A Primer on Hollywood Transploitation

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Jared Leto in Texas Buyers Club

I was politely minding my own business on Twitter this weekend, yelling at people who had different political opinions than mine, when I saw that a new brouhaha involving transgender people had occurred.

What the hell did Caitlyn do this time? I thought and attempted to decipher where one hashtag ended and another began. Seriously, people, keep it to two. Anything more than two hashtags and you’re fishing for that sweet, sweet Twitter fame. Actually, it turns out it was Jamie Clayton, the actress from Sense8, who was in the drama this time. Apparently Jamie, along with a lot of the LGBT community, was a bit upset that Matt Bomer — the gay actor who starred in a watchable version of male Striptease and the show White Collar — had just been cast to play a transgender sex worker in the upcoming movie Anything. How a guy whose gimmick is being a stubble-faced sex god with 2 percent body fat got cast as a transgender woman is a bit perplexing. The drama escalated quickly, of course. 

Jamie Clayton apparently got blocked and then unblocked on Twitter by Bomer; others pointed out Bomer’s complaints about not getting work because he’s gay as hypocritical, and people called it Oscar-baiting. People went after Mark Ruffalo — the movie's executive producer — for paying lip service to the trans community and then casting a cisgender man in a transgender role. One group that advocates for transgender representation then leaked what appeared to be first draft copies of the script online with some selected excerpts that weren’t very good. Now there’s even a Change.org petition to scrub the movie! 

And to think I was busy with stale old political drama on Twitter.

This happens every time another movie or TV show with a trans character gets made; a bunch of cisgender people try to say, "It’s a sympathetic portrayal of a trans woman's life as a drug-addicted sex worker who has to overcome society's prejudices. It’s a powerful portrayal, a strong portrayal, and it’s definitely going to win the actor an Oscar." They always say that unknown transgender actors can’t win them Oscars or carry a movie, because Hollywood hates unknown actors in big roles like Al Pacino (Godfather), John Boyega (Star Wars), Edward Norton (Primal Fear), Matthew McConaughey (A Time to Kill), Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) — oh, you get the point. It’s Oscar bait, it’s always Oscar bait. They’re not making art, they’re giving actors a chance to ask for more money in their next film.

What’s so much worse is that these stories are always terrible, when you ask transgender people. It’s bad that you can make a drinking game out of these films. If you drink for every scene where there’s makeup being put on in a mirror, an emotional breakdown, gratuitous penis exposure, skirts and heels when they’re just sitting around the house, or being baby-crazy, you’d be blackout drunk after an hour. If the character is a sex worker, they have to shoot heroin, because usually the character is a drug addict too. That’s how you can tell the difference between a film made by cisgender people about transgender people and a film made by transgender people about transgender people — by how emotionally dysfunctional the trans character is. The more sad, pathetic, and broken the character, the more likely it’s a dude playing trans — and bucking for artistic street cred. If you were writing stories this stereotypical and bad about racial minorities, the last thing you would have to worry about would be an angry hashtag like #OscarsSoWhite.

It’s exploitation. Here, today, I coin a new term for this stuff: transploitation. Actually, let’s bring the whole community in: queerspolitation. Every film with a camp gay played by a butch actor, every super girly actress suddenly going butch, and every bodybuilder in a skirt is just a way to exploit gay people. Our lives, experiences, suffering, triumphs, and joys are great stories of the human experience; they’re stories that must be told. It’s just that we have to wait until someone who already has a career in Hollywood gets to “stretch their artistic wings” and thank everyone but the community they just walked over for the award they just won. We get it. We make for great stories; we just don’t get to tell them ourselves.

If you’re going to insist on making movies about trans people using cisgender actors trying to portray what you think is the way trans people live, we can’t stop you, but for the love of all that is holy, quit being so bad at it.

AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian living in Oklahoma City. Follow her on Twitter @EternalKerri.

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