Quick bit of movie trivia: what do actors Felicity Huffman, Eddie Redmayne, Hillary Swank, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Glenn Close, Jeffrey Tambor and Jared Leto all have in common? All have won or have been nominated for major industry awards of their portrayal of transexual characters. Swank won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of real life murder victim Brandon Tina in Boys Don’t Cry. Leto was awarded the Academy Award for his role in Dallas Buyer’s Club. Felicity Huffman was nominated for the Oscar but settled for the Golden Globe for her performance in Trans-America (the best of these of roles). Redmayne was nominated for his historical role as Lilli Elbe. Close was nominated for the Oscar in 2011 for Albert Nobbs. Tambor won multiple television industry awards for his role on Transparent while Hoffman was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild award and won the Satellite Award.
You’d struggle to argue that any of these films were exploitative. These films sought to humanize; to bring an audience into the struggles with nonconformity and identity that transsexual people face; to show that transsexuals are people who eat, breathe, suffer and love. But now, a largely online active community of supposed social reformers are attempting to erase all that.
In 2018, actress Scarlett Johansson (a favorite target of the online scolds) was meant to star in and produce a biopic of Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, a transgender man famous for using massage parlors as prostitution fronts in 1970’s Pittsburgh. Johansson originally defended her production by citing many of the roles mentioned above, but eventually caved to public and media pressure. The criticism, of course, was that ScarJo was robbing a trans actor of that role, and that was not ok. The film has not been made to this day. There are no plans to make it under a studio banner, which would have assured mass mainstream release, and most likely an Academy Award and a social justice-focused Oscar speech from Johansson about tolerance and acceptance. Now? Nothing. The online LGBTQ celebrity hit squad got their scalp and their five-minute endorphin rush, but that’s about it.
This week, Oscar winning and certified A-list actress Halle Berry floated her interest out to the media in playing a transgender role for an untitled project. There was a backlash on social media for the supposed ‘misgendering’ of the character throughout the interview. Berry issued an apology on Twitter, and announced she was no longer attached to the project and that a trans person should be given the role. GLAAD, who had praised and nominated Flawless back in 2000, spoke out in support of her decision.
The argument the LGBTQ hit squad makes is that because these actors are simply pretending to be a gender they are not, they are reinforcing violent social stigmas against transgender people. That is nonsense.
The best example is to look at the 1993 film Philadelphia. The success of that film, with a mainstream (comedic) star attached, was hailed as a cultural breakthrough. It was the film that allowed people to openly discuss homosexuality, AIDs, and racism. The film gave Tom Hanks his first Oscar win and catapulted him into a series of dramatic roles that ultimately made him an American icon. Tom Hanks now uses his voice to speak out on liberal social causes (whether you agree with them or not is not the point). Hanks is not gay and, as far as anyone knows, was not knowingly infected with HIV to play this role. Does anybody think the film, or anyone, suffered as a result? Likewise, Sean Penn was awarded Best Actor for Gus Van Sant’s Milk not ten years ago. The film also took home Best Original Screenplay honors. Penn, in his speech, defended same sex marriage. This represents progress for the LGBT community, not dismissal. The trans community is ultimately freezing itself out of culture if it refuses to allow mainstream cisgender actors to play its heroes.
There may come a day in film when a transgender actor breaks through to the mainstream and succeeds in roles that have nothing to do with being a transperson. Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the trans siblings, may lead the way in directing film. For the time being, however, the success of non-transgender or non-transsexual actors playing trans characters on screen should be praised and hailed by the very people now working so hard to condemn them.