Let’s Talk About Trans Casting In Pop Culture
Well, this week it’s another jolly topic for the blog: transgender people in fictio. And specifically, why we continually cast men as trasngender women.But my main point of contention is this: why do shows and movies continually cast cisgender men as transgender women?
I’m talking specifically about two of what are arguably the highest-profile transgender roles in a while (OINTB gets a pass here, obviously): Jeffery Tambor in Transparent, and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. Let me preface all of this by saying that the performances I’m talking about are both bloody excellent and are worthy of all the praise (/academy awards and Golden Globes) that they’ve been showered with. But both the characters that Tambor and Leto play are women. True, the story in Transparent hinges around Jeffery Tambor’s coming out as a transgender woman, so there’s a case to be made that to accurately portray the process, a man should be playing the role. But Leto is playing a woman; regardless of whether she’s transgender or not, she’s a woman. It seems profoundly odd that we’re happy casting men as female characters (or, in more rare cases, women as male characters) as long as their transgender when it might be seen as a bit strange to cast, I don’t know, Evan Rachel Wood as Iron Man (think about it: it would work). While Leto does a great job in the role, it’s arguably kind of insensitive- in a world where transgender people and others who don’t fit within the gender binary are consistently misgendered or have their true identities ignored to cast a man as a transgender woman. It seems to show on some basic level that the filmmakers are tacitly agreeing with the idea that transgender women aren’t “real” women, because they haven’t chosen to genderbend casting on any other characters. The history surrounding Rayon’s gender in Dallas Buyers Club is apparently the reason that a man was chosen to play her.
But then you’ve got the more complex case of Jeffery Tambor in Transparent. As I mentioned above, we follow Tambor through his coming out as transgender to his transition, with flashbacks to his previous life as he came to terms with his true gender. So, I can see why they chose to cast Tambor in this role. But, at the same time, it boils down to the idea that this character is, and, arguably, always has been, a woman. In this bit of casting, we’re agreeing that a man can play feminine, but a woman can’t play masculine. The same goes with Gael Garcia Bernal’s highly-touted performance in Bad Education, where he plays both a pre- and post-transition transgender woman. Sure, it’s not that he’s not good, but once again the people who chose to cast him ignored the possibility that a woman could play both roles just as convincingly. If you need another example, take a look at the much-hyped Eddie Remayne performance in The Danish Girl; pictures released of him in costume as Lili Elbe, one of the very first recipients of a gender reassignment operation, and it seem so to boil down to this idea that there’s some discomfort around casting women in high-profile transgender women roles.
Thing is, I think it’s a good thing that we’re seeing more high-profile roles surrounding trans issues. That’s awesome. But there’s still a bit of apathy around actually casting women as, um, women, if they’re transgender. Don’t get me wrong, if a man is just right for the job and can depict the things that the filmmakers need them to depict best, then great. But if we’re doing that, then why aren’t we holding more genderless auditions that don’t let a character’s gender define who plays them? There will always be something really strange to me about almost exclusively casting men as transgender women, especially in post-transition roles. But I’m throwing open the gates here: what do you think? Have you seen any of the roles that I’ve mentioned, and do you think they could have been performed by a woman? I don’t have a particular answer here, so please jump in in the comments below.