Why True Trans Representation in Films Matters.

It’s a normal Sunday night. I’m sitting on my sofa. Love Island is just about to end, but instead of turning over to The Handmaids Tale as usual I am instead writing “another blog post” on the injustices of the world. Why? Same reason most people write blogs tbh. An issue comes up, we post about it on social media and a debate starts up in the comment sections. This debate eventually spirals out of hand or off topic or the inevitable need for sleep forces those involved to give up and by the next morning a new headline has stolen our attention.  What was the source of contention today? The casting of the actress Scarlett Johansson in the new Biopic Rub & Tug.  The movie is a biopic of Dante “Tex” Gill, with Johansson, a cisgender (i.e., non-trans) woman, playing the trans male lead. (At the time of writing this piece the actress has since pulled out of the role due to the reaction from the community).

For me, it all started because I shared an article by the activist and writer Shon Faye on my Facebook discussing the casting choice.

When I shared it, I did so with the following message:

“If anyone would like to discuss this issue or ask questions, just comment below and I’ll try get back to you as soon as I can. Happy to discuss.
(Unlikely to happen but any obvious trans phobia will just be ignored)”.

What resulted was over 100 different comments and debates which lasted over 2 days.

So why am I now writing a blog post? A small part is that if I don’t post at least 1 angry blog a month about the injustices in the world I will lose my Social Justice Warrior status. Mostly though, it’s because I don’t want to have wasted hours of my day typing into the abyss of the internet just so that the exact same thing can happen again tomorrow with exact same arguments and no progress actually being made. I’m writing this so that (if people want) they can share this and have their own debates and hopefully discussions on the topic that will lead to some social cohesion and understanding of the topics at hand.

(For structure I will start with arguments made by some commentators and give my opinion on the topic with link to facts or statistics added in. At the end I will also add a few links to other activists who are far better writers than me who will hopefully cover any areas I have missed.)

For starters, a summary of the original article.

Shon covers the history of white men playing every role in cinema and theatre dating back to Shakespearean times. How we now as a society agree that it makes more sense for women to play women as opposed to men with coconuts down their dresses and actors of colour to play characters of colour instead of blackface. Does it not make sense then that trans characters should be played by trans actors? She covers how in modern-day Hollywood, there is still a real issue getting well written trans parts. Often trans characters are confirmed to a very negative form of type casting. We are either insane, criminals, the punchline of jokes, or entirely consumed by the tragedy of our sad depressing lives that are seemed to resolve around the that we are trans and nothing else. Even with this narrow type casting, we still find these parts then being played by non-trans (cis) actors. The issue with this; we lose the ability to be a part of our own cultural narrative. This has consequences on the wider perception of trans people in the real world. Shons conclusion, we need more trans people behind the camera, writing the stories and acting the parts written for us. That is how we will be able to achieve true and accurate trans story lines and representation.

Thoughts of my unconvinced Facebook friends: Why does it even really matter though?

The following discussion drifted a bit from the original topic, but this is my summary.

  1. Why is it important that trans characters are played by trans actors?
  2. Isn’t the sum skill of the actor more important that the part of the person they are playing?
  3. Hollywood is an industry like any other. Their main drive is profit, we should not expect them to be becomes of morality. (It is not the fault of the director or the actors)
  4. Why don’t trans people just make their own movies then?
  5. Are trans people not just kidding themselves/ trying to re write biology?
  6. Just because you say you are a man does not make it so/  “It’s a Choice”.
  7. There are too many terms nowadays, it is too much to keep track off.
  8. Trans people are not fighting for equality, they are fighting for special treatment.
  9. Other minority groups have it worse, get in line.
  10. If you want to really have a discussion don’t put “trans phobia will be ignored”
  11. Conclusion/ Human race is horrible and you can’t expect the world to change;

1:Why is it important that trans characters are played by trans actors?

Because we are people…… (Are we done. Can I go to bed now?….No?…Right).

