‘Sorry, you don’t look trans enough,’ is a phrase that I, a transgender actress, have heard when auditioning for trans roles. Many of my trans* identifying actor friends across the ‘passing-as-cis-privilege’ spectrum, as well as gender non-conforming friends who are not medically transitioning, have heard this from casting directors or producers as well. Now you tell me, what looks more ‘trans’ than an actual trans* person? Time and again my friends and I have nodded, tacitly acknowledging this criticism as if their point is fair. Time and again my friends and I have looked at casting breakdowns and discussed that we know we shouldn’t go in for a certain role because we ‘don’t look trans enough,’ because this idea has been drummed into our heads as well. But it’s time we started talking about this, and not only about how and why it perpetuates violence against our community, but why these words are even uttered in the first place. Hollywood has a vested interest in perpetuating cis people’s stereotypes about trans* people. Let me repeat that. Hollywood has a vested interest in perpetuating cis people’s stereotypes about trans* people.
Recently, once again, controversy erupted when it was announced that Matt Bomer had already wrapped filming on the movie Anything, in which he plays a transgender sex worker. Our community, rightly, erupted over this. I am not going to get into the reasons why casting Matt Bomer in this role specifically is problematic. Jen Richards went on an epic tweet-storm that perfectly encapsulated it (which you can see at her twitter account @SmartAssJen, or you can watch the expanded upon points she makes in her YouTube video which can be found at here). GLAAD released a statement saying that the days of cis washing in casting are over and that casting a cis actor in a trans role is an act of violence, which received some major industry pushback.
On its face, this inevitable pushback seems to be transphobic. To be certain, there are layers of that going on. But I believe it is a bit more complicated than that. There are also business concerns that go into it. There’s the obvious one, which is that studios argue that they need a bankable name to headline a movie. However the argument against that is that if trans* and gender-nonconforming actors were given a shot, studios would be able to create, nurture, and develop a deep bench of trans* and gender-nonconforming stars. However, there is a more insidious business concern; the salability of stereotypes.
Stereotypes exist as ways that the minority ‘other’ can be distilled to a majority audience in a quick caricature. Stereotypes are familiar. Stereotypes give some audiences comfort. We don’t even need to go back a century to see when black-face was not only accepted, but considered a plausible way to portray a black character in media directed at a mostly white audience. We still see racist and sexist tropes in film and television daily, albeit with growing cries of foul. It is uncomfortable for many to have their preconceived notions challenged. We’ve seen it over and over again, that in the past, when a film or television show challenges us, the initial result can be disastrous at the box office or in the ratings, only to experience later respect as real politick and social perceptions catch up to the challenge posed. Now of course, that’s not a hard and fast rule, but the point is that film and television studios used to lead the way in terms of mass media changing the perceptions of their audience. Somewhere along the way these studios got safe and realized that confirming their audience’s preconceived notions sells more tickets in the short term. Or at least it used to.
There has been a shift in what mediums are pushing the social agenda. It seems that the film world is constantly playing catch-up. The internet has allowed everyday people to publish their stories by the millions every single day. I know my early trans* education was mostly through the internet, first with message boards, and then eventually with YouTube. The reason I even began to understand my gender identity is that one day when I was twelve years old, I typed into Google, “why do I want to be a girl?” and suddenly I realized I was not nearly as alone as I thought I was. Because of this, the rapidness of social change is outpacing more traditional forms of media whereas traditional forms of media used to produce social change. Increasingly we are moving towards greater inclusion, greater equality, and greater justice as a nation. As this happens, we see movies like Anything, that, from the casting director, to the actors, to the director, to the writers, to the studio execs, have failed to recognize that their audience has shifted.
Meanwhile, it’s why we’re seeing the success of shows like Transparent, and Orange is the New Black. Network TV is starting to get the hint and it’s why we’re seeing so much anticipation around Doubt starring Katherine Heigl and Laverne Cox. It’s why we’ve seen the general rise of Shonda-land. It’s why Ava Duvernay’s Queen Sugar was one of the most anticipated shows of the fall. Conversely it’s also why we saw the failure of Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall, which flopped with the very audience they were trying to target amid accusations of white-washing and cis-washing (and in turn raised the buzz around the much anticipated Happy Birthday, Marsha! starring Mya Taylor as Marsha P. Johnson and Eve Lindley as Sylvia Rivera), or Aloha, which cast Emma Stone in a character that was supposed to be partly of Asian heritage. Audiences are ready to be challenged. They are ready to examine the structural biases which affect how all of us walk through this world. Most of all, they are ready for the conversation. When they can type www.youtube.com into their browser and see hundreds of thousands of real stories from actual trans* people which show that trans*, simply put, looks deeply and intrinsically human, anything less than the real deal loses its appeal. These days, authenticity is a good business decision. If Hollywood begins to realize that, maybe one day a cis man will walk into an audition for a trans role and the casting director will say, ‘Sorry, you don’t look trans enough.’