If Only More Oppressed People Were White Cis Ex-Models In Their Twenties

Watching the trailer for “Divergent,” I just can’t help but imagine a bunch of Hollywood types sitting around a conference table and complaining that “Civil rights struggle stories are cool. If only they were about gorgeous thin straight white people, then they’d be great!

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Of course, I said the same about the X-Men movies. And then there’s the Hunger Games movies. And don’t get me started on Airbender.

There’s a somewhat related controversy going on about cis actor Jared Leto’s Oscar-winnning turn as a trans character in Dallas Buyer’s Club:

Jared Leto was onstage at the Virtuosos Awards during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Monday, speaking with Fandango’s Dave Karger, when he heard a shout from the audience: “Trans misogyny does not deserve an award.” Leto chose to handle the incident beautifully.

“Well, what do you mean by that?” Leto asked the hecklers, a pair of women near the front of the Arlington Theater.

“You don’t deserve to play a trans woman,” the heckler answered, referring to Leto’s character, Rayon, in Dallas Buyer’s Club.

“… Because I’m a man, I don’t deserve to play that part?” Leto said. “So you want to hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian – they can’t play a straight part?”

“Historically,” the heckler continued, “Straight-gender people always play transgender people, and all of them received awards and credit for it.”

“Then you make sure that people that are gay, people that aren’t straight, people like the Rayons of the world would never have the opportunity to turn the tables and explore parts of that art,” Leto answered, and the auditorium applauded.

The vision Leto paints – of a world where the best actor is cast for every role, regardless of if the actor (or character) is trans or cis – is lovely, and I’d like to see it. But the heckler had it right – that’s not the world we live in. Instead, in the status quo, openly trans actors generally aren’t cast as trans characters – and openly trans actors aren’t basically never cast as cis characters. (At least, not in mainstream productions). So if we don’t advocate for trans actors to play trans characters, it’s pretty much the same as saying that openly trans actors will be entirely blackballed from mainstream movies and TV.

I don’t have any objection to straight actors being cast as gay, because we’ve reached a point where openly gay actors can be cast as straight characters even in mainstream productions (Neil Patrick Harris, for instance, or Jodie Foster.) But trans actors just aren’t in the same situation – without the political pressure to use trans actors for trans characters, trans characters will simply not have any fair chance to compete at all.

That said, in a perfect world, I don’t see any reason why a cis actor couldn’t be wonderful in a trans part, as long as casting agents are just as willing to cast wonderful trans actors in cis roles. The ability to convincingly depict people we are not is not just the basis of acting, but the basis of all narrative art. But we won’t get there by declaring it a victory that cis people can play both cis and trans parts, or by denying the existence of barriers to trans actors, as Leto seems to do.

Then, finally, there’s this:

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It seems to me like a perfectly good re-framing of the Annie story – and, honestly, shifting the race of the main character (and the period of the story) strikes me as a far less radical shift than the way the original musical changed “Annie” cartoonist Harold Gray’s right-wing politics into a FDR-worshipping liberal ode to New Deal politics. Although not everyone agrees (trigger warning for predictable but vile racism).

A bigger problem is – can either Jamie Foxx or Cameron Diaz sing? This is where I draw the line – I want singing parts to be played only by capable singers, dammit.

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17 Responses to If Only More Oppressed People Were White Cis Ex-Models In Their Twenties

  1. 1
    Phil says:

    I thought this article was interesting. In the TV world, the number of main characters who are Asian or Latino men is equivalent to the number of main characters who are supernatural or robots.

    http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2013/10/28/2840441/world-looked-like-prime-time-network-television/

  2. 2
    Grace Annam says:

    Good points, about the Leto controversy, and I think you hit the nail exactly on the head about the fallaciousness of his argument, when trans actors aren’t getting cast for most trans roles, and for no cis roles at all.

    In the case of the Dallas Buyers Club, the director, Jean-Marc Vallée, did not know that any trans actors existed.

