When Matt Bomer, a cisgender actor, was first announced as the transgender lead in Anything an upcoming movie release about a trans sex worker, it caused a predictable backlash from transgender people on social media. Anything it seemed, was set to join a list that includes The Danish Girl, and Dallas Buyer’s Club, among many others as films that cast a man in a dress to play transgender women. Those that agreed with the Bomer casting decision claimed that, well, it’s acting, you’re supposed to play roles that are different. But this response is overly simplistic, and ignores a past history of erasure for trans representation and early indications are that Anything is another trope filled garbage production sprung from the fantasies of cis men.
“When trans people are cut out of the creative process, like they were in Anything audiences won’t even be aware of the betrayal.”
In a pre-released scene from Anything, Matt Bomer’s character, a transgender sex worker, is shown asking to borrow sugar from a neighbour. After some suggestive body language, Bomer aggressively suggests in a falsetto to costar John Carroll Lynch’s (who has his own history of harmful trans portrayals from his long run as a trans woman on The Drew Carey Show) character that she “likes things deep, if you know what I mean.” It’s a groan-inducing bit of dialogue and quite frankly, it’s utterly unsurprising from a production that didn’t really get it right from the start. Movies with a transgender female character played by a cis male actor are almost always doomed to fail from the beginning.
Why focus on that one line from one scene to condemn Anything? Because this is the line that producers chose as a first look in order to promote the film. The line itself is exactly the sort of thing that cis men imagine trans women say all the time.
A transgender actress would have picked the line out immediately as ridiculous and unrealistic, but to someone like Matt Bomer, a cis male familiar with gay male subculture, the line sounds exactly like what he’s heard drag queens saying on stage for decades. Only… trans women don’t really act like drag queens when they’re asking their neighbours for a cup of sugar. The line is an indication of a lack of input from trans women within the movie production itself.
“Whether we like it or not, movies and media have a large role in shaping perceptions, especially when it comes to marginalised identities.”
When audiences attend movies like this, movies that are set in our tangible, real life world, they have an expectation of legitimacy. They expect the producers, the director, and the actors to accurately portray a character’s story, but when trans people are cut out of the creative process like they were in Anything, audiences won’t even be aware of the betrayal.
Production accuracy is only part of the issue with casting cis male actors to play trans roles; we cannot ignore the social implications involved either. Whether we like it or not, movies and media have a large role in shaping perceptions, especially when it comes to marginalised identities. When Mickey Rooney portrayed an Asian character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it became one of the most racist performances in movie history. But at the time, his performance fit neatly into (white) society’s mind’s eye for what Asians are really like. Stereotypes depend on these sorts of subtle reinforcements to survive.
Trans women are one of the most stereotyped demographics in Western society. Oftentimes, trans people are represented by drag queens in popular media, even though most drag queens are cis men playing to an over the top feminine trope strictly for entertainment (like Bomer in Anything?). Online comment sections attached to trans-related content offer the clearest view of social perceptions of trans women. “Men in dresses” is such common refrain that it’s become the centrepiece argument used by anti-trans activists campaigning on behalf of bathroom bills nationwide. “No men in women’s bathrooms” was the rallying cry behind the push to enact North Carolina’s HB2 bathroom law, and behind the repeal of the Houston LGBTQ Rights ordinance.
“There’s a reason why we don’t cast white people in blackface to play black roles, and why Andy Asian portrayal wouldn’t fly in modern times.”
And it’s no wonder either when cis dude after cis dude after cis dude take their turns in dresses, playing trans women on the silver screen. Trans actress Jen Richards spoke out about her experience auditioning for Bomer’s role in Anything, saying ultimately that the casting director told her she “didn’t look trans enough”. In other words, she looked too much like a ‘real woman’ to play a trans woman in a major movie. A trans woman who has been on hormones for years, who has been transitioning for years, didn’t look enough like a man to fit a Hollywood stereotype. These cis male actors who take these roles are lauded with awards and called brave by other cis people, while also standing with their boots on the necks of trans women across the western world.
Yes of course acting is about playing roles that are different than who the actors are themselves, but there’s a reason why we don’t cast white people in blackface to play black roles and why Andy Asian portrayal wouldn’t fly in modern times (though Asian actors face a similar type of erasure in modern Hollywood as trans actors do). When casting directors are filling trans roles, they should at least prioritise trans actors for trans roles above cis actors. I understand the need for star power, but having a star give a pathetically thin and stereotyped performance of what they think a trans woman is like is not going to make their movie any better in the long run.