The film and television industry seem to be moving leaps and strides in the right direction with the increasing amount of storylines including transgender characters— especially trans women! While this step forward is fantastic in raising awareness about the transgender community and is allowing their voices to be heard, the way they are being portrayed is detrimental.
The people being cast to play these transgender characters are, in almost all cases, cisgender actors (when your gender identity matches your biological sex). While some moves are being made to allow transgender actors represent themselves on camera, e.g. Laverne Cox (OITNB) and Jamie Clayton (Sense8), the standard is still that white, cis men are usually the ones playing trans women. The GLAAD Transgender Media Program Director, Nick Adams, has maybe said it best: "Hollywood is having a very difficult time letting go of the idea that putting a male actor in a dress, wig and makeup is an accurate portrayal of a transgender woman."
The misconception that these performances instil in audiences is that trans women are actually just “men in dresses” is a harmful narrative. It furthers the idea within society that being trans somehow equates as dressing up as the opposite sex rather than being legitimately born into the wrong body.
Also, it’s not like trans actors/actresses aren’t auditioning for these roles! Danish Girl director Tom Hooper admitted that “there’s a tremendous pool of talented trans actors out there”— so why aren’t they being given parts? Transgender actress Jen Richards auditioned for the role of a trans sex worker in the upcoming movie Anything. Despite her advice to the casting directors that they hire a trans actress for the role, they gave Matt Bomer the part.
So, the following examples on this list of cisgender actors who have played transgender characters each come with their own set of problems. But, hopefully, the film and television industry will catch up soon and this misrepresentation can all just be a distant memory...
15 Jeffrey Tambor – Maura Pfefferman in Transparent
Tambor plays an older trans woman, Maura, in Amazon’s original television show Transparent. The show has been going since 2014 and Tambor has won 2 Emmy’s for his role on the show. In the show, Maura only gains the confidence to introduce her three children to the “real her” in her elder years once life starts calming down and she is able to overcome her shame about her feelings.
Jeffrey Tambor, at least, has used his elevated position to bring attention to the lack of transgender actors being hired for transgender roles. Upon winning his second Emmy for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series, he used his acceptance speech to say:
"Please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their story. I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television."
Apparently, the television series is based on a true story— creator Jill Soloway’s father came out as trans just a few years before the show was released— which only makes the lack of trans casting more confusing, but apparently she always had Tambor in mind for the role.
14 Matt Bomer – Trans Woman in Anything
The casting of Matt Bomer is the most recent salt to be applied to this particular wound. Bomer is going to be playing a transgender sex worker alongside John Carroll Lynch, who befriends Bomer’s character in the wake of his wife’s death.
The news that another straight white cis man was given the role of a trans person resulted in trans actors, advocates and allies speaking out about their displeasure on social media. Many commented their reminders that casting cis men to play trans women results in violence against trans women because at the end of the day, it is reinforcing negative tropes and people watching are aware that they are watching a man playing a woman.
Sense8 actress Jamie Clayton actually tweeted Bomer with an article about transgender representation in Hollywood, only for him to block her rather than being willing to engage in an educational conversation. Despite having spoken out on trans issues in the past, it seems that Bomer is only in support of trans people when it doesn’t require any change on his part.
13 Eddie Redmayne – Lili in The Danish Girl
The Danish Girl is based on the real story of Lili Elbe, one of the first known women to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. The real story of Lili Elbe is a fascinating one; from posing for a painting dressed in women’s clothes, to the realization that she was a woman trapped in a man’s body after, to undergoing surgeries almost two decades later that ultimately led to her death— the tale paints Lili as both brave and desperate for a solution. Given the fact that Elbe was going through this crisis of identity in the 1920/30s, a time where society’s understanding of gender and sex was minimal, it is unsurprising that most doctors she sought help from labelled her as schizophrenic or gay.
With this treatment from medical professionals, as well as her former friends who all made a point of falling out of touch, it is phenomenal that Lili went on with her transitionary journey.
