by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
Living in a time that’s supposedly beyond the “Transgender Tipping Point,” as Time magazine declared in May of 2014, can be strange.
While movies with transgender characters seem increasingly commonplace, the main roles are still given to non-transgender male actors who are somehow showing their compassion and speaking out for our marginalized community while taking jobs from actual transgender performers.
In late-2013, Dallas Buyer’s Club hit the screens. The film is a story about AIDS-patient Ron Woodroof smuggling drugs for himself and his friends through the eponymous Texas city. In it, actor Jared Leto plays “Rayon,” a fictional trans woman named for a fabric. She dies before the final reel, but not before helping to redeem the main character and keep the club going. Leto won an Academy Award for his portrayal. He accepted his award in white tux and full beard.
When criticized by transgender people about being a non-trans male in a trans role, he opted to defend it, claiming in a Huffington Post interview that actors being able to “play roles that are outside themselves” opens up the opportunity for trans people to play non-transgender roles. Not that this seems to be happening either.
Two years later, Roland Emmerich’s film Stonewall, hit theaters, with its clean white kid protagonist and straight-friendly retelling of the Stonewall rebellion. It includes Jonny Beauchamp as Ray/Ramona – a mash up of Sylvia Rivera and other trans-identified people at the uprising – and Otoja Abit as Marsha P. Johnson. Unlike Dallas Buyer’s Club, Stonewall was not on anyone’s Oscars list, and failed both critically and financially.
Two months after Stonewall, The Danish Girl hit theaters. This told a strongly fictionalized account of the life of Lili Elbe and her partner, Gerda Wegener. The film, veering from Elbe’s own biography and history, also presents its audience with a trans story that will be unfamiliar to most trans people, while fitting assumptions by the non-transgender that trans people are little more than hyper-feminine fetishists.
In the wake of the success of Dallas Buyer’s Club – and the disappointments that were Stonewall and The Danish Girl – comes yet another “wretched transgender sidekick played by a non-transgender white male.” This time, it is Matt Bomer as a trans sex worker in Mark Ruffalo’s upcoming feature film Anything. The story, based on Timothy McNeil’s play of the same name, focuses on Early, a suicidal widower who meets Freda, a trans woman who shows up on his doorstep beaten and bloody. The story ends up being about their relationship in spite of their varied backgrounds.
As word spread about the film in trans circles, Mark Ruffalo took to Twitter to defend the casting, pointing to work he did with Bomer on The Normal Heart. Yet actress Jen Richards noted that she was one transgender actress who did try out for the role, but was apparently not “trans enough” for the part.
“I told them they shouldn’t have a cis man play a trans woman,” said Richards. “They didn’t care.”
As the debate intensified, Ruffalo again spoke out about the movie, saying on Twitter, “To the Trans community. I hear you. It’s wrenching to you see you in this pain. I am glad we are having this conversation. It’s time.”
It’s well past time.
In 1970, 46 years ago, The Christine Jorgensen Story hit the silver screen. It featured John Hansen as the title character. At the time, Jorgensen attempted to get a restraining order against Edward Small who owned the film rights, trying to avoid the film from becoming an exploitative “B-Movie.”
Five years later, a trans actress was passed over for Chris Sarandon, who played Al Pacino’s trans lover in Dog Day Afternoon. Five years more, and Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill features a transgender murderer played by Michael Caine.
There’s plenty more. 1980s The World According To Garp and John Lithgow’s supporting actor role as trans woman Roberta Muldooon, Ted Levine’s portrayal of killed Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, Jaye Davidson’s trans portrayal in The Crying Game, Chris Williams in The World’s Fastest Indian, so on, and so on.
This notion of a transgender character – particularly as a “sympathetic” supporting character for the straight, white male main character – is ages old. That the character is typically played by a straight white male actor in favor of a trans woman – or for that matter, any woman – is even more played out.
As an aside, I feel as if many of these – Dallas Buyer’s Club, Anything, Stonewall, and earlier stories like The Crying Game and others – are simply using trans as a way of presenting an exotic and “damaged” character to play against their “straight man” main character. The transgender character is simply the sympathy character that helps our main character learn and grow the transgender Hooch to their Turner.
Of course, these are not stories being made for transgender people. These are stories for non-transgender people to consume, and are made for them to feel as if they are redeemed by their acceptance of the trans character as the star of the film is redeemed through their friendship with same.
There are trans actresses out there, and they are plenty competent. I already mentioned Jen Richards, but she is only one of many. They aren’t getting these roles, however. They’re not seen as “trans enough,” which judging from the characters we have seen means that they’re not apparently masculine enough for the part.
Indeed, these are not made with transgender people, nor made for us, and not even really telling stories about us. These are fairy tale versions of trans people.