In recent years, critically acclaimed portrayals of transgender characters in works like “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Orange is the New Black” have increased the visibility of transgender people in America.
Yet, most of these transgender characters have been played by cisgender actors, a phenomenon that exacts real-world damage on the trans community.
The recent news that Matt Bomer, a cisgender and openly gay actor, was set to play a transgender sex worker in the movie “Anything” stoked the controversy over whether cisgender male actors should play transgender women. Matt Bomer comes latest in a long line — Jared Leto, Eddie Redmayne and Jeffrey Tambor all won critical acclaim for their “bravery” in portraying transgender women. True — playing characters that they have nothing in common with is part of an actor’s job. But this justification should be disregarded when the consequences perpetuate violence against a community.
Transgender people, or people whose gender identity does not correspond with the gender they were assigned at birth, already face higher unemployment rates because of discriminatory hiring practices. By giving cisgender people, or those whose gender identity does correspond with the gender they were assigned at birth, jobs over them, producers perpetuate the lack of economic opportunity for trans people. Not only that, they continue the all-too-common cycle in Hollywood in which marginalized people are never given the opportunity to become bankable stars.
But perhaps the most damaging consequence of male cisgender actors playing transgender women is the implication that under their “costume,” these women are actually men. As transgender actress Jen Richards wrote on Twitter, the message communicated in media like “Dallas Buyers Club” is that being transgender is simply an act.
“When Jared Leto plays Rayon and accepts his Oscar with a full beard, the world sees that being a trans women is just a man performing.”
This misconception that transgender women are not “real” women often leads to tangible violence against the trans community. When cisgender men are cast as trans women, it reinforces the narrative.
Transgender women, especially women of color, face high murder rates. When James Dixon killed a 21-year-old black transgender woman named Islan Nettles in 2013, he claimed he didn’t want to be “fooled” into flirting with a man and that he had to protect his “manhood.” This is only one case in which a man, fearing being perceived as gay because of his attraction to a transgender woman, performed violence to prove his masculinity. But it’s part of a larger pattern of violence society inflicts upon transgender people, a pattern that includes even denying the fact that they exist.
This violence is significant, and producers and directors have a responsibility to do their part in combating it by simply hiring more transgender talent. They exist — Laverne Cox, Jen Richards, and Jamie Clayton have played transgender women in media, among others, and there are more that Hollywood has yet to tap. Recently, Modern Family hired Jackson Millarker, the first transgender child actor to appear on TV. Nick Adams, the director of GLAAD’s transgender media program, wrote that telling real stories of transgender people makes for better art, anyways.
“Create a role specifically for them,” Adams said. “Listen to their stories and be inspired. The reality of lived trans experience is so much more interesting, so much more powerful, than the simulacrum Hollywood has peddled for decades.”
The power of media brought the experiences of transgender people into the general public’s consciousness. Now, it has an obligation to portray authentic ones.
Nemawarkar is a Plan II sophomore. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @janhavi97