Is Transface Better Than no Face?

Jude Samson

by Jude Samson

First, you may be asking ‘what the hell is “Transface?”‘ Back in the earlier days of films a white person was typically cast to portray a black person and would blacken their faces with grease paint and this process was coined “Blackface” and is now considered pretty racist. Along those lines, “Transface” is where a cis-gender person takes on the role of a trans-gender person rather than allowing a trans person be in the role (and give it a sense of authenticity).

The most common examples that the article uses is Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club where some feel that, not only should he not have been in the role at all because he wasn’t trans, but shouldn’t be given any type of awards as well. The other, of course, would be Jeffrey Tambor for Transparent – but this one I’m a wee bit on the fence regarding. As the article points out, the show does start with the character as a male and trying to live as a male while also on the verge of accepting and coming out to live full-time as a female. So, this (to me in how the timeline is portrayed) would mean that the character was already trans at the start of the show, but just closeted. However, given that the show does do flashbacks and, as such, would include images of the character back when she was living her life as a male, one would imagine you would want a male playing the role and to help further illustrate someone who is new in their transition journey rather than an trans woman who is already along in the process. But, if you did have a trans woman playing the role, what about the flashbacks? Then you would be have “Cis-face” because now the trans woman would have to pretend to be a cis male during flashbacks and then this whole debate gets really dizzying. Why are trans roles (like TransAmerica) going to cis-gender people rather than trans? The trans community was split between their acceptance and applauding the powerful performance of Eddie Redmayne in Danish Girl while others disagreed strongly with the casting choice and felt it should have gone to a trans woman.


Should we be thinking “At least trans and trans issues are getting screen time and publicity to draw more attention to our cause to make it easier for trans actors to get more roles?” It kind of seems like a double-edged sword with that line of thinking. Yes, it does draw more attention to the situation (albeit sometimes not always in the best of ways), but why do we need “Cis” or “Straight” people to pave the way to open doors for us in the LGBT community? In the ideal world there wouldn’t be a need for this, but in our current society this seems to be the more acceptable way to ease society into seeing (and possibly accepting) the LGBT community and to realize we are out there, we are humans, we face a ridiculous amount of inequality, and each time this happens it gets a little easier for most people to see it again. We shouldn’t need cis/straight people to pave our way, but I think if it wasn’t happening our entire movement would be set back decades and that’s just the reality of the situation.

Further, isn’t it part of the point of acting and being an actor to portray people or characters that are outside your everyday “you”? If they only cast criminals to play criminals, or women only to play women (we would have a very different version of Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire), Hollywood would crash and burn. It’s a test of the actor/actress’ mettle to take on roles that are very far removed from who they are and that’s what generates a stirring performance. We have people who can’t sing take on roles in beloved musicals (i.e. Russell Crowe in Les Miserables) even when they probably shouldn’t, we have straight men playing gay men, and gay men playing straight men. We have women playing men, and men playing women. We have people playing someone from entirely different countries (i.e. Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi), and people from many other countries playing Americans, and often doing better American accents than some American actors who take on foreign/accented roles and don’t even try for an accent <ahem [Kevin Costner](> (i.e. Ryan Kwanten the Australian actor who plays Jason on True Blood and hits the Louisianan accent out of the park or my beloved Lucy Lawless who was Xena: Warrior Princess and maintained a “general” American accent).

The article says:

“Playing a trans character is one of many roles that actors seek out for a big career payoff via industry recognition,” trans filmmaker Andrea James acknowledged in a recent essay for The Atlantic. “Physically transforming for a role, like gaining or losing weight, or becoming unrecognizable through makeup and effects, is a tried-and-true way to generate awards buzz.”

Many of you may be aware of some of the extreme lengths actors go to for their roles like Tom Hanks for Cast Away who took a break from production to drop a ton of weight. Or, the insane weight drop (and then gain) from Christian Bale for The Machinist where he lost over 60 pounds to become an emaciated 120 pounds (and had to be stopped from going any further despite his attempt to reach 99 pounds) and then a rapid return of that 60 pounds plus an additional 40 more pounds of muscle for Batman Begins within a year. Actors take on all kinds of roles and the more challenging the role, the greater the performance (usually) and the better odds for that coveted Oscar™.


So, should cis-actors be shunned from playing trans roles? Should we use the press to our advantage when a cis-actor does play a trans role? Is a “trans” role just a role so it shouldn’t matter who gets it only that they’re the best actor for the role? I think that a trans person should be the top at the list for a trans-related role, but if that person just isn’t right (and I mean genuinely isn’t right, not just because they’re trans) for the role then it should go to the best actor possible. I would LOVE to see a time where trans women are playing female roles, and trans men are playing male roles and there’s no big deal about it just as equally as cis-actors should be allowed to play trans roles without a big stink. But, until that role equality actually happens, I definitely think Hollywood needs to put far more consideration into trans actors for trans roles.


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