    I listened with jaw dropped to what director Jean-Marc Vallée had to say on CBC Radio about casting a trans person as the role of Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. “Never,” he said. “Is there any transgender actor? To my knowledge — I don’t know one. I didn’t even think about it”. When the interviewer interjected with, “Of course there are transgender actors,” Vallée answered with, “Which ones? There’s like five, or three, or what — two? I never thought of that. I never thought of hiring a real rodeo guy to play the rodeo Ron Woodruff. And just like in every film — we’re actors, we’re directors. I’m not aiming for the real thing. I’m aiming for an experienced actor who wants to portray the thing.”

    (Apparently, of the trans actors who actually exist, neither is experienced.)

    Casting Leto makes more sense when you know that, apparently, the part was originally written as a flamboyant crossdresser, and it was Leto’s decision to play her as a trans woman. However, that said, Vallée is an experienced director and, even after filming Leto as he quite clearly played a trans woman, Vallée apparently knows so little on the topic that he didn’t know that trans actors existed.

    So yeah, that’s a problem.

    But the bigger problem, in my mind, is that the only parts which are written as trans are the drug addicts and the sex workers. We are completely unrepresented as everyday people, which we are. We are bank clerks, writers, waiters and waitresses, farmers, nurses, police officers. Of the trans people I know in my area, off the top of my head I know of a police officer (me), several IT professionals, a nurse, a corrections officer, an office clerk, a massage therapist (professional therapeutic bodywork, not erotic massage) and a professional cleaner.

    …and, you know, given my job I’m pretty likely to come across trans prostitutes and drug addicts, if they’re in this area. Or at least to hear about them.

    And when was the last time you saw any of those professions portrayed as a trans person, or any trans person playing any of those professions?

    Parker Marie Molloy makes this point eloquently.

    Grace

  3. 4
    Harlequin says:

    I can’t think of anything I’ve seen with a (known) trans person playing a cis person. The two recent examples of trans actors in things I’ve seen coming to mind are Laverne Cox on Orange Is the New Black and Candis Cayne on Elementary (a role I had really hoped would recur, but hasn’t yet). In any case–ah, if only people being aware of their privilege was an uncommon occurrence…

    ***

    Jamie Foxx can sing very well in popular music mode–though that doesn’t always translate to musical theatre style. Guess we’ll find out! IIRC, Cameron Diaz isn’t much of a singer, but at least we’ll always have Dorothy Loudon.

    (edited for clarity and HTML fail)

  4. 5
    Ruchama says:

    “The Fosters” has had a trans character this season, played by a trans actor. The character is 16, and the actor is still in high school (I’m not sure exactly how old, but their twitter account includes stuff about the show and stuff about things that happened in AP US History class).

  5. 6
    Ampersand says:

    Cool! I love “The Fosters,” but I didn’t know that about the show. The trans character is a pretty decent character, but not one of the main characters; he’s a supporting character who appears in a handful of episodes.

    (I don’t know the actor’s preferred pronoun, but the character definitely preferred the male pronoun.)

  6. 7
    Ruchama says:

    The actor prefers they/them/their: https://twitter.com/TomPhelan9

  7. 8
    lkeke35 says:

    Divergent is just one more movie about “pretty, white kids with problems”, that I won’t be watching. Just like Twilight, The Hunger Games and The X-Men. Although, my initial reaction to the Hunger Games is that I refuse to watch pretty ,white children kiling each other for entertainment, mine or anyone else. Children of Color die in the real world all day,every day and nobody cares. I cannot, in good concience, cheer for it in a movie.
    I initally liked The X-Men. I watched it a couple of times, but the point of that movie hits far too close to home for me, as a WoC, to ever enjoy it again.

  8. 9
    nobody.really says:

    I want singing parts to be played only by capable singers, dammit.

    It’s been more than a year since Les Mis. Let it go already.

  9. 10
    Grace Annam says:

    I’d never heard of The Fosters, but I’ll put them on my list.

    That’s sounds like exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about, so it’s good to hear.

    Grace

  10. 11
    Hector_St_Clare says:

    It’s interesting that B. R. Ambedkar makes the pantheon of civil rights heroes, given that the people who were oppressing folks like him (fiercely, violently, and savagely) were not white Christians. This is progress.

