There was outcry last week when it was announced that Scarlett Johansson was cast as trans man Dante “Tex” Gill in the upcoming film Rub & Tug from Rupert Sanders, the same director who cast her as Asian in the controversial Ghost in the Shell.
What made things worse was Johansson’s callous, cavalier response to the trans community's protestations about another cis person being cast in a role that should have gone to a trans person. Responding to criticism, Johansson said through a representative, "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment.”
The Avengers star was, of course, referring to cis actors who’d earned high praise and/or awards for taking on roles that were not afforded to trans people.
For decades, cis people have been cast in trans roles that range from the sympathetic to wildly offensive. Still, in looking back at the evolution of trans roles on the big screen, it's clear that it’s time to offer trans people opportunities beyond Tangerine and A Fantastic Woman.
Actor Chris Sarandon did his research before going into the role of Leon, a transgender woman who experiences extreme dysphoria as a result of not being able to afford gender confirmation surgery. Sarandon talks about meeting with a group of transgender people he met through a friend and grilling them on their experience coming out and coming to terms with their gender identities. Dog Day Afternoon, based on a true story, stars Al Pacino as Sonny, a robber who holds up a bank in Manhattan on the hottest day of summer to pay for his girlfriend’s (Chris Sarandon) gender confirmation surgery. Sidney Lumet's masterpiece was nominated for six Academy Awards including nominations for Pacino and Sarandon.
Actress Karen Black is often lauded for her performance as Joanne in Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and serves as the vehicle of the climax of the film, when it’s revealed that Joanne is transgender. Despite the plot of Robert Altman's film being predicated on what we would today call incorrect notions — such as entertaining the idea that Joanne wasn’t truly a woman until she had her surgery — the movie is often forgiven in part for its slip-ups based on the period during which it was released. In fact, the film is often celebrated as ahead of its time as it depicts a thoughtful conversation between a transgender woman and her perplexed, albeit well-intentioned, cisgender friends. The film's queer appeal was helped along by its cast, which included Cher, Kathy Bates, and Sandy Dennis, who was long-rumored to be a lesbian.
The film adaptation of the popular John Irving novel The World According to Garp tells the story of T.S. Garp, an aspiring writer and freestyle wrestler whose mother, Jenny (Glenn Close), runs a shelter for abused women. One of the home’s residents is a transgender woman and retired football player Roberta Muldoon, who was inspired to have confirmation surgery after reading Jenny’s book, which has become a radical feminist manifesto of sorts. Roberta is sometimes considered one of the first sympathetic transgender characters presented in a commercially popular film.
The 1986 movie Second Serve showcases legendary British actress Vanessa Redgrave. The film is based on the true story of tennis champion Renee Richards and the struggles she endured as a transgender woman in the 1970s, particularly highlighting the opposition she faced from the United States Tennis Association when she attempted to qualify as a female pro player. The film won two out of the three Emmy Awards for which it was nominated and is one of the earliest movies to showcase the struggles of a transgender athlete in America.
The Crying Game was lauded at the Academy Awards with six nominations — making cisgender actor Jaye Davidson the first gay British person of color to be nominated for an Oscar and earning director/writer Neil Jordan the award for Best Original Screenplay. Although the plot "twist" that reveals Dil (Davidson) is a transgender woman is highly exploitative, especially by today’s standards, at the time, critics by-and-large focused on the film's taut storytelling and high production values. Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker, and Miranda Richardson co-starred in the film that featured a queer romance and a leading LGBT character.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is often regarded as one of the films that helped make Jim Carrey a household name and it’s also considered to be wildly homophobic and transphobic. When Carrey’s character crassly declares, “Einhorn is a man!” upon discovering police lieutenant Lois Einhorn (Sean Young) is transgender, he flashbacks to kissing and bedding her. He vomits, burns his clothes, and cries in the shower. The climax of the plot employs Carrey’s character shamelessly and publicly tearing off Einhorn’s clothes until she is left with exposed breasts and tucked male genitalia, which is meant to be a victorious and hilarious event.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert follows two drag queens and their transgender friend, Bernadette (Terence Stamp), through the Outback of Australia in a beat-up RV. The heartfelt, surprising story is told through a set of quirky, fun characters, making the film an instant queer classic. The popularity of the film, which showcased likable, fun, and entertaining queer people, was a hit with straight and LGBT audiences alike and served to showcase various kinds of masculinity. The wild and eccentric aesthetic of the film won costume designers Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel an Academy Award that year.
