Cash and Cowardice: Misrepresentations of the Transgender Community

Before I begin, I need to make something clear. I am a cis woman. I am a cis woman who, up until about three months ago, thought the word ‘cis’ was pronounced “size.” But the issue here is not that I did not read the word ‘cis’ correctly, but that I still mispronounce it in my head because there continues to be a startling dearth of people willing to use the word in real life. We, the general public, balk at the idea of classifying ourselves as anything other than ‘default’ and ‘normal,’ making trans people around the world feel like they are ‘different,’ ‘other,’ or the weird few who require special labels to set them apart from the rest.

What would really help trans people, and the huge number of hopeful trans teenagers who are starting to discover and explore their identities, would be a piece of media they could relate to – a piece of media that would tell their story to the world. This would have the double effect of educating the ignorant, and making trans people seem less like the terrible ‘other’ that the masses seem to be fearful of.

Such a pity then, that Hollywood has combined cowardice and greed into a perfect storm of misrepresentation for trans people. I am a cis woman, and I am writing this article in an attempt to help my fellow cis people understand why we need to rally against the casting of cis actors in trans roles.

Oh, and it’s pronounced ‘sis.’

Eddie Redmayne -
Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe – one of the first ever people to undergo sexual reassignment surgery

The first thing I had to do when trying to understand what trans people go through, was to get into the right frame of mind. I had always thought that being trans was when, for example, a man wanted to be a woman. And that was fine! I literally thought that’s what it was, and more power to him.

Then I read some trans blogs and actually listened to the community and learned very quickly that I was wrong.

Being trans means that you are a woman, you have always been a woman, but that if you happen to look like a man society will actually get angry with you for being a woman. My first lesson as a cis person was to unlearn the idea that body parts and genitals have anything to do with gender. What makes a woman a woman? If she bloody well tells me she is. I’ll bugger off and mind my own business.

What a pity then, that Hollywood is so hell-bent on continuously casting cis male actors as trans women.

Can you see how insulting this is? There are plenty of trans actors and actresses out there looking for work. Not only will they probably (definitely) not get cast as cis characters because of the inherent cowardice of the machine, but they can’t even get cast as themselves, because Hollywood blatantly thinks that a trans woman is just a man in a dress with a bit of makeup on. This is the message they are sending out to the world, and this is what the general public will see. [pullquote]Trans people can’t even get cast as themselves, because Hollywood blatantly thinks that a trans woman is just a man in a dress with a bit of makeup on.[/pullquote]

“Oh yeah, there’s Eddie Redmayne,” the audience of the upcoming movie The Danish Girl will say. “He’s a good actor, he is. And right now he’s at home with his wife. What a great bloke.” Eddie Redmayne stars as Lili Elbe – one of the first people to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. For the trans community, this is a film about their history. Lili Elbe was a brave, extraordinary woman, and putting a bit of makeup on Redmayne and calling it fine is nothing short of insulting.

Lili Elbe -
Lili Elbe

It all boils down to laziness and a fear of excluding a target audience who may balk if they realise they actually have to empathise with a real live trans person. Dallas Buyers Club director Jean Marc Vellee was once asked by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation if he ever considered hiring a transgender actor to play the role of Rayon. He replied “Never.” He went on to ask if trans actors even existed. If you have to ask, it sounds like you didn’t even look. Three seconds online and I found Jamie Clayton, Alexis Arquette, Laverne Cox, Stephanie Michelini, Michelle Hendly, Candis Cayne… The list goes on.

Trans rights activist, Ashley Love, criticized producer Jill Soloway’s casting of cisgender actor Jeffrey Tambor as the trans lead in her TV show Transparent. “It’s humiliating. We feel misgendered,” Love said. She also made a direct comparison of the actor’s donning of a wig and skirt to “blackface,” where white men would dress up as black men as a result of the studios unwillingness to hire black actors.

While it’s not ideal to compare and contrast the struggles for representation between two oppressed groups (give me one mainstream rom-com where both actors aren’t white, I dare ya), there is some merit to the comparison. These actors are getting awards and admiration for portraying such a sensitive issue, while trans actors continue to search for work, and trans people see yet another movie or television programme basically claiming they’re a cis person playing dress up.

The upcoming movie About Ray had huge potential. As the story of a trans boy in the process of transitioning, it could have been a beacon of hope for trans teenagers everywhere.  However, Hollywood is willing to cash in on the storyline, but not on the actual representation. Elle Fanning plays a character that could have made a trans actor a household name. The director of the movie, Gaby Dellal, is completely unapologetic about her blatant transphobia, insisting that “the part is a girl and she is a girl who is presented, in a very ineffectual way, as a boy.” Dellal went on to say that Fanning’s character is “just a girl who is being herself and chasing the opportunity to start hormone treatment. So to actually use a trans boy wasn’t an option because that’s not what my story is about”.

What utter gibberish. If Ray says he’s a boy, he is a boy. What part of that is difficult to understand? Whether he has the culturally mandated amount of testosterone in his body is irrelevant. Get over it.

Elle Fanning -
Elle Fanning in ‘About Ray’

If we reach (and we do have to), we can imagine that what Dellal is trying to say is that she wanted Ray to look like a pre-hormone trans person. Because out of the 700,000 trans people in America there are definitely no trans actors who are pre-hormone treatment. And so what if there aren’t?! If we can make Chris Evans look a third his size in the first Captain America movie, and we can make a three hour film about giant blue people running around a UV paint splattered forest in Avatar, how come we can’t deal with making trans people actually trans?

I am a cis woman. I am completely unqualified to talk about this situation, but I want to add my voice to the growing number expressing discontent. Hollywood is cashing in on trans stories, but its laziness and cowardice means that it refuses to look beyond the gimmick that is the ‘other.’ There are trans actors out there looking for work, and there are trans writers and directors looking to accurately portray their stories. There is a huge community of trans people that desperately need this representation. It’s time that they got it.


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