My ears perked up earlier this week when I saw social media posts about Halle Berry’s Instagram interview where she discussed playing a transman in an upcoming film. Like many others, I cringed when I read some of her words:
I want to experience that world, understand that world. I want to deep dive in that in the way I did Bruised. Who this woman was is so interesting to me, and that will probably be my next project, and that will require me cutting all of my hair off…. That’s what I want to experience and understand and study and explore… it’s really important to me to tell stories, and that’s a woman, that’s a female story — it changes to a man, but I want to understand the why and how of that. I want to get into it.
Her use of the pronoun “it” to refer to a transman and the confusion between sex terms (male, female) and gender terms (woman, man) implied Berry wasn’t up-to-date on trans-inclusive language and the long-simmering controversy over cisgender actors playing transgender characters.
But it was her reference to the character’s gender transition and the need to cut off her hair that piqued my interest. They suggest we need to be more subtle in how we respond to cisgender actors playing transgender characters.
For years transgender activists have been questioning Hollywood’s casting of cisgender actors to play transgender characters. In numerous instances, that casting has been met with critical acclaim and prestigious awards. Some standout examples are the casting of Jaye Davidson as “Dil” in The Crying Game (1992), Hillary Swank as “Brandon Teena” in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and Jared Leto as “Rayon” in Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013). All three were nominated for Academy Awards with Swank and Leto winning acting Oscars.
This issue was given new life in 2018 when Scarlett Johansson clumsily defended her decision to play transman Dante “Tex” Gill in the forthcoming film Rub & Tug: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” (Tambor won multiple awards for playing transwoman “Maura Pfefferman” in the 2014–2019 Amazon TV series Transparent. Huffman won multiple awards for playing transwoman “Bree Osbourne” in the 2005 film Transamerica.) Johansson wisely reversed course and the fate of Rub & Tug is unknown.
Arguments for trans actors playing trans characters abound but, for my money, only two are persuasive: increased access and confounding stereotypes. Transgender actors are rarely invited to audition for cisgender characters and, if they aren’t cast to play transgender characters, their access to acting roles is vanishingly small.
Those acting jobs often translate into other opportunities, in front of and behind the camera. Jill Soloway (creator of Transparent) and Ryan Murphy (creator of the FX TV series Pose) have actively recruited transgender directors, writers, and producers for their popular shows. When transgender actors are cast in transgender roles, entire careers in entertainment can result. Those careers can affect which stories get told and who gets to tell them.
But casting trans actors to play trans characters also undermines the idea that transpeople are just cross-dressing cispeople. That’s especially damaging when cisgender men are cast as transgender women. It can also fuel violence against trans women, as transgender actor, writer, producer Jen Richards argued in the recent Netflix documentary, Disclosure:
Having cis men play trans women, in my mind, is a direct link to the violence against trans women. [P]art of the reason men that end up killing transwomen out of fear that other men will think that they’re gay for having been with transwomen is that the friends, the men whose judgement they fear of, only now transwomen from media, and the people who are playing transwomen are the men that they know. This doesn’t happen when a transwoman plays a transwoman.
All these arguments clearly informed Halle Berry’s carefully worded apology offered just three days after the story first broke:
Unlike Johansson’s trainwreck, Berry’s exemplary apology made for a short-lived controversy. But it also elided an important detail. Some of the most intense criticism has been over cisgender men playing transgender women, where the inability to disguise certain secondary sex characteristics — jawline, brow ridge, skeletal proportions — has made it clear that a man is playing a woman on screen.
And, isn’t that exactly what Halle Berry described in her Instagram post about her upcoming role?
Berry’s Instagram post briefly sketched a role involving a “woman” who transitions genders to live as “a man,” specifically a transman, a change that would require Berry to cut all her hair off. The point of objection here is that Berry would be a cisgender woman playing a transgender man.
Now imagine if a transman were cast in this role. Before his character transitions on film he would be playing a woman, and not a transwoman, on screen. In other words, for at least some parts of the film, there would be a central character who is a woman. Played by a man. A man wearing a wig and a dress.
How sensitively this would be handled remains to be seen. But those parts of the film would seem to perpetuate the stereotype that transgender people are ‘really’ cross-dressing cisgender people — men dressed up like women — which is one of the frequent objections to casting cis actors to play trans characters. (Here, it would be a transman in women’s clothing but since transmen are men…) Which would make objections to Berry playing this role appear inconsistent or hypocritical. But that assumes gender is symmetrical; that feminine and masculine gender presentations are socially equivalent; that a man in a dress is as gender transgressive as a woman in pants. And that’s just not the case.
Binary systems of gender are rooted in patriarchal social systems that advantage and prioritize men, but (paradoxically) also confine them to narrower paths of acceptable gender presentation. A man in a dress is seen as considerably more gender transgressive than a woman in pants, which is why cross-dressing men appear as objects of humor in so many films and TV shows and why those depictions are so damaging to transgender women.
To the extent that transwomen are seen as cross-dressing men, they come in for more ostracism, discrimination, and violence because their gender presentation is highly transgressive. Transwomen’s very existence undermines the notion that a man’s masculinity, including his masculine gender presentation, is the inevitable unfolding of his biological maleness. They reveal that maleness is no guarantee of masculinity and that’s very threatening to those who have anchored their claim to social dominance in biological determinism.
Since women (as a class) don’t occupy positions of social dominance, transmen (and women in men’s clothing) are not as threatening to men’s social status and, consequently, are less often the targets of transphobic violence. Their lesser threat also helps explain why transmen are seen less often in movies or TV shows and why their rare appearance attracts so much less attention and controversy: they’re not as threatening to men’s power and dominance in a patriarchal society.
Yes, Halle Berry playing a transman on screen doesn’t give transgender actors access to one the few roles available to them and the career doors such roles can open. But it’s not the same as a cisgender man like Jared Leto playing a transgender woman on screen. The latter reinforces stereotypes about transwomen that fuel transphobic discrimination and violence in ways that the former simply does not.
I’m not arguing that Berry should have played the role she described. Stepping away was clearly the right thing to do. But objections to cisgender actors playing transgender characters need to be calibrated to recognize that feminine and masculine gender presentations —especially in theatrical performances of transgender characters — raise unique issues requiring different critiques.
And that’s because gender is asymmetrical.
Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.