So several months ago I had several discussions about the acceptability, or otherwise, of having cis actors in trans roles, with a variety of people, cis, trans, and in-between, culminating in me making a drunken promise to write a post on the topic. And I tried. And I sobered up and wasn't very happy with my writing. And I tried again a few weeks later. And that wasn't quite right either. And today, someone asked me to try again. So I am. Let's see if I can explain to my well-meaning cis friends and relatives, why this pisses off so many trans people so much, and to my well meaning trans friends why your outrage also needs a side of balance.
The thing is, I'm pretty moderate on a bunch of this stuff, and I think it takes a bunch of nuance to get it right. In particular, I'm not going to say that it is always wrong, or always transphobic to have a cis actor play a trans role. But it often is. It's usually a bad sign. There are so many things that can, and historically often have, gone wrong when people have tried to put cis actors in trans roles. It makes me instantly suspicious, even though it doesn't make me instantly outraged. So I have a lot of thoughts here.
Often the problem is the role itself and a trans actor isn't going to fix the problem
Hollywood has a looong history of being shitty to trans people. The rule of thumb is that transmen get almost no portrayal, and transwomen and crossdressers are portrayed in a couple of terrible unflattering stereotypes. And genderqueer or genderfluid people? Phffft, forget about it. So what are the trans stereotypes that Hollywood is comfortable using? Well there is the “crazy transwoman,” the “sexy transwoman,” the “ridiculous transwoman” and the “oscar-bait transwoman” and most of these are available for MtF crossdresser too, the Oscar-bait style is probably more common that way in fact. The “crazy transwoman” is a villain, made a little more disgusting and surprising, and less sympathetic, by adding crossdressing or transgenderism into the mix. Psycho's Norman Bates is the classic origin here, but there are many more examples, Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, Dressed to Kill, heck even Ace Ventura. The “sexy transwoman” stereotype usually involves, as Parker Malloy puts it “a sex worker, a deceptive 'trap' for heterosexual men, or as a dead body on Law & Order or CSI.“ Other classic examples include the Crying Game, or Dallas Buyer's Club. In the “ridiculous transwoman” archetype the transperson is portrayed as a object of comedy by their very being, typically the ridiculous transwoman doesn't pass and is in considered hilarious for trying. Think of the World According to Garp (although it's an overall fairly sympathetic role), or Nuns on the Run. Finally, successful actors often attempt “transformation” roles that are quite different from the types they are normally cast in in order to show off their acting skills, often in films that are obviously trying to chase Oscars, sometimes you play a gay character, and crossdressing (or portraying a trans person) is a classic here, as is playing a disabled person. Think Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Yentl. It happens occasionally for non-established actors too, like in Crying Game or Boys Don't Cry. Also getting actors into drag is a common enough strategy for cheap-ass comedy that lots of established actors have drag/crossdress or crossgender bits in their history somewhere. Tom Hanks started out in the execrable “Bosom Buddies,” for example, playing a somewhat unwilling crossdresser. Then there is the trend of casting cis-males for cis-female roles, think John Travola played Edna Turnblad in the 2007 remake of Hairspray, or all the Madea movies, or Adam Sandler in Jack and Jill. Sigh … there are layers and layers here.
