In January there was a lot of debate about actors playing characters from minorities. I was even tempted to remove my Philistine body armour and dive into the world of the arts and acting and share my two cents on this issue. I must say that it is a tricky subject. I can see that there will always be two sides to the coin and that whilst (as always) some arguments will be ludicrous, others will have merit. It will always be possible to see both sides of the coin and those arguments with merit will be worth considering.
I believed that my views on the subject were pretty much what they were going to be but then I came across Jen Richards’ very cogent argument on Twitter. I won’t refer you to the original Twitter thread because it can be difficult to follow and also I am aware that not everyone is on Twitter but this article does a pretty good job of summarizing her points of view.
I remain concerned about the dogmatism of saying that group x can only be effectively portrayed by group y because I worry that then the corollary must also be true. That is to say if you say (for example) that only transgender actors can accurately portray transgender characters, then surely cisgender actors can only ever portray cisgender characters. Where do we draw the line? Can only gay men portray gay characters? Can a black person not portray a character that is not explicitly black? I prefer to think that as long as the actor is a good actor they should be able to portray any number of characters, but I also acknowledge that it would usually be best to have a person who knows the role better than anyone else as it will usually give a more ‘real’ performance.
Having said that I was particularly struck by Jen Richards’ prime argument that pointed out that having cisgender men play transgender characters results in violence against transwomen. It is a very persuasive argument. Essentially she is saying that when audiences see transwomen on screen but then see cisgender male actors off screen it reinforces the misconception that transwomen are ‘just men in dresses’. That they are somehow playing a role and that transwomen are somehow not real. This has serious real world repercussions when heterosexual men find themselves attracted to a transwoman (because, well she is a woman) and then feel the need to assert their masculinity through violence (usually perpetrated on the transwoman in question, or indeed on transwomen as a class in the case of some spectacularly sick individuals), often with fatal consequences.
Like I said this is a compelling argument and one that is hard to fault. The logic is correct and who would not want to keep transwomen safe? However, I think it is a bit of a stretch to blame toxic masculinity, transphobia and homophobia on a small group of men who have portrayed transwomen characters on stage or film. I believe that transphobia and homophobia have existed in western society for a very long time. They are symptoms of a pervasive and malignant hyper masculinity. Signs of a society that is so fearful of the feminine that men have to fight it at every turn. A society in which women are so under valued that any man showing even the slightest feminine traits must be mentally ill. These views, I believe, predate the popular depictions of transgender characters on film, by cisgender men. I therefore do not think we can blame this hyper masculinity on cisgender actors playing transgender roles. But perhaps this phenomenon does not exactly help the situation.
Perhaps we should all tackle this toxic masculinity that is at the core of our society. Let’s do more to challenge sexism and misogyny wherever we find it. Let’s do more for gender equality and let’s fight homophobia and transphobia wherever it manifests. If having a few transgender actors play more transgender characters then let’s do that too, but let’s not assert that only transgender people can portray other transgender people. That logic could end up ghettoizing our community more than it is already.
So, have I changed my mind? Not entirely, but I am ‘softening’ around the edges. I think these arguments may have more merit than I at first thought. But I do think we should all avoid jumping into trenches. We should rather listen to what other people have to say and think carefully about such things. We should all deal with all arguments on their merits rather than on our own prejudices.