Matt Bomer's Transface: Hollywood Business as Usual

Jamie Clayton and Matt Bomer
Jamie Clayton and Matt Bomer

Recently, Matt Bomer made headlines for blocking the Twitter account of Jamie Clayton.

Clayton, a transgender actress on Netflix's Sense8, had criticized Bomer for his casting in Anything, an upcoming film in which he portrays a trans sex worker.

"I really hope you both choose to do some actual good for the trans community one day," Clayton tweeted to both Bomer and actress Michelle Rodriguez, who is also set to portay a trans character in an upcoming film.

It is important to point out that, headlines aside, this is not just another celebrity feud. It is the latest example of "transface" — the practice of casting cisgender actors in transgender parts — which has been subject to debate for some time.

Jen Richards, the transgender star and creator of the Emmy-nominated web series Her Story, broke down the implications of transface in a series of tweets, which were also sparked by Bomer's casting. She specifically addressed that harm that can come from repeatedly releasing films and television shows that feature cis actors in trans roles.

"When @MattBomer plays a trans sex worker, he is telling the world that underneath it all, trans women like me are still really just men," tweeted Richards, who said such misrepresentations in media "will result in violence against trans women."

"Anyone can play anyone" in Hollywood, Richards conceded, but she argued that trans actors have the potential to delvier a "more informed, subtle, authentic performance, which "makes for better art." 

Richards revealed she had auditioned for the part in Anything, and she saw the casting as yet another example of ongoing bias in Hollywood. She said she, ironically, does not "look trans enough" for many trans roles, as producers prefer "a man performing femininity."

A look at Hollywood's recent history — Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, to name a few — shows the preference for transface is clear. The reasons are varied, but as with any movie, casting for major parts oftentimes boils down to money.

Because of their visibility, white cisgender movie stars have a high Q score — a number ascribed to each actor that projects how much their fame can lure audience members into theaters. A case can also be made about a cisgender movie star's reach can sway more hearts and minds. But there's a drawback in Hollywood. The casting of nonminority actors perpetuates a cycle in which minority actors continually lose the opportunity to become stars in their own right.

And these roles are catnip during awards season. Both Leto and Redmayne were nominated for Oscars, with the former winning his category of Best Supporting Actor. Other cisgender actors who have been nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for playing trans roles include Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, and John Lithgow in The World According to Garp. Swank won for her portrayal.

As trans filmmaker Andrew James (Baby Daddy) noted in an essay for The Atlantic, "Physically transforming for a role, like gaining or losing weight, or becoming unrecognizable through makeup and effects, is a tried-and-true way to generate awards buzz." Voters who are impressed by transformed cisgender actors may thus be uninformed — or worse, uncaring — about the societal implications of their casting. 

Bomer has yet to comment on his casting or the controversy it incited. However, Mark Ruffalo, who is a producer of the production, has responded to the controversy on Twitter.

"To the Trans community. I hear you. It's wrenching to you see you in this pain. I am glad we are having this conversation. It's time," he said.

Tags: Transgender, film

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