I have seen a few posts on Twitter and elsewhere as well as articles on various websites complaining about actors portraying members of minority groups on the stage and screen. It seems that people object to able bodied actors playing characters with disabilities, cis-gender actors playing transgender characters and so forth.
It is not immediately clear to me where this is coming from. The whole point of being an actor is that you have empathy, you research a role, you understand the character and then you portray that character to the best of your ability. Different actors have different approaches and of course some are better than others. Whether portraying fictional characters or real life people the actor needs to be rigorous in his or her approach and do a good job of portraying the character. The actor needs to understand what motivates the character, feel what the character is feeling and give the audience a sense that this is a real person they are watching. Of course the audience needs to play its part too by ‘suspending disbelief’ momentarily. The litmus test is was the character believable? If so, then the actor has succeeded. If not then they have failed.
A good actor will be sensitive to the character they are portraying. Almost always this involves being sensitive to the character’s background as well. I am therefore unable to understand why an able bodied actor is unable to portray a character with a disability, why a straight actor cannot portray a gay character or indeed why a cis-gender actor cannot portray a transgender character or indeed why it is ‘wrong’ for them to do so. I think this video clip of Sir Ian McKellen explains this concept rather nicely. An actor ‘becomes’ the character in the scene and is then themselves again. You do not need to be gay to play a gay character, but you do need to understand the character.
I am of the belief that a good actor who portrays a character sensitively, with empathy and well is better than one who does a bad job even if they are themselves a member of the demographic being portrayed. A bad actor is a bad actor regardless of their background etc. Furthermore getting the best person for the job at hand is surely better than appointing someone simply because they fit the right demographic? If we only appointed people we thought were ‘right for the job’ based on demographics, we may still exclude women and minorities from certain jobs simply because society (erroneously) believed they were somehow less able than white men because of some imagined inherent superiority.
The argument could be extended to race. There has been some comment regarding the casting of a black actor to play the role of Hermione in a stage production of Harry Potter. I have not read the books and I have not seen all the movies but I do not believe that Hermione’s race is in any way relevant to the story. Yes she was portrayed as white in the movies, but was her race ever relevant? I do not think so. Therefore if the black actor is best suited to the role, let her play Hermione. It is not important. This is in stark contrast to say Othello, where Othello being black is crucial to the plot. He needs to be the ‘other’. If you wanted to cast a white Othello I suppose you could but then all the other characters would have to be obviously different somehow. If not, the story would make a lot less sense.
It gets a bit more complicated when black characters are played by white actors who then ‘black up’ for the role. In earlier times white actors sometimes parodied black people in an insulting way by ‘blacking up’. This has (rightfully) become unacceptable and in an effort to avoid giving offense such activities are now avoided. I am not aware of any formal process whereby cisgender people donning female attire in an attempt to parody transgender people. Transgender people are certainly sometimes victims of other forms of abuse but I am not aware of this happening. I therefore do not think that the two examples are comparable. If anything women could have a case against the transgender community in this regard. Some elements of drag are quite clearly parodies of women and can be quite insulting to women. So, if anything women could object to transwomen portraying female characters (as, for example, Caroline Cossey did in James Bond) . Fortunately, most women seem to not worry too much about this as they probably rightly realise that whilst some drag may be offensive to them, not all drag is and furthermore a transgender actor playing a female role is demonstrably different to a drag artist.
Perhaps the real concern behind the call for actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities and for transgender characters to be played by transgender actors is because of the limited amounts of work open to these actors. This is a separate issue and should be dealt with appropriately. It should not be conflated under a fallacious claim that only a transgender person can play a transgender character. If there is systematic discrimination against actors from a certain demographic ensuring that they get fewer castings then that should be dealt with appropriately. If too few roles for actors with disabilities are being written then perhaps there should be more movies, plays and television programmes written, with interesting plot lines, involving characters with disabilities.
We should deal with real issues effectively, not try and fix things through the back door which could potentially make things worse. I realise that their is discrimination in the world. I realise that transgender people are often victims of discrimination I believe that we need to tackle that discrimination appropriately and not try and deal with the problem through some sort of counter-discriminatory discrimination. I do not see what is wrong with a transgender actor playing a cisgender character. The day that happens we will all rightfully claim it as a victory. Lets work towards that not some dubious goal of reserving roles for people based on demographics.
Please accept my apologies if the terms ‘able bodied’ and ‘disabled’ cause offense. I am not sure what the current correct usage is. I have done my best to be sensitive here.