If we look at the history of cinema, we will see that almost every film ever made will star a white guy (usually straight and cis too). NOW- these characteristics in themselves are not bad! This fact in itself is not the issue, please do not misunderstand me here. The issue comes when this is the only narrative available. We have the luxury of having millions of films (blockbuster or not) that feature white guys playing millions of different characters. We will always be able to find a character somewhere to idolize, sympathise with and relate too. Almost every other demographic does not have this luxury. There is tonnes written on the movement to get better female representation in movies, trying to move away from the oppressive narrative of always being a damsel in distress, a princess or falling into either box of the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. Almost always silent or alone. Same issue written above for actors of colour, where it seems to always be either slaves or criminals. In the LGBT+ community, it was always the gay best friend that loved shopping and either v v butch women lesbians or overly pornographic feminine women written more for the male gaze as opposed to actual lesbian characters. Trans specifically as mentioned above we are the butt of a joke or mentally unstable .

These narratives are dangerous.

  1. It perpetuates the stereotype to the rest of the world that this is all these groups are and can ever amount to be.

  2.  When it comes to Trans casting, it only enforces the idea that Trans people are really just “men in dresses”. A character, a costume, an act.

  3. It is so damaging to young people to never have any representation. Especially in a world with possibly no language or education to help you find your own identity .

It is so messed up to be trying to work out who you are and thinking that maybe your trans- but all you know of trans people is that they are the weird character from silence of the lambs or something and they are all sad and ill and going to die tragic deaths. It is a real issue!

2:Isn’t the sum skill of the actor more important that the part of the person they are playing? 

At the end of the day is the story line and the skill of the actor not more important than who is playing it? 

Would you have Tom Hanks play Nelson Mandela? Or Benedict Cumberbatch play Queen Victoria? Yes they are great actors, but will a man ever really be able to give as good a performance of the a female role as an actual woman would or a white actor every really be able to capture what it means to be a person of colour? To you maybe, but (from my experience) many of people who would see this performance , no matter how well-meaning, as disingenuous because they will never really be able to understand and portray that experience.

It can often come across as even offensive (bear with) because it can come across as (in this case) ScarJo an individual who is not trans, is so good an actress that they understand the trans experience so well that they are surely better than any other person, even an actual trans person. Out of all Trans people (all estimated 0.6% global population = approx 42,000,000 worldwide)  there is not a single one that can play a character well enough to make it good, so we are going to have to bring in a non trans person to do a good job. See how that can be taken as a bit of a slap in the face?

It also again means that one of the few times there is a trans character in a major film, it still isn’t even being played by a trans actor. It has often lead to issue or inaccuracies in the portrayal. This has a knock on effect that for many people for whom this might be their first or only time seeing or hearing a trans story will be an inaccurate one. This has knock on consequences when we are then trying to give an accurate one as we are on the back foot trying to correct it.

3: Hollywood is an industry like any other.

Their main drive is profit, we should not expect them to be beacons of morality.

It is not the fault of the director or the actors fault tho. They are just doing their job. 

Hollywood is industry like any other. The majority of Hollywood movies are driven by profit and often the integrity of the story will take a back seat. After the Oscars this year, there were a lot of articles on how Award season is more about how Hollywood likes to see itself as opposed to a true reflection of Western Cinema. The Danish Girl was nominated for over 12 major awards in 2016 and making almost $65 million at the Box office. The film was ground breaking in having a major Hollywood film with a Trans woman as the main character.  The Oscar for “Best Actress” went to Alicia Vikander (the real Danish Girl) and Hollywood patted itself on the back for being so progressive, all the while missing the fact that the “Leading Lady” Lili Elbe was still played by a man, not a woman.

A lot of time a Director will make a casting decision based on the need to get a recognisable actor to sell seats. Often this is not an issue as it does not make a difference which white guy you get to play batman etc. The issue is when the casing decision is made purely based on the need to make money over the integrity of making a good/ accurate film. In the case of this film it is supposed to be a biopic of an individual that has been quoted saying that they prefer to be addressed as man.

