Tuesday 8 September 2020

Transgender Actors

Here's a question. You want to make a film where a transgender character is the lead. Do you need to cast a transgender actor or actress in the role?

Victor Polster in Girl (2018)
For mainstream cinema at least, the choice is easy: you pick a cisgender actor or actress and cast them. That has been true over many years, from Felicity Huffman in Transamerica to Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto, to Terence Stamp in Priscilla, right up to Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl and most recently Victor Polster in Girl.

For some trans people, this is definitely a problem. The film Girl, which I haven't yet seen, has stirred up quite a lot of protest, in particular because there seems to be a lot of depiction of genitalia. Several questions about transgender actors have been debated on Quora, and some of the answers and comments are very interesting. All of the quotes come from Quora and are unchanged from the original authors' text, though they are not all in response to the same question.

The first comment people make is that there are plenty of trans actors out there now.
Elliott Mason: There are hundreds of working trans actors, of all stripes and appearances. If none of them are considered "bankable" it's because productions won't cast them to play cis, but won't let them play trans either.
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl (2015)
This is a very fair point: if you are a trans actor, then you might find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place: no trans roles-- and no cis ones either!

The next point is that it’s not acceptable to have black or Asian parts played by white actors in makeup—and for the same reason we should have trans actors playing trans characters.
Joanne C Wittstock: There was a time when women were not allowed on stage. Then a time when no suitable black actors were available and the roles went to whites. For decades there were apparently no Asians with theatrical skills. The frontier is slowly moving. To a large extent trans people are the visible minority of this moment.
I completely take this point. One of the things which spoils what would otherwise be one of my favourite ever movies, Breakfast at Tiffany's, is the dreadful "comic relief" turn of Mickey Rooney in yellowface as Mr. Yunioshi. And one of the best of the classic Doctor Who stories, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, features John Bennet in the role of the villainous Li H'Sen Chang. This time, it's not played for laughs, but the show still manages to throw in some dreadful Chinese stereotypes. The few actual Asian actors in the production are relegated to non-speaking parts.

Another common theme is the failure of Hollywood to recognise the legitimacy of trans people themselves; instead making them out to be a pretence.
Helena Almagest: The persistent practice of Hollywood to have cis men portray trans women and cis women trans men promotes the misconception that transgender is merely a disguise, and that trans women are merely men dressing up, and trans men, women dressing up. A misconception that gets us killed. (her emphasis).
A trans woman should be portrayed by a woman. It needn’t even be a trans woman (although suitable trans actresses are out there and desperately seeking jobs), it could also be a cis woman. Just not a man.

Likewise, a trans man should be portrayed by a man, trans or cis.

Tara Nitka: Hollywood has made me quite skeptical about the ability of cis people to write and portray trans characters, but that might only be true of Hollywood.

But ultimately, casting cis men and boys to play trans women and girls sends the message that we’re men pretending to be women. If you can’t cast a trans girl, at least cast a girl.

Felicity Huffman in Transamerica
From the (short) list of famous movies at the start of this article, only Transamerica would meet with approval here, with Felicity Huffman cast as a transwoman.

Sara Clarke: When we cast a cis person to play a trans person, we’re at the mercy of that person (and their most likely cis director and writer) to tell us what trans people look and act like, how they feel about things, what choices they would make, etc. Considering how ignorant most cis people are of the trans experience, that’s not doing anybody any favors: either other cis people learning about trans issues through the lens of other cis people who may or may not know what they’re talking about, or other trans people who want to see authentic versions of their lives represented in the media.

These are powerful points. The criticism is that the films don't depict trans people, or how they feel, but only what cisgender people think trans people are like, and how they feel. I definitely share this point of view: several times during The Danish Girl, I found myself thinking that elements of the plot didn't strike me as real.
Chrystal Andros: My issue is what is called agency. With women it used to be (and still is in some aspects) that men define what is good for them. They cannot speak for themselves, so they have to have someone else speaking for them.