These stereotypes are extremely harmful for rank and file trans folk. We are still often considered crazy, because that is one of the primary portrayals of us. The APA considered being trans a mental disorder until literally 2013. If you aren't trans yourself, it is all too easy to think that someone would have to be crazy to want to be the “other” gender. Crazy, dangerous, sexually screwed up, disgusting, yet maybe alluring even trying to entrap honest straight folk into our twisted ways. That's how these stereotypes view us. And of course, either sexy as hell, or humorously fuggly. Real trans folk are striving hard to be sane and happy and balanced in a world that doesn't typically make that easy. Some of us are sexy as hell, or terribly homely, but plenty are pretty regular looking, or frankly handsome (transmen are as common as transwomen remember). But when I look in the mirror, I often feel that I am nothing but an object of ridicule tinged with disgust for the vast majority of Americans, because those are the only roles I see portrayed in mainstream culture that remind me much of myself. Sigh …
So trans people really do get upset and deeply hurt by the patterns of portrayal in our over-culture. But in many of these cases, hiring a trans-actor for the role isn't going to fix a thing. If a trans-person had played Buffalo Bill it would still be just as problematic. Hiring a transwoman to play the corpse of a trans sex worker killed on CSI, well it might be a small step in the right direction, and in some ways it is good that the very real problem of the terrible murder rate of trans women of color gets a little notice, but there is so much else wrong here that it is hard to cheer. I guess playing corpses and corpses-to-be was an important part of Laverne Cox's early career … In general, the fact that a cis actor is playing the trans role is just one symptom of a much deeper problem.
Sometimes a cis actor de-emphasizes the transness of a great trans role
Another problem with hiring cis actors for trans roles is the danger of cisifying a good or great trans role. The classic case here is Dr. Frank N Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Now I love RHPS. But I now have lots of other feelings about it too. It was written by Richard O'Brien, a “third gender” trans person, who identifies as non-binary. Themes of transgenderism run all throughout the story, script and songs. The movie really helped me when I was struggling and I know plenty of other queer folk, trans and otherwise, who can say the same. Dr. Frank N. Furter is a transsexual and transvestite, and a wish-fulfillment character, an idealized trans person, a trans person as a trans person might wish they could be - if they were rich, powerful, and had lots of interesting friends and sex partners. But Tim Curry's masterful performance takes the character in quite a different direction. Curry is just so suggestively male that he plays up the gay and fabulous side of Dr. Furter and loses almost all of the transness. Curry's Frank N. Furter is a domme drag queen, but no longer really a transsexual. Now “transphobia” isn't the right way to cash this out, the movie isn't afraid of trans people, or even antagonistic to them and is probably one of the most pro-trans movies to make it to the, well not mainstream exactly, but major sidestream at least. And it probably wouldn't have been as successful, or reached and helped as many people if it had had a trans actor for the main role. But it might have helped more trans folk. It is hard not to long for an alternate universe where an actor had spun Dr. Furter as trans as possible, instead of as gay as possible, and done an equally great job with the same role played differently.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is, of course, the other obvious example. Hedwig isn't as clear of a case of a trans person even at the level of role. Did Hansel ever self-identify as female prior to meeting Luther Robinson? Was the sex change operation and name change to Hedwig really Hansel's idea, or pushed on Hansel by Luther and Hansel's mom? Hedwig clearly lives as a woman for years, and often refers to herself in the feminine, but is never very upfront about her self-understanding. I've read several transwomen who watched Hedwig and said, that's good, but it's the story of a gay man, who gets trapped into trying to pretend to be trans to leave East Germany with his love. I'm not so sure, and I don't want to disagree with someone about their own identity, even a fictional character, but Hedwig doesn't fit categories well or satisfy our curiousity about identity. Surely this is part of the point. Hedwig falls in-between our usual understandings of gender and refuses to disambiguate or clarify. But John Cameron Mitchell's performance again and again seems to shove us over to the “gay male” interp of Hedwig, rather than the “transwoman with a botched surgery” or even the “relentlessly ambiguous” interpretation. My guess is that Neil Patrick Harris' version does too, but I haven't seen it yet. Mitchell, is the co-writer as well as the star, and publicly presents as a gay male, and is heavily involved in NYC gay male culture. He has admitted to basing the (far more clearly) gay male character of Tommy Gnosis on himself, and Hedwig on a German babysitter/prostitute he knew growing up. Hedwig is a complex, nuanced, flawed-but-sympathetic trans(ish) character, but Cameron's own cisness definitely seems to interfere with Hedwig's transness. Hedwig doesn't feel like trans people telling their stories and getting help from cis people in the process. It feels like cis people broadly sympathetic to trans folk, trying to tell a story involving cis and trans folk, and not quite getting the trans voices right, (or perhaps lapsing back into a character that wasn't ever really trans in the first place), despite trying hard. It's not transphobic, but it still feels like an outsider's view. I haven't seen Transparent yet, where even more obviously we have a trans story being told, but will the cis actor pull it off, or bobble it? I don't know yet, but I certainly see the risks. I don't want to make the perfect the enemy of the good, or bad mouth these stage/movie/TV bits, but cis people taking trans roles that are more complex than the cheap stereotypes and partially draining the transness out of them is a real thing and it does happen.