At the time, the 1999 film was praised for its trans representation, but Boys Don’t Cry has since sparked a backlash, protests, and debate about its representation. Cisgender lesbian Kimberly Pierce has been criticized for casting Hillary Swank, a cisgender woman, in the role of transgender boy Brandon Teena, and for erasing the murder of Phillip Devine — an African-American man who was killed by the same person who murdered Teena — from the film’s narrative. Other critiques point out the film’s misgendering of Teena, and its highlighting of violence against the transgender community while failing to educate its audience on how to address such a crucial issue the film so heavily covers. Swank’s performance in the film won earned her the Academy Award and Golden Globe statues, which further fueled critics who saw major problems with the film.
Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother tells the story of Manuela (Cecillia Roth), a mother who ventures out in search of her estranged ex-husband, Lola (Toni Canto), following the death of their son. Manuela is guided by their mutual friend, Agrado (Antonia San Juan) who, like Lola, is a transgender woman. During the course of the critically-acclaimed film, Lola is afforded the opportunity to give a detailed and intimate account of her exploration of gender identity and the surgeries she undertook to feel like a “genuine woman,” as she says.
Critics of the film say that making Agrado a sex worker reinforced negative stereotypes about transgender women, but defenders laud All About My Mother for showcasing the stories of two transgender women at a time when there was little representation. The movie, which also deals with HIV/AIDS, won the 1999 Academy Award for best foreign film and featured a young Penelope Cruz as an HIV-positive nun.
Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a transgender woman who discovers she has a son she did not know about in 2005's Transamerica. In an attempt to be an agreeable parent she tries to avoid confrontation with the 17-year-old after finding out he’s in trouble with the law. One week before her gender-confirmation surgery, Bree's doctor tells her she must confront her son, which leads the pair on a cross-country journey together. Bree must tackle coming out to her travel companion, not only as transgender but also, as his father.
The Crying Game director Neil Jordan revisited trans themes with 2005's Breakfast on Pluto. The film's Patrick, an Irish orphan played by Cillian Murphy, is sure of her gender identity early on in childhood, donning dresses whenever possible and adopting the name Kitten. When Kitten grows older, she ventures out in search of her birth mother and finds love along the way. She also becomes a magician’s assistant, kicks ass, and stumbles upon just about every adventure in between. Murphy’s performance received mixed reviews.
The Ray Romano and Kevin James comedy Grilled tells the story of two meat salesmen down on their luck and trying to make a deal when they run into Sofia Vergara’s character, Lori. The extent of Lori’s storyline as a transgender woman starts and ends with Ray Romano’s character deciding against sleeping with Lori upon discovering that she was born male.
Jamie Babbit's Itty Bitty Titty Committee tells the story of a queer woman feeling hopeless and miserable after her girlfriend dumps her and she's rejected from college. But things begin to look up when the head of a radical feminist group befriends her. One notable man in the group, however, is Aggie (Lauren Mollica) a transgender man and the only nonbinary member of the group. The film explores the gender dysphoria Aggie experiences having being born female. Critics generally find Aggie to be the film's most sympathetic character.
New York Magazine called The Skin I Live In a “transgender Frankenstein made by a cinema-studies professor” to describe Pedro Almodovar’s story which preceded The Assignment in using gender reassignment surgery as a form of torture. After the daughter of plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is raped by 20-something Vicente Cruz, which leads the daughter to commit suicide days later, Ledgard kidnaps Cruz and conducts a surgery on him and renaming him Vera (Elena Anaya). Almodovar’s films often aim to explore gender through a twisted lens, and although that might have been the director’s intention here, several LGBT activists have criticized the film for undermining the experience of the gender dysphoria transgender people endure as well as the trauma LGBT victims of abuse experience.
A passion project for Glenn Close, she produced, co-wrote, and starred in the film that earned her an Oscar nomination. Close’s Albert Nobbs was 30 years in the making before it was brought to the big screen in 2012, decades after Close had read a short story about a woman living in 19th-century Dublin who dressed as a man to more easily land work and survive. According to the story, as time goes on and Nobbs makes a routine out of dressing as a man, the titular character finds that the lines of gender have become blurred. Close has said she believes the story is less about gender and more about survival and what it takes for human beings to feel safe and comfortable in their own skin.
Albert Nobbs wasn't the only woman in Dublin donning men’s clothing out of a need for survival in the film of the same name. In the passion project from producer Glenn Close, Nobbs comes across Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), who serves as a mentor and guide to Nobbs. Page is also a woman disguised as a man with the intention of protecting herself, but Nobbs and Page have different motivations for donning their respective personas. Whereas Nobbs takes on a male character so as to blend into the crowd and protect themselves from unwanted attention, Page uses the male persona as a vehicle for self-assertion in a time and place where women are offered severely less appealing opportunities than that of men. McTeer earned an Oscar nomination for the role.
