The Queen of celluloid appropriation is at it again, this time blaming Political Correctness for social backlash as a result of being cis/white and taking on roles originated or written as minorities.
“There isn’t room for more trans actors in the industry right now.”
“There just isn’t enough transgender roles to justify representing transgender talent.”
“There is a subset of trans actors and filmmakers making their own mini-hollywood, try getting in there!”
“We already represent one trans actor.”
These are the stories we share with each other- my trans friends and I. These are the things we’re told by agents, casting directors and executives. Once one of us has an opportunity to showcase our talents, that moment is typically fleeting. Unlike our cis counterparts, starring in a critically adored film and thus decorated with a handful of awards doesn’t promise any future in Hollywood. When a cis actor achieves this career momentum, their fee goes up, their demand increases, they’re inundated with scripts and endorsement offers. It happened for Hillary Swank, Eddie Redmayne, Jeffery Tambor, Jared Leto, Felicity Huffman. The list goes on and on.
Not for us actual trans folks, though. Even after that rare chance to show the industry what we can do, we’re quickly retired from the field and end up back waiting tables or checking in guests at a motel while our less accomplished cis colleagues go on to establish flourishing careers. Even our successes are not equally rewarded.
It’s true that trans artists must venture out on their own, developing our own projects, finding our own financing, even starring in our own vehicles to create a body of work- or to work at all. Life truly does imitate art, especially considering that most trans and non-conforming artists must self-create as a result of not being invited into the sandbox of the established industry, despite our credentials.
This is why actors like Scarlett Johansson can afford to wear their privilege on their sleeve and insist she be allowed to play transgender characters. She has no measurable competition. What casting director is going to say no to Scarlett Johansson, even with a line of fully capable, equally talented transgender actors outside the casting directors door? No one.
And therein lies the crux of the matter. The audacious arrogance of insisting that, despite the minimal opportunities afforded to transgender actors, elitists like Johannson are inherently entitled to them. The byproduct of that is the hoarding of privilege, ensuring the imbalance of equality is maintained and suppressing visibility where it is most needed. According to GLAAD, in 2018 there were 26 regular and recurring transgender characters tracked across cable networks and streaming platforms, up from just 17 the previous year.
That is in deep contrast to that achieved by other traditionally underrepresented communities in the same industry. 43 percent of the regular characters counted on broadcast primetime television are now women.
“Racial diversity of LGBTQ characters is up significantly on all three platforms tracked. For the first time, LGBTQ characters of color outnumber white LGBTQ characters on broadcast television, 50 percent to 49 percent. 44 percent of all series regulars on broadcast scripted television are people of color, a four percent increase from the previous report.” — Where We Are On TV: The GLAAD Report
Across the board, we can see measurable progress in inclusion and diversification of television, less on film, but within those promising numbers, transgender people remain nearly non-existent. When a Scarlett Johannson or Matt Bomer figure manifests to take on the role of a trans person, it only amplifies how resistant the media industry is to acknowledge transgender identities except in extremely rare situations or circumstances intended to exploit, shock or harvest a laugh at our expense.
Contrary to the perspective of Johannson who recently confessed her outrage to AS IF magazine regarding the backlash she received for playing minority roles, it’s not political correctness, it’s social responsibility and simple respect.
“As an actor, I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job, I feel like it’s a trend in my business and it needs to happen for various social reasons, yet there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions” — Scarlett Johansson
To me, that sounds like typical affluent cis, white hyperbole. A complete lack of awareness or interest beyond oneself, parroting a ridiculously aloof soundbyte that not only reeks of arrogance, but also of self-victimization. “But, the art!” She could easily fill a seat on Fox and Friends, speaking solely to a base that looks like her and is incapable of seeing anything beyond the reach of their own air of superiority.
If this were a level playing field and this toxic trend wasn’t the actual excision of trans individuals from an industry where she is widely recognized, it might be a different story. However, you don’t sit at your table of sprawling feasts and still reach to take crumbs from the floor where the hungry have gathered.