What about all the trans actors?
Another pair of arguments I often see, is on the one hand that putting cis actors in trans roles unfairly discriminates against trans actors in the hiring/casting process, or contrariwise that good casting involves auditions and picking the best actor for the role regardless of details of identity. Now I'm not a casting director, so I feel a little unqualified to comment here, but my guess is that both sides have a partial point here. There does indeed seem to be systematic discrimination against trans folks in many segments of the work world and it sure seems to apply to Hollywood and larger budget TV/film stuff. And trans aren't the only ones. Hollywood sure seems to undercast women, and people of color, and several other minorities too. And there are reasons for this, and they have to do with market issues as well as culture issues. (Here's Laverne Cox's take on why) Now this award winning casting director believes that casting IS getting more diverse for reasons related to the marketplace itself. (She argues that TV is relying more on online streaming services like Netflix or Hulu for origination, and they have less dependence on traditional advertising and thus are less likely to defaultify their casting for fear of alienating advertisers. Folks watching want and enjoy diverse casts, the data are pretty clear there. But diverse casts do tend to attract less affluent demographics, if, you know, appealing mostly to the richest folks is a major goal of yours …). The “best” artist for the role is a judgment that involves a whole bunch of competing concerns, and I don't want to dictate to casting directors. But MY concerns, and the concerns of trans people everywhere, and the people who love them, and even just the people who are kinda interested in them, should be among the competing concerns. If you don't even give trans actors a chance to audition, because the forces behind the project don't WANT a trans-actor to be picked, well ... And Hollywood messes this up a lot. I've read a lot of criticisms of Jared Leto's role as Rayon, a drug-addicted, transwoman prostitute in Dallas Buyer's Club. Which he won an Oscar for, by the way, and for which he gave a tone-deaf acceptance speech. The director of that one (Jean Marc Vellee) even said publicly that he never even thought about hiring a trans actor for the role, and asked “do trans actors even exist?” Godsdammit! “Let the best person for the role get the role” is a sane decent position when you have a modicum of trust in the competence, artistic integrity, and creative control of the director and/or casting director. And that's probably fair sometimes. But you have to be suspicious of the artistic integrity and actual creative control of just about every frickin' thing in the mainstream media, so this otherwise sane position is usually just a godsdamned red herring! If the race is rigged, then let the fastest runner win, is just cynical bullshit disguised as lie we tell ourselves to not have to look at it. Grrrr! Dallas Buyer's Club was mostly based on real life events and real life characters. Except for Rayon. Who was inserted for … well why? What was the agenda here? The first version of the screenplay was written 21 years before the movie came out and it was in various stages of production for at least 17 years! And in one of the many script re-writes and directorial re-envisionings someone must have said, what this true story needs is a fictional trans junkie prostitute who's kinda sweet once you really get to know her. That'll make it zing! Got script problems? Transmisogyny to the rescue! Transmisogyny can make your villains more disturbingly creepy! Transmisogyny can give you controlled doses of comic relief! Need a little more sympathy? Nothing does sympathy porn like transmisogyny! Want to use a tired old cliché so overworked that a 1st semester scriptwriting prof would spew invectives like Gordon Ramsey? Add a little transmisogyny, and suddenly the whore with a heart of gold trope is so fresh its Oscar worthy! Arrrgh! What's next, a re-telling of the real life Stonewall riot story in which the street transwomen of color that led it (like Marsha Johnston, Sylvia Riviera, or Miss Major Griffin-Gracy) are replaced with respectable middle class white gay men? What? It releases this September? Of course it does.
