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Casting cis actors in trans roles has reached its breaking point

Casting cis actors in trans roles has reached its breaking point

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68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Governors Ball
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

For the second year in a row, Jeffrey Tambor won the Emmy for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series for Amazon’s Transparent. His work as Maura Pfefferman is one of the most decorated portrayals of a trans character in history, having also earned Tambor a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award. Tambor’s performance might be the last of its kind, as the industry faces increased pressure to give better opportunities to trans actors.

"Please give transgender talent a chance," said Tambor during his acceptance speech. "Give them auditions. Give them their story. I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television."

"Please give transgender talent a chance."

Hollywood is paying far more attention to the stories of trans people lately — particularly those of trans women. Award-winning shows like Transparent and movies like The Danish Girl are shining a sympathetic light on people in the trans community. However, the industry as a whole has been slow to let trans people represent themselves on-camera. Save for Laverne Cox on Orange Is the New Black, most trans roles are played by cis white men. What’s more, new films like Anything and (Re)Assignment are getting vocal criticism for co-opting the experiences of trans people for attention and prestige. With Jeffrey Tambor taking home yet another Emmy, it’s now past time for Hollywood to give trans actors the same chance to shine.

Tambor’s performance in Transparent earns its awards season attention. His Maura is gentle and layered, tinged with a melancholy that’s irresistible and stands out even amid an already stellar ensemble cast. And Transparent creator Jill Soloway has done a lot to provide trans writers and actors opportunities on the show.

But he and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences were criticized last night because of how his casting so perfectly captured industry malpractice, with cis actors playing trans characters:

Before Transparent, there was 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, 2005’s Transamerica, 2003’s Normal, 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. The list goes on. All these efforts have garnered praise, but not for trans actors, who are traditionally erased in cinema narratives and face incredible difficulty entering the film industry. Along with a checkered history recognizing the talent of women and people of color, Hollywood has a serious problem highlighting trans talent. And, as was the case with 2015’s Tangerine, the praiseworthy efforts that do feature trans performers often don’t get the attention they deserve.

Trans people face incredible difficulty breaking into Hollywood

But while Hollywood is still on the back foot when it comes to representation, critical voices have only gotten louder. Matt Bomer was cast in the upcoming drama Anything, where he plays a trans sex worker who develops an intense relationship with star John Carroll Lynch. Observers quickly cried foul: as Nick Adams, GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program director, wrote for The Hollywood Reporter last month, "Hollywood is having a very difficult time letting go of the idea that putting a male actor in a dress, wig and makeup is an accurate portrayal of a transgender woman." Producer Mark Ruffalo could only respond with an after-the-fact apology:

All of which may pale in comparison to the backlash aimed at (Re)Assignment, which recently debuted at the Toronto Film Festival. Michelle Rodriguez plays male assassin Frank Kitchen, who receives involuntary gender-reassignment surgery from a vengeful mad doctor. It’s a B-movie plot that has gotten pilloried for being misogynistic and transphobic, as it toys with gender identity for sheer shock value. By turning reassignment surgery into a dark plot point — a kind of punishment the lead, who never identifies as trans, must overcome on his path to revenge — it plays into the destructive notion that surgery is the defining event in a trans person’s life, while also reducing them to medical curiosities. Trans voices are vital to any respectful story that hopes to share their experiences.

The industry is neither learning nor evolving fast enough to improve how it tells trans stories

It’s possible to say that Hollywood is doing what it can to learn these lessons as it responds to criticism. "Please have a little compassion," tweeted Mark Ruffalo. "We are all learning." Or, maybe this is all a part of progress. "I remember a day when white people were playing black people," Michelle Rodriguez told TMZ, "So it’s just about the evolution." But the truth is, the industry is neither learning nor evolving fast enough to improve how it tells these stories. Laverne Cox isn’t the only trans actor in the industry. It’s good that Jeffrey Tambor recognizes that, but it’s a shame he needed to give this speech at all.