Why we need to transform transgender film representation in 2018
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“Tell our stories with the creativity, dignity, humour and depth that makes us real people. Let us help you tell those stories or better yet, help us tell them ourselves and then put us in them… You’ll be making the world a little bit safer for an intensely maligned, under-represented, and vulnerable population.”
So went the start of a video collaboration made by GLAAD in conjunction with Screen Crush last June. The project called: #ProudtoBe: Why Hollywood Needs Trans Actors, called out the persistent problem of casting cisgender people for transgender roles in film and TV, and featured trans actors like Alexandra Billings, D’Lo, Elliot Fletcher, Ian Harvie and Rain Valdez.
More than ever before the representation of transgender people in media is growing, but the standard of this representation is also being challenged when it misses the mark. While Time magazine argued that the 'Transgender Tipping Point' began as early as 2014 and that change was afoot, Hollywood has been slow to catch up.
On Wikipedia you can find a list of transgender characters present in film and TV. It soon becomes apparent that films lack trans men/boy characters, while transgender woman have been portrayed in countless films since early Hollywood. While visible representation might at least appear better for transgender women, this is not the case.
Nikki Reitz’s article, Representation of Trans Women (2017), has focused on the troubling tropes present in the depiction of trans women in cinema. The worst example is the concept of trans women as violent or as killers. Instances include Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill (1980), the killer in slasher franchise Sleepaway Camp (1983), and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs (1994), never confirmed as trans but coded as such. Such examples leave a negative impact on the public’s views of trans women.
Films also tend to tie the violence exhibited by such characters to mental illness; Reitz suggests that the villain trope has historically occurred due to heteronormative society’s view that giving up the privilege of masculinity for femininity must be an act of madness.
The fact that trans people often deal with mental illness makes such depictions that much worse, while the introduction of legislation like the USA Bathroom Bills, despite The William Institute finding that only 0.3% of US sex offenders were trans, makes it seem like media representation must be having an influence.
Trans characters, when not villainous, are either victims or tragedies, as shown in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)and Albert Nobbs (2011), Dallas Buyers Club (2013), and The Danish Girl (2015). Jared Leto and Eddie Redymayne respectively won and were nominated for Oscars for their tragic trans roles as Rayon and Lile Elbe.
Comedic depictions were especially prevalent in the 1990s. Ace Ventura (1994)’s secretly trans villain Lois Einhorn was made a figure of disgust and ridicule when her trans identity was revealed, while Naked Gun that same year also used their trans character as the butt of a joke. Exposing a character as secretly trans has been common across genres, but the most famous example was Dil’s reveal as trans in The Crying Game (1992). With the tagline, “Desire is a danger zone”, the film became known to the public as the film where “the woman love interest is actually a guy!” Many people saw the movie simply to gasp at what they saw as a shocking twist.
There are classic and recent films that feature good trans characters though. Some include Tomboy (2011), the fantastical Orlando (1992), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)’s Bernadette Bassenger, Ma Vie En Rose (1997), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) and Breakfast on Pluto (2005). Boy Meets Girl (2014), Tangerine (2015) and A Fantastic Woman(2018) are equally wonderful, while also having the trans characters played by trans women. Transgender characters are increasingly being portrayed in films in different empowering ways, although the journey has been long and with many setbacks along the way, as demonstrated. Indie is, as always, ahead of mainstream Hollywood.
Although there has been some progress in the trans characters portrayed, is this the same for the actors, directors and producers involved? No, as expressed by the fact that the #ProudtoBe project has to exist. Transgender actors are demanding the right to play characters like themselves instead of watching cis actors “play trans”, but Hollywood has been resistant (even just last week, that much was clear from ScarJo's casting for Rub & Tug).
Trans stories are worth telling, but not by non-transgender people, nor through them. Besides the main characters in Boy Meets Girl, Tangerine, and A Fantastic Woman, every other protagonist above was played by cis actors. Criticism is growing, but it keeps happening. While Laverna Cox is making waves on OITNB, she shares the industry with those like Jeffrey Tambor, who has won awards as a cis man playing transgender Moira in Transparent. His alleged harassment of a transgender crew member is disturbing in the post #MeToo landscape. If people who attack trans women can then play them for rewards, then what hope do transgender actors have?