Jared Leto’s Oscar win for Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club sparked outrage within the trans community. Leto has spent much of his career joking about crossdressing and referred to Rayon as a “beautiful creature” in his Golden Globes acceptance speech. The mildest critics applauded Leto’s performance while pointing out where it wasn’t believable, such as when she is misgendered and abstains from correcting the person. Some of the harshest critics say that Hollywood eschewed the opportunity to represent or even respect a marginalized minority for the sake of patting themselves on the back. Rayon personifies every ugly stereotype the media has perpetuated about trans women since it began letting them put a toe in the spotlight, considering Leto’s character is a depressed, clothes-obsessed, hypersexual, drug-addicted sex worker.
3 Generations tells the story of Ray, a transgender boy guiding his mother and grandmother through the process of his transition. Discomfort and mistakes are prevalent in the film, which includes Ray’s mother accidentally misgendering him, and the grandmother’s visible horror as a doctor explains some of the details of what the transition will entail. Creators claimed that they included details about transitioning to make the story authentic, calling it a “human comedy.” The film was originally set to release in 2015, when the film was titled About Ray but was pulled from the year’s release schedule after backlash surrounding the casting of Elle Fanning to play Ray, and the complete lack of transgender people within the core cast. More controversy arose when director and co-writer Gaby Dellal misgendered Ray’s character in an interview. “Were I to be making this film today . . . I absolutely would be casting a trans kid,” Dellal told Vanity Fair. “But finding a kid that hadn’t medically transitioned or hormonally transitioned yet and was in exactly the same time frame as the character of Ray is incredibly hard to find.”
Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili Elbe, one of the first transgender women to transition, had mixed reviews. Admittedly, Redmayne did his homework for the role, reading Elbe’s autobiography, Man Into Woman, while also studying sketches of her, reading other books by transgender authors such as Jan Morris’s Conundrum, watching My Transexual Summer, and meeting with six transgender women from varying generations to listen to their experiences. For his efforts, Redmayne snagged an Oscar nomination. However, critics of the movie complain that The Danish Girl centers more heavily around David Ebershoff’s fictionalized novel based on Elbe’s experience than it does Elbe’s autobiography. However, transgender critics generally approved of and even admired Redmayne’s performance.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the androgynous supermodel, All, sparked enough anger to bring forward a petition asking people to boycott Zoolander 2 all together. The petition claimed that, “This is the modern equivalent of using blackface to represent a minority,” and that the portrayal is “an over-the-top, cartoonish mockery of androgyne/trans/non-binary individuals.” Cumberbatch sported shaved eyebrows, long auburn hair, and an almost unrecognizable made-up face for the role. Zoolander writers defended the portrayal by claiming that the ostentatious characterization was meant to make fun of the fashion world rather than disenfranchise a community. However, many were still offended by the portrayal, as the petition against the movie gained over 20,000 signatures.
The Assignment’s offensiveness is displayed in its original title — The (Re)Assignment. The movie treats the concept of what it calls “gender reassignment surgery” as a form of punishment. The accepted term is gender-confirmation surgery and emphasizes the validity of a transgender person’s identity in empowering ways, but The Assignment uses it as a form of torture. In the movie, Dr. Kay (Sigourney Weaver) performs the surgery on hitman Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) as an act of revenge.
The movie is offensive in multiple ways as it treats women as the inferior while completely undermining the validity of confirmation surgery and gender dysphoria. The film makes an attempt at a progressive political statement when Kay ends the film with the statement, “I wanted to reinforce the theory that if gender is identity, then even the most extreme medical procedure will fail to alter the essence. And this proved to be true. Frank Kitchen is still very much the man he was because he believes himself to be the man he was.”
The movie was met with pushback from the trans community and allies alike, who criticized director Walter Hill and Rodriguez, a bisexual actress, for making it.
Anything tells the story of a suicidal young man named Early (John Carroll Lynch) who moves to Los Angeles and finds himself falling in love with his transgender neighbor, Freda, who works as a prostitute. Matt Bomer’s casting as Freda sparked controversy in the transgender community, with many tweeting the film’s producers in anger. One tweet read, “More cis men being sourced to play trans women. Hollywood, do better.” Transgender public figures have responded to the casting as well. “There are many qualified trans actors and writers who could have played in and advised on the construction of the scenes you’re about to edit into a motion picture. They will lose more work because of this,” trans musician Mya Byrne wrote in a piece for Huffington Post. “We know you have good intentions. But those intentions have far-reaching after-effects that you, as cis men, don’t experience.”
In Flemish director Lukas Dhont’s debut film, Girl, a 15-year-old transgender girl named Lara trains to be a ballerina while transitioning. The camera plays close attention to the body of Polster — who was 15 himself while making the film — in an effort to play more strongly into Lara’s exploration of dysphoria with her body, which is heavily used, abused, sculpted and perfected, as is that of any ballerina. The film was generally well-received at the Cannes Film Festival.