Transgender representation is severely lacking in the media. When transgender characters are included in TV shows and movies, they are often portrayed in stereotypical ways that can consequently be harmful to the trans community. Additionally, male actors are often hired to portray trans women, which pushes the narrative that trans women are no more than men playing dress up. This is an incredibly transphobic trope. In a day and age where the media plays such a prominent role in how we think and act, it is more important than ever that trans people receive proper representation.
Let’s talk about why casting men as trans women and women as trans men is so harmful to the transgender community. First of all, the transgender community should be given the opportunity to tell their own stories at the very least. They are already given only a fraction of the opportunities available to cisgender individuals. But it is about so much more than opportunity for trans performers. The practice of cisgender people playing trans characters completely invalidates the identities of transgender individuals. Gender is a lived experience, and casting a cisgender person as a transgender individual can minimize the challenges faced by the trans community. Cisgender performers are playing a part; when they wrap filming, they don’t have to carry the burdens or face the oppression that the trans community deal with in their daily lives. Trans people do not have the privilege to strip themselves of these burdens.
Violence towards the trans community can partially be attributed to how trans individuals are portrayed in the media. In the documentary Disclosure, Jen Richards, a trans woman, asserts: “Having cis-men play trans women is a direct link to violence against trans women. Part of the reason that men end up killing trans women out of fear that other men will think that they’re gay for having been with trans women, is that the men whose judgment they fear only know trans women from media, and the people who are playing trans women are the men that they know. This doesn’t happen when a trans woman plays a trans woman. When you see a trans woman off-screen still as a woman, it completely deflates the idea that they’re somehow men in disguise.” (https://www.glamour.com/story/should-cisgender-actors-be-allowed-to-play-transgender-characters)
Eddie Redmayne portrays Lili Elbe, a transgender woman, in the film The Danish Girl. Redmayne, a cisgender male, received an abundance of praise and recognition for his portrayal of Lili. The transgender community was (rightfully) not impressed, because Lili Elbe was reduced to a performance of transness and feminity. Writer Sally Jane Black argued that The Danish Girl “relied heavily on cis stereotypes about what it means to be trans, commenting in particular on the exaggerated femininity and the repeated focus on Elbe’s genitals, further feeding cis fascination with trans anatomy.” (https://theworld.org/stories/2016-03-12/why-danish-girl-s-oscar-loss-satisfying-win-trans-women). These casting decisions are not only stripping transgender individuals of opportunities to tell their own stories, but they are also playing into cisgender stereotypes and pushing a narrative of how cisgender individuals expect trans people to “perform” gender.
Thankfully, we are becoming more progressive as a society and will hopefully continue in a direction that promotes diversity and inclusivity. The transgender community has become more widely accepted, but we still have a tremendously long way to go. While media representation of the transgender community has increased in recent years, Hollywood is still favoring cisgender actors and refusing to allow the trans community to tell their own stories. It is critical that they be given this platform in order to combat the stereotypes and tropes that mainstream media constantly burdens them with. Transgender individuals must be provided with these opportunities in order to ensure that the media is not fetishizing certain aspects of their community while avoiding others that are not as accepted or understood by cisgender individuals.