Last month it was revealed that Eddie Redmayne would be playing artist, Lili Elbe, in The Danish Girl. But Elbe is not only famous for her art; she was also one of the first people in the world to undergo sex reassignment surgery, to physically reflect her identity as a transgender woman.
This casting of a cisgender male to play Elbe has therefore attracted some controversy, both inside and outside the trans* community. Then, there was Jared Leto’s Oscar winning performance as a fictional transgender character, Rayon, in Dallas Buyers Club back in 2013. For this portrayal, which moved many people to tears, he was accused by some of transignorance, transmisogyny and transphobia.
The central question behind these accusations were, shouldn’t trans* people be the one’s playing transgender characters? Wouldn’t anything else be inappropriate? I haven’t yet seen Dallas Buyers Club, so I’m not going to cast judgement upon the accuracy of Leto’s performance. But it is certainly the case that, even though trans* people reportedly only make up 0.3% of our population globally, there is a distinct lack of transgender actors in film and on TV. This is perhaps at least in part due to a very real fear of being discriminated against in the acting profession.
The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio artists published a report last year which revealed 16% of LGBT respondents had experienced discrimination and that though opportunities for LGBT actors are improving; of the transgender actors they surveyed, two-thirds said they had experienced some form of discrimination in the last five years.
Here’s one example of an on-set experience from the report: “A transgender person [was] told not to use the changing room to change in, but given no alternative except the bathroom to change in. Most people from background to crew members treated them like an outcast.”
In such an environment, it’s little wonder that transgender actors are rarely seen at the top echelons of the film and television industry. However, these criticisms of cisgender actors for playing transgender characters don’t seem conducive to greater and more sophisticated representation of transgender actors and characters in the media (and theatre for that matter), or to the art of inhabiting a person who is not yourself.
If it is the case that it is only appropriate for cisgender actors to play cisgender characters, then the same logic applied to transgender actors would severely hurt their chances of success in the industry since there are always going to be far more cisgender characters up for grabs than transgender ones. This sort of narrowing of the performing arts would unquestionably hurt the latter group far, far more than the former.
Also, even if these portrayals by cisgender actors are disputed in terms of their accuracy (and, let’s be honest, the film and television industry is not really known for striving against stereotypes), they will open up discussion about the challenges faced by trans people across the world and thus bring about a greater understanding of trans issues.
As Mara Keisling, founder of the National Centre for Transgender Equality said regarding Jared Leto’s portrayal, “Our job is to make life better for transgender people like Rayon in the real world, and it really helps to have these lives told by Hollywood.”
The performing arts are nothing if they are not about stretching one’s imagination to the very limits, to go beyond our limited perceptions, to such an extent as to become another.
To set the sort of precedent whereby it would be deemed inappropriate for one to act as anything other than your own specific identity would significantly cripple the challenge and creativity which makes the art form so captivating.