Cis Actors Playing Trans Characters

In 2013, Jared Leto won an Oscar for his performance as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Personally, Dallas Buyers Club is one of my favorite films so I was excited that it was being recognized. The film is set in 1980s Texas, a community where homophobia and transphobia are not uncommon. This is apparent when the main character, Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), finds out that he has AIDS and is ostracized and called a homosexual despite being straight. He is outraged and does not believe that he has the disease until his health rapidly declines. When he realizes that he needs help, he finds that the FDA has barred him and other AIDS patients from getting drugs that could help them survive. So, he partners with a trans woman named Rayon (Leto) and starts an illegal drug trade to help other AIDS patients. the film is based on true events and revealed some shocking truths about the FDA and American healthcare, which I found fascinating. However, I was shocked when I learned about the backlash toward Leto’s performance as Rayon. I had never considered the issue of a cisgender person playing a trans character, because straight actors play gay characters all the time. However, I have since realized that an actor cannot simply step into the identity of a real marginalized person, because they don’t have the right to those bodies and they are taking away opportunity from marginalized actors. After watching this video, I am now thinking about how egregiously wrong it is for a straight white man to accept an award for playing a trans woman.

In 2014, Steve Friess wrote an article for Time explaining why we should not applaud Leto for playing Rayon. He basically says that Hollywood believes that it is honoring different minority groups with these performances and awards, but it is clear that they hardly understand the lives that they are depicting. Otherwise, they would be casting actual trans actors or actors of color to play these roles.

Another piece written in 2014, by a trans woman named Kat, explained why the trans community was dismayed with Leto’s performance and win. Kat does not immediately address the fact that Leto is a man playing a trans woman, she discusses the fact that he wasn’t even playing a trans woman well. As Rayon, Leto does not react appropriately to being misgendered. In fact, he decides not to react at all. His body language does not even reflect the discomfort that a real trans woman would face daily. The way that Rayon carries herself in the film is, according to Kat, a mixture of different drag and trans stereotypes and not the making of an actual person. In a nutshell, Rayon is written off as a minor character or a plot device.

After Dallas Buyers Club and the surrounding controversy, I have been more in tune with trans films and television media. So, when I heard about the release of The Danish Girl in 2015 I could tell that Hollywood still hadn’t learned its lesson. In The Danish Girl, Eddie Redmayne (one of my favorite actors) portrays trans pioneer Lili Elbe. Lili Elbe was the first trans woman to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Unfortunately, the studio that produced the film decided to cast yet another straight white man in the role.

When I saw this film the first time, I initially wrote a glowing review that focused solely on the plot and relationship between the two main characters. I did not address the issues that the film has with trans representation, but I wish I had. In retrospect, there are some huge issues with the way this film depicts Lili’s life and death, mostly because of its focus on her tragedy and not her triumph. She is written off as just a token minority sob story, which I am sure members of the community are sick of seeing.

Carol Grant, a trans film critic, wrote a piece in 2015 about the “regressive, reductive, and harmful” nature of The Danish Girl. Not only does Carol point out the issues with Redmayne’s depiction of Lili Elbe, she discusses the harm of his previous win for playing Stephen Hawking, a disabled man with ALS. Having an able actor playing a disabled character is just as wrong as having a cis actor play a trans character, because it takes opportunity from actors that are actually in the community.

Carol talks about the discomfort she faced when cis people were applauding Eddie Redmayne for his “brave” portrayal of a trans woman. It isn’t difficult or “brave” for a straight white man to step into the role for one film. The real bravery lies in women like Carol, daring to live their truth in a world that at best won’t fully accept them and at worst won’t allow them to exist at all.

Another cis actor that has been lauded for his portrayal of a trans woman is Jeffrey Tambor, the star of the Amazon show Transparent. I recently started watching the show and I was a fan of the eccentric characters and my ability to relate the Pfefferman family to my own.

Although I like Transparent, it is clear from my previous examples that casting a straight white man as a trans woman is problematic.

Although Tambor’s role is far from perfect, the makers of Transparent did manage to pull in some trans actors which is a feat considering the landscape of trans representation in TV and film. Two characters that I personally loved in the show were Dale (played by Ian Harvie) and Shea (played by Trace Lysette). The one thing that they have in common in my mind is that they put the Pfefferman children in their place when it comes to interacting with trans people. Specifically Ali and Josh Pfefferman, who reacted fairly negatively to their father’s transition. They lead pretty turbulent lives and decide to date trans people while coming to terms with living with Maura. However, Ali learns through her experience with Dale that trans men are not a collection of tropes and stereotypes that fit their gender. In one episode when she visits Dale’s home, she imagines it as a log cabin with a bear skin rug and beer posters everywhere. However, she realizes at the end of the episode that that isn’t what the house looks like at all. (It was a pretty incredible scene, if you haven’t seen the show.) Josh, on the other hand, tries to play it cool when he is dating Shea up until he realizes that he should be taking PrEP to reduce the risk of contracting HIV. Although he claimed to love Shea, once he realized she was HIV positive he broke things off. These interactions were important in the show, because it revealed some of the realities that trans people face when interacting with cis people that are often ignored.



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