One of the recurring things I gripe about on TransGriot is the fact that United States based trans people do not get to portray ourselves in film and television roles similarly to what has happened for over a decade in cinematic productions in other parts of the world.
While we’ve had the occasional film such as Stealth and Bella Maddo pop up for discussion on these electronic pages that has either a trans lead actor or actress or in Bella Maddo’s case its all trans cast flipped the script and were playing cis people, the fact remains that many of the films I have talked about in the five years I’ve compiled TransGriot with trans leads actors are foreign films.
I’ve discussed films such as the Brazilian one Paulista and the Indian Tamil language film Paal that had transwomen playing transwomen. In the States, it seems as though the pattern has been anyone except a transwoman should play a transwoman.
What’s jumpstarted this discussion again is another situation in which a trans storyline pops up in an American TV show, and it left not only a lot to be desired in its execution, the person portraying the trans character wasn’t even one of us but a gay man. It has started an interesting discussion on my Facebook page about this topic that got me thinking about the subject.
One of the things I know from my people’s history is that image is everything. In order for us to make progress on the trans civil rights front from a legislative and legal level, we also have to make progress in terms of how our images are portrayed in popular culture.
Hollywood is just as important to the trans rights struggle as Washington DC or your state capitol.
African Americans for a long time were shunted into a few stereotypical roles before our pioneering actors and actresses like Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll and countless others laid the groundwork in expanding the roles we can play. In some cases the work that one ethnic group does to break down stereotypes for itself and resist stereotyping others can help open the door for other marginalized groups to tell their stories.
Civil rights warrior Lena Horne had it written in her contract that she would never play a maid. She also refused to play a Latina because she remembered the pain she felt when studio execs gave the role of Julie in Showboat, a mulatto character to Ava Gardner.
But as this year’s vanilla scented Oscar ceremony showed, we still have a long way to go before we have consistent representation in Hollywood with all ethnic and marginalized groups in this country.
I’m not saying that an actor of one ethnic group can’t play a character that is part of another ethnic group, a cis woman can’t play a trans woman or a gay person can’t play a straight one or vice versa. What I am saying is that it is past time for trans actors and actresses to have the ability and get casted to play trans and cis characters on a more consistent basis. Because we live those lives and have intimate knowledge of them, we’ll play the hell out of those roles.
Once we establish that we can act and do it well portraying our own lives, hopefully we’ll get the opportunities for open trans actors to play roles not scripted specifically for us that we can give award winning performances in.
And don’t stop there, Hollywood. Hire some trans writers (hint, hint) to write our stories and trans directors to help film those stores They are toiling away in Tinseltown and would love to not only have the opportunity to hone their craft, but engage in a mutually beneficial partnership that helps everyone make a little money in the process
It’s no accident that when the show Commander in Chief appeared on network television from 2005-2006 with Geena Davis playing President Mackenzie Allen and Dennis Haysbert playing President David Palmer during the second and third seasons of 24, we ended up having as finalists for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination an African American man and a woman.
Positive fictional roles can also have an unforseen impact on the youth of a minority group as well. Nichelle Nichols Lt.Uhura character on Star Trek inspired a Chicago girl named Mae Jemison to become a trailblazing astronaut. A New York girl named Caryn Johnson was inspired to become an Oscar winning actress who would have a recurring role of her own on Star Trek The Next Generation.
Rebecca Romijn’s Alexis Meade character on Ugly Betty was seen by trans and cis youth Did Alexis’ fictionalized life struggles open some minds to what trans people deal with and probably help us get some trans rights laws passed? Maybe.
Did it inspire a trans youth to buckle down in school, improve their grades or maintain them, and set the goal of going to college and become a businesswoman intent on helping our people? Will it have the same cultural effects inside and outside our community? Only time will tell.
But as long as the possibility exists and the reality is that art sometimes has a major impact on life, a Hollywood soundstage and the images it creates and broadcasts on our television and movie screens will be as important to the trans rights struggle as a city hall, a legislative capitol building or a courtroom is.