There are early reports that Scarlett Johansson has been cast to play a trans man in a movie about Dante “Tex” Gill, a mob-connected brothel owner who insistently identified as a man throughout his life. Johansson, a cisgender woman known for her sexiness, is—to put it mildly—a particularly poor choice for such a role. It’s still early days for the project, having just been bought at auction by New Regency (with Rupert Sanders directing and Johansson having a producing role along with five others): Let’s hope that means there’s still time for things to change.
Transgender activists and writers have often called for trans actors to be cast in trans roles, and I agree that this would be ideal. However, Hollywood does rely on big-name stars to carry big movies, and I’m not aware of any trans actors who have the name recognition of Johansson at the moment. So in lieu of the ideal, I’d like to advance a simple alternative that seems to be very rarely considered: Cast cis men to play trans men, and cis women to play trans women.
Cisgender men can play trans men more realistically than women can because they are, well, men. While it’s true that in a few small ways that trans men’s bodies may diverge from cis male norms, there’s also a wide range of what trans men look like, and trans men passing invisibly as cis when they choose to do so is more the norm than the exception in our community. I’ve personally always thought Robert Downey Jr. would be a great choice to play a trans guy, but I’d be happy to leave casting to the experts if they’d just stop casting women to play men’s roles.
When Hollywood insists on casting across gender, it hurts trans people by reinforcing two ideas: First, that trans men are “really” women (and vice versa); and second, that trans people are always visibly trans. The idea that trans people are pretending to be something we’re not is at the root of most of the hatred we’re subjected to, hatred that sometimes leads to violence—for instance when a man who flirts with of a trans woman discovers he’s been “tricked” and flies into a rage. These depictions also hurt trans people directly: I myself was reluctant to come out as trans for many years, believing I’d be seen as fake and that I stood no chance of passing for male. I’ve often imagined how much different my life might have been if only Tom Cruise had been cast instead of Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry.
The misperception that trans men are really women pretending to be men has deep historical roots, and it will only start to change when men are cast to play trans men. One day, I hope well-passing trans men will also play cisgender roles, or roles in which the characters’ gender identity is never explored. Today, my hope is more modest: I want Hollywood to treat the casting of trans men as if they were casting a man, not a woman who is attempting to appear male. At this point, after so much trans activism has focused on how damaging it is for men to play trans women and woman to play trans men, I can only conclude that the people casting want viewers to see trans men as playacting girls—and don’t care how many trans people are hurt by their perpetuating that belief over and over again. If that’s not so, giving the role of Dante “Tex” Gill to a man—any man—would be a great start.