From Tangerine to A Fantastic Woman: The Importance of Trans Casting
At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, some of the top prizes and most raving reviews went to Lukas Dhont’s coming-of-age drama, Girl. It’s the story of Lara, who desperately desires to train as a ballerina, but she was born in a male body. This transgender film has been praised across the board as a new, vital piece of queer cinema, but there’s a problem here. A big, glaring issue that’s impossible to overlook.
Lara is played by a cisgender man, rather than a transgender actress.
Now, only a few days ago, it was announced that Scarlett Johansson would reteam with Rupert Sanders, the same director who cast her as an Asian character in last year’s live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, to star as a trans man in an upcoming film based on a true story. When pressed about cooperating in this cruel casting trend, Johansson gave a completely baffling response: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”
Besides being entirely nonsensical, while also mentioning two known abusive men as if they are the gold standard for cis people playing trans characters, her statement is dismissive of the struggles trans actors have in finding roles. While actresses like Johansson claim the small number of trans roles as their own, trans actors who responded to this controversy, like Jamie Clayton of Sense8 and Trace Lysette of Transparent, cannot even get a foot in the door at most casting offices. Her behavior, as well as that of the casting directors who keep perpetuating it, is completely unacceptable in an era where the public is clamoring for media representation.
Unfortunately, these sorts of casting problems have been plaguing Hollywood ever since they began telling trans stories, but especially in these stories where the character’s struggle with gender identity takes centerstage. It can seem a much bigger, scarier ask to demand trans actors play a pre-transition version of a character than it is to ask a cisgender actor to play a gender they’ll never be. Unless the casting department gets very lucky, as they did with Laverne Cox and her twin brother on Orange is the New Black, they tend to take the path of least resistance and hire an opposite gender actor who’s, ahem, looking for a more challenging role.
The things about acting, though, is that it’s a balancing act. The craft of it lies in balancing real-life experiences and emotions with one’s imagination. So, the maddening conclusion this casting trend leads to is that the imagined trans experience, according to a cisgender actor, is more valid and crucial than the actual lives of trans people who’ve gone through something much closer to these characters’ experiences onscreen. Clearly, this is a foolish casting method, centered on a fear of taking risks on more unknown talent.
That fear is all the more frustrating when you remember, too, that almost every time that a chance was taken on trans talent, it’s consistently paid off. In 2015, Sean Baker’s ambitious iPhone-filmed feature, Tangerine, burst onto the scene with its chaotic energy and colorful characters. The lead performances from Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez were wonderfully emotive, balancing the tougher nature of life as a trans woman of color with the tender moments of a friendship founded in shared struggles. The film was praised for its gambles and the fantastic representation in casting, as well as its sympathetic storyline.
In a similar vein, Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman told the story of a grieving woman, played with incredible pathos by Daniela Vega, who’s dealing with the loss of her lover. It’s a gorgeous but harrowing look at the day-to-day struggles of being accepted as a trans person and how that can wear someone down. Vega gives a powerhouse performance that singlehandedly drives the film, making it a bittersweet experience. A Fantastic Woman went on to win the foreign language Academy Award, as well as many, many rave reviews for Vega’s performance, which went unnoticed at the Oscars.
These performances by trans actors are held in high regard and have been viewed as some of the most powerful roles in recent history. Meanwhile, those from cisgender actors, which are the roles gaining lots of award attention, have been aging about as well as milk left outside on a hot summer day. The well-rounded characters realized by trans people on television and in film have revealed the caricatured nature of their cis counterparts. In the same year as Taylor and Rodriguez’s unnominated but groundbreaking turns in Tangerine, Eddie Redmayne gained an Oscar nomination for his damaging, ridiculous performance in Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl. The absurdly effeminate behaviors and mannerisms are laughably horrid and so, so offensive on many levels, and, yet, it’s what was rewarded. His bizarrely, vapid floating around the screen was lauded, while Taylor and Rodriguez were ignored for their morally complex portrayals of sex workers trying their best to make it in Los Angeles. Moments like these are when the Academy tips their hand, and these revelations of where their loyalties lie is often hard to stomach. Whether it’s the silly, deceptively dangerous stereotypes of Redmayne or Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning borderline fetishization of trans women through his warped concept of what constitutes method acting, the Academy celebrates cisgender actors who play trans over and over again.
It’s so, so critical that we move away from this, and we slowly are. More and more casting is being done appropriately, but each time it isn’t, it can feel like we’ve taken a step forward, followed by a huge stumble backwards. It’s crucial that we put these stories in the hands of the people to whom they belong, rather than appropriate them into cis stories for cis audiences. The LGBTQIA+ community is starving for proper representation across the board, but dangerous stereotypes need to be squashed in film and television, in order to support our trans brothers and sisters.