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Monday, March 10, 2014

Trans* Actors for Trans* Roles!

Recently my social circles have had some fierce conversations surrounding the award of Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars to Jared Leto for his role as Rayon, a transwoman, in Dallas Buyers Club. I don't really mean to discuss whether he performed the role well or whether he's really an ally to the trans* community. What I think is important to discuss is how structures enabled him to get the role over a trans* actor and why trans* advocates are calling for better representation of trans* actors in Hollywood.
One of the quotes often attached to this conversation comes from a CBC interview with the director of the film. He was asked if trans* actors were considered for the role and replied, "Never. Is there any transgender actor? To my knowledge — I don’t know one. I didn’t even think about it." When told that there are in fact trans* actors, he said, “Which ones? There’s like five, or three, or what — two? I never thought of that. I never thought of hiring a real rodeo guy to play the rodeo Ron Woodruff. And just like in every film — we’re actors, we’re directors. I’m not aiming for the real thing. I’m aiming for an experienced actor who wants to portray the thing.” This demonstrates two problems facing aspiring trans* actors. First that, invisibility perpetuates invisibility. Since Hollywood has not yet made a real effort to incorporate the trans* representation (aside from a few individuals or sub genres), casting calls are not specialized or even inclusive of trans* actors.
The second problem demonstrated by this quote is how it is common latent perception in Hollywood that trans* identities are chosen peripheral aspects, like rodeo life, rather than an inherent part of their persons. When actors are chosen based on that perception for major motion pictures, it is reinforcing that belief. This ties into how it can be damaging for cisgender actors to play trans* roles because, for example, when cisgender men play transwomen, this reinforces subconscious perceptions that really, underneath it all, transwomen are just men in drag. This could be called nitpicking, and maybe it has been, but when talking about how trans* stories are being told, we can't divorce our conversation from the reality that this is the primary method for a large percentage of the population for creating an understanding of who trans* people are.
Another disagreement this position can create is that if we demand only trans* actors play trans* roles, aren't we going to prevent trans* actors from playing cisgender roles? I think that this is a faulty question in two ways. This question ignores the power relations in place. Cisgender actors and their place in movies are not in need of defense in the way that trans* actors and their place are. Second, it assumes that the current way of writing roles is inherent and necessary. In a cisnormative society, being cisgender is the assumption. These cisgender roles aren’t cisgender because the writer is actively constructing a cisgender character, but because we assume that unless a specific storyline is put in, the character is cisgender. That assumption needs to be done away with so that we can stop othering trans* individuals and reducing them to their gender identity.
The way that specifically trans* roles are written can be problematic too, because we are often told to be happy with any kind of representation, so we don’t notice that a trope is being created for transwomen. Transwomen are often written as mistake-prone and ditzy, or as drug addicts and sex workers. Which it is true that trans* individuals are more likely to be marginalized into positions of desperation and poverty, so drug use and survival crime is a reality for many trans* individuals. And it is true that there are ditzy transwomen, just like there are ditzy ciswomen and cismen. However, when this is the main, singular narrative we as an audience are shown, we begin to conceive of all trans* people like this. Trans* characters, like Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, are also often created mostly as plot devices to redeem another character into an empathetic and improving character, while leaving the trans* character to play the helpless victim.
This shows the importance of allowing trans* actors to play trans* roles because they are then able to exercise control and agency in how trans* stories are told. I cried with everyone else at cisgender Felicity Huffman’s performance in Transamerica, but a cisgender actor playing a trans* role is not nearly as empowering as when we are able to view trans* individuals using their own voices to speak, because it does not divorce trans* reality from our entertainment and have cis voices speak for them. That perpetuates the power imbalance. The consequences of this power imbalance are real with trans* individuals paying the price with lack of security in body, employment, medical care (both related to transitioning and not) and housing. Trans* folk also face disproportionate incarceration and mental health issues related to stress and trauma. The root of many of these disparities is economic, so denying trans* actors jobs could also be a reflection of how they are treated in most industries. We must include trans* actors in our fight for economic stability and justice for trans* workers.
To wrap up this extraordinarily long post (sorry everyone), I will say that these are just the reasons I prioritized and there are many conversations to be had on this topic, but I hope anyone who made it this far feels better informed.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing about this!! That director's response is SO offensive. It really goes to show the lack of visibility of trans* people not just in the acting profession but in the world in general. This guy thinks there are only 5 trans* actors/actresses total? Right.. He probably ignores/is ignorant of the existence of large numbers trans* people in wider society as well. Shameful.