Andrew Garfield in Arcade Fire's "We Exist" music video, directed by David Wilson

Courtesy of The Director's Bureau

Andrew Garfield in Arcade Fire's "We Exist" music video, directed by David Wilson

April 18, 2016

O’BRIEN | Cis People Telling Trans Stories: Questioning ‘Trans Visibility’ in the Media

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March 31 was Transgender Day of Visibility. Intuitively, the media industry is in a better place than just a few years ago when it comes to trans visibility; in 2015, The Danish Girl was nominated for multiple Oscars, and Transparent for several Emmys. Yet, critiques of these media representations by trans writers and activists reveal that the narrative of representation and progress is not so simple: though there is an increase in the depiction of trans stories, they are still overwhelmingly being told by cis people.

In a media landscape where, according to a media-monitoring report by GLAAD, 53 percent of depictions of trans characters since 2002 have been negative, and a large chunk of the rest involve typecasting characters in victim or sex worker roles (who, it’s important to note also deserve to have their stories told), clearly, the depiction of trans people on TV and movies has not been fair, accurate, or nuanced. So when we see an increase in trans characters who are complex and humanized — even as main characters in a couple works last year — it’s easy to herald those as progress.

But many works that are praised for furthering trans visibility do not actually cast trans people to play trans roles, or have trans people involved in the writing or directing. Upon the release of Arcade Fire’s music video for “We Exist,” starring Andrew Garfield as a trans woman, Kat Haché wrote for Bustle, “There is a prevalent idea that viable transgender actors and actresses simply do not exist. Naturally, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when they never gain exposure, rendered invisible by the lack of acknowledgment on the part of directors. One can see how this is especially problematic in a video for a song entitled ‘We Exist.’ If so, where?”

The Dallas Buyers Club, with Jared Leto playing Rayon, a trans AIDS patient who is addicted to drugs, and The Danish Girl, with Eddie Redmayne playing trans Danish artist Lili Elbe, are two egregious examples of the problem of cis men being cast to play trans women. Both movies were lauded by mainstream critics, in no small part for supposedly furthering trans visibility, with Leto and Redmayne nominated for Oscars for their roles. The problem isn’t limited to cis men playing trans women; Elle Fanning was cast as trans teenager Ray in the 2015 drama About Ray as one example, and Hillary Swank as Brandon Teena in the 1999 Boys Don’t Cry also comes to mind.

HIlary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry.

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

HIlary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry.

Despite their mainstream acclaim, all of these movies have been criticized and denounced by many trans people. In an article called “A Trans Woman’s Take on Tom Hooper’s Embarrassing ‘Danish Girl,’ Carol Grant condemns the media’s praise of Redmayne for his “bravery” and “heroism” in depicting a trans woman, writing, “even though he’ll be able to shed off the experience after his probable Oscar win, all the while having it be a matter-of-fact point of life for me and millions other trans women like me.” Casting cis people to play trans roles discounts that the nuances of being trans are best represented by a person who has experienced them, further marginalizing one of the most marginalized groups in the US. Leto and Redmayne were criticized for their roles not just for the fact that they are cis men, but because their portrayals of trans women were found to be problematic in more subtle ways than a lot of cis people could probably recognize — hence the importance of casting trans actors and having trans people involved in the behind-the-scenes of the movie.

Perhaps even more at fault than the actors (who could still choose not to accept these roles) are the directors, who at minimum should have trans people advising them if they are setting out to tell a trans story. These casting choices rob a trans actor of a potential role in an already very limited pool of potential roles, and, above all, perpetuate harmful assumptions about trans people. When cis men are predominantly cast as trans women, and cis women as trans men, this wrongfully implies that trans people are “actually” the sex they were assigned prior to their transition, and that trans people somehow don’t look “trans enough” to play a trans role.

Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyer's Club

Courtesy of Focus Features

Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyer’s Club

Another show that has come under fire for casting a cis man to play a trans woman is the Amazon original series Transparent. Transparent is about the transition of Maura (played by Jeffrey Tambor) in her late-sixties, and the effect on her family — based on the experiences of director Jill Soloway, whose father came out as trans and inspired the character of Maura. Transparent, it should be noted, does have trans actors playing the other, more minor trans characters, and has many trans people involved in the show’s writing and directing. Soloway defended her casting of Tambor, saying that he simply reminded her so much of her father she couldn’t picture anyone else in the role. Perhaps this would be less of a problem if it existed in a vacuum, but the decision not the cast a trans woman in the main role feels like a missed opportunity on Jill Soloway’s part. Additionally, as Cael Keegan called out in The Advocate, Transparent’s second season has an episode that was transphobic in its portrayal of a trans man — perhaps an inevitable result when cis people are centered in telling a trans narrative.

Tangerine is a rare example of a movie made by trans people of color, about trans people of color, that has received media acclaim (though was snubbed at the Oscars). Orange Is the New Black in its casting of the amazing Laverne Cox has also proven that casting trans people to play trans characters is the best way to go. These are the works that we should seek to support if we want to be allies to furthering trans representation. It’s easy to watch something like Transparent or The Danish Girl and see it as progress, forgetting that we’re still watching a work of art made largely for and by cis people.

Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black.

Courtesy of Netflix

Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black.

Trans people — trans women of color especially — face perhaps more discrimination and violence than any other group. The historical trend of negative media depictions of trans people is thus incredibly harmful, and giving a platform to complex and humanizing trans narratives is important. But, as I have learned solely by reading articles and tweets by trans writers and activists, it’s important when creating and consuming media to remember that trans visibility is not the same thing as representation, and cis people should not be the only ones profiting off of trans stories. If trans people aren’t actually in control of the way their stories are told, then that’s not truly representation — it’s appropriation.

Katie O’Brien is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kobrien@cornellsun.com. Midnight Radio appears alternate Mondays this semester.

3 thoughts on “O’BRIEN | Cis People Telling Trans Stories: Questioning ‘Trans Visibility’ in the Media

  1. While Orange and Tangerine are touted as successful b/c they are trans actresses playing trans characters. And that’s progress., but let’s face it: they are still about trans women as sex workers and felons. Perhaps it’s still impossible to get funding for any other portrayal?

  2. While I love Tangerine and the work it does, it was not made my trans women. It was directed my a straight, cis, white male who cowrote it with another straight, cis, white male. Maya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez, through numerous conversations with Baker, provided the stories to make up the film and essentially sherparded the film in its depiction of sex work. This is huge but they receieved no story credit or any other credit beyond acting. Their roles in the production are only known because the PR machine for the film worked hard (and smartly) to push Maya Taylor to the front of the media campaign. This isn’t to down play her or Kiki Rodriguez’s roles but to emphasize the problems in the production and in the larger industry that Tangerine still participates in.

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