Apparently, Eddie Redmayne was chosen for the role because the director of the film saw “something in him that was drawn to the feminine.” Right, because a trans actress couldn’t have the same qualities? Come on, Hollywood!
12 Hilary Swank – Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry
Hilary Swank played transgender character Brandon Teena, who attempts to find himself, and love, in Nebraska. Brandon is a hit with the ladies, and he eventually finds himself dating the beautiful Lana and he’s in with the guys. However, eventually, Brandon’s friends discover his secret— that he’s biologically female— and the shit hits the fan!
Boy’s Don’t Cry is another story based on real events, wherein the real Brandon was killed at age 21. While reviews have said that Swank is very convincing in the role, the fact that one of the legitimate tags on the Boy’s Don’t Cry IMDb page is “female dressed as male” says all that needs to be said.
The director of the 1999 film, Kimberly Peirce, apparently insisted that Hilary live as a man for four weeks in preparation for the role— which included asking girls out. Solid attempt Peirce, but four weeks does not equate to understanding the experiences of transgender individuals.
11 Jaye Davidson – Dil in The Crying Game
In The Crying Game, both the audience and the character Fergus (Stephen Rea) were surprised when Dil undressed to reveal her penis. Jaye Davidson’s character, Dil, had assumed that Fergus had already guessed her situation and that was why she had allowed thing to go so far.
Audience members were equally taken aback by the revelation. Many men who watched the film were convinced "Nah, nah. That couldn’t be the guy. It was only a guy for that shot," or that “there’s a credit for prosthetics; the penis must’ve been prosthetic," because they just could not admit the fact that they had found a cis-male actor attractive.
It’s hard to see how this scene wasn’t merely used for the shock factor, and the fact that Fergus refuses to continue seeing Dil after the discovery despite loving her, reinforces the ridiculous idea that trans women are less than.
10 Rebecca Romijn – Alexis Meade in Ugly Betty
Alexis Meade is first introduced on Ugly Betty as a bandage-wrapped mystery person, conspiring with Wilhelmina to take over the fashion magazine MODE. Another trans character being introduced as a villain, fantastic! After an up and down character development where Alexis seemed to be one of the ‘good guys’ though still fundamentally problematic like any good character ought to be, Alexis and Daniel’s sibling rivalry and competition for the role as CEO of MODE was an interesting storyline. But then, Alexis pushed a pregnant Christina down a flight of stairs because she was angry at Wilhelmina. Shortly after this, actress Rebecca Romijn announced her gradual departure from the show, citing that “I'm not sure [the writers] can take care of my character the way they have been.”
Despite the questionable storylines given to Romijn’s character, she gained a substantial trans following, having also delivered what was once considered the ‘steamiest lesbian sex scene’ in Femme Fatale (2005). Romijn cites being raised in a family with many queer relatives for her non-issue with playing LGBT characters on screen.
Judith Light, who plays Daniel and Alexis’ mother, Claire Meade, said in an interview: "It's such a valuable storyline because it really gives tremendous support to the transgender community. I love the fact that Alexis has been brave enough to take this stand. I love that she's a transgender. And when you do it in the context of this kind of [light comedic] show, people actually listen and learn."
9 B.D. Wong – White Rose in Mr. Robot
While Mr. Robot has proven to be a fan favourite television show, considered to be ‘very cool’, but that does not mean that the show gets a free pass on its questionable portrayal of transgender character Whiterose. In an interview, Wong recalled creator Sam Esmail saying that “She is transgender, but her transness has nothing to do with anything,” but then contradicts himself because the show uses the fact that Whiterose is transgender as a narrative point. That isn’t to say that including a character’s transness in a storyline is wrong, but don’t then make a point of saying that that isn’t what you’re doing… It's as if the show wants their trophy for participating without really learning how to play the sport.
