The Cost of Casting Cis:

The Problem with the Shallow Activism Behind So-Called Progressive Filmmaking

  Tangerine  © 2015 Magnolia Pictures

Tangerine © 2015 Magnolia Pictures

On August 29th, 2016, it was announced that Matt Bomer would star alongside John Carroll Lynch in the film Anything, Timothy McNeil’s debut feature. The film, an adaptation McNeil’s play of the same title, centers on a man (Lynch) who moves to Los Angeles following the death of his wife, and cultivates a relationship with a transgender sex worker (Bomer). The ensuing response swiftly followed the announcement, questioning the choice to cast Bomer, a cis gay man, in the role of a transwoman. Jamie Clayton, a trans actress and model, took to Twitter to address Bomer directly, where she was later blocked (and the unblocked) by him. Mark Ruffalo, who also appears in the film, tweeted his support of the casting decision based on his time with Bomer when they were filming The Normal Heart, adding he’s “glad we are having this conversation.” The conversation Ruffalo speaks of is regarding the, shall we say, liberal casting choices made over the years, specifically in regards to queer roles. The casting of Anything is hardly news to anyone vaguely familiar to the importance of trans roles (and queer roles in general) being played by straight, cisgendered actors, and yet the trend of exclusivity and faux activism continues to plague the world of film.

The practice of casting characters outside the boundaries of the actor’s own gender identity, sexual orientation, or race has existed since human beings began performing in front of one another, and something that’s only been amplified since the emergence of Hollywood. Award season is nearly always articulated by a controversial or otherwise peculiar role, one that upsets the norm by advertising the liberal agenda du jour through the exploitation of an underrepresented minority group.

Take the 86th Academy Awards show, for example: Jared Leto, a cisgender man, won the award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Rayon, a fictionalized trans sex worker with AIDS, in Dallas Buyers Club. Having purportedly remained in character through the entire production of the film, Leto’s performance was hailed by critics despite the character’s uninspiring and disingenuous background. In an article for Time Magazine, Steve Friess expounds on the character’s lack of substance, noting she’s “a sad-sack, clothes-obsessed, constantly flirting transgender drug addict prostitute…There are no stereotypes about transgender women that Leto’s concoction does not tap. She’s 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.” Leto’s performance was certainly captivating, and this is not to say it didn’t deserve recognition. But if an actual transwoman played Rayon, would she be awarded the same praise as Leto? Would the movie have even be made to begin with?

 Jared Leto accepts the 2014 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Jared Leto accepts the 2014 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

 Jared Leto in  Dallas Buyers Club  (2013) Anne Marie Fox © Focus Features, LLC

Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) Anne Marie Fox © Focus Features, LLC

Jen Richards, a trans actor and activist (she also auditioned for a minor role in Anythingcommented on the hypocrisy of the situation, highlighting Leto’s win: “When Jared Leto gets up and accepts his award for playing a transwoman with a full beard, the world thinks, ‘Oh, okay, underneath it all, it’s still a man. Behind transwomen, it’s really just a guy with good makeup and good hair, et cetera.’” This is the core of the upset behind Bomer’s casting in Anything: yes, the representation of trans characters in film is vital to more widespread recognition and acceptance of trans individuals, but choosing cis men to portray them subtly yet fundamentally reverses this progress. No matter how moving Leto’s or Bomer’s (or Eddie Redmayne’s, or Jeffrey Tambor’s) performance is, it’s still a man playing a woman’s role.

But what happens on the other end of the scale – when a trans actor gets to play a trans character? Sean S. Baker’s fiery 2015 film Tangerine proved that trans sex workers could not only star in a film, but exist as complex characters outside of their gender identities or occupation. Having both been previously involved in sex work in order to survive, lead actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor bring an authenticity to the role that is simply unparalleled in their cisgender, substantially privileged contemporaries.

Laverne Cox also continues to star in trans-positive roles, most notably as Sophia Burset on Orange Is The New Black. And in October, Cox will star in FX’s television remake of the cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show as none other than Dr. Frank N. Furter. Tim Curry’s original performances as the transvestite from transsexual Transylvania is something of underground queer culture lore, albeit his being a cisgender man. Indeed, the show’s use of the word “transsexual” itself has grown to become a tad taboo, as much of the transgender community considers it slur. And yet, how poetic it is to have a black, transgender woman take on the fishnets and eyeshadow, luring newlyweds into a mansion of unexpected horrors and delights. Cox has been diligent when it comes to addressing the more archaic phrases used in the show, however. In an interview with OUT Magazine, she states: “in 1975, our understanding of the term transvestite was not the same as today...But we also need to note that, yes, transvestite is an antiquated term. I think it’s possible to have a conversation about how language evolves. We can do that, and we can also enjoy Rocky Horror in 2016.”

Roles like Dr. Frank N. Furter or the ones in Tangerine, though landmarks in their own, respective rights, aren’t as progressive as they seem, however. Yes, they may be trans characters played by trans people (certainly a vital statement), but they don’t challenge the norm of how most people, and indeed how much of history has considered trans people to be: campy, obnoxious, sexually predatory, or poor, uneducated sex workers, shuffling across city streets in search of money, shelter, or drugs. The plot and characters of Tangerine, abrasive and gritty as they may appear to some, nevertheless strike a chord with the reality many trans people face on a daily basis. 2016 was the deadliest recorded year for transgender people in the U.S., according to a report from GLAAD. And though twenty-seven deaths were officially reported, this doesn’t account for those that weren’t due to the misgendering of the victim or for mere the lack of interest in reporting violence against transgender individuals. What’s more, violence against transwomen of color is alarmingly disproportionate: of all the murders committed against LBGTQ+ people reported in 2016, 68% of them were transgender people, and 61% of which were transwomen of color, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs yearly report. So while on-screen representation is no doubt helpful in increasing the visibility and acceptability of trans people to American audiences, which roles get seen (not to mention funded, or green-lit, or widely distributed, or discussed in popular, mainstream culture) is just as important, if not moreso.

It’s the proper affirmation and rendering of these essential roles that open the doors for trans visibility in ways that would have be inconceivable ten (much less twenty) years ago, the kind of visibility that gives Laverne Cox a spot in the upcoming CBS drama Doubt, giving her the title of first openly transgender actor playing a transgender series regular. When cisgender people are cast in transgender roles, it does more than spark conversations on Twitter or serve as awards season fodder – it subjugates the history of trans people to something akin to a sideshow gimmick, a role that’s subversive and transformative for the cis person playing them, but nothing more than an expensive wig and smudged, tawdry makeup at the end of the day.

The reality is that films starring and about transgender people are still incredibly difficult to make. Television and film studios are still hesitant to produce concepts that feature trans characters at the forefront, even if a well-known actor is willing to take on the role. It most cases, it takes a name like Matt Bomer to get producers and audiences interested in film they wouldn’t care to watch if it were a trans person in the lead instead. The progress between a caricature and character study slow, but it is absolute, and it won’t be soon before roles like that in Anything – and indeed, original, complex, cliché-free roles – are championed by the very people who lived them.