Hollywood Men in Dresses

I promised you a post about cis men playing trans women in movies. This is it.

Mostly when this issue comes up on social media it is portrayed in very simplistic terms. Certainly cis people (and some trans folk) defend the idea of cis men playing trans women with comments like, “it’s only acting, and any actor should be able to play any part”. Also some trans people don’t get beyond, “no cis man can ever play a trans woman well”. The issue is much more complicated than that.

I spent a fair amount of time helping cis people write convincing trans characters. It can be done, it just takes work. If a writer is good enough then I don’t have a problem. My issues (many of them aired here) are to do with when cis people write trans characters badly, and/or perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

If authors can get inside the heads of trans characters, I don’t see why actors can’t. I thought that Terence Stamp did a decent job in Priscilla, and I understand that Lee Pace did pretty well in Boys Don’t Cry Soldier’s Girl (sorry, brain fade there). I’m getting good reports of Eddie Redmayne’s performance from some people.

There is also the question of the visual match. With a film like The Danish Girl your actor is going to spend a lot of time presenting as a man. If they do spend screen time as a woman, it will be as a trans woman who is only just starting transition, probably hasn’t had surgery, and won’t have had time for any hormones to work their magic. Consequently the character’s body will look more male than female. That’s a (shaky) argument for having a male-bodied person play the part.

This is another reason why I hate transition narratives, because they back you into this sort of decision.

If your character is a trans woman who is a long way post transition it makes a lot more sense to have a trans woman play her. Or indeed a cis woman.

However, as I said, the issues are much more complicated than just who gets to play who. I try hard to avoid comparisons with other oppressed groups, but it is useful to look at the issue of blackface. There are two significant complications here (possibly more, PoC please enlighten me) beyond simply who gets to play what role. Firstly blackface is often used to caricature black people, rather than simply represent them. Secondly, the minstrel shows used blackface so that they didn’t have to employ black singers.

Hopefully we will eventually get past the stage where studios have a man play a trans woman solely for the purpose of mocking trans women, but we are not there yet. There is most definitely an issue that trans women actors exist, and they need work. Employing a cis man to play a trans woman very directly discriminates against trans actresses who might be expected to be first in line for the job.

Finally we come to the really important issue — the effect that casting has on the viewer. Every time a cis man is asked to play a trans woman in a film or TV show, that reinforces the idea that trans women are merely men who are dressing up and pretending to be women. You get “before and after” pictures, you get “isn’t he convincing!” articles in newspapers. You get the sort of nonsense that I understand appeared over the weekend in The Scum. That’s very harmful, and it needs to stop. The only way it will stop, is if studios stop casting cis men to play trans women.

(A brief note of thanks here to Shadi Petosky whose comments on this issue on Twitter helped me crystallize my own thinking on the subject.)