Why rage isn't the answer
So my notes, and previous attempts at writing this piece say that this is where I'm supposed to explain why rage isn't the answer. Ok ... calming down. Find my moderate hat … Where's my moderate hat? There we go (*donning*). Ok nuance, balance, seeing many sides … right. See, thing is, when you are really mad, it is easy to take a swing at the wrong target, the target in front of you, or the target that you won't get into tooooo much trouble for hitting. The systematic mis-telling of trans stories in the mainstream media is genuinely infuriating, as well as hurtful and depressing. Transmen and non-binary folk get ignored, as what, too boring or too confusing maybe? Transwomen get sensationalized via various strains of transmisogyny that have many roots. Real trans stories get ciswashed. But usually the actors aren't the real problem. They are a symptom of a broader unwillingness to tell trans stories honestly. Trans folk are a pretty small percentage of most audiences, and the powers that be are catering to other demographics. So if they tell our stories at all, the question is how can this be made interesting to people that aren't trans and generally don't at all understand what it is like to be trans.
And even here there are signs of hope. So far, I'm pretty darn impressed by Orange is the New Black, and not just on the trans front, but for its engagement with telling many kinds of stories. Personally, I'm a huge fan of webcomics, where and individual artist, or maybe an artist/writer pair, can put out high quality stuff, fairly cheaply with a natural distribution system, and even some modest hope of monetizing it. I've said a little about the many good trans-themed webcomics here. But also worth mentioning is Questionable Content, an excellent and long running webcomic by Jeph Jacques. It's 12 years and over 3000 pages in, and isn't particularly about trans issues, but about a year ago it introduced a transwoman as an middling important character, and it has been pitch perfect on portraying both her and trans issues since. Jacques isn't trans, he's trying to weave together many different kinds of stories, about jobs, and siblings, and underground robot fighting rings, and struggling with OCD, and alcoholism, and dating, and … and, and being trans. I suppose one advantage of comics is that you don't have to hire actors for the roles you write … Or consider Misfile, a long-running popular webcomic I like, that is mostly a metaphor for being transmale (largely in homage to the artist's father). It recently started working on a low-budget Kickstartered live action version of its early chapters. Suppose the actress that plays Ash (the sorta transmale main character) is a cis woman rather than a transman, as seems plausible from the trailer, although I have been unable to find out for sure. Would that really be a huge problem for the live-action re-telling? I don't think so. In this case, it is easy to see why a cis woman might make a good choice, and further the budget is so low, that the artist is probably working with people he knows or local contacts.
The “transface” analogy.
Trans writers have taken to calling the practice of hiring cis actors to play trans roles, “transface” as an analogy to the old blackface tradition, and the many other terms that have already been coined from it (whiteface, redface, yellowface, etc.). Now the problem with this analogy to me is that it instantly brings to mind the problem of drag. In drag we have males performing as females, and females as males, in womanface and manface as it were. Yet we, or I at least, want to defend the drag tradition, and even consider it an important part of transgender experience and history (some more of my discussion of the history and controversies about this claim here, or read other people's take here, and here and here and here). For some reason, drag seems OK or even commendable to me, blackface seems awful, and “transface” seems like a middle case. Why? Well I've agonized about this a fair bit, it's one of the things that flummoxed me in past drafts of this argument. But I keep talking it over with others. Here is my current guess. The issue isn't really about casting across race or gender or whatever, but the spirit and tradition of the decision. The extent to which this choice is a signal of broader agendas at play. What makes blackface so terrible, in all or almost all cases, is that it stands in a centuries long tradition of minstrel shows and darkie iconography, that was systemically used to ridicule, demean, oppress, and had basically no redeeming features that I've ever been able to detect. It was mean-spirited with nothing else worthwhile to even try to balance it's mean-spiritedness against. Wearing blackface usually signals allegiance to a specific tradition of using art as a tool of racial oppression. Even if that isn't your goal, unless you are extremely careful, that is what it looks like you are doing.
