After it was announced that Scarlett Johansson would be playing the role of Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man, in the upcoming film Rub & Tug, the LGBTQ+ community was less than pleased; Johansson’s doubling down on her casting in a statement to Bustle only made matters worse. Though the backlash eventually became so vocal that Johansson dropped out of Rub & Tug, it reignited the ongoing discussion about the nature of cisgender actors playing transgender characters, which many trans folk feel runs into issues of spreading misconceptions about trans identities, and also continues to leave trans actors unable to be cast even in roles that tell our stories.
I’ve heard plenty of rebuttals from those who don’t see a problem with it, and most of them are misguided, but there’s one that falls particularly flat for me, and that’s the argument that if cis actors can’t play trans roles, trans actors can’t or shouldn’t play cis roles.
It’s an argument people seem to view as a silver bullet meant to be a sly turnaround on the argument trans folks and allies are making. But rather than reveal some sort of hypocrisy on the part of those eager for representation, it actually shines some light on the inherent issue that’s keeping trans actors from finding mainstream success.
I’ve been a comedian and actor for almost two decades, and in that time I’ve seen my fair share of casting breakdowns, both before and after I transitioned. And while I’ve seen a lot of descriptions that specify a character’s age, ethnicity, and even their hair color, I’ve never seen a character explicitly described as “cisgender.” Most of the time, when a character is what we think of as "written as cis" what we're really saying is "the default normal person is cis."
Usually when I get called in to audition for a role, it’s for a part clearly written to be a trans woman. The casting sides usually include a scene where the character I’m reading for gets misgendered, or someone says the wrong thing around her, or asks her an awkward question. And there’s a place for that. There’s obviously interest in trans stories, or else we wouldn’t keep having issues with famous actors wanting to play us. But this is hardly the scope of life experiences for a trans person. Sometimes we really do just live our lives and do stuff and let our gender identities slip into the background. And it’s important that stories about us reflect that aspect of our lives, too; that stories depict us as three-dimensional, real people and not a collection of incidents and coming out stories.
Recently the creator of a sitcom put out a blast that she was looking for trans women for her show. I submitted for the role, and when I got the sides, I flipped through looking for the section where my character’s transness was going to be an issue, and never found it. Then I realized that the character wasn’t written at all to be trans. I was being considered for a part that the writer had not written with the explicit intent of being played by a trans woman.
Rather than a part about a character getting angry at people for flummoxing their way through asking which bathroom she uses, here was a woman who often butted heads with her own very idealized views on love and romance. She would get upset and flustered when things happened in the plot that challenged her ideas, or shook her fantasy. This rang so true for me as someone who lived so much of her formative years locked inside herself. I spent so much time wishing for a life I didn’t think I could have, that now that I’m closer to it, sometimes I struggle with not getting carried away with new relationships, not romanticizing small details and wanting things to go exactly as the narrative in my head plays it out. Despite this role not being written as a trans character, it felt like it had tapped into an element of the trans experience much deeper than the surface ones of situational interaction.
I reached out to the show’s creator, Taylor Orci, and asked her what compelled her to seek out transgender women for the already-written part. “The main character of my show is someone who retreats into fantasy to escape,” Taylor told me, “and it made sense to me as a mixed Latinx that when you’re othered in society, your reasons for escaping into fantasy might not be things we’re used to seeing on TV. People like to retreat into a fantasy world when the world they exist in may not accommodate them as they are, so I made sure that we saw a broad spectrum of women for this role, including trans women. A woman that so happens to be ___ was the underlying principle for the role, a woman who happens to be Chinese-American, or black, or who just so happens to be trans, or blonde, or whatever.”
You don't have to write a character as a member of a marginalized group in order to cast us, you just have to be willing to see us in the characters you’re already writing.
I’d had a similar feeling to Orci’s when I read the script after my revelation. Once I understood how the character was originally written, I saw my own perspective, and the perspective of the character if I were to be playing her, and how they would mesh with the writing to create a more three-dimensional person without even changing a word on the page. I wasn’t being asked to come in and read for the role of a cis woman, I was being asked to come in to read for the role of a woman. If a trans woman were cast in that part, it would certainly change the character, but so would any other casting decision.
And this isn’t a hypothetical or a one-off example, it’s already working in practice. Alexandra Billings appeared on the Amazon series Goliath playing a judge, in a role that was not trans-specific. Season 2 of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend featured actress Michelle Hendley in a small role as a hallucinogenic tea vender, also a part that was not trans-specific. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, either. Last year I had the pleasure of playing a trans character on the TV series Take My Wife, and was joined in that same season by Jen Richards, whose character was not explicitly labeled as trans. I confirmed with writer and co-creator Rhea Butcher, who told me, “We wrote the [character] as “fan” with the implication being that the fan would be a woman, and then cast the role.”
You don't have to write a character as a member of a marginalized group in order to cast us, you just have to be willing to see us in the characters you’re already writing. I likely wouldn’t be cast as the romantic lead in a project that wasn’t trying to be explicitly queer, and I probably wouldn’t be cast as Carrie White in Carrie unless a dramatic change was being made to that famous shower scene. But there's no reason why I can't be someone's sister, or a coworker, or a nurse, a doctor, or a lawyer. Casting a trans person in a part that was non-trans specific in the writing doesn’t mean that trans people are “playing cis,” (although I’ll leave that distinction up to the individual actors and filmmakers making choices for their characters) it just means opening up a potential for unexpected layers in storytelling. And who knows, it might even lead to some different, fresher ideas down the road.