Hollywood Is Running Out of Excuses for Dangerous Trans Representation

It is a stone cold fact that pop culture representation of marginalized communities affects the real lives of people in those communities. On a personal level, humans have an intrinsic need to see themselves represented in stories; it’s how we figure out how to move through the world. On a broader level, depictions of marginalized people on TV and in film inform the way our culture views and treats minorities. GLAAD confirms this year after year with the research they put into their Where We Are On TV reports. Support of marriage equality in the United States, for example, rose in almost direct proportion to the number of gay characters on TV, and when GLAAD surveyed Americans who’d changed their minds about same-sex marriage, they found that “knowing” a gay TV character was commensurate to knowing a gay person in real life (and people are much less likely to support anti-gay legislation when they know a gay person).

It’s because of this irrefutable reality that trans women are, once again, being forced to speak out against a major film that will feature a cis man playing a trans women. The film is called Anything and it’s based on Timothy McNeil’s play of the same name. In it, a grieving widower falls in love with a transgender sex worker. That transgender sex worker will be played by Matt Bomer. Mark Ruffalo is the executive producer.

Before we dig into this specific film, let me just throw some numbers at you. According to a months-long deep dive Riese did earlier this year, of the 105 trans women we’ve seen in all of TV history, 59% of them have been subjected to hate speech, 68% of them have been intentionally misgendered, and almost half of them fall into the “deceptive trans person” trope. Prior to 2001, a trans woman had never played a trans woman on TV. Since then, only 20% of fictional trans women on TV have been played by actual trans women, and the most popular and critically acclaimed TV and films about trans women — Transparent, Dallas Buyer’s Club, The Danish Girl — all star cis men in the leading trans role.

Stories don’t happen inside a vacuum, so it’s important to contextualize those bleak numbers with what’s happening in the real world. 2016 has already seen the murder of at least 19 trans people in the United States, which means we’re on track to break last year’s already record-breaking year of reported trans murders. (We wrote more obituaries for murdered trans women last year than recaps for any single TV show we cover.) North Carolina implemented HB2, but it wasn’t an isolated incident. Over 50 anti-trans bills were introduced into state legislatures this year. Many of them were “bathroom bills,” but others tried to halt transition-related healthcare for incarcerated trans people or deny trans people the basic rights to their vital records.

Trans women face a trifecta of oppression every single day: toxic pop culture representation, bigoted legislation, and the threat of horrific violence.

That’s the world Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo’s new movie is landing in.

On Twitter earlier this week, Her Story actress and co-writer Jen Richards — who auditioned for a role in Anything — articulated the problems with casting cis men to play trans women.

jen-1
jen-2

jen-3

She posted a video — that Laverne Cox retweeted — to unpack the discussion further. In it, she reiterates that it is most often Black and brown trans women, often those who are poor, and often those who sleep with men, who are the most at risk for being murdered.

Both Ruffalo and Bomer seem surprised by the backlash to anything, which feels a little disingenuous given that even the most cursory research would have shown him how troubling it is to the trans community when cis men play trans women. But while Bomer has taken to blocking all dissenters on social media, including very well known trans actors and activists, Ruffalo seems more open to a conversation. At the end of her video and her Twitter statement, Jen Richards asked him to reach out to her.

There are other encouraging things about the response to Anything.

Firstly, the outcry has been pretty universal and plenty of mainstream media outlets have picked up on the story, including The Hollywood Reporter; they published an op-ed from GLAAD’s Nick Adams titled “Matt Bomer and Men Who Play Transgender Women Send a “Toxic and Dangerous” Message.”

But the most encouraging thing of all is that so many trans women can assert their rightful place in this conversation. Jen Richards declaring that she is the co-writer/co-EP/co-star of the Emmy-nominated web series Her Story at the beginning of her video is a huge deal. The bottom line in Hollywood is the bottom line. It’s all about the money. And so the argument goes that you can’t have a trans woman starring in a movie about trans women because there are no trans actresses, or that there are no trans actresses with names that are big enough to get studio funding. Trophies change the conversation. Her Story centers on the experiences of trans women, includes trans women in every step of the production process, and now it is nominated for an Emmy Award. Laverne Cox has also been nominated for an Emmy Award. Critical success isn’t reserved for cis men telling trans women’s stories. Trans actresses do exist and they are talented enough to pull down major award show nominations.

Anything has already been filmed. It will be in theaters. As will Michelle Rodriguez’s film, (Re)Assignment. Hollywood is not running out of ways to make movies than endanger trans women, but it is running out of excuses. The trans women who are being rightly lauded for their acting and writing and directing and producing are making damn sure of that.


Are you following us on Facebook?

Profile gravatar of Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 606 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. “Jen Richards: Cis audiences reward them because they see being trans itself as a performance. Trans actors rather perform THE STORY, not our gender.”

    This is the most articulate expression of this point I have ever heard.

  2. I’m!!! Angry!!!!!!!
    I’ve been getting into arguments about the fact that being trans (especially being a trans woman) is an IDENTITY…not a SHOW. It’s crap like this that reinforces the offensive(!) notion that trans women aren’t women/are “deceitful” men…this is particularly harmful to cis people who already have no knowledge about trans people beyond the ending to Ace Ventura >:(

  3. I’m not trans so I’m mostly staying out of this discussion because its not my place but I support Jen Richards and all trans people on this issue. I also find it interesting that Bomer and Ruffalo had very different responses to the criticism about their film. Bomer’s reaction makes me not want to support him ever again. The fact that he doesn’t seem to want to hear anything trans people(including well-known trans actors) have to say about this is so blatantly transphobic. How are you going to make a movie playing a trans woman and not want to actually hear their input? I swear these actors do these roles just for the “performance” and to win awards. And they always do. Its a disturbing trend lately that reminds me of when they all used to try to get cast as mentally disabled people and gay men with HIV because they knew it would get them noticed by the Academy.