I believe that when a film is focused on a telling a story with integrity they should include casting in this process. Yes they can dress up ScarJo to look like a man, but that does not make her one, and I am of the opinion that there are certain elements of the human experience that , no mater how good you are as an actor, will always be better given by people for whom that experience is their reality. Some things like race , gender, disability ect I believe should (whenever possible) be played by members of that group to 1: bring that level of truth  and genuineness to the role. 2: To allow members of that community to have a hand in writing their own narrative.

I’m not saying that Hollywood has a moral duty. That I think would be naïve of myself. I just think that the few times that there is a break and there is a chance to tell a story , about any group, the director and writer should work with that group to then create the best work possible and they should be aware of the social consequences (intentional or not) of their decisions.

4: Why don’t trans people just make their own movies then?

Systematic oppression make it a bit hard to crack Hollywood to be honest. But we do try. There are tonnes of LGBT+ film makers around the world who write and star as trans characters played by trans actors.  Check out the Scottish Queer international Film festival for example. Or one of my own inspirations Jake Graf and his award-winning film Dusk,  2016 film Tangerine or the new TV Series Pose.,to name just a few.

But I haven’t heard of any great trans actors, so is that a question of the industry or is it a question of their skill ? – Just google trans actors. We exist. And yes we can act. Look here is more.

If only we were given the same opportunity to play either trans characters or we didn’t face the common rejection of “no one will cast a trans person as a cis character, that’s just not believable”. (A point made in the original article by Shon).

5: Are trans people not just kidding themselves/ trying to re write biology?

Trans people are human. We are not pretending to be anything. We are simply saying that while my biological sex may be one thing, I have come to realise that this does not align with my gender identity (which is a different thing to sex).

6: Just because you say you are a man does not make it so/  It’s a Choice

Just because you say you are a man does not make you one. I could say I’m a dolphin tomorrow, it would not change my DNA. (An actual argument made). 

Your right. I am not a dolphin, and no matter the science I will not become one. I can squeal at people all day and sit in a paddling pool in my office and it will not change this. But I am a human, and for whatever reason (I don’t know what) my body does not line up with my brain. And there is science that can make me feel more comfortable in my body. I can get hormones or surgery or just dress in a more masculine way – and this makes me happy and sane and does not hurt anyone. Why would I not?

It’s not natural.

Neither is wearing glasses, but you would not deny them to someone on the grounds that “it is not natural”. We as a species evolve to improve our experience. Why would you chose not to seek medical intervention/help if it is available to you?

So it is a choice!! 

Short answer : No.

Long answer: …..Still no. You are going to have to trust me on this, but it is definitely not a choice. In the same way that being gay lesbian bi or straight is not a choice.

But you do chose to take hormones and surgery right? 

Technically, yeah. I chose to go to the doctor and get those injections etc. But I would not call it a choice. Just like with being gay , once you work it out, there is not really any going back. You can try to make yourself straight, but it will not work. The same is true of being trans.

The difference is that once you work out what you are (again, a pretty difficult feat for many because we are not taught about trans people in school or growing up and so we just have a lot of “feelings” with no explanation leading to many yes creating language to try to explain it when they don’t have any) you can then “chose” to do something about it or not. I chose to go down the route of medical intervention because the alternative is living a lie. If I did not take testosterone 1: I would never be taken seriously when I introduce myself as a man. 2: I’m now finally able to be truly comfortable in my body.

To compare it to being gay, it is like working out you are a gay man but then “choosing” that instead of coming out you will just date women and live your life as a lie cause “its just feelings” and living your true self is a choice.

Medical intervention is not a choice for me, it’s choosing between a chance at a happy life (prejudice be damned) or living a lie.

7: There are too many terms nowadays, it is too much to keep track off.

People keep on making up terminologies and such to suit how they think or feel.

