On Cis Actors Playing Trans Characters

There has been outrage online at Mark Ruffalo’s casting of cisgender male actor Matt Bomer to portray a trans woman in the upcoming movie, Anything. Ruffalo, who is supposedly an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, chose to cast Bomer before the film even went into production, according to tweets he sent out. Even though trans actress Jen Richards auditioned for the movie, she was not cast. Richards went on to call out both Ruffalo and Bomer on Twitter, explaining how the casting of cis men as trans women could lead to increased violence against trans women due to it perpetuating the notion that they’re really just men in disguise.

This is not the first time a cis man has been cast as a trans woman, Dallas Buyer’s Club, The Danish Girl, and the Amazon hit show Transparent being a few other recent examples. To explore this issue, I interviewed four trans women with diverse views about playing trans on film and TV.

Elise, a 34-year-old trans woman from Saskatoon, Canada, agrees with Jen Richards that the casting of cis men as trans women can ultimately be harmful “as there is often misrepresentation of whom and what trans women are.” She believes this type of casting reinforces the stereotype that trans women are “nothing more than men in dresses.”

To Ashley, a 39-year-old trans woman from Missouri, the casting of cis men as trans women depends on the plot of the film or show. “When we are talking about production about a transition from male at the beginning to female at the end it usually doesn’t bother me. It can be difficult to find a trans actress that can portray herself as male, though not impossible,” she says. “However if it’s a trans character that’s already transitioning, then they should make all effort to find a transgender actress.”

Elise agrees with Ashley here. “I could see the prospect of detransitioning to play a role to potentially trigger or heighten feelings of dysphoria, but it’s up to the individual performer to decide if they want to play the role,” she says. “However, I wonder if there are any pre-op, pre-everything trans women early in their transition who are qualified actresses. Do they not deserve employment as well?”

Pauline, a 55-year-old trans woman who is the chair of New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), thinks that “directors and studios should try to cast transgender actors in transgender roles because there are too few roles for transgender actors as it is.” However, she disagrees with the notion that the casting of cis men as trans women would lead to increased violence against them.

“My perspective on this issue is informed by my being of Asian birth and thinking about the dearth of roles for Asian American actors in film and television as well as theater,” she says. “But there are some differences between ‘yellow face’ and what some people are calling ‘trans face.’ For one thing, racial identity tends in general to be stable over time. Most transgender people come to an understanding of their gender identity over time and alter their gender expression accordingly.”

“I’ve talked to folks that think cis people can’t play trans people well because they, well, aren’t trans, but that’s the most ridiculous argument ever,” says Christyn, a 26-year-old trans woman from Connecticut. “I was in a production of Fiddler on the Roof, but I’m neither Jewish nor Russian, just an actress.”

“Any actor or actress with enough skill can play any role with enough study, but the better question is should they play it,” Christyn says. “Or rather how will a certain performer playing a part with socially charged overtones affect the people who don’t get to take off a costume at the end of the day.”

While Christyn believes, artistically, whichever actor or actress is best should get the part, she worries how casting choice would influence audience perception of a character. “We’ve seen Helena Bonham Carter play so many weird, creepy women that any character she plays now will have that seep into them. And even when Harrison Ford played the president in Air Force One, we felt the outlaw cowboy of Han [Solo] and Indy [Indiana Jones] in the role. So when a man plays a trans woman, people who are already expecting to watch a movie with a ‘man in a dress’ have that expectation confirmed,” she says.

When Elise was growing up in the 80s and 90s, she remembers the poor representation of trans women in popular films back then, such as Silence of the Lambs, with the trope of the “deviant psychopath.” “It’s harmful because it feeds into the perception that trans women are somehow a threat to social order,” she says. “We’ve seen this play out in bathroom bills, where trans women are compared to child predators and sex offenders.”

Elise also takes offense to the trope of the “pathetic sex worker” as shown in Dallas Buyer’s Club. “This trope often results in trans women being mocked and is also reflective of the reality many of us face, often turning to survival sex work as other ‘legitimate’ avenues of employment are not available due to prejudice,” she explains. “It doesn’t help that these roles are being taken by men who have no idea what it’s like to have to turn to sex work in order to survive.”

“My biggest hang up is that cis men will portray trans women inauthentically, feeding society’s misconceptions of who we are,” Elise says. And this does seem to be what most trans women take issue with. Not that cis men are playing trans women at all, but that since they haven’t experienced living in a trans body, they can’t possibly portray the lives of trans women accurately or ethically.

Images: Jen Richards by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images