Why It's Wrong for Cis Actors to Take On Trans Roles
The practice of cisgender actors taking trans roles and using them to achieve widespread acclaim and award glory is a long standing and ever pervasive issue in film, theatre, and television. Whilst this years Oscars and BAFTA'S managed to avoid churning out awkwardly awarded best actor roles for well meaning cisgender loveies trying and failing to encapsulate the trans experience, the Donmar Warehouse, a not-for-profit theatre in London's Covent Garden, seems happy to pick up the slack.
Neil Jordan’s Breakfast On Pluto is by no means a classic of transgender cinema and it’s use of Cillian Murphy to play the androgynous and enigmatic trans woman Kitten dates it horribly. However, when it was announced that the same film was to be adapted for the the west end stage there was much excitement.
Finally an adaptation that might right these wrongs and see a proud and open trans woman as the protagonist of her own story, played no doubt by one of the many, many openly trans female performers in the United Kingdom!
Well, no. That’s not how it worked out. Instead of taking the chance to cast from a group that is already ridiculously marginalised in theatre the producers and company chose to cast Irish actor Fra Free, a cisgender man.
The casting of a cisgender man as a trans woman is offensive and wrong for a number of reasons, firstly it perpetuates the dangerous and pernicious idea that trans women are secretly men playing dress up. It essentialises the transgender experience to a matter of aesthetics and appearance, so far no one has ever offered a concrete, definitive answer to how a cisgender actor might “act trans” that doesn’t revolve around crude stereotypes and innuendo.
Secondly, by casting cisgender actors we further marginalise those trans women who are already vastly underrepresented in the theatre community. Indeed, Kate O’Donnell, one of the most high profile transgender cast members left the production in protest at Fra’s casting. As it stands the production company and wider transgender community remain at loggerheads, with a steadfast refusal to acknowledge the harm done in casting a cisgender man, or to rectify the situation by casting a transgender actress.
However this does not exist within a vacuum, far far too frequently playing a trans woman is seen as a kind of “gold standard” of acting. From Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl to Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent, too often is playing a trans woman treated as some kind of prestige role by cis actors, a mark that an actor is seriously committed to his craft and willing to explore new frontiers.
But yet there is still hope, Scarlet Johansson became one of the first major cisgender actresses to walk back on portraying a trans man on screen after out cry’s from the community, and even Jeffrey Tambor spoke of his hope that he “...would be the last cis man to win major awards for playing a trans woman...” (that he was later fired for sexual harassment of several trans women on Transparent makes one question his sincerity).
With shows like Pose proving that we CAN tell trans stories with trans actors, it ultimately must fall to cisgender actors themselves to take a big step in refusing to take on or play roles that would otherwise go to transgender actors.