Mixed feelings over Hollywood casting non-trans actors in trans roles

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Redmayne… Playing a trans character gave him carte blanche to talk trans issues.

If you like movie confrontation, then take your seats for a battle of epic proportions: trans people v Hollywood. The trans community has long objected to the way major film companies have sidelined trans actors, while simultaneously demonising or pathologising trans characters. This has just grown worse as trans has become newsworthy.

There was outrage in 2015 as Roland Emmerich attempted to rewrite the history of the Stonewall riots by substituting cute, white and gay for real activists: people of colour, trans women, lesbians and drag queens.

There were mixed feelings too over The Danish Girl, and things soured considerably when the film’s lead, Eddie Redmayne, decided that playing a trans character gave him carte blanche to lecture the world on trans issues – or “Redmayning”, as it is now called.

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This year the studios have announced (Re)assignment, a fairly ludicrous sounding revenge fantasy about a hitman who undergoes forced gender reassignment surgery; and – the final straw – Mark Ruffalo, the executive producer of Anything, has defended the casting of Mark Bomer as a trans woman.

The trans actor Jen Richards responded magnificently to the news, warning Hollywood that casting non-trans actors in trans roles was not just offensive, but dangerous. Ruffalo rather meekly replied that we are all learning and wished he had known this sooner. The trans community seethed.

Is this battle wise? Ruffalo is known, after all, for turning monstrously green when angry and trashing tall tower blocks with his bare hands. Although he was nice to the Black Widow. Or was that just an on-screen thing?

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Movies create a halo effect, endowing real people with imagined characteristics. Trans authenticity is already frequently challenged: so casting non-trans actors, and pushing a narrative that suggests being trans is just a matter of acting or “putting on a dress”, contributes directly to discrimination and violence.

And despite Ruffalo’s protestations, it’s not hard to do better. Here are some pointers for would-be movie moguls keen to cover the topical issue of trans life:

In the UK groups such as Trans Media Watch and All About Trans, will help you to understand the sensitivities and the issues and put you in touch with real trans people. No one is going to lay down the law: but they will let you know if you are falling into cliche and tired tropes.

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Not every film need mimic mundane reality. There is drama, comedy and interest aplenty in the lived experience of ordinary trans folk. Likewise not every trans person is hero or villain, homicidal axe murderer or pathetic victim. In fact most trans people are very ordinary indeed. Don’t obsess over the extraordinary or dwell on negatives.

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