    • I mean I’m not a huge fan of Rufallo’s response either. His saying “this is such an important conversation to have and I’m glad we’re having it” is basically positioning himself as the guy who’s such a good ally for starting this conversation. Dude, trans people have been having this conversation for ages, where the hell have you been ?

      He also says they “need to learn to do better”. Mh sure. Show me what you mean and we’ll see whether you really mean it.

  4. What really fucks me off about this is that creators are hearing and claiming to actually listen to a very clear description of how and why this particular piece of work WILL cause serious harm. And still the most thoughtful response they come up with is ‘I hear you, you are right. Maybe next time though.’

    Do you know what would actually make a difference? If they didn’t release the film. Imagine that. I firmly believe that one day, someone will make that sort of decision in a high profile situation and it WILL make a difference. I’m just so sad and angry and frustrated that it couldn’t be now.

    Side note: I’m not a trans woman, my opinions on this topic are mostly irrelevant.

  5. I am a trans woman. Pre-HRT right now, but this news and the news about the Michelle Rodriguez film, have made feel very low and awful when I read them. It took a bit for me to figure out why. And reading Jen Richards’ tweets and watching the video articulated that reason for me so wonderfully, I am not sure what to add.

    Except this little bit?

    As someone who has struggle. led with her identity for a long time, seeing cis men in the role of trans woman has always made me feel off and icky about myself growing up. It felt like that was the only way people would see me: a cruel joke or a freak (Think about Buffalo Bill from “Silence Of The Lambs”). And not as a real person. It is through seeing real trans women actually play real trans women and actual real people to boot, not a caricature or a joke, has made me feel good about myself.

    So yeah, Jen Richards does have a point about visibility really making a difference in people’s lives.

  6. Ugh, I really wish that talented trans artists like Jen Richards could invest their energy in their own creative projects instead of teaching lessons for free to clueless cis Hollywood producers.

    This situation is very similar to the issue of whitewashing: it is high time that cis/white actors publicly reject offers for trans/whitewashed roles in order to exert pressure on casting directors/producers.

  7. I just remember “The Grapes of Wrath”. Steinbeck was disgusted with the way that the Okies were being treated, so he wrote the book in order to personalize their plight to the rest of America. Personalizing something generates empathy much better than a documentary.

  8. Is it that hard to find trans actresses in Hollywood? I don’t know, but I’m sure no one in a position of influence is making much (if any) effort. Is Matt Bomer that big of a name in HW that he would bring in that much money? I’ve seen him in a few things over the years but he’s not an actor that I would base my viewing on. Even less so now.

    Maybe if HW actually have trans actresses a chance to play authentic roles, they would become the money makers that the industry wants/needs. It’s like everyone on AS says: Representation/visibility matter. Accurate representation even more so.

    I am not a trans woman, but I support Jen Richards and all trans people with needing safe and accurate representation in the media. That would hopefully lead to less violence against trans people in the real world.

  9. I think the crass reason is bankability, more so than transphobia. With projects with so-called sensitive themes, production companies and studio heads are particularly terrified of losing money, and it’s deemed safer to hire a name. Other than Laverne Cox, what openly trans actor can the majority of people even think of off the top of their head? It’s the same reason why there are never openly lesbian actors starring in high-budget lesbian movies – because aside from Ellen Page, there aren’t enough (any?) bankable ones. In the end the only thing that will actually get more lesbian and trans actors hired, is more high-profile actors coming out.

    • How are trans actors going to become well-known or “bankable” if you don’t actually you know hire them to be in productions? I say the same thing when it comes to hiring actors of color. People always make the excuse “Well, maybe they didn’t hire any Asian actors for these Asian roles because they couldn’t find anyone famous enough to sell the movie?” Really, well why do you think that is. It’s not that their aren’t an abundance of actors from various marginalized groups available for these projects. It’s just that none of these people making the cast decisions want to hire them for parts.

      In the case of trans representation, I truly think its a case of Hollywood thinking this is the new trend/topical issue that they can use to cast their CIS actors in order to show “range”. Like I said earlier, these men always get nominated for awards for it and then the media wants to tout how “brave” they were for taking on this “difficult” role. Nine times out ten these productions don’t give an actual fuck about the trans community. Nor do the actors. I saw the way that Leto and McConaughey behaved during the promotion of Dallas Buyers Club and that was enough to turn me off of CIs actors playing trans roles forever.

    • Bitter,

      That’s the tired old excuse that’s been used to keep every minority and women out of leading roles since forever. In the end, Hollywood needs to stop being bigoted. That’s all there is to it. It’s THAT simple.

  10. I’ve stood by the productions that were showing a trans character before and during transition. That would be harder to do with a transwoman who had already been taking hormones, had FFS and other surgeries. But the film industry has got to start casting the many trans actors and actresses in these roles! I think Hollywood’s problem is that they want it to be obvious that this is a trans character and many trans people have very subtle clues to their background. Jen and others would have to be identified in the story line as trans because otherwise audiences would never know. With more and more trans characters appearing in film and television it’s time that the producers and directors refused to take the easy way out!

    • Oh it’s not just the “easy” way. It’s the prejudiced way. They want their narrow-minded, cis narrative on what they think trans people are. They don’t give a flying fuck about reality or human beings.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.