The Problem with Casting Cis Actors in Trans Roles
Oliver Ellis (he/him) and Kirsten Provan (she/her) explore how damaging it is for Hollywood to consistently cast cis actors in trans roles. They examine the appropriation of trans stories for award show gain and highlight the ultimate importance of including trans people in every step of the filmmaking process.
Image description: Drawing inspiration from classic horror posters, this digital collage explores exploitation and othering of trans people that occurs when our stories are retold by and for cis people.
While nothing says “welcome to adulthood” quite like a beloved childhood author profoundly disappointing the nation with her intolerance, transgender erasure and discrimination have been prevalent in the arts for a long time. In recent years, cinemas have seen an influx of films focusing on trans stories and yet, instead of being liberating and affirming for the transgender community, these films have somehow become Oscar fodder for famous, cisgender actors.
It’s great that people are starting to take interest in trans stories, but if no trans people have been involved in the making of them, we’re forced to ask: who are they really for? Of course, it’s important to get trans stories into the mainstream, but casting cis celebrities in trans roles feels exclusionary. Regardless of the quality of the films, we cannot ignore the context in which they exist. Trans people are not treated as equals in society, and as long as they’re being discriminated against, it’s unfair that cis actors profit off trans stories without consideration for the community.
In the last few years, there’s been an abundance of these high-profile, Hollywoodised films about being trans, perhaps most famously: Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, and Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. All three-star white, cisgender men, and all three received a plethora of nominations at Western awards shows, with Vallée’s film winning big.
The Danish Girl, particularly, while it was highly praised, has a lot of issues. The film tells the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people known to undergo gender confirmation surgery. While she was a real person and a semi-autobiographical account of her life exists, the film is based on David Ebershoff’s novel, also called The Danish Girl, which offers a fictionalised account of Elbe. Her story is therefore doubly appropriated by cis men, with English actor Eddie Redmayne taking the starring role.
Likewise, Breakfast on Pluto, adapted from Patrick McCabe’s novel of the same name, follows Kitten, a young, Irish trans woman, as she comes of age. The film has memorable moments, including both Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson being inexplicably dressed as Wombles at one point. However, Murphy is still the cisgender star of this transgender film and received a Golden Globe nomination for his efforts. Moreover, Kitten is named Pussy in the book. The switch suggests an attempt to censor trans sexuality, while serial womaniser and hetero icon 007 remains free to carry on as normal, armed to the teeth with innuendos galore.
Thinking about these films, and there are so many more out there, begs the question: why are cisgender men celebrated for donning a dress for a role when society itself remains highly gendered and widely transphobic? It’s a well-known fact amongst the uber-cynical that all one needs to do to win an Oscar is either gain a lot of weight or lose it, case in point: McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. So, is playing a trans role now just another one of those things that takes a cis actor far enough away from their everyday self to warrant a big gold trophy? Instead of providing representation for a group of people profoundly under-represented on the big screen, films about being transgender have become a further vessel for the cisgender man to commandeer.
Even if they are high-quality films with good actors, cis people don't understand what it's like to be trans; research only goes so far, they cannot comprehend the lived experience of trans people. Similarly, more trans writers, directors and producers are desperately needed to ensure a much wider range of trans stories are being told. Currently, the focus often lies on physically transitioning, but when we’ve got huge numbers of trans people on waiting lists, others unable to afford the expensive medical procedures, and many choosing not to undergo them, the fascination starts to become reductive. Focusing solely on the physical aspects of transness ignores so many different facets of trans identity. Trans representation, particularly in film, feels very one-dimensional, something that having more trans people involved would ameliorate.
Trans rights are in a precarious place in the UK right now. Trans people are more visible than ever, but there’s been some serious backlash in the media and from the government. That’s one reason why it’s so important that the trans stories we see on our screens are accurate and empowering. Casting cisgender actors in transgender roles is not only insulting, but it also perpetuates incredibly dangerous rhetoric. Being trans is presented as a disguise, a deception, rather than one’s true identity. Many trans people spend their whole lives trying to convince society that they’re not just ‘pretending’, so it’s frustrating to see cis actors being praised for actually pretending to be trans. These stereotypes haunt trans people in their daily lives; they influence how they are seen and how society treats them, which can also affect their mental health and physical safety. With 83% of trans young people having experienced verbal abuse, 27% having attempted suicide and 89% having thought about it; with 65% of trans people reporting being harassed in the streets, and 35% stating that they avoid expressing their gender from fear of being assaulted, it’s clear that we need to do better.
While we are seeing more trans actors in TV and film now, there’s still a long way to go. As the public becomes more aware of the importance of representation, and with the introduction of a diversity quota at the Academy Awards, progress feels like it could be on the horizon. One thing’s for sure, nothing is going to change if people stay uninformed. Cis allies have a duty to understand what real representation is, and to support the trans people who deserve the roles, both behind and in front of the camera.
If anyone is struggling with any of the issues mentioned in this article, here are some great charities you can reach out to:
- Stonewall: stonewallscotland.org.uk
- Scottish Trans Alliance: scottishtrans.org
- LGBT Youth Scotland: lgbtyouth.org.uk
 All statistics from Stonewall: https://www.stonewall.org.uk/sites/default/files/trans_stats.pdf
This article was written by Oliver Ellis (he/him), a Psychology student from the University of Edinburgh and Kirsten Provan (she/her), a Creative Writing MSc student from the University of Edinburgh. It was edited by Tamara El-Halawani, also a student at the university.