Transitioning into authenticity


Regan Simeon

Digital illustration of a cisgender actor portraying a transgender role.

Lizzie Lively, Opinions Editor

The film industry has a history of casting cisgender actors as transgender characters. Some actors have even won awards for these roles, despite having no experience with the perspectives being portrayed. In 2000, actress Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of a transgender man in the movie “Boys Don’t Cry.” While Swank may be a skilled actress, she is a cisgender woman and could never accurately and authentically portray a transgender man. Transgender actors need to play transgender characters; if not for authenticity, then for more opportunities.

Transgender characters are already mostly nonexistent in major studio films. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) found that zero of the 118 major studio films released in 2019 featured transgender characters. Transgender people’s stories should be told, and they should be told by people who understand that experience. 

Cisgender actors can read lines off a script, but they will never comprehend the experiences of transgender people. If they cannot empathize with transgender individuals, how can actors accurately portray their stories?

Adam Odess-Rubin, founding artistic director of National Queer Theater, argued that queer actors should be given the ability to tell their own stories and be role models for younger queer people. 

“Casting queer actors in queer roles gives us the chance to tell our own stories on our own terms,” Odess-Rubin said in The Gay and Lesbian Review blog. “I know this from my years as a gay actor, and in my current experience as a queer casting director. It gives LGBTQ youth out and proud role models on stage and screen.”

When transgender characters are found onscreen, most of the characters are cisgender men acting as transgender women. According to Megan Townsend, director of entertainment research and analysis at GLAAD, this implies to the viewer that being trans is a costume. 

“Viewers are receiving two wrong messages, which is that being trans is a performance, it’s a costume, and also, underneath this ‘pretense’ that a trans woman is really a ‘man in a dress’ who’s pretending,” Townsend said. 

Transgender people are already a persecuted population. Them, a magazine run by queer journalists, reported that 300 anti-LGBTQ+ laws were passed in 36 states during the year 2022 alone. Additionally, statistics from the Human Rights Campaign noted that at least 35 transgender people were murdered as a result of a hate crime in 2022 but estimated that more cases went unreported.

Representation is now more important than ever, because its absence can be fatal for transgender people everywhere.

— Lizzie Lively

Representation is now more important than ever, because its absence can be fatal for transgender people everywhere. We need to be pushing major film studios to cast real transgender actors and give them the opportunity to portray their own stories in a positive light.  

The movement to authentically represent the community is slowly gaining traction. Elliot Page, an actor who came out as transgender in 2020, has been pushing the industry forward in a positive direction. Before his transition, he portrayed a female character in “The Umbrella Academy” and after coming out as transgender, the writers of the show had his character transition as well. 

The pressure to push cisgender actors out of roles that should not belong to them is slowly moving forward as well. In 2018, actress Scarlett Johansson pulled out of a movie where she was supposed to portray a transgender man.

“While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person,” Johansson said in a statement.

In 2020, actress Halle Berry also pulled out of a movie in which she was supposed to portray a transgender man.

“As a cisgender woman, I now understand that I should not have considered this role, and that the transgender community should undeniably have the opportunity to tell their own stories,” Berry said on Twitter

While these two instances are a good start to authentic and accurate representation, the next step is to never consider cisgender actors in the casting process. We need more transgender representation and we need it to be authentic. There are plenty of fantastic transgender actors out there waiting for an opportunity, and it’s high time the film industry took advantage of that talent.