A lot of times there is not language to describe how a lot of people feel. We have seen an evolution of language over the years as the topic slowing becomes less taboo and it is able to be discussed. Trust me we have been around for a while – but its hard to do a lot of survey or research on the topic if sed topic was considered a mental illness or criminal offence.

Try look at it this way (this analogy might fail terribly but hear me out). We have 3 primary colours ; Red Yellow and Blue. We know that the full colour spectrum is huge and over time the English language has invented word to fully describe this. (Dulux have 24 options for red alone) Now, you or I may not really see or even care about the difference between Volcanic Red and Pepper Red, but there is a difference and to some this is a big deal. Its trivialness to us does not decrease how it affects that person, and all people deserve a basic level of respect for those feelings.

Fun fact, Shrimp have 12 colour receptors to our 3. Just because you can’t see/ feel something does not diminish the experience of others or mean that is dosnt exist in the first place.

Adding more pronouns causes more confusion and makes people less want to put up with it. 

Again, just cause it takes a bit of effort to learn new words is not an excuse to deny people basic decency. But again (imperfect analogy) A similar argument was made in the field of mental disability. Conditions such as ADHD dyslexia autism etc etc have always existed too. But we now have separate names for them and recognise that they are each separate conditions that are all real and require a different approach to life. 100 years ago would have all be labelled dumb or faking or insane and then made to suffer for it. Now we are also starting to see and accept the difference when it comes to the language and experience of human gender and this is leading to the world-changing a bit again. Its called evolution.

8: Trans people are not fighting for equality, they are fighting for special treatment.  

The system/ Status quo as it stands today is designed for non trans people (Cis people). If we want to actually have equality we need to recognise this fact and change the system so that trans people can actually be equal and not have to jump though so many extra hoops to achieve the same goals as you “normal people”.

Would you call it “special treatment” if a person in a wheelchair asked for a ramp to be installed in their place of work? No, its human decency, because it is not a choice to be in a chair, just as it is not a choice to be trans. As a society we recognise that the needs of some, through no fault of their own, are different.  Recognising that the “status quo” is made for a predominantly cis straight able bodies world. This means changes need to be made for their to be true equality!

9: Other minority groups have it worse and have been dealing with this for longer, get in line. 

Not true. For as long as their has been people there have been LGB and yes T people. Native American culture is a clear example of what we would now consider to be trans people existing hundreds of years ago. The issue we have is that a lot of LGBT history has being deliberately erased because it is seen as immoral and wrong. (Example of this is the  Institut für Sexualwissenschaft destroyed by Nazis in WW2 that had whole archives on LGBT history). Our history doesn’t not exist, it has been actively erased to give the illusion that this is a modern trend made up on Tumblr.

We are also already losing the battle if we focus on “who has it worse” instead of working to see how the system is effecting each of us and working together to fix it.

The black community had something to fight for including been able to use the same feckin toilets. (Again real quote). 

OK, lets play this game. The film Hidden figures has a great scene where Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) has to run across the campus to find a “coloured bathroom” she can use. This scene actually resonates with a lot of trans people too. Reason for this is when many of us start transitioning we do not feel comfortable in gendered bathroom’s. Even once I was on Testosterone and my voice was dropping and starting to get a slight moustache I would not have been seen as “man enough” to use the men’s room (Yes I have literally been kicked out of mens bathrooms), but I was also not a woman and would not have been welcome or comfortable in the womens room. This lead to me running around my own campus trying to find the rare neutral bathroom. A lot of trans people are forced to use the accessible bathrooms which presents a lot of controversy in itself). This also totally ignores the issues faced by Non Binary , gender queer or Intersex people!

10: If you want to really have a discussion don’t put “trans phobia will be ignored” 

I always try to talk to as many folks on these topics as I can. I a lot of privilege in this area because 1: I’m white. 2: I’m now a “cis passing” male. (This means that people who do not know me will perceive me as a non trans male). 3: I have a job. 4: I have a family and friends around me that support me. 5: I have access to medical and legal care. 6: I am able-bodied (I have ADHD and Dyslexia but physically speaking it is not an issue that affects my day-to-day life that much).  All of this means that I have the time and energy to do take part in debates like this.This is not me bragging, it is me trying to recognise my own privileges within my own community.