Critics of transgender folks attempt to pose the argument that people of color now play role that were historically played by white actors- The Honeymooners, Car 54 Where are You, One Day at a Time and more recently, the casting of Halle Bailey in the live action remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid which saw the 15 year old actress subjected to a torrent of racist abuse online. This is exactly why it is paramount for people of color- and the rest of society- to see themselves reflected in the mainstream, in spite of the hysterics from the bigots in the rust belt bellowing beneath their red hats. We’re no longer telling talented black and brown people that they can’t participate or that white skin is a qualifier when it comes to the ability to reach one’s full potential- at least not in Hollywood- still as a society, in terms of progress, we still have tremendous work to do. The appalling response to Bailey’s casting alone highlights just how far we have to go.
Ultimately, this is why we don’t see white people remaking or recasting work originated by people of color. Can you imagine if Johansson announced she’s developing or starring in a remake of Waiting To Exhale? Set It Off? Sacrlett Johannson Presents Boo 2: A Madea Halloween? It wouldn’t happen because white people have dominated film and television since the first reel ran in 1888. People of color were refused acknowledgement from the lens that saw only a white world despite being grossly misrepresentative of reality. When a black man finally made an appearance in the late 1920's, it was purely as a comedic foil- and that problematic trend of portraying black and brown people as bumbling idiots or squalling nannies for the sake of criminal suspense or comedy lasted far too long. We’re still just barely on the threshold of accurately and adequately reflecting people of color on film and in the general media.
Overwhelmingly, we transgender people still watch films and television through the cisgender gaze. We stare into a a parallel universe in which we do not exist except when portrayed by a cisgender actor. It’s as if the presence of a real transgender person remains far to challenging for an audience to comfortably digest unless they can be morally assured that the actor in question is de-frocking and going home to their husband/wife and 2.5 kids. Not long ago it was gay actors suffering the consequence of a conservative Hollywood… which is why a gay man like Matt Bomer playing a transgender woman in “Anything” was a stinging slap in the face. Had Bomer been just a little older and able to recognize that just a mere decade prior he’d never have been cast in anything unless firmly closeted, he may have possessed a little more cognizance and sensitivity than he expressed in the aftermath of his casting.
Why should actors take issue with playing transgender roles?
Explicitly because, overall, we have not been allowed to. We were not given access to transgender roles and certainly not cisgender roles until just recently when trans actress/writer/producer/director/consultant and creator of her own web series, Jen Richards, made the news being cast as a cis woman. It was such a rare event it made headlines. But Richards remains an isolated instance- factually, there is a rotating handful of trans people working visibly on television- and you probably can name the bulk of us; Jen, Janet, Laverne, Caitlyn, The cast of POSE and in September, one member of the POSE cast, Angelica Ross is jumping to American Horror Story. Hers should be a name you remember.
Still, this is our own mini-Hollywood, mostly courtesy of show POSE/AHS/Glee creator Ryan Murphy. Outside this microcosm, we are not allowed to play romantic leads or by any means be humanized beyond manufactured trans-trauma, hyper-sexualized as prostitutes or a scandalous mistresses. Cis actors who play transgender roles are doused with accolades, called brave for having the audacity to pretend to be transgender. Yet, little credit is given to the trans people who present authentically in the greater world every day, as we have in countless cultures since the moment history was recorded on cave walls. We aren’t new here, and it’d be wonderful for a cinematic reflection that didn’t portray us as if we were, when they bother at all.
Johannson and those like her are determined to perpetuate the ongoing, damaging myth that we only exist in their form, and not only should our actuality be portrayed on celluloid by cis actors, but we should never never be, ourselves, allowed to play a cis role. Until the hypocrisy and exclusionary trend ends and a blockbuster casting director would even consider casting a transgender woman in a Black Widow-like role or a historical figure like Mary Boleyn in equal competition with you, no Scarlett, you can’t play a trans person.
No matter how committed you are to your art, it’s not more important than future generations seeing a world, no matter fantastical, in which they exist. Not as an act of resistance, political correctness or controversy, but as functioning human beings who belong here.