Transface: The issue with non-binary identities played by cisgender actors


Imagine being a young adult or child, idolizing non-binary characters in television and film then finding out some of your role models are actually cisgender actors. They’re frauds who could play your identity, your lived experience, better than someone who actually identifies as transgender/non-binary. It’s like a kick in the ribs, the sharp stinging reality that even though your identity is getting more representation, there is still a power struggle. Where privileged actors get priority over minorities and stereotypes keep perpetuating in a vicious cycle.


Wayan Vota – Flickr Creative Commons

It is common theme in comedy to portray males in roles that counter our conception of masculinity. Some of these roles are meant to benefit the acceptance of gender identity; however, when these roles are portrayed by cisgender actors, we lose the authenticity and representation for actors who go through life in that identity.


It is like blackface all over again: privileged individuals (non-minorities) representing minorities, giving flat and often times offensive representations of the real life struggles of others. It is one thing to be an actor, but it is another thing to portray an identity in a way that may be offensive to members of that specific identity.



Twitter screenshot by BreakinAlinea, Jen Richards points out flaws of role representation


In recent news, Jen Richards (actress and writer for Herstory) brings attention to Matt Bomer’s casting as a trans-character in the movie Anything, and gives reasons for why this is an issue.



Twitter screenshot by BreakingAlinea, Jen Richards tells it like it is


I think her words speak enough on this issue. Artistic freedom is not a game, it is not an excuse, and having male-identifying actors play trans-women identities is just as offensive and reductive as blackface. In fact, tansface is now a coined term. Yes, some people are great actors and it would be awesome to add ground-breaking identity-acceptance to their resume, but it is time we think critically about what their role representations actually mean. There are real life consequences for non-LQBTQ+ actors portraying those specific identities.


If you would like to support real life individuals and actors who play authentic roles, consider exploring these television shows listed below that I have compiled for your benefit. In addition, I have listed shows in contrast which have actors with privileged identities representing non-binary characters. These examples are not all inclusive, theyre just ones that I am familiar with, if you have any examples you would like to add, I would love for you to comment!


Authentic representations of LGBTQ+ identities:

  • Steven Universe (Cartoon Network animated series with feminist overtones and non-binary identities)
  • HerStory (Webseries with trans actors playing trans roles)
  • Carmilla (Youtube web series with lesbians, a non-binary individual, and feminists)
  • Couple-ish (Youtube webseries with LGBTQ+ relationships and feminists)
  • Orange is the New Black (Netflix orginial series with authentic trans representation)


Non-authentic representations of LGBTQ+ identities:


I define privileged identities as white, male, cisgender, christian, and/or wealthy. I define identity-minority as individuals who do not conform to or identify with hegemonic binaries. Non-binary, LGBTQ+, minority, and transgender are used interchangeably throughout this article.

16 thoughts on “Transface: The issue with non-binary identities played by cisgender actors

  1. My only question about this article is this: if you have a problem with cis men playing trans women, do you have a problem with cis women playing trans men? This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with privilege at all. It just seems like you would rather have a more realistic portrayal of trans characters.


    1. Thank you for your response! I believe it is great to see actors playing diverse characters, but I am worried about cisgendered (male or female) actors taking jobs away from non-cisgender actors. I am also worried that this will reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes about non-cisgender individuals. That is why I would like to see non-cisgender characters played by people who identify as so.


  2. A must-see is the 2015 film Tangerine, a film about transgendered sex workers in Los Angeles that starred actual transgendered sex workers in the lead role. Also one of the actresses, Mya Taylor, was the first transgendered actress to win an Independent Spirit Award. Its also just a really really fun and expertly made film that more people need to experience.


    1. Thank you for pointing out that film to me, I can’t wait to watch it! It is always exciting to find great works with proper representation! 🙂


  3. Hi- it seems that you’ve deleted my comment from earlier, so I’ll try again with a longer comment:

    This article was an interesting read, however, I have one question I have to ask: do you have a problem with female identifying actresses playing trans-men characters? If so, then I really don’t see this as having anything to do with privilege. All I see here is that you would rather have a more realistic portrayal of transgendered characters.

    I think everybody would love to have more realistic portrayals of characters. I think it’s wonderful to give actual transgendered actors and actresses the opportunity to play roles, HOWEVER, it would be naive to deny cisgendered actors and actresses to play certain roles. Sometimes, the better actor for a transgender role could very well be the actor that is cisgendered, and vice versa: sometimes the better actor for a cisgendered role could very well be the actor that is transgendered.


    1. I apologize for the confusion, I’m still figuring out how to work WordPress. I went ahead and posted both comments!

      I understand exactly where you are coming from. It would be like me saying that only cancer-survivors should play the role of characters with cancer in movie/TV portrayals. I did not mean to come across like that!

      I wanted to stress the fact that trans actors are losing jobs to mainstream or privileged actors. For example, with Anything, Matt Bomer was cast for the role and they did not interview anyone else, regardless of their skill. That’s what I have read, and I have also read that people see it as a way to take advantage of the trans movement right now, in order for these actors to get awards for their revolutionary acting.


