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The Last Days of Transface

Pooya Mohseni
Pooya Mohseni

Even during these dark political days, positive change is happening, writes trans director Pooya Mohseni.

This month, as I was getting ready to add my thoughts to the mix as to why Scarlett Johansson should not play Dante Gill in Rub & Tug and all the reasons why it's time for trans actors to play trans roles, I learned that Johansson respectfully dropped out of the feature. My first response? Yesss!

This battle seems won. This is what the trans community has been fighting for when it comes to representation. But I'm more interested in the contributing factors, financial and socio-cultural, to examine why these miscastings keep happening and work to slowly fade them out, once and for all.

Hollywood is a factory. A glamorous, dreamy kind of factory, but that doesn't change the basic business model: It produces products for consumption. For the longest time, the main focus was what white, cisgender, hetero audiences wanted, and even though there have been variations on that theme, including movies revolving around people of color, LGBTQ people, or exotic locations, the product was made, molded, and served to fit the palate of its primary market: the straight Caucasian viewer.

As a trans woman, born and raised in Iran in the 1980s, I grew up watching classic Hollywood movies. The women were gorgeous, the men handsome, and most often, "good," "moral" people won the day. But the hero was almost always white, male, and straight. People of color were either sidekicks or villains, and there was no positive, if any, representation of the LGBTQ community to be seen. We don't live in that world anymore.

These films were considered some of the greatest movies ever made, and many still are, if you can stomach the cringeworthy brownface or yellowface that some of Hollywood's greatest wore: John Wayne in yellowface to play the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan? No longer acceptable! The British actor Sir Alec Guinness, who most people know as Obi-Wan Kenobi from the original Star Wars, is a great actor by all accounts, but seeing him in brownface, playing Prince Faisal of Arabia in Lawrence of Arabia, honestly makes me cringe.

The list of these Hollywood "transformations" is not a short one. But the additions to this list are getting fewer and fewer. That's because new audiences decided they no longer wanted to see white actors masquerade as characters of color and tell stories that were appropriated from other cultures and communities.

That is when change happens.

When the old whitewashed incarnations of non-Caucasian characters were no longer selling tickets, actors of color started finding their way to better, bigger roles and had the opportunity to shine, telling their stories. That's not to say everything is solved on the race front, but strides have been made, and even though sometimes we take a few steps back, more racial diversity can be seen on TV and big budget films.

The other group used for cheap laughs and generic fodder was the LGBTQ community. And again, those roles were played, mostly, by straight actors. No shortage of examples there either. And while the representation of gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters has changed for the better in the last couple of decades, still most LGBT characters are played by straight actors and very rarely the other way around. And that brings me to the ever so controversial T.

The first time I saw positive trans representation was in The Crying Game, and while some consider it dated, I see it as a landmark movie. Since then, trans characters have popped up in big movies like TransAmerica, The Danish Girl, and others, but rarely have these characters been played by transgender actors, because they are "not bankable." That may be true for now, but it doesn't have to be.

If audiences treat transface the same as black/brown/yellow/redface and use their dollars to show producers that they want trans stories told truthfully, by trans actors, change will happen. When big stars, like Johansson, decline roles that belong to another community, change will happen.

Also, as a storyteller who is trans, I'm involved in stories that are changing the LGBTQ narrative. One example is the office comedy Grosse Misconduct, which has a trans main character who follows none of the old stereotypes in transgender storytelling: My character Alicia is smart and strong, and her story is not about coming out or being a victim.

But for our series and others like it to be made and seen, we need community support, to present what we know is the better way to tell our stories. I believe change is inevitable because we're not going anywhere, and people are waking up and taking us seriously. As these components from inside and outside our community come together, I hope the days of transface, like all the appropriated faces before it, will come to an end, and end, it will.

POOYA MOHSENI is an Iranian-American transgender activist. She can currently be seen in the webseries Grosse Misconduct via YouTube or at Follow her on Twitter @Pooyaland.

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