In January of 2019, Ben Whishaw won a Golden Globe for his role in “A Very English Scandal”, a TV miniseries about a 70’s British scandal wherein the leader of the Liberal party attempted to have his ex-lover, Norman Scott, killed in order to silence him. Excellent three episodes, my highest recommendations.
After this win and backstage, Whishaw was asked about his take on straight actors choosing not to take on explicitly gay roles (the question asked specifically in response to Darren Criss’s decision to no longer do so). A gay man himself, Ben Whishaw said that, as long as there is an even field for all, he doesn’t mind who plays what: “…I really believe that actors can embody and portray anything and we shouldn’t be defined only by what we are. On the other hand, I think there needs to be greater equality. I would like to see more gay actors playing straight roles.”
I’m inclined to agree — in the cases of portrayals of sexuality, at least. There’s a significant amount of debate on either side of the issue, and I see validity in both arguments. You can see no issue in a straight man playing a gay character, and you can want gay people to be able to tell their own stories. I’m planted somewhere firmly in the middle, believing that while LGB people should have first priority in telling their own stories, a Nick Robinson or Taron Egerton here or there isn’t going to do any irreparable damage. In my opinion, having an LGB person behind the camera is just as, if not more, important than having one in front of it.
That said, I leave out the “T” because that is a very different conversation. When a straight actor plays a gay role, nobody looks at that like “oh, see, the character is actually straight”. But when you cast, for example, a cisgender man in the role of a transgender woman, you’re putting across that a trans woman is “really” a man.
The distinctions between “straight actor playing gay” and “cis actor playing trans” often get argued together, and that ends up muddling the point of either. It makes it hard for the average straight, cisgender person to comprehend the difference, why one is very bad and one is less so. Most older folks in my life still can’t understand that gender is not inherently tied to sexuality, let alone understand the discourse that comes with discussing gender and sexuality as portrayed in film.
So, I thought it worth it to examine why casting cis people in the roles of trans people is so harmful, beyond incorrect casting if possible.
(And for the sake of things, we’ll be mostly focused on film. I don’t watch enough television to have any relevant talking points.)
Incorrect casting, of course, is what gets the most media attention. In the case of transgender characters in film, incorrect casting is what happens when a cisgender woman is cast in the role of a transgender man, or a cis man in the role of a trans woman. It’s a Hollywood tradition that’s been going on since the 1970’s, at least: films like “Boys Don’t Cry”, “The Danish Girl”, and “3 Generations” all portray transgender characters as played by cisgender actors. Each film, in their effort to humanize trans people, only end up reinforcing the same stereotypes about transgender people that transphobes have pushed for decades.
I just went in depth about the transphobia that went into the creation of “Boys Don’t Cry”, but the shorter version of that article is that the director of that film, Kimberly Peirce, never once thought about the subject of her film as a male. She only ever considered the role of Brandon Teena to be filled by a woman, and thus her film reinforced the idea that transgender men are simply women under mental stress.
“The Danish Girl” is a more recent, though similar example. I’ll hand the picking apart of this one to a trans woman, as any insight into that can’t be accurately provided by me.
“It’s no surprise that a cis male director would focus so intensely on a trans woman’s choice of fashion, as “sad man in drag” is just as easy a transgender stereotype as any mention of The Surgery… Hooper and Redmayne have spent so much time and effort leching and leering at Lili’s femininity, we’re never given an insight on what else she really wants besides being a woman. What they give us instead are the stereotypical tropes of a housewife — simple retail job, gossiping with the girlfriends, desperately wants to have kids of her own — with nothing else to define her. Like the rest of the film, her ultimate form of femininity is a simplification, a caricature.” — Carol Grant, Indiewire
(For my own take, I got about thirty minutes into the film before closing out and being angry for three solid hours; I only watched to check a film off of Ben Whishaw’s filmography and no, I still have not forgiven him for taking on a part in this movie. I love the man, but there’s only so much fetishization of womanhood that I can stand to look at in between his scenes. If you want to make a film about Eddie Redmayne in panties getting dominated by Alicia Vikander, fine, but don’t do it in a movie about a real-life trans woman).
On a different spot on the spectrum, some films fall into a seldom-touched middle category; they cast cis women as trans women, and cis men as trans men. I can count on one hand the number of movies that fit here (fun fact, one of which is “Alien”. No joke, Lambert is a trans woman, check it out!), and most of the ones that I’ve seen have… not made the best of impressions.
One such film is “Romeos”, a German film about a transgender young adult named Lukas and his romance with a cisgender gay man, Fabio. The actor playing Lukas is a cisgender male, fitted with either a prosthetic or CGI in order to give him breasts. It’s a step in the right direction, and I’d give the film more credit if the actual story and characters weren’t completely abhorrent (because nothing says a film about humanizing a transgender man like having him be verbally abused throughout and end up with the man who said he “doesn’t like trannies” and never apologizes for it).
So while it has seldom worked in practice, I don’t have as many inherent problems with cisgender casting for transgender roles when its cast right. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but it’s significantly less (sigh) problematic than the casting of a cisgender person of the opposite gender for the role. If I had a choice only between the two then obviously I want us to be portrayed properly in the world of fiction.
The casting problem is somewhat unique, though not entirely separate of the other issue to be brought up here, that of proper casting behind the camera. The films I’ve brought up throughout the article have all been written by cisgender men and women, people who can only write about the experience of a transgender person from the outside looking in.