      1. It’s no worries! I’m glad the comments were posted. Also, I don’t mean to come as disrespectful or condescending in any way. Sorry if I sound that way.

        I think you bring a good issue to the table here: transgendered actors and actresses are often being brushed under the rug. That’s a problem, and I think we can all agree that it’s wrong. I think we can also agree that it’s wrong for people to milk the trans movement for their own personal benefit, and we can all agree that it’s wrong to reinforce ridiculous stereotypes.

        That being said, I just question the anger as well as the proposed solution. I think the anger shouldn’t be directed towards cisgendered actors and actresses that play transgendered identities. I think we should narrow down the anger and have it be directed towards the people in the movie industry that brush transgendered actors under the rug, which I don’t believe are necessarily the cisgendered actors and actresses. These actors and actresses aren’t frauds, they’re just people who want to entertain viewers as best as they can.

        The solution, in my opinion, isn’t to take opportunities away from cisgendered actors and actresses. That would be naive. The solution is to raise awareness and protect transgendered actors and actresses from being brushed under the rug, and give them fair chances for roles of any identity.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I completely agree with your statement, the focus should shift to the directors and cast-selectors rather than the actors themselves. It’s a tricky road though, when the majority of people only focus on the actors in a movie and not who created it.

          But we also cannot forget that by accepting those roles, knowing a trans actor did not get a chance, the actors let the directors and others get away with what they’re doing! The actors, through not speaking up, are enabling these practices to go on!


          1. Of course people should speak up (everybody should speak up), but we shouldn’t exclusively be hateful towards the cisgendered actors and actresses that play transgendered identities. Who knows if they were aware of such behavior? And who knows if that type of behavior was even present when these actors got their roles? We should spread awareness of the concrete cases where specific people in the film industry have brushed transgendered actors and actresses under the rug. What you said here is mostly what I have a problem with:

            “Imagine being a young adult or child, idolizing non-binary characters in television and film then finding out some of your role models are actually cisgender actors. They’re frauds who could play your identity, your lived experience, better than someone who actually identifies as transgender/non-binary. It’s like a kick in the ribs, the sharp stinging reality that even though your identity is getting more representation, there is still a power struggle.”

            It’s naive to label EVERY one of these cisgendered actors as “frauds”. Would you call a transgendered actor playing a cisgendered identity a “fraud”? Would you label Tom Hanks a fraud for playing a soldier in World War 2? It’s silly to shame EVERY cisgendered actor for playing transgendered identities, based on the assumption that you have portrayed in your post. If you have concrete evidence of a specific person in the film industry that has brushed transgendered actors under the rug, then those are the people we should shame and spread awareness about.


            1. Alright, I might just edit that part out. I was debating whether I should add it in, but now that you’ve brought it to my attention, it seems inappropriate.

              I will definitely do a follow up post on ciswashing and the role directors have in this (and will find specific directors who have a record of doing this, if possible)!

              Thank you for your feedback! I will work hard to keep generalizations and context-belittling language out of the next post for the benefit of the cause!


  4. Good post! But I would stay away from comparing blackface to transface. Although many try to compare them, it is problematic to do so. Blackface has a long history of demeaning Black Americans through caricatures, stereotypes and was part of a series of actions to oppress and dehumanize them. Although “transface” uses stereotypes to inaccurately depict trans, it is hard to compare it to blackface because concepts of race and gender differ.I know we all want to find something to compare “transface”, but blackface is not it. At one point, blackface was even done by Black Americans too. But not to reclaim control of their depictions, but to benefit from the financial benefits of performing blackface in the South. I do not want to go too in-depth with the history of blackface but I would encourage you to research the history of blackface more. Even make this into a series.


    1. I hadn’t even stopped to think about the repercussions of comparing them! I was just thinking of the parallel between the words. I will definitely delve deeper into the history or blackface, and will consider doing a follow up post! Thanks for your insight! 🙂


  5. The new b movie, Reassignment, starring Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver should make for an interesting feminist, or queer critique. In the movie Rodriguez is forced to undergo sex reassignment surgery as a punishment for something against her will, and then she goes on a revenge rampage. It is seriously messed up, and problematic for so many reasons, including her remarks, like “Chill out it’s not a serious film” etc… Might be worth a look.


    1. I looked into the movie and my biggest hope is that it does not receive any attention. If we are lucky it will fade into the distance and be forgotten.

      A BBC article I just read described that “the film’s core premise is that it’s possible to change a person’s sex without altering their gender,” but it appears that Walter Hill only perpetuates the existence of two genders, masculine or feminine… It seems like the director doesn’t even know what he wants to do with this film. It’s like he wanted to have a great psychological documentary about being true to yourself, and the extent people will go to get revenge, but it just falls flat. It would be one thing if this was based on a real life story, but it’s fiction.

      All I can take from this films is the message that it is either a punishment to be trans or to be a woman, and that underneath all sex changes, you are still your socially designated gender. :/ Way to reinforce socially constructed gender norms, Walter, while ignoring other identities.

      Thanks for pointing this movie out! It is definitely worth following to see what reactions it gets and what critics will say.


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