized people being “sexy” subjects for movies. For example, there were no Puerto Rican actress in 1961 with the kind of name recognition as Natalie Wood in West Side Story (or so producers would assume anyway.
      However when it comes to being transgendered, you got a point Sadie. This might not be as true for women roles today as much as men’s roles. Men have had a much longer dressing as women either for laughs or for drama and usually those roles have been too defined by “wardrobe.” We may of all heard the phrase “cloths make the man,” but the truth of the matter is that in most societies do expect femininity to be defined by “accessory.”
      There have been a few cases where they reached beyond this problem of course. “Tootsie,” managed to find a male actor successful to become an interesting woman independent of the stereotypical soap opera role she was supposed to play and thus gave the character a mind and life of her own. But even there the experience of a cis-male living as a cis-female part time is sure to be different from trying to live as a trans-women all the time.
      So yeah, for an actor to play ANY women beyond a sketch comedy (and not just a male cross-dressor) it should be as you said a good role for great reason.

      • If an actor is acting though, who says the actor has to have had the life experience to play the part. I don’t think you need to live your life as a woman to play a woman on the screen for two hours. I think that’s making far too much of it.

        It also seems like a dangerous argument to make. For one, most actors have not lived the experiences they are portraying in the often devastating Oscar type roles, and second if media ever gets to a place where trans* actors are being cast in trans* roles I would hate for them to be limited to those characters based off of needing to have lived the experience. It seems silly, but gay (particularly male) actors are stigmatized this way all the time.

        • I’d never go so far as to say you have to have lived the experience. Yes actors are hired to pretend and it would be absurd to say that ONLY a dane could properly play Hamlet. I just think that when it comes to men playing there hasn’t (usually) been a enough consideration payed into to what it means to live as a women full time and that’s probably has as much to due with the writing as it those the acting approach. I mentioned an exception a saw in Tootise because that was a well written by an actor who could make this women he played a character rather than caricature.
          I don’t think there’s a perfect rule when it comes to casting against background. It’s just something to be cautions about.

        • “If media ever gets to a place where trans* actors are being cast in trans* roles I would hate for them to be limited to those characters based off of needing to have lived the experience.”

          Tell you what… let’s worry about that one when we get there. For right now, Elle Fanning and Eddie Redmayne are thought to be more qualified to play a trans person than an actual trans person and that’s just utter BS. (nor do I believe for one second that either one of those performers has any clout when it comes to receiving financing for a project… the other excuse I always here) It’s not the same as gay or straight actors playing characters of differing sexual orientations… sorry, but being trans is a way more complex experience on a lot of different levels. Ask anyone who came out as gay/lesbian first and then came out as trans later on. I’m so fed up with this “actors can play anything” excuse being given.

          The reason they hire women to play trans men and men to play trans women is because they don’t think trans people are who we know ourselves to be. Period. No matter what other reason is given, that’s the real answer. And that’s one of the reasons why this situation is NOT the same as a straight person “playing gay” (which I don’t like either)… this is an entire disavowal of our identities.

          • Another excuse I hear a lot is that supposedly no trans woman would be willing to “go backwards” and play a trans woman prior to and during transition.

            How about trying to find that out, and not making assumptions? I don’t think a single one of these directors/producers ever gave a moment’s thought to looking for a trans actor to play the role.

            I think it’s interesting that I’ve seen so many people willing to defend this kind of thing who would never dream of defending the exclusion of other marginalized groups from consideration when casting roles depicting members of those groups.

            I’m not necessarily saying that trans actors should always have to play 100% of trans leading roles in mainstream productions. But right now, they’re playing NONE of those roles. So pardon me if I think the question is irrelevant right now.

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