Content Warning: This article contains mentions of violence and transphobia.
While trans people have existed since the beginning of time, they have been notably unrepresented over the past century in film and television production. Finally, belatedly, things are slowly changing, with more trans characters being featured as side characters and even as protagonists.
For a long time, the only portrayal of trans people was either through transphobic mockery or violence. Trans people, and especially trans women, were dehumanised or seen as the butt of a joke, with trans characters being mainly played by cis actors. Cis women were cast to portray trans men and cis men were cast as trans women. This further perpetuated the false narrative that trans people are just ‘men in dresses’ or ‘women in pants’, dismissing their gender identity entirely.
Take for example Hilary Swank, a cis woman who won an Oscar for portraying a trans man in Boys Don’t Cry which was based on the real-life murder of Brandon Teena. While it is important to talk about the violence that trans people face, it is fair to question why a trans person was not considered for the role.
Both Hilary Swank and actor Eddie Redmayne have apologised for playing trans protagonists. Swank stated that the pool of trans actors used to be much smaller, acknowledging that trans actors would be ‘a lot more right for the role’ compared to cis women like herself. Redmayne also apologised for his portrayal of a trans woman in The Danish Girl, saying that it was ‘a mistake’ and that he would not accept such a role now. If it is true that there was not a sufficient pool of trans actors for the creative industries to call on, then that is a truth those industries have to correct. Inaccessibility according to gender identity, race, class and orientation is a persistent failing within those sectors, and pushing for greater access for trans performers, writers, and technicians is vital for a representative creative culture.
It is also important to acknowledge the significance films like Boys Don’t Cry had on the overall representation of trans people. While the casting choices are questionable, the message and intention behind it are not. These films moved away from the previous negative portrayals of trans people and started a discussion around trans lives, depicting trans people through an empathetic lens which had not been done before.
Recently, there have also been a lot more trans characters in film and on TV, yet they have been primarily cast as side characters. Similarly to the ‘Gay Best Friend’ trope which the LGBT+ community has unfortunately become accustomed to, there has been a sort of ‘Trans Best Friend’ trope emerging on the big and small screen. While including trans characters needs to continue, they should also not be subjected to tokenism, but developed as fully-fledged three-dimensional characters able to portray the experiences of trans people. To drive this the change does not only need to happen in front of the camera but in the writing, development, and within production offices too.
We are hopefully approaching dawn in trans visibility and access to the creative industries. Trans people have now been cast in lead roles. Actress Trace Lysette is playing the lead in the American-Italian drama Monica, which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival this September. She is the first out trans woman to ever be the lead of a film shown at said film festival. Furthermore, Hari Nef will be portraying trans icon Candy Darling in an upcoming biopic. These casting choices will allow for more trans actors to be in charge of their own stories and narrative and for more positive representation to be seen by trans people everywhere.
We have come a long way since many of the mocking and dehumanising portrayals of trans people. There is however still a lot of work to do within the creative industries to ensure that trans people and their stories get the representation they deserve.