Comment: Should cis actors play trans characters?

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Another week, another cis person playing a trans character. Elle Fanning joins Eddie Redmayne and a whole host of recent cis actors taking on trans roles.

Trans is big right now! It’s great that the media wants to tell trans stories, and wants to do it well, at the moment. The problem is, by casting cis actors, it’s not going to be good enough.

When you cast a cis actor you are stealing that role from a trans actor. In our cis-centric society, trans actors do not get the opportunities that cis actors do, they are deliberately held back and marginalised. For many trans actors, trans roles are the only roles they will ever get.

In a world where a proportional amount of trans actors play cis roles as vice versa, then it would be perfectly acceptable to cast cis people in trans roles. But that doesn’t happen. So cis actors are essentially stealing opportunities – opportunities they already had by default – from trans actors who may never get those opportunities again.

Often people will argue that you have to cast cis actors if you’re going to show a person’s transition. If you are portraying the story of, for example, a trans man, you have to cast a cis woman. This is a very strange argument.

It seems to imply that all trans actors will be completely unable to look like a trans person pre-medical transition. There’s something very key that this misses – some trans actors have yet to, or will never, undergo medical transition. Some trans actors who have, can easily portray a character who hasn’t.

In many instances of trans characters on screen, cis people use make-up, dress and so on to appear “more trans”. Why is it that cis people are able to do this, and trans actors cannot?

There’s this very odd conclusion to this argument that implies only cis actors can “look trans” and trans actors can’t as they already look too trans.

There’s also the important factor to consider – that casting a man as a trans woman implies that trans women ARE men. If you’re going to cast a cis person as a trans woman – if you absolutely have to – why not a cis woman?

Very few trans people have anything bad to say about Julie Hesmondhalgh playing Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street. She was a ground-breaking trans character, and much of her enduring popularity was due to charm and talent of actress who portrayed her – a cis woman.

Most trans people do not object to all cis people playing all trans characters all the time. But when we see that it is perfectly possible to cast amazing trans actors in amazing roles – such as Orange is the New Black and Sense8 – we have to ask, why can’t you do that all the time?