In the same way in Hollywood, managers and focus groups define what is good for the audience and define their selection of actors.

With trans-actors and trans-actresses they fit into a certain category - they are becoming more mainstream, but they are considered like women from 1950s who go out and become professionals - the freaks of today.
Three of the films I have mentioned have received very positive reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, Priscilla has a 96% approval rating; Girl has achieved 84% and Transamerica has 76%.  Meanwhile, The Danish Girl managed only 67% and Breakfast on Pluto achieved 57%. So the filmmakers are doing something right (if not exactly breaking box-office records with any of them). But of course, if these are films made by cisgender film-makers, pitched for a (predominantly) cisgender audience, I suppose that doesn't necessarily mean they please transgender people.

Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto
But not everyone agrees with the sentiments above. Some commentators reported that, as long as the actor does a decent job, it shouldn't matter whether they are cisgender or transgender.
Mark Grinstein-Camacho: Actors play different characters all the time. It is their job. You can find actors who play straight people, gay people, billionaires, emperors of the galaxy, penniless street urchins, genius computer programmers, or zombies hungry for human flesh.

Studying for those roles and preparing for them is a big part of an actor’s work. Maybe it means watching Hitler’s speeches, or spending a day at a boot camp, or attending a conference. Maybe it means learning to play the violin for a year. Maybe it means watching other movies. Maybe it means interviewing people who were there. Any good actor can do this.
Karissa Cook: One point that most people seem to miss with these questions is that an actor acts. That is what they do.

Would it be a good thing for more transgender actors to get cast? Absolutely! Should we get bent out of shape about who is portraying trans characters? Not unless they are doing a poor job.

Look folks. If you want only trans actors to have trans roles then you aren't really looking for actors, you are looking for representatives.

Actors play a part. Their job is to make us believe that they really are the characters they portray. Stop worrying about who is playing the role, just pay attention to how well or poorly they did.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing
This is also a point I have some sympathy with, although my own point of view comes from a different angle. Film-making is driven by economics. Film-makers make films because they want people to pay money to see them. Along the way, they may inspire, entertain, or inform--they may even achieve art--but those are very secondary considerations.

In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch plays cryptanalyst Alan Turing (who happens to be one of my heroes). Turing was gay, but Cumberbatch isn’t; nonetheless Cumberbatch gives an extraordinary performance.

People have criticised the considerable liberties with historical events which the director took. But the director Morten Tyldrum has said that the film was really about using the medium of film to give the audience a flavour of what Turing was really like (rather than to just make a historical documentary). In this, I think he succeeds. The role of the tortured genius has been done dozens of times, but Cumberbatch manages to bring a nuanced performance which includes the awkwardness, the vulnerability and the arrogance of the character, without ever feeling forced or unnatural. Though we sympathise deeply with Cumberbatch's portrayal of Turing, he doesn't make the character necessarily likeable.

By casting a star like Cumberbatch in the role of Alan Turing, I believe people will watch the film who otherwise wouldn’t. And I believe that, unless they have hearts of stone, they will come away feeling sympathy for Turing and how he was treated, perhaps in a way they haven’t sympathised with gay people before. Other recent films which show gay men in a very positive light are Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent
I think that we are in this place right now. I believe it’s more important for the public to see us, and to sympathise with and accept us, (even using the medium of fiction and the artifice of film) than it is for trans actors to be cast in those roles. Some cisgender actors have also done a wonderful job, such as Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent.

I hope that the day will come when trans actors are just actors. We are not there yet. Meanwhile, cisgender actors playing transgender parts is fine by me. What I want, right now, is awareness and exposure, and for people to view us with sympathy rather than scorn or discomfort. I think overall that we should be pleased that films with a transgender theme are being made and released. While they may not be perfect, I think that the casting of cisgender actors in transgender parts is doing more good than harm.