But drag isn't like that. It too stands in a long tradition which it both upholds and alters. And drag does often seek to re-interpret femininity and masculinity. And it does use exaggeration and ridicule, and even gets mean-spirited occasionally. But it is hard to deny that it is also genuinely trying to celebrate femininity and masculinity, that ridicule and respect are functioning together in a sense of play and self exploration. Drag is clearly seeking to empower and liberated the downtrodden, at least as much or more than it is trying to demean, oppress, or trivialize anyone. And you can't say that about blackface.
But “transface” is somewhere in the middle, not as defensible as drag, but not as awful as blackface. I increasingly suspect that redface, yellowface, and mainstream media's treatment of folks with disabilities may be better analogies. (Wheelchairface? Is there already a term here? Can I even make that joke?) Hollywood long used white actors to portray American Indian characters, and portrayed them as hackneyed caricatures, and embedded these caricatures in deeply problematic larger artistic contexts. Even when it went “positive” rather than “negative” it still got things terribly wrong, and fell into caricature just as badly. Similar things can be said about Hollywood's historic portrayal of East Asians. One particularly egregious case was the 1937 movie adaptation of Pearl Buck's book the Good Earth. Anglo actress Louise Rainer won the Oscar for her portrayal of the story's heroine, O-lan. MGM actually considered giving the role to Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, but since her on-screen husband was played by an actor of European descent, that would have been a violation of the anti-miscegenation rules in the Hay's Code (the moral rules that Hollywood set for itself 1930-68, before the Supreme Court scrapped the document and it was replaced by our film rating system). MGM actually offered Wong the role of Lotus, the story's villain, but Wong refused to be the only Chinese American playing the only negative character, stating: "...I won't play the part. If you let me play O-lan, I'll be very glad. But you're asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.” And we could easily multiply examples. And it is hard to doubt that this is a systematic problem with mainstream medias attempts to portray minorities of many kinds.
But blackface, or yellowface, or transface are problems mostly BECAUSE they signal bigger problems. They are symptoms or warning signs for more pervasive racism and intentional mistelling. But consider cases where the artistic agenda is clearly to oppose the more pervasive problems. When the white characters of O Brother Where Art Thou wear blackface, it's very clear that the artistic agenda instead is to reference the blackface tradition in an attempt to oppose it. Now maybe O Brother doesn't get race issues pitch perfect, but it's hard to deny that it is trying. Or consider Cloud Atlas (in part by trans director Lana Wachoski). It includes actors like Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving in yellowface. But it also is clearly trying to artistically explore the role of race on self. Katey Rich argues that accusing Cloud Atlas of racism is missing the point . Maybe, maybe not. You can disagree with Cloud Atlas' take on race if you want, but at the very least it is using yellowface as part of an attempt to engage with issues of race, rather than to demean, belittle, ignore or minimize anyone. Similarly accusing Rocky Horror Picture Show of transphobia because it uses a cis actor for Dr. Frank N Furter is taking a swing at the wrong target in anger. Rocky Horror Picture Show is trying to explore the trans experience in a sympathetic way. Maybe it would have been even better with a trans star. Or maybe it would have died in obscurity. Either way, it's using transface, but also trying to distance itself as much as possible from many of the things that make transface so horrible in other contexts. If trans people can't moderate outrage at transface at least enough to look carefully at particular cases, then we risk alienating anyone who ever loved Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Boys Don't Cry. I'm not saying we can't criticize even these, just that we need to acknowledge the good with the bad, rather than just write them off as transface.
I guess what I am saying is that there is nothing inherently wrong with casting someone across race or gender or transness, or probably lots of other things. But it often signals broader issues in the art. Why are they doing it? When Kenneth Branaugh used Denzil Washington as Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, in his 1993 Much Ado About Nothing, great choice. I thought it worked well and didn't distract. I don't think either discrimination or reverse discrimination was the goal here. When Eddie Murphy plays whiteface in Coming to America as a Jewish barbershop (among many other roles), he's surely trying to make fun of the blackface tradition, and he's also trying to caricature Jews for comedic effect. My sense is that he doesn't get all the way to antisemitism here, but I can see how others might disagree. But I don't think it's already offensive just for being whiteface or jewface, rather you need to look at what he does with it.