However, B.D. Wong at least provided some honest insight into why he took the role despite being a firm believer that trans people should be given the chance to play trans characters. In an interview, he said:
“I feel kind of like, as a minority with limited opportunities, I did not have the luxury of being able to turn down this role based on my wish that in an ideal world a trans actor could illuminate this part with “authentic trans insight”. I will also add for whatever it’s worth that Whiterose does have both female and male personae. So I did basically cash in that chip I got as a minority at the beginning of the game, decided to accept the role, and I also accept the responsibility and consequences of that.”
So there’s that, at least.
8 Alex Newell - Unique in Glee
Alex Newell earned his spot on Glee by competing in The Glee Project; Newell was a runner up in the first season of the competition, and his participation led to him being given a role on the show, playing a character that would be one of the first transgender characters on television. Newell, who is homosexual, has received many queries from well-meaning fans asking him about his transition, which he corrects them on. "My character is transitioning. I'm not. I'm just a little black gay boy from Massachusetts." While Newell has cited this experience as being down to the quality of his performance (which, in part, may be the case), it is also because audiences assume that trans people will be playing trans characters— because why wouldn’t they?
Unique’s introduction to Glee came in the form of Sue ordering Kurt and Mercedes to sabotage 'Wade’ by convincing ‘him’ to perform as Unique. They agree to the plan, only to have a change of conscience at the last minute, but ‘Wade’ has already made up ‘his’ mind and performs anyway. When Sue hears about how well the performance goes, she complains that Kurt and Mercedes have “created a monster”— just what every trans person watching wants to hear.
7 Jared Leto – Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club
Leto played Rayon in the 2013 movie Dallas Buyers Club. According to movie trivia, Leto’s character Rayon was one of two who didn’t actually exist in real life, but was written in entirely for the purpose of the movie. Leto also reportedly stayed in character throughout filming. If casting directors could put as much effort into research as actors do in order to get into character, we might actually see trans people playing trans characters before the turn of the century.
To add insult to injury, when the director of the film was questioned about casting a trans person to play Rayon, Jean-Marc Vallee said it never occurred to him. He said “Is there any transgender actor? To my knowledge— I don’t know one. I didn’t even think about it… I never thought of that. I never thought of hiring a real rodeo guy to play the rodeo Ron Woodruff. And just like in every film— we’re actors, we’re directors. I’m not aiming for the real thing. I’m aiming for an experienced actor who wants to portray the thing.”
6 Elle Fanning – Ray in About Ray
When discussing taking on the role of Ray, Elle Fanning said “I wanted to do it to help someone… maybe kids in a similar situation who see that movie would feel like they’re being heard, and hopefully, we can make the world better for them and more accepting. Why not accept people for just being who they are? That’s who they are inside, why would we take someone’s voice away for that? So it was challenging, but I just love Ray so much, he’s so special to me.”
It is reassuring that Fanning’s desire to play a trans character came from a solid place of understanding. For reasons unknown, the film was pulled mere days before its scheduled release date after having made the rounds at various film festivals. Since then, the film has only been released in Brazil, South Korea and some European countries. It was thought that this was because the company behind the production wanted to maximize the film’s Oscar potential, but over a year later the film has still yet to be released in the US.
5 Denis O’Hare – Liz Taylor in AHS: Hotel
When Denis O’Hare was first informed of his role in American Horror Story: Hotel, the description he was given was “Shaved head. Cleopatra eyes. Full lips. Gorgeous, exclamation point!” So O’Hare inferred from that that he would be playing a drag queen. In a later interview, the AHS actor went out of his way to make a point of correcting himself:
“I just want to make another point just because it’s a serious point. Earlier on in the season when I was talking about this character I called her a drag queen. I now know that’s not correct. And I didn’t know until we started shooting what we were thinking. The writers might have known, but they’ve also evolved. What we now know is that Liz Taylor thinks of herself as a woman. She is someone who is gender fluid and she’s someone who she knows what she is. I’m not sure the outside world would know how to label her, but she knows what she is, and she’s definitely on a journey.”