To Jen Richards, a transgender actress, Hollywood is stuck in its “Sidney Poitier phase of trans representation”, as she told the LA Times. It is only starting to become conscious of the need to do trans representation right. Phaylen Fairchild, in an article in Medium, wrote that while Redmayne won Oscars for “putting on a dress” to be trans, the film Tangerine was snubbed despite nominations or awards by every other organisation during awards season.
This showed elite Hollywood would rather award a cis man “tepidly” playing a trans woman, than a trans woman actress. Fairchild also mentions the typecasting of her trans actress friends as sex-workers. One accomplished trans actress told her, in 2018, all she gets is offers to play “a prostitute, a mistress, a self-hating trans person”, people dead or dying of AIDS, or trans people to be used for comedy. While transgender actresses are being snubbed and those authentic trans lives aren’t being shown, cis actors are repeatedly falling short in their depictions. Steve Friess for Time commented that Jared Leto’s turn as Rayon was “an exaggerated, trivialized version of how men who pretend to be women — as opposed to those who feel at their core they are women — behave”.The most recent examples of cis casting for trans roles is that of Elle Fanning as Ray in 3 Generations, Matt Bomer as Freda in Anything, and Scarlett Johansson in Rub & Tug. All have prompted perhaps the biggest backlashes ever to the tradition of casting cis actors to play trans peoples.
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The biggest debate however has been prompted by Mark Ruffalo’s film Anything, staring Matt Bomer, a cis actor and friend of Ruffalo’s, as trans woman Freida. The 2016 press release about the film following its production, prompted a negative response from the transgender community. Jamie Clayton of Sense8 fame tweeted Matt Bomer saying she hoped he would “choose to do some actual good for the trans community one day”, and was blocked by Bomer on the site.
Jen Richards came out on Twitter saying she had auditioned and warned them about the casting, but they hadn’t cared. GLAAD’s Nick Adams wrote in the Hollywood Reporter that a toxic and dangerous message was being validated through the casting, making the audience believe it was okay for Hollywood to call a “male actor in a dress, wig and makeup[…] an accurate portrayal of a transgender woman”.
Mark Ruffalo responded to the concerns in 2016 tweets saying, “I hear you[…] I am glad we are having this conversation. It's time” before adding “Matt poured his heart and soul into this part” and begging the trans community to have “A little compassion. We are all learning”. Although it seems apparent Ruffalo has regretted the results of the casting, his comments come across as somewhat condescending and contradictory. In 2018 the film was back in the press due to its May release.
Director and Writer Timothy McNeil, alongside the Associate Producer and transgender woman Kylene K Steele, hit the media circuit to attempt to calm the waters surrounding the film. Throughout their conversations in publications like EW.com and Indiewire, they’ve asserted the fact that the transgender representation besides Bomer’s character is solid. This is a similar tactic to Transparent which has many trans side characters, crew and even a non-binary creator. In the case of Anything, Roxy Wood and Gia Ryan play trans women side characters, Steele is transgender, while the composer Isley Reust is also a transgender woman.
McNeil for Entertainment Weekly, in May this year stated he was an ally and was “surprised” with the backlash, as people hadn’t seen the film. “Matt was Freda and if I had to do it again” he said, he would “stand by Matt Bomer and his courage”. Bomer’s courage to play a member of a marginalised group he isn’t part of for potential artistic and monetary gain… Kylene Steele in Indiewire discussed her role in modernising the story and teaching Bomer to do the role better.
Both state in each article that they want trans actors to “not be looked at as trans” with Steele saying the role should go to the actor and that “trans women should play women” while McNeil has argued they should be able to play anyone. Through the casting though, the film joins a long line of productions standing in the way of this.
If trans actors can’t play people like themselves then what chance is there for them being able to play cis roles? McNeil has stated he’s happy if it's Anything that prompts the biggest concern and debate regarding trans stories and casting to date. Obviously that has not been the case, with the recent ScarJo controversy.
Even if that hadn't come to pass, would this situation be good enough? Should the transgender community keep putting up with Anything and the like? Or will the debate in media finally make Hollywood listen and represent transgender people in stories, actors and the crews who bring these films to the big screen? We might be at the Transgender Tipping Point, but it’s about time the flawed system of Hollywood transgender representation is toppled over, so transgender voices can be empowered.