Last year, when Jared Leto won an Oscar for portraying a transgender woman in the film Dallas Buyers Club, proponents of Hollywood and mainstream media praised the social awareness the film promoted, claiming it furthered understanding of transgender people and shed light on the struggles that people in the LGBT community face, all the while not seeming to care that a wedge was being further driven into an already divisive issue between the transgender community and mainstream entertainment regarding cisgender men — individuals who self-identify with the gender that corresponds to their sex at birth — playing roles portraying transgender women in cinema.
“I don’t think this much visibility for transgender people can be entirely bad, can it?” said my friend at an Oscar party I attended.
He meant to address the comments I had made in which I claimed there would be long-term repercussions and setbacks that the transgender community would immediately face with the national broadcast of Jared Leto clutching his Oscar with a fully bearded face, unquestionable as the man he claims to be in his daily life, with his gender identity accentuated by his white tuxedo.
“Right, how bad can it be for the transgender community that a person who portrayed the lead transgender character in Dallas Buyers Club had just won an Oscar for “Best Actor in a Leading Role?” I said.
There were tense tweets exchanged between Mark Ruffalo and Jen Richards when Matt Bomer was cast as a transgender sex worker in the feature film Anything, in which Ruffalo served as the executive producer and subsequently defended his choice of casting Bomer for the role. Jen Richards emphasized how it is time for films with transgender characters to cast transgender people so that their stories can be told with more accuracy, can humanize transgender people in a light that doesn’t further perpetuate the stereotype that a man can slap on a wig and makeup and be a transgender woman, that our transgender identities aren’t just a role to be played.
After all, no one in their right mind would think that since it was fine to cast a cisgender man to play a transgender woman’s role, then why not cast a man in any woman’s role, such as Sylvester Stallone for Meryl Streep’s role as Margaret Thatcher?
The truth is, there has always been a “Guy In A Dress Line,” where transgender women, no matter what they do to change their bodies or their choices, are still inevitably seen as men in dresses.
The “Guy In A Dress Line” serves as a cultural barrier, a real cultural line of defense for heteronormative cisgender men and women who otherwise would have no insulation for the assaults that would occur against their perception of what their expectations of transgender people should be in their minds. Even the transgender and gender-queer community struggle with this concept, protecting themselves from being branded by this cultural line by going through surgeries like Caitlyn Jenner did, or by rejecting gender altogether by pushing for a non-binary movement to dissolve gender constructs entirely with gender neutral pronouns and presentations.
It has always been easier for general society to request transgender people — especially transgender women — to reveal what’s under their kimono by asking such privately invasive questions as whether we’ve had our genitals reconfigured or when we started wearing heels, makeup, and pantyhose, rather than engage in real conversation about who we are as individuals because, well, it’s just easier that way. Easier for the directors and casting agents to give the audience what they believe will be titillating without doing much research into humanizing us.
Shortly after Ruffalo came out to defend his decision to cast Bomer in Anything, because Jen Richards who auditioned for the role was turned down for not, ironically, being “trans enough,” Michelle Rodriguez came out to defend her role in an upcoming film Re(assignment), where she plays a male hitman who undergoes forced sex-reassignment surgery by a rogue doctor and is now out for revenge as a woman assassin.
The entire concept of Re(assignment) was offensive to the transgender community not only because the role was given yet again to a cisgender woman, but because the notion of being transgender was once again portrayed as a performance rather than authentic identity, as if gender transition is accepted and completed for any man if they simply go through a few snips under the knife. It was also highly offensive because it portrays genital reconfiguration surgery as a punishment for Rodriguez’s character, which is what prompts her to seek revenge.
Rodriguez’s character gives the equivalent slap in the face to the transgender community as would an actor of Chinese descent who gets brown paint splashed on his body and then comes out the other side speaking perfect Spanish and blending in flawlessly with the Mexican community without missing a beat.
Even more insidious than how these Hollywood roles perpetuate the harmful notions about the transgender community is the fact that none of the real struggles and learning curves that actual transgender people go through to own their newfound identities are shown.
Instead, these transgender characters, often played by cisgender actors and actresses, merely need to go through a changing room to come out as transitioned on the other side.
If it were really as simple as changing our outer masks to solve transitioning genders for transgender people, transgenderism would no longer be a social hot button because external changes and socialization would really cure the desire for a transgender person to transition.
The real tragedy in these types of misunderstanding towards the transgender community is how transgender people are stripped of the work they put in to re-gender themselves and take power in the world in their new gender roles, which takes an enormous amount of emotional intelligence and re-programming to undo and let go of the damage we accumulated from internalized shame while living in the socialized gender roles we were assigned at birth.
The transphobia society feels is the same phobia we had internalized ourselves prior to self-acceptance, all of which was born from the same source of fear: an uneducated society on what it means to be transgender.
Outside of the genital reconfiguration surgery, which most elect not to even have for personal reasons, transitioning genders requires an incredible feat, one that goes beyond a mere change in wardrobe and changes afforded to one’s body, but changes that are often mired in loss of family, loss of friends and employment, and loss in the comfort of old cultural habits that worked for an identity which is now irrelevant and doesn’t serve us anymore.
The fact that Jen Richards wasn’t trans enough to land the role for Anything goes to show how there is still a publicly generalized image of what transgender women ought to look like: a representation or an attempt for a man to look like a woman. This further reinforces this outdated notion that transgender women will always at best be a guy in a dress, which results in massive repercussions of increased incidents of violence against transgender people, particularly transgender women.
As Jen Richards pointed out, straight cisgender men have always found transgender women attractive since the dawn of time, and always will. When these men fear their friends or family might discover that they’ve been intimate with a transgender woman and potentially judge them as gay, they often turn their fear towards us and we, as transgender women, are the ones who suffer violence as direct results of the shame these straight men experience while they date us or are intimate with us.
But why do they assume being intimate with a transgender woman makes them a gay man all of a sudden? Where does this idea come from? The notion that they were with a woman, yet still fear being outed as gay themselves, indicates that our societal culture still views transgender women as “really” men. They are “really” still men, and Caitlyn is “really” still “Bruce,” and transgender women are “really” guys in a dress.
After all, people assume, transgenderism is really about the temporary socialization of playing a woman, right? Just look at what Jared Leto did with the help of wardrobe and makeup, or what forced feminization in the offensive role played by Michelle Rodriguez did for her character.
If a biographical film documenting the life of Julia Roberts were released, and a male actor such as Jared Leto were cast for the lead role, would Americans display a shared wave of public outcry and demand a cisgender woman take his place? Or would they defend the fact that Jared Leto is an amazing actor and say he is merely playing a part as he did for the transgender character in Dallas Buyers Club?
The stereotypes and sensational tropes, sound-bytes, and easily digestible aspects of what it means to be transgender that Hollywood and the media chase after, almost always a sex worker or person to be pitied, cannot be what speaks for our queer community, especially for transgender women.
We are not sensationalist material to ring as a cash register, nor are we merely people reduced to an erroneous and narrow interpretation of what a few cisgender directors view as our truth.
It is time we let transgender people tell their own stories, and until we do, I’m afraid the social policing of the “Guy In A Dress Line” of transgender women being labeled as “really” men, which translates into actual violence, will continue to happen because the cultural myth of who we are as transgender people will continue to live on both in big cinema and in real pockets of society with real costs for transgender people.
Very little of this uproar about cisgender men playing transgender women in film has to do with losing out on roles in casting.
It is about the acceptance of who we are as valuable people of a society in which we don’t want others speaking to the public about their interpretation of who we are, but rather, for us to be seen in actuality for who we are.