The fact that O’Hare educated himself about his character and publicly corrected himself is important and would have probably been unnecessary if producers had given O’Hare more information from the get-go.
4 Brendan Scannell - Heath in Heathers Television Revival
If you’ve seen the movie Heathers (1988) starring Winona Ryder, then you’ll be pleased to hear that there is a television show revival in the works. With the success of the original cult film and the fantastic rock musical that followed, the biggest shock should be that this remake took so long to come about.
But the television revival is going above and beyond— with Heather Duke being played by Brendan Scannell in a revived version of the character called Heath (it remains unclear if this is the character’s birth name or preferred name) who is genderqueer (an identity that falls anywhere between man/boy/male and woman/girl/female on the spectrum of gender identities).
Not only is it revolutionary that there will be a genderqueer character on television, Brendan will also be joined in the series by Jasmine Mathews who will be playing a black, lesbian version of Heather McNamara. While it would be incredible if the casting directors had hired a genderqueer actor as opposed to a homosexual man, it is pretty amazing that a genderqueer character is going to exist and actively use the term “genderqueer”.
3 Chloe Sevigny - Mia in Hit & Miss
Hit & Miss was a television series about a contract killer who happened to be transgender; the show ran for six episodes in 2012. Sevigny played Mia, the MtF (male to female) protagonist who seeks out her ex-girlfriend in West Yorkshire, England.
This show gives a spin on what we have seen previously, casting a cis-woman to play a trans-woman. This involved Sevigny wearing a prosthetic penis, which became the talk of media outlets covering the series rather than, you know, the actual storyline…
Not only that, but Sevigny made some comments that could be read as really damaging for trans women.
“I cried every day when I put it on… Then looking in the mirror... it was weird. I was lonely and I felt really unattractive. I was confused about my desirability— was I desirable?— in having put that on, and having men see me with that on.”
This really hammers home why trans people should be hired to play trans characters— there would be less uneducated actors making degrading comments about the beauty of trans women in interviews.
2 Daniela Sea – Max in The L Word
Max Sweeney was The L Word’s resident transgender computer whizz, whose character was yet another fatality in The L Word’s problematic nature. Max’s transition boiled down the complexity of the transgender experience into a battle of the sexes. Not only this, but because Max was first introduced to the show as a butch-identifying lesbian called Moira, his transition was seen as demeaning to the ‘butch’ identity. Max used illegal testosterone at the beginning of his transition, which, while a reality for many trans people who can’t get access to legitimate hormone medication, gave the transition an association with criminality that was fairly damaging.
The saddest part about this storyline was that The L Word was a lesbian's show— made for and by people within the LGBT community. While it is understandable that nobody is perfect, you would think that people from within the community would make more of an effort with such a storyline.
1 Tatiana Maslany – Tony Sawicki in Orphan Black
While Tatiana Maslany is a white, cisgendered woman playing a transgender man, this may be the only case where it makes sense, given that the show is about clones and therefore nobody else could, conceivably, play the part. However, the let down in this scenario comes from the way Tony’s character is executed. His appearance seemed to have warranted little effort from the costume department, which is disappointing given how much time and consideration the other clones are given in an attempt to make each of them unique.
Not only this, but Tony is an overly sexualized character, which isn’t a problem in itself, the problem stems from the fact that there is already a negative stereotype about people in the LGBT community being inherently sexual in nature. Instead of arguing against the stigma, Orphan Black bought into it by having Tony and Felix make out. Which was wholly unnecessary.
The biggest issue, though, is that Tony disappeared almost as quickly as he arrived. There was no time taken to explore his character, his backstory, or to even really include him in the narrative. It felt a little like the Orphan Black team wrote him in just so they could say that they had. If he returned to the show and played an active part in the story with an improvement on his representation, then maybe the show could amend its misdemeanour.
So, bring back Tony, Orphan Black, and then we can talk.