When news broke that Scarlett Johansson was cast as a trans man after a number of cis actors catapulted their careers off transgender pain, the LGBT community reached its breaking point. The ensuing debate, in which transgender people in the entertainment industry argued that their visibility is rare and precious, resulted in the A-lister giving up the role.
In response to the fallout, The Hollywood Reporter amplified the voices of 21 trans people in Hollywood. Here are the most memorable moments and takeaways.
Having Cis People Play Trans People Makes It Seem Like a Performance, Not an Experience
There's an argument that cis people can play transgender characters because that's "acting," but the trans entertainers broke down how their identity isn't a performance in the first place, nor should it be treated as such.
"Accolades have been showered on cis actors who play trans people and that glorifies the transphobic notion that the trans women they portray are men, just like these actors who play them," said Ivory Aquino, an actress in the miniseries When We Rise. "When they receive awards in their tuxedos with their facial hair, it just sends the message that at the end of the day, trans women take off their makeup and they're men."
The People Behind the Camera Are Responsible for Lack of Trans Representation, Not Just Actors Who Take on Trans Roles
It's not just the big Hollywood names who are guilty of the problem. "Scarlett, because she’s in front of the camera, she's a star, she's getting the beating, but I'm holding the director responsible," asserted Jazzmun, who also appeared in When We Rise, "I'm holding responsible the casting agent that did not bring in enough trans folks or didn't believe enough trans folks could do that part."
On a superficial level, it seems like the people on the covers of magazines have control. However, the entertainment industry has many moving pieces. Writers, directors, and producers are the ones making content and deciding who gets to star in it. Transgender performers believe that a lack of diversity behind the scenes is the root of the problems.
"No one's writing for us in a positive or negative light," noted transgender man Zeke Smith, who appeared on Survivor. Jamie Clayton, who was on Sense8, which was created by a transgender showrunner, agreed.
"If you're going to tell stories about marginalized people, and you don’t include those marginalized people in that storytelling, it’s going to come across as very inauthentic and problematic," said Clayton. "How many crime procedurals are on TV? On every single one of those shows, they have consultants like ex-cops, ex-FBI agents, ex-private investigators, ex-morgue people."
She believes having a consultant on a very specific experience moves mountains. It's even better when the person authoring the content is an expert. "What makes you think that you can tell a story of a trans person if you’re not trans and you don’t know any trans people and you don’t hire any trans people?" she said
"A deeper investment in telling an authentic story, which means having gender-nonconforming and trans folks in positions of leadership, whether it's in the writers' room, in the production office, in the costume department," said Zackary Drucker, Transparent writer-producer.
Transgender Men Are Particularly Invisible in Hollywood
While Emmys and Oscars have gone to cisgender men playing transgender women, it's rare to even see a transmasculine character on screen.
"Trans men have been completely invisible in Hollywood," said Scott Turner Schofield, who is an actor on The Bold and the Beautiful. "We have Chaz Bono, who is great. We have Alex Blue Davis on Grey’s Anatomy, who is also great, but we do tend to blend into the background."
"People don't really know we exist," agreed Smith. "Trans men are so invisible in the zeitgeist that we don’t even have a slur. People haven't even taken the time to come up with a mean thing to call us." He even noted that his only background in the industry was competing to stay on a desert island, yet the Reporter chose him as an authority to speak on trans casting. "Transgender men are so invisible that a guy whose biggest accomplishment is being on two seasons of a reality show is considered a worthwhile voice to comment on transgender men in Hollywood."
We Need to Stop Coddling Privileged Cis People
Eddie Redmayne, Jared Leto, Felicity Huffman, Hilary Swank, and Jeffrey Tambor are just a few actors that were praised for portraying trans characters. This time, transgender Hollywood and its allies openly called out Scarlett Johansson's casting. They held nothing back, and that resulted in meaningful change.
"We do a lot of coddling in Hollywood to make people in power not feel threatened," explained Drucker. "We do a lot of maneuvering around that, and maybe there is some value in just saying, 'You might lose a little bit of your power, but you're gonna live in a better world.'"