My experience of being trans has been very lucky compared to others, this means a lot of difficult topics that can come up dont trigger me like they could others.  That being said, if someone just posted “die Tra**y”, no matter how much I try I will probably not change their mind. I’m not going to waste my time taking that bait. It’s not my job to educate the world and try to justify my existence. This is a matter of self-care.

It comes across as aggressive. If you want people to listen to you should you not be open to all opinions?

This touches on the issue of a minority group always needing to be civilised and polite in our quest to be treated as equals by society.  (I came across a great piece on this by Annalee on twitter about this.)

A person being a “rude” to you does not mean you can just deny their humanity and human rights. That sounds a bit dramatic, let me rephrase. People should not have to be always polite to you (or anyone) to earn the right to be referred to by the correct name or pronoun. Its like if (again not perfect analogy) a deaf person was being “impolite” to me and so I then purposefully refuse to then speak into their hearing aid or deliberately covered my mouth so they could not lip read. In doing that I’m essentially saying that unless you act in a way that I find acceptable I will refuse to treat you like a human being and will use a feature (in this case lack of hearing and in mine the fact they are trans) hostage until you act in a way that you deem to be correct. In both these situations there is a massive power difference (call it power, privilege whatever works for you) that needs to be addressed. That is messed up and should never be done.

If a person is getting mad or upset or emotional on a topic, it does not mean that their argument is less valid. Really it means you should listen to them more. They are clearly talking about a topic that has effected themselves or a person they know. They are likely more knowledgeable on it than a person that has the luxury of being “rational and objective” on an issue that does not effect them in the same way.

11: Conclusion/ Human race is horrible and you can’t expect the world to change;

Yup, your right. The world is a horrible place. Hurray. A well, no point trying to make it better then. Gonna just give up then and accept it. …. NO. If this was true woman would not have the vote and we would still have slavery and disabled people would be drowned at birth. (Crude analogy but I’m mad atm so sorry). The world does change. And it only does that by people fighting for it to change.

“Come on, I just want to be able to not care anymore”

The whole idea of “being allowed to not care anymore” is one so steeped in privilege that it hurts. To not care means that no part of the system we live in is geared again you. You are a white cis straight guy – cool. You were born that way, nothing you can do about it. The government (now or in the last 200 years in the UK) have never denied you the vote because of this, or said you can’t marry someone, or said you cant work, or go to school, or have a say over your own reproductive system, or denied you medical care etc etc etc etc. If you have an issue, you have that issue and you deal with it. Yes it can be hard or shitty, but it is just that issue. For Women, LGBT+ people, people of colours or any other minority group, we do not have the privilege of not caring.

We all have to care! As long as one minority is being oppressed then society is not equal! Real progress has to be inter sectional or it always going to leave groups behind.

Yes; this conversation has moved a bit beyond the original topic, but believe me, it is the tip of a very large iceberg. There are so many groups and charities in the UK atm that are working on “legal changes that as socially acceptable to the masses”. Stonewall and the Scottish Trans Alliance are just 2 that I have worked with myself. Because of their work and the work of many others the UK Gov just conducted the biggest survey of LGBT emergence in the world report here

If we want to change the world we have to challenge issues and try to change them. Whether this is conversion therapy still being legal in the UK or “trivial” issues like misrepresentation in Hollywood.

If we don’t address them, then the world will never change.

Suggested reading/ posts:

Scarlett Johansoon will play a trans man in her latest film- here’s why people think she was wrong to accept the role : https://www.indy100.com/article/scarlett-johansson-rub-and-tug-jake-graf-juno-roche-juno-dawson-transgender-8431311

Exclusive: Scarlett Johansson Withdraws From Rub & Tug : https://www.out.com/out-exclusives/2018/7/13/exclusive-scarlett-johansson-withdraws-rub-tug

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