Felicity Huffman’s ‘Transamerica’ Thoughts Bring Up a Complex Conversation
In 2005, Felicity Huffman, a cisgender actress, portrayed the lead character Bree, a transgender woman, in the road trip dramedy film Transamerica, for which she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.
Now, in a recent interview with The Guardian, Huffman has revealed that she would not portray a trans character today.
“I think we should reflect the audience and that’s got to include everybody. There has been such inequity for so long and now the pendulum must swing the other way. But I hope it leads to a situation where anyone can play anything.”
Those are the SparkNotes, so now let’s really talk about this, and I mean really talk about this.
Should trans characters exclusively be played by trans actors?
You’re probably expecting me to say, “Yes, absolutely.” My actual answer, though, is “No, but also, why would you not cast a trans actor to play a trans character?”
We have lightyears to go on this path, but we are living in a time where trans visibility has reached a point where we can realistically expect trans actors to appear in roles onscreen. We are also living in a time, however, when the fact of a trans character’s transness—specifically how that character interacts with the world and how the world interacts with them, with respect to their transness and the personal history that comes with it—will almost certainly play a central role in the character’s story. These stories are important in a world where illuminating the trans experience for cis audiences is a process in its infancy, which is a statement that can coexist with “an ideal world would routinely see trans stories that weren’t rooted in the character’s transness.”
To that end, I ask again: Why would you not cast a trans actor to play a trans character? From a completely practical point of view, a trans actor will almost certainly gift you free mileage in the quest for the unique authenticity that such a role will require, mileage that a cis actor could not access as economically as a trans actor. Indeed, from every conceivable angle, there’s no good reason why trans actors should not be prioritized for trans roles.
So why did my answer to that question begin with the word “no”?
In Felicity Huffman’s case, it’s a woman playing a woman
Centering the trans actor/trans character conversation around the aforementioned question, especially through an ethical lens, is unhelpful at best to the wider implications and observations that it should be enabling.
I take no issue with cis women playing trans women or cis men playing trans men; no matter how you swing it, it’s still men playing men and women playing women. I would even go as far as to argue that such portrayals would be effective in helping to teach audiences that trans men are men and trans women are women. There remains much to be said, of course, about the visibility and perception of queer bodies and how education can only occur in those who are willing to learn, but I maintain that the act of cis characters playing trans characters is not the problem it’s made out to be (even if, again, it usually doesn’t make a whole lot of sense).
The actual problem at play is that trans actors simply still do not have same opportunities as their cis peers, and by centering the conversation around cis actors playing trans roles, it gives the illusion that the culprit behind such disempowerment is trans roles that were not filled by trans actors.
This suggests, however, that a trans actor needs an explicitly trans role to be cast, and that simply isn’t true. We can go back and forth over cis actors playing trans roles at the expense of trans actors, but a cis role is every bit the opportunity a trans role is, so why aren’t we talking about how trans actors should also be much more considered for cis roles?
This conversation, of course, would inevitably lead to scrutinizing why we consider a cis role as any role that isn’t explicitly trans, as it probably should. The point, though, is that that conversation still supports meaningful trans visibility and support by way of the trans actor’s presence while simultaneously deconstructing the notion that opportunities for trans actors are chiefly defined by the availability of trans roles, which themselves further contribute to trans visibility by being a vehicle for trans stories, regardless of whether the actor playing them is cis or trans (long live Olympia Dukakis).
I suppose that’s my long-winded way of saying that, if trans people were treated better as a whole, we wouldn’t need to have these conversations at all. But, by my calculations, we’re about “32 states banning the use of the trans panic defense as a legal tactic” away from making a dent in that particular endeavor, so I guess we might as well try for equity in the entertainment sector in the meantime.
(featured image: IFC Films)
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