If there’s one lesson that Hollywood should have learned by now, it’s that bad media representations of minorities age quickly and poorly.
It wasn’t long after the full-on minstrel show in Irving Berlin’s 1942 classic Holiday Inn that blackface began to fade from film. Fifty-plus years after Mickey Rooney played Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, white actors are still playing Asian roles but less frequently and not without criticism. And tainted classics aside, we’ve done our best to erase abominations like Gigli’s lesbian-turned-straight plotline from our cultural memory along with, well, just about everything Adam Sandler has touched.
So you’d think that filmmakers would remember these and many other embarrassments before ruining the “transgender moment.”
But judging from the news that yet another cisgender male actor, Matt Bomer, has been cast as a transgender woman, it looks like history will repeat itself after all. Bomer’s controversial casting in the relationship drama Anything comes shortly after renewed and justifiable outrage over the upcoming thriller (Re)Assignment, which—no joke—stars Michelle Rodriguez as a male hitman who is forced to undergo sex reassignment surgery and then seeks revenge on the surgeon. As a GLAAD spokesperson explained, that premise turns “a life-saving medical procedure for transgender people into a sensationalistic plot device.”
In the not-too-distant future (one hopes) when transgender people are no longer routinely murdered and denied access to restrooms, we’ll grimace at projects like these. The excuses for casting cisgender actors in transgender roles will sound as hollow as they really are. The sensationalistic storylines will stick out instead of fitting right in. But wow, would it be nice to time-travel to that future.
As Feministing executive editor Jos Truitt recently asked, “Can we skip forward to the part where this period in Hollywood is looked back on as shamefully transmisogynist?” The obvious and depressing answer: Probably not.
Many viewers—even and perhaps especially the sort of well-meaning liberals who eat up Oscar bait—still don’t see an issue with casting men like Jared Leto or Eddie Redmayne as transgender women. As transgender actress Jen Richards from the web series Her Story observed on Twitter, the misperception that transgender women are actually men who just “identify as women” is so deeply entrenched that Matt Bomer seems like a perfectly reasonable choice to play a transgender sex worker. What is a trans woman, the underlying logic goes, but a man who has been through hair and makeup?
Meanwhile, as Richards recounted, she and other transgender actresses have been turned down from roles like Bomer’s because they “don’t look trans enough” for the part. That’s impossible, of course, because they are actually transgender, unlike Bomer or Jeffrey Tambor or John Lithgow or the dozens of men who have played trans women over the years. But as long as filmmakers want their audiences to see transgender women as men* with a feminine asterisk, trans actresses are going to get turned down for parts that should rightly go to them.
It doesn’t have to be like this, of course. If you look closely enough, the future of transgender media representation is already here, waiting to be amplified. There’s no deficit of talent in the trans community, even if there’s a definite deficit of courage among producers and casting agents.
On Orange Is the New Black, for one, Laverne Cox has proved that a transgender woman with no prior name recognition can become a star, even if the show’s writers could stand to give Sophia Burset more depth. Indie series Her Story cast incredible trans actors in trans roles and, not coincidentally, ended up with an Emmy nomination. The 2015 film Tangerine was shot on a shoestring budget with two transgender women of color in its cast, and people still went to see it even though there was no big name on the marquee to draw them in.
In that imagined not-too-distant future, these will be remembered as the pathmaking projects that got it right—not Dallas Buyer’s Club, not The Danish Girl, and not even Transparent. For now, though, we’re stuck with an industry that collects awards for casting men as women and calls it progress.
So, for the history books, we should remember that Jared Leto did not even say the word “transgender” when accepting his Oscar for the role of Rayon and that he spent his press tour making a fuss about having to wax his body for the role.
We should remember that Danish Girl director Tom Hooper admitted that “there’s a tremendous pool of talented trans actors out there” but instead of, you know, casting one of them, he simply said that “there’s probably a journey to go on to make sure that [they] have the same access to opportunities” in the film industry. Yes, and that journey involves not picking Eddie Redmayne for the film because you saw “something in him that was drawn to the feminine.”
And we should remember that, after transgender actress Jamie Clayton from Sense8 criticized Matt Bomer for his involvement in Anything, Bomer allegedly blocked her on Twitter and then unblocked her a day later.
Most important, we should look back on the talented trailblazers who spoke out against Hollywood’s casting of cisgender actors in transgender parts at every turn, even while ostensible LGBT allies were busy making excuses. As Fusion’s John Walker pointed out, trans actresses like Richards, Cox, and Tangerine’s Mya Taylor have been “asked about it in literally every interview they give” and have explained the problem with the casting practice “over and over and over and over and over again.”
One day, their explanations—and their advocacy—will sink in. (Re)Assignment will seem as poorly conceived as homophobic movies like Boat Trip or I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry seem today. And the string of transgender female characters played by men will be seen as archaic oddities, like white actor Fisher Stevens’s Indian character in Short Circuit. Our current transgender media moment will be cringeworthy for mainstream audiences in 20 years, maybe less.
Hollywood will learn its lesson about media representation, at its characteristically glacial speed. It doesn’t have to learn that lesson the hard way. But it will.