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A Retraction: Regarding Cisgender Actors as Transgender Characters

Bailey C. comes full circle as he discusses cisgender actors playing transgender roles.

Almost two years ago, I published an opinion article on Transgender Universe with the unpopular opinion that it shouldn’t matter who plays the role of a trans person in films. In the wake of actress Scarlett Johansson being cast as trans man, like a few times over the past year or so, it got my thinking about my old article. I thought about what I had said in it and how my views have changed. Finally, I realized I could ignore it no longer!

I want to revisit it and retract a few things that I had said, as I have grown over the past two years.

A huge concern of mine was that we’d get type-casted, and we would forever be playing transgender characters only. In truth, as an actor myself, I still fear our getting stuck with that boundary and never getting to explore other roles. But in the case of transgender characters, as of now, we have so few idols to represent us in the mainstream acting industry. I can count on my fingers the number of openly-transgender movie stars that I know of! (If any of you know more than that, please tell me some names.) My thought now is that even being cast only as trans characters could be a damn good place to start. In theory, if we have a sudden flood of transgender actors appear in transgender roles in big budget Hollywood movies, a lot of them could end up cast in a variety of roles in the future. (Not to mention, gender identity in general becoming less of a token or joke, and more of a serious topic in said mainstream films.)

I said that the first rule of acting is you are not yourself while on stage or on screen. Obviously that hasn’t changed as a general thing; I highly doubt Ethan Slater is truly a humanoid version of Spongebob, or that Caissie Levy is a queen with magical ice powers in real life. Part of the fun of acting is to become someone else, someone you’ve never been and more than likely never will be. However, we are normally portrayed as stereotypical ideas, which people feel are true. Trans actors (and maybe writers as well) could portray individual struggles more accurately and at the very least, set an example of whom we really are. (One of the most noticeable stereotypes I’d like to see erased is that we are always non-passing or are pre-hormones and/or surgery. While passing is not the case for all of us whether by choice or by circumstance, there desperately needs to be more than one type of appearance representation.)

“…CALL SPECIFICALLY FOR A TRANSGENDER OR NON-BINARY ACTOR FROM THE START AND CHOOSE FROM THEM ONLY.”

I mentioned talent being a concern; if the cis actor is more talented than the transgender actor, why not go with the cis? To that scenario alone, I’d say the more talented actor is the best for the job, not just because the director wants the movie to be “diverse,” so they can claim they’re inclusive. But in terms of the role of a transgender character, call specifically for a transgender or non-binary actor from the start and choose from them only. If you so desperately need a big-name cis actor to make people want to see your film, then there are usually plenty of other leading roles you can cast them in (which in turn, introduces audiences to the trans actor alongside them and possibly makes them a big name as well.)

“IS CASTING A CIS ACTOR IN ROLES THAT DEPICT TRANSGENDER PEOPLE IN A GOOD LIGHT (OR AT LEAST TRY TO) FORGIVABLE?”

I also listed three points of consideration in the 2016 article. The first one asked to think about the plot of the film. Trans actor or not, we can certainly do without movies like (Re)Assignment, where a cis character is put through reassignment surgery as a punishment. But what about movies like Boys Don’t Cry, which was based on the life and murder of Brandon Teena? Is casting a cis actor in roles that depict transgender people in a good light (or at least try to) forgivable? In my view, slightly, but still far from 100%. You get slight credit for at least having a trans character that isn’t a laughable cardboard cutout of what you saw on TV once, but don’t cast Hillary Swank as a trans guy either!

The second one was concerning the mindset of the screenplay writer. Surely, someone who is transgender or non-binary, or has someone close to them who is and did mounds of proper research, will write a script that properly reflects us. But (embarrassingly) I didn’t take into account that the writer is not the director, or the casting agent, or the producer…or even involved at all once the rights are sold. In most circumstance, they wouldn’t have a say in who plays what role. Even if the intentions were good, that isn’t relevant to the topic of casting. (Side note, I think that outrage towards someone who writes a harmful screenplay like (Re) Assignment is totally called for. In that case, even though it’s still not about casting, it’s part of the inaccurate portrayal problem in general.)

The final point asks what the actor or actress feels about the transgender community. I mentioned how Michelle Rodriguez (I know, I’m using that one film as an example a lot) scoffed at the backlash and ignorantly claimed that since she’s bisexual, she’s “one of us,” and how an ally would at least play the role with dignity and as a real transgender person. Most likely, an ally (especially Gaga, as I embarrassingly used as an example) would refuse to even audition for the role. However, I will still say that a cis actor who’s ignorant on the topic and doesn’t give playing a transgender character a second thought should at least be given the chance to learn and apologize. If they do, I don’t see reason to harbor any more anger towards them.

In short, I do apologize for my article two years prior. Like my body, my mind has gone through a major transition. Casting agents and directors need to put out calls for trans actors for trans roles. I highly encourage transgender and non-binary actors and writers to continue to press forward in their careers. Let them see us, the real us!

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