This week’s announcement that Matt Bomer — a cisgender, gay, male actor — will play a transgender woman in the upcoming film “Anything,” has reignited outrage, which has burned all week, over the casting of transgender female characters in movies.
The drama will be the directorial debut of Timothy McNeil, who also wrote the play upon which the movie’s based. In addition to Bomer, it will feature John Carroll Lynch, Maura Tierney, Micah Hauptman, Margot Bingham and Melora Hardin.
Mark Ruffalo is one of the executive producers.
The plot follows a man, played by Lynch, who finds himself suicidal after the death of his wife. He moves from Mississippi to Los Angeles, where he befriends a transgender sex worker, played by Bomer.
“I’m very happy to be part of this daring project,” Ruffalo told Variety when the project was announced. “Love is at the essence of great storytelling and transcends all discrimination and politicization.”
The reaction to the announcement, though, has not been wholly supportive.
“Matt Bomer playing a trans woman is the perfect example of how cis gay men throw us under the bus for capitalism and assimilation,” tweeted one user. “Imagine making 12 Years of Slave or The Help, without any black actors. Same point with trans stories,” tweeted another.
But the loudest voice seemed to be that of Jen Richards, a transgender actress and writer who who co-wrote “Her Story.”
In a string of tweets, Richards voiced extreme opposition to the idea of Bomer — or any cisgender male — playing a transgender woman.
She claimed cisgender males playing transgender women “denies actual trans women opportunities” and makes for lesser art. Most importantly, Richards tweeted, it “will result in violence in trans women.”
“Cis men playing trans women leads to death,” the writer/actress tweeted.
In the string of tweets, she claimed that “straight men are attracted to trans women … We are some of the most popular sex workers,” but that cisgender males playing transgender women perpetuates an idea that transgender women are actually men.
These men, according to Richards, then attack their sexual partners out of fear of being emasculated.
At one point, Richards tweeted that she auditioned for the film.
Some users agreed with her, while others asked for concrete examples to back up her claims — none of which were given.
But Richards’s tweets did relaunch the conversation about who should play transgender characters.
On Thursday, Slate’s cultural critic June Thomas wrote an op-ed, in which she opined, “Jen Richards’ observation that seeing cisgender male actors playing transgender women endangers real people’s lives is powerful and persuasive.”
Also on Thursday, Nick Adams, a transgender man who works for the LGBT advocacy group GLAAD, wrote an op-ed in the Hollywood Reporter titled, “Matt Bomer and Men Who Play Transgender Women Send a ‘Toxic and Dangerous’ Message.”
He made the same basic argument as Richards. Below is part of the op-ed:
The decision to put yet another man in a dress to portray a transgender woman touches a nerve for transgender people, and rightfully so. It’s yet another painful reminder that, in the eyes of so many people, transgender women are really just men.
That message is toxic and dangerous. It’s what prompts lawmakers in states like North Carolina to legislate that a transgender woman must use the men’s restroom, humiliating her and putting her in harm’s way. It’s what motivated James Dixon to murder Islan Nettles as she walked down the street, minding her own business. At his trial, Dixon said that he attacked the 21-year-old black trans woman after he flirted with her, then his friends teased him saying, “That’s a man.” Not wanting to be “fooled” and feeling like his “manhood” was threatened, Dixon killed her.
The response from those involved with the film has been minimal thus far. On Wednesday, Ruffalo sent out the following tweet:
When asked if the movie would be recast, Ruffalo, asking for compassion, tweeted that it wasn’t possible as the movie has already been shot.
As all the aforementioned critics note, this is far from the first time a cisgender man has played a transgender woman. Each time this sort of casting occurs, it sparks cultural debate.
In response to Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning portrayal of a transgender woman in 2014’s “Dallas Buyers Club,” Time published a piece titled “Don’t Applaud Jared Leto’s Transgender ‘Mammy.'” “Mammy” refers to a cultural archetype of an older, often overweight black woman who serves as a sort of moral compass or guiding figure for the white characters to whom she’s submissive. In 1940, black actress Hattie McDaniel famously won an Oscar for portraying a character literally named Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.”
In response to Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-nominated performance as a transgender woman in “The Danish Girl,” Salon’s Nico Lang wrote, “It’s not people like Eddie Redmayne that will create a better, safer world for trans people.”
The practice of casting cisgender men as transgender women does have some defenders, though.
In a New York Times op-ed responding to the backlash against Jeffrey Tambor portraying a transgender woman in Amazon’s critical hit show “Transparent,” Jennifer Finney Boylan, a transgender woman herself, defended the casting decision.
… not every trans female who comes out is going to be instantly seen as the woman she knows herself to be, in spite of what is in her heart.
And it’s this, I think, that justifies the casting of Mr. Tambor in this instance, and that makes the quandary of the character so deeply moving. That “Transparent” depicts a schlumpy, older person rather than a gorgeous fashion model is good for both trans and cis folks alike. It captures the surprisingly universal problem of being defined only by our biology, rather than our spirits. It should make us stop and think about what it means to be a man, or a woman, and the struggle that so many people face in trying to live our truth. This isn’t a problem unique to transgender people; it’s the same for all of us.
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