I had a hard time figuring out how to best articulate how this problem manifests until I remembered the “3 Generations” film existed. The film actually manages to highlight improper casting and improper crew, so we’ll go over a brief overview of the thing here.
In short, “3 Generations” isn’t awful. It’s about a transgender boy (Elle Fanning) trying to start hormones, but because he’s a minor, he needs the consent of both parents, and thus the film becomes a goose chase of trying to locate his father and get him to actually sign the papers. Co-starring Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon, I am of the belief that this was not completely unsalvageable. Some heavy rewrites would be required (as the film focuses on everybody but the trans child at its heart), but I think a film about a well-intentioned, unconventional family trying to understand and support their child through transition is a good idea to make a movie out of.
Elle Fanning does her best to try and capture the anxiety of wanting to start transition, but of course, she’s unable to really nail what the character should be. Some of this is the fault of the script, some of it is that she was cast at all.
I was fifteen when the film came out (two years before my “aha!” moment, for reference), and I remember seeing the discourse about Fanning’s casting. And I remember not getting it at all. It wasn’t that I was outwardly transphobic (internally, different story), but the concepts of pre-transition and all the technicals were at that point foreign to me.
Of course transgender men are men, I thought, but if the character is pre-everything, why is a girl so bad? Trans men are born girls, so what’s the fuss?
Oh, baby Logan and his perfect confusion for this point.
A previous article of mine, among other things, discussed what it meant to be “truly” transgender. Despite a general discourse, I stand by the idea that medically transitioning is not the end-all be-all of “true” transness; choosing not to go on hormones is not an indication of any sort of fakeness. Before transition, after starting transition, regardless of transition — a trans person is never more or less for their own specific path.
If you have a story about a transgender man starting his transition, the role shouldn’t be filled by a woman. There do exist trans men who have yet to medically transition, who do not want to. Not every movie has to star a household name, you have to take a risk on an unknown at some point.
When you put a cisgender person into a transgender role, nothing fits right. Even though the words and the feelings might say the right things, at best it can be a pale echo of reality. “3 Generations” gives us this in painful clarity:
Hearing Elle Fanning say those lines was… weird, to put it lightly. It’s not even that the “boy with tits” line is inherently bad or unrealistic for the character to say; as a man with tits, its a phrase I’ve used before. It’s a phrase I’ve seen other trans men use before. So its not that the line was bad, its that who was saying it didn’t fit.
Because Elle Fanning isn’t a “boy with tits”, she’s a woman with tits, and she is likely to remain that for the rest of her life. Watching that scene felt like watching myself in a fun house mirror — sure all the basic elements of myself were there, but it wasn’t me. Elle Fanning will never get it, no matter how much she tries to mirror to perfection; no cis actor ever will.
So, what do cisgender actors do?
In an interview for As If, Scarlett Johansson- the woman who is currently Hollywood’s highest paid actress- said that she “should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal”. This is in response to backlash over two roles, one she accepted and one she backed out of, the latter of which being the role of a transgender male.
First, Johansson, you’re absolutely right. The requirements of your job is that you act, that is correct. But therein lies the problem — you are allowed. You were allowed to take a role in “Ghost in the Shell”, a role in which Johansson portrayed a Japanese woman in a white woman’s body. You were allowed to try and take a role in “Rub & Tub”, and after you withdrew you were allowed to say “I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film”.
You were allowed to take these spots from us and you were allowed to jeer at us under the guise of mocking “political correctness”. The woman who made more than $40 million dollars in 2018 is more than capable of taking roles from transgender actors who might never otherwise break through; yes Johansson, you’re allowed to do these things, but the question isn’t if you’re allowed, it’s should you be?
To look back at my framing device, I do still agree with Ben Whishaw’s statements. Of course actors can be anything, but there needs to be greater equality and there needs to be limitations. There are too many “Boys Don’t Cry”’s, too many “The Danish Girl”’s. As angry as I am with Scarlett Johansson, I can’t be surprised that she thinks the way she does because of the atmosphere that exists around transgender cinema.
Cisgender actors need to have a level of self awareness going forward. Hilary Swank, arguably the actress that set off this conversation twenty years ago, is refreshingly self aware about her role in “Boys Don’t Cry”. While Johansson plays the two-face routine for damage control, Swank has remained pretty firm, and when asked her opinion on Johansson’s initial casting in “Rub & Tub”, her answer actually showed something very few actors in her position have exhibited — growth.
“…there are people, “who have said I shouldn’t have done Boys Don’t Cry”. She understands this. It is complicated, and consciousness has grown a lot in the past two decades, thanks in part to the conversation her film started, back in an era when the script didn’t even use the word transgender…The argument is often that there aren’t any trans actors who are famous enough to get a project made. But “nobody knew who I was when I did Boys Don’t Cry,” says Swank. “I was a newcomer — and the movie did well. The important thing to remember is people are wanting to be seen for who they are,” she adds. “And people are fighting for their space in the world”.”
Swank does her best as an ally, and that is the minimal that other cisgender actors like her need to give. Hollywood is already made for cisgender actors, its never not been about them. Until transgender actors are remotely close to being on their playing field, there is no discussion to be had about “what actors should or shouldn’t be able to do”.
You’ve always been able to do this. You’ve always been able to put our stories and our voices on as your costumes, without regard for the message you put across.
We’re saying it’s past due that you learn from that and grow. Be better.