  11. 12
    Ruchama says:

    The Fosters is on ABC Family. The trans character (Cole) first appeared in maybe the second or third episode of this season, but the show won’t make much sense without seeing at least a few episodes of last season first. (SOME MINOR SPOILERS: Last season also had a plot line about a boy, maybe 12 years old, who sometimes likes to wear girls’ clothing and makeup and stuff. There hasn’t really been any talk about his gender or sexual identity yet — it’s mostly just, he likes to wear this stuff sometimes. There was a scene that I thought was pretty nicely done where his foster mother was talking to him about it, after another kid threatened him at school when he came to school wearing nail polish. The foster mom’s talk was basically, “It’s the other kid who’s wrong here, not you. You look awesome in that nail polish, and you’ve got every right to wear it if you want to. And all of us adults are going to do everything we can to make sure you have that right, and that you’re safe. However, you’ve seen that there are people who might want to hurt you, and no matter how hard we try, us adults might not always be around to protect you. So sometimes, you’ve got to make a decision about whether it’s a good idea to wear this stuff in certain places. And it sucks that you have to make that decision, but unfortunately, that’s the world we live in.” Then it all turns out OK because one of the cool kids in school, who’s friends with this kid, shows up wearing nail polish the next day.)

  12. 13
    sharon cullars says:

    yes, jaime foxx can sing. he did his own singing in the biopic Ray and has cut several albums in the fifteen years or so he has been off Living Color.

  13. 14
    Abbe Faria says:

    There are also a lot of strippers in film who don’t strip. It’s very strange. Film makers want the frisson of having a stripper as a character in a film, but don’t want the nudity.

    Lots of feminists are absolutely stunning. It easy to dig up a picture of Betty Friedan in her 60s, if you’ve had a long career people always go for a recent photo and you end up looking old. Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf are two examples who had great success when they looked drop dead gorgeous. The most oppressed (not patriarchal expectations oppressed, but proper secret police out to get you oppressed) group of feminists today are probably FEMEN.

    I think the problem with trans actors is the parts are usually for characters with an pre-op or ambiguous look, but most trans actors transition and lose that.

  14. 15
    Phil says:

    I think there are two separate possible issues when it comes to minorities in entertainment media- one is depictions of that minority, and the other is the ability of minority actors to get roles. And recognizing these as separate problems is important, I think, because we’ll never be at a place where everyone agrees that everything is perfect. But we can always advocate moving in a better direction.

    We happen to be in a place where it is unacceptable for a white actor to play a black character onscreen (at least for most conceivable purposes.) But it would be wrong to insist that only black persons can create black characters–in screenplays, in video games, in graphic novels, etc.–because that would likely result in a net reduction in the number of black characters that appear in our culture.

    The same is true for trans characters. It’s great to call for more trans characters created by trans artists. But if we were to insist that _only_ trans artists can create trans characters, that would probably result in even fewer trans characters. And–if we’re talking about all creators, not just actors–there are times when some inclusion is better than no inclusion. Sometimes it’s good to have a character depict something so honest and intrinsic to your experience that only someone like you could have created it. But it’s also important just to be included as a person (or a type of person) in the world, period.

    With regard to Jared Leto playing Rayon: it’s great to advocate that more trans actors should get roles. But it seems counterproductive to to point to a single, specific role and say that it should have gone to a trans actor. The odds of any actor getting any role are already minuscule, and any individual casting decision is like winning the lottery. I speculate that there are some age-appropriate unknown trans actors who wish they had gotten Leto’s part. I can guarantee you that there are THOUSANDs of age-appropriate unknown cis actors who wish they had gotten Leto’s part. The director went with a well-known star. There are also thousands of unknown cis women who would have killed to get Jennifer Garner’s role.

    Trying to be an actor must suck for most trans people, but part of the reason for that is because trying to be an actor sucks for almost everyone who attempts it.

  15. 16
    PG says:

    This is not Jamie Foxx’s first rodeo, if by rodeo we mean “musical,” and if by “musical” we’re willing to include African-American musical styles.

    "https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CBMm8fJfls">Youtube link

  16. 17
    Ampersand says:

    Oh, cool. I had forgotten he was in “Dreamgirls.” (And I can’t imagine anyone denying that Dreamgirls is a musical!).