Is there a transphobic equivalent to blacking up?

I wrote a piece for the BBC News website today, originally commissioned about the idea of white actors playing black roles, but I wanted to explore further issues Juliet Jacques had touched on when she came on Front Row recently to review the much acclaimed Tangerine. 10 years after Felicity Huffman, a straight woman was Oscar nominated for Transamerica, were we getting closer to the end of “impersonation” or is that unfair on actors? What is authentic when it comes to gender as opposed to race? And what about disability? How does it compare to the Daniel Day Lewis type physical transformation to play disability as in My Left Foot? Eddie Redmayne by coincidence has  followed up an Oscar nominated performance as Steven Hawking with The Danish Girl.  The Zoolander 2 trailer furore especially prompted me to ask if the Cumberbatch throwaway caricature was an  equivalent to old style mocking “blacking up”.   I haven’t written a post answering all those questions, but here is the full version of the thoughtful answers Juliet Jacques gave me about some of the issues for my BBC piece:
1. What do you make of the news headlines around portrayals of trans characters (e.g. the non-professional performers in Tangerine and the instant controversy over Benedict Cumberbatch’s cameo in Zoolander 2)? Is it just a coincidence, or is something changing in general public awareness?

Trans people are entering the mainstream media, and are challenging some of the ways that we have traditionally been portrayed (or appropriated) by outsiders. In film, this means questioning the ways that trans characters have been played by cisgender actors: sympathetic representations of trans women have often been clichéd, with lots of discussion of hormones and surgery as well as visual tropes (putting on make-up in a mirror, wearing pink). There is a long history of underground film getting trans actors to play trans characters and moving beyond these stereotypes, showing far more realistic individuals. As trans writers have broken into newspapers and magazines, we have been able to start a dialogue about the limits of using cis actors, and the possibilities of casting trans ones.

2. Crucially, with your long term perspective as a critic how far has there been real change in representation on screen? If you have any examples that would be great.

Recent films such as Gun Hill Road or Tangerine, which use trans actors (in both cases, non-professionals picked specifically for the role) draw on a tradition of semi-improvised movies that draw on the actors’ lives to form the characters. This spans from Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s films with Candy Darling and others in the 1970s, Rosa von Praunheim’s City of Lost Souls (1983) to Sébastien Lifshitz’s Wild Side (2004). At the same time, higher-budget studios more reliant on ‘star’ actors are still using people such as Jared Leto or Eddie Redmayne at trans characters, and lots of the discourse around them focuses on how good they look, or the challenges of playing the role – the humanity of trans people gets lost in that, I think. That’s before you get onto the use of trans bodies or identities in films from Ace Ventura (1994) to The Hangover: Part II (2011), that get laughs out of the idea that trans people are undesirable, and/or that having sex with one is shameful – the jokes about our genitalia in the Zoolander 2 trailer are nothing new.

3. Will cis actors playing trans characters become like “blacking up”? I haven’t seen The Danish Girl yet, but I wonder if in 10 years such a performance will seem odd in the same way?

I don’t like the ‘blacking up’ analogy – trans people have different issues with ‘passing’ and ‘stealth’ in a transphobic society than people of colour in a racist one. But many of the contemporary portrayals of trans people by cis actors look dated now – I think they’re only going to look worse in a decade’s time.

Further reading/sources quoted in my BBC article:
The Mountaintop white Martin Luther King casting controversy (November 2015):

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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