New Film About Ray Focuses On the Life of a Transgender Teen; But…Did He Have to Be Played by Elle Fanning?
Good news: There’s a new film called About Ray that focuses on the life of a teenage trans boy going through his transition, and how he interacts with his family. Bad news: the trans boy is played by Elle Fanning. (Trigger warning: there is a bunch of story-related misgendering and a short fistfight the main character experiences in the above trailer)
Don’t get me wrong, Elle Fanning is an awesome actress, and from the looks of this trailer, she does an amazing job. The film also stars Naomi Watts as Ray’s mom, and Susan Sarandon as his grandmother, so we’ve got a powerhouse, female-heavy cast going on.
But with the visibility that trans people and performers are beginning to have right now, I can’t help but wonder why we have yet another trans role played by a cis actor. It seems like Hollywood A-List actors go through phases on “Oscar bait” roles. Playing someone with a developmental disability – Oscar gold! Playing a gay character – so subversive! And now, it seems that trans characters are the type du jour for any actor looking to be taken seriously. The thing is, these roles are more often than not played by people who aren’t those things, and it’s done at the expense of actors who are.
Now, of COURSE actors are “just playing a role,” and “you don’t actually have to be a murderer to play a murderer, right?”, and “What about gay actors who play straight and straight actors who play gay?” Here’s the thing.
Film is a visual medium. Duh, right? You can’t see gay. You can’t see the desire to be a murderer. However, you can see things like a physical disability, or someone’s ethnicity, or whether someone is trans. There is a very specific physicality to all of those things that deserves to be expressed by performers who are actually living with or as those things. Rather than casting, say, able-bodied actor Kevin McHale as wheelchair-bound Artie on a show like Glee, Emma Stone as a woman who’s half Asian in a movie like Aloha, or Jared Leto as a trans woman (who wasn’t even originally written as a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club, and it shows), wouldn’t it not only make sense, but be better for the authenticity of the story and the state of representation in the media to cast actors who have lived-in experience being those things? Trust me – they’d still be acting. It’s not like just because you cast a trans woman as a trans woman she’s suddenly “playing herself.” If that were the case, why do we bother casting cis men and women as cis men and women? What about the challenge? Cross-gender casting for everyone! (Actually, that’d be kinda cool – but I digress)
Transgender actors and actresses exist. And they don’t get a lot of work. And when they do get work, it’s often to play either some kind of prostitute, or the most tragic version of what it means to be transgender, because of course trans lives are mired in nothing but tragedy. /sarcasm
Meanwhile, we have people like Jared Leto, Eddie Redmayne, Jeffrey Tambor, and now Elle Fanning playing trans roles to great acclaim. I’m not saying they’re doing it on purpose, or that it’s even the responsibility of the actor to do anything about it. I used to be an actor – I get it. When you get a role that’s challenging for you, you kinda have to jump on it. In my view, the fault lies with the studios, the production companies, the directors, and the casting directors who don’t seem to make enough of an effort to cast trans people in trans roles. There’s Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black. And Michelle Hendley in Boy Meets Girl. And Jamie Clayton on Sense8. We need more of those. And to those who would say “Yeah, but they have to cast Name Actors in a lot of these roles to make money!” I say – you know how you get name actors? By creating them and promoting them. They don’t just happen. And there won’t be “name” trans performers (besides Laverne Cox) until Hollywood makes them. So cast them and make them, dammit!
My girlfriend, who is trans, brought up another interesting point that’s worth thinking about. When I showed her the trailer, she asked “If they’re going to cast a cis actor, couldn’t they at least get the gender right and cast a dude?” I asked if that would really be better, and she said “It wouldn’t be ideal, but it’d be marginally better, at least.” That’s an interesting thought. Because it seems like when Hollywood casts a cis actor in a trans role, what they’re actually doing is honoring not the gender identity of the character, but the gender they were assigned at birth. While casting a cis actor is not ideal, perhaps going the Transamerica route (which I haven’t seen but understand is problematic) of casting a cis woman (Felicity Huffman) to play a trans woman is the way to go, rather than sensationalizing a cis male actor playing a trans woman, and benefiting from the horrible narrative of trans women being nothing more than “men in dresses.” Or in the case of films about trans men like Boys Don’t Cry or About Ray, that trans men are nothing more than “women with butch haircuts.”
I actually really like the above trailer, and think this looks like a decent film that a lot of people can use to start conversations, and might even help some trans people deal with their families a bit better. I’m all for that. However, I think it’s about time that filmmakers recognize that if they want to start telling trans stories, they should do it right. It’s not cool to make money off the type du jour while undermining the very people you’re representing on screen, Hollywood. Not cool at all.
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