Casting biased in favor of cisgender actors limits transgender actors’ opportunities

Veronika Kiss


Illustration by Lya Hernandez.

Many of the prisoners in Netflix’s prison dramedy “Orange is the New Black” have tragic back stories, but transgender inmate Sophia Burset, played by Laverne Cox, has a particularly heart-wrenching one. Sophia lands in Litchfield Penitentiary for stealing credit cards in order to pay for her sex reassignment surgery, and her son Michael, unable to come to terms with her transition, refuses to speak to her. Despite the challenges she faces as the only transgender inmate at Litchfield, Sophia is a source of warmth, honesty and superb hair-cutting skills for her fellow prisoners.

Cox has received a great deal of attention from viewers and critics alike for her role as Sophia and, as such, joins a long list of actors who have received critical attention for their compassionate portrayals of transgendered characters in the past decade or so. In 1999, Hilary Swank received critical acclaim for her portrayal of a transman in “Boys Don’t Cry,” a film adaptation of the real-life story of Brandon Teena, who was murdered by his friends after they discovered he was biologically female. In 2005, Felicity Huffman garnered praise for playing a pre-op transman who embarks on a road trip with her son. And in 2014 alone, both Jared Leto and Jeffrey Tambor have received critical attention for portraying trans women in the movie “Dallas Buyers’ Club” and Amazon original series “Transparent,” respectively. But there’s one major thing that distinguishes Cox from her counterparts: She’s actually a transgendered person.
You see, while Swank, Huffman, Leto and Jeffrey Tambor have all played transgender characters, they themselves are cisgender, a term which is used to describe people whose gender identification matches their biological sex. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly problematic about casting cisgender actors in transgender roles. After all, the nature of acting requires performers to transform into people who may be very different from them –– if a cisgender actor is skilled enough to plausibly portray a transgender character, why shouldn’t they be allowed to?

During an interview at the 2014 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Leto invoked the transformative nature of acting in order to defend his portrayal of a transgender woman, saying, “Because I’m a man, I don’t deserve to play that part? So you would hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian––they can’t play a straight part?”
To which I might pose a counter-question: Would you hold a role against someone who happened to be transgender –– they can’t play a cisgender part? I’d wager that most film and TV executives would, as evidenced by the complete absence of transgender actors playing cisgender characters in movies and TV shows. It seems that casting directors are unwilling to extend the same generosity of spirit that permits cisgender actors to take on transgender roles to their transgender peers –– even if those transgender actors are perfectly capable of “passing” for cisgender.

If casting directors refuse to consider transgender actors for cisgender roles, which make up the vast majority of acting opportunities, then it seems particularly cruel to give transgender roles to cisgender actors, given that a substantial transgender role in a movie or TV show might surface once or twice a year, if that. It’s telling that Cox made history this year when she became the first transgender actor to ever receive an Emmy nomination and even more telling that her nomination was only for a guest role.
The film industry has an even worse record: No transgender actor has ever been nominated for an Oscar. Meanwhile, cisgender actors who play transgender characters seem to be a shoe-in at the Oscars: Huffman received a nomination for “Transamerica,” and Swank and Leto won for their roles in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Dallas Buyers’ Club.”

While Cox maintains in a recent interview with that “Trans actresses certainly need jobs,” citing the phenomenon of widespread unemployment in the transgender community, she is doubtful that entertainment executives will ever stop casting cisgender actors in transgender roles. “It’s all about business,” she says, “and we are in, as bell hooks calls it, Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, so the market forces can’t be dismissed when casting decisions are made.” Because of their controversial subject matter, TV shows and movies featuring transgender characters may seem like a risky prospect to entertainment executives, so casting well-known cisgender actors such as Swank, Leto, Huffman and Tambor in transgender roles may be a way to mitigate the risk.
In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, Huffman acknowledged the transgender community’s frustration with casting biased in favor of cisgender actors, saying, “I certainly understand the sentiment that a trans actor should play a trans role. And I support it.” While Huffman doesn’t offer much more than a vague statement of support for transgender actors, I think her gesture is key to the advancement of transgender actors. In the future, I’d like to see more cisgender actors stand in solidarity with transgender actors, instead of becoming defensive like Leto. By acknowledging that they profit from cisgender-biased casting, cisgender actors can help draw attention to unjust casting processes which limit transgender actors’ opportunities.