But the history of cis actors playing trans roles is not a good one. It makes me instantly suspicious. Will Eddie Redmayne do an OK job as Lili Elbe in the upcoming film “The Danish Girl” the true story of one of the very first people to get modern SRS? Maybe. I'm suspicious and afraid. Every thing I've seen so far makes me fear another Oscar bait sympathy porn treatment. Near as I can tell, the book writer, screenplay writer, director, producers, and stars are all cis (and non-Danish, although the 2nd main actor is at least Swedish). Everything smacks of a “oh you're soooo brave” sort of story being told by outsiders. Trans person as object lesson for others. Eddie Redmayne won the Oscar last year for playing Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything remember. Still we'll see.
In the end, if you have good Asian actors, or Native American actors, or disabled actors, or trans actors available for a role, then why wouldn't you want to use them? Maybe you don't even know about what is available, but then why not? Maybe you don't see them as good enough, but then are you just one more instance of the discrimination? Maybe you feel the need for a “big name,” but then you're probably part of the problem. Maybe, and this is the kicker, you don't really want an Asian or trans character after all, you want a crappy caricature, and you are afraid, rightly, that a real Asian or trans person will bring too much reality and nuance to the role. Maybe the role is so bad that real Asians or trans people or deaf people or whatever, don't want to play it. Maybe what you really want is a gay man pretending to be a transwoman, because appealing to gay men is a bigger goal for you than getting the story right.
On the other hand, maybe your casting budget is really small, and you have to make due with the actors you can find locally, or even just one's within the school you teach at, and you're doing the best you can with the pool you have. Maybe part of the shtick of the piece is having the same actor or actors in a variety of disparate roles. Maybe you are trying to be playful, and the spirit of play is animating your casting decisions. Maybe you're trying to intentionally re-envision a classic story, like when the Wiz re-does the Wizard of Oz story with an all-black cast. Maybe you're trying to emphasize some aspect of the character other than their transness. When Oedipus the King (1968) casts cis man Orson Welles as the transperson Tiresias, or The Odyssey (1997 TV miniseries), casts Christopher Lee as Tiresias, (yes both of these famous actors have played transface), it's because the trans side of Tiresias is considered much less important than the prophet side of Tiresias for the purposes of these particular stories, and that's a very different thing than having a cis male play Lili Elbe or Sylvia Riviera in stories about their transness. It's still ciswashing, but there is more going on than simple discrimination or transmisogyny. Actually it's kinda refreshing that even for a trans character, not everything has to be about the fact that they are trans.
The US public, on the whole, is, in my experience, both ignorant and misinformed about what it is like to be trans, and big media deserves a big chunk of the blame. I find this frustrating and hurtful all the time. But trans folks are certainly not alone in this regard. Many other groups have cause to be frustrated and hurt by the ways the media has portrayed them. I guess I just want to see our struggles with transface as an example of a broader difficulty with getting satisfactory portrayals of minority groups in the media.
P.S. The morning after writing this I got embroiled in a discussion about the acceptability of dressing up as Hedwig for Halloween that re-framed some things for me. I was framing this article very much in terms of casting, directing, writing, and acting, but the issue is broader. The sports fan in the crappy Chief, Redskin, or Braves outfit is probably more problematic redface than anything Hollywood has done in the last couple of decades (although I suppose there could be some stinkers I'm mercifully unaware of). And let's not get started on Pocohontas Halloween costumes. For the question of "transface in my neighborhood" or "can I dress up as Hedwig, or Dr. Frank N. Furter, or Caitlyn Jenner without it being immoral or offensive?" Well, that's complex enough to be worth it's own article later ...