Acting transsexuals

The film ‘Transamerica’ comes out shortly in the UK and the publicity has just started, focusing on Felicity Huffman being Oscar-nominated for her role as a male-to-female transsexual. In the one newspaper feature I’ve seen so far, it says:

Initially Huffman felt the fact she was a woman robbed Transamerica of its inherent drama, but she was persuaded otherwise by Duncan Tucker [the director and writer], who “wanted to honour where transsexual women were going, not where they’d been.”

I think Huffman’s first instincts were right – it seems to me this is a fairly crass bit of casting and unenlightened gender politics. At one level, we’re back to the old problem of whether it’s appropriate for an actor to play someone with a radically different bodily appearance: a white actor playing black, a physically able actor playing someone who’s disabled, a thin actor in a fat suit. (This isn’t about whether you can act something you’ve never experienced, e.g. a straight actor playing gay, an actor pretending to be a Nazi. It’s the specifically physical aspect here). Roughly, on these matters, the trend seems to be that it’s felt that it’s acceptable only in two cases. One is if there are very few actors who are physically near the required type (there aren’t many actors in wheelchairs, very fat and ugly actresses etc), though this is always debated. Secondly, where the whole piece is non-naturalistic, e.g. integrated casting in a Shakespearean play, where the audience is having to imagine already the stage is a Bohemian kingdom, so imaging that a black man is king there is not much of a further stretch. (Or indeed, pantomime, which has its own traditions and conventions).

Here, neither reason seems to hold valid: there are good male actors who could play a transsexual and (I presume) a naturalistic effect is being striven for. So why have a woman in the part? In fact, the casting seems to me to go one bit further in its denial of gender than if it was simply having a white person play someone black. Part of the difficulty of being a transsexual is precisely that your physical body does not match your belief of who you are, in a fundamental way. In order to live as one of the sex you feel you really are, you have to manipulate your body to resemble something it’s not. And such ‘passing’ is very difficult, and often unsuccessful. (See http://books.guardian.co.uk/extracts/story/0,,1733547,00.html for Norah Vincent’s discussion on how hard it is for a female to be taken as male, arguably the easier way round). I’ve just seen an episode of ‘New Tricks’ (a humorous British cop show) that had a plot about a male to female transsexual. The character was made quite sympathetic, with reactions to her that included recognising the fundamental similarity of her to some of the ‘straight’ characters. Physically, she wasn’t caricatured and yet when you saw her (played by a man) you would be unlikely to think that she was biologically a woman. Similarly, the one transsexual I knew slightly was immediately recognisable as such. The realities of size, bodily contours, voice are hard to change or disguise. A woman playing such a role hides the difficulties of this and thus distorts an audience’s reactions both to the character and to the character’s relationships with others in the film. It reminds me, of the stupid decision they made in the remake of the film ‘Showboat’. One of the key characters is Julie, a mixed-race woman ‘passing’ as white, who is exposed and due to racist laws is forced to separate from her white lover. In the second film version, Julie was played by Ava Gardner! A white actor playing someone ‘passing’ as white seems about at the same level to me as a woman playing someone ‘passing’ as a woman.

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3 thoughts on “Acting transsexuals

  1. I find it hard to leave an entirely coherent comment. My views are coloured by feeling that gender reassignment surgery is a mistaken (in fact barbaric) way to treat sufferers from gender dysphoria – long term psychotherapy and a greater tolerance of perceived gender role and dress incongruence would be kinder.

    The subject is too often exploited and given sensationalist treatment by the media. Obviously I haven’t seen Transamerica and I’m not sure I want to see the topic treated as ‘a subject’ – there are only individuals with their own histories. I suppose that is why I find it hard to tie this in with films about colour discrimination and people with physical oddities or disabilities – there are links but too hard to exactly pin down.

    There was a succesful film portrayal by Vanessa Redgrave in the 1986 film Second Serve. She played Richard Radley who underwent SRS to become Renee Richards, a tennis pro whose player status was challenged when her history became known.
    However, Redgrave is a remarkable woman and a wonderful actress. Her tall and slender build helped.(see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091913/plotsummary)

    Other films that come to mind, though with a different emphasis are Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie and Robin Williams, in Mrs Doubtfire – comic but sympathetic roles.

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    • I think that only a transsexual person could have played the role of a transsexual properly and only a transsexual woman would b likely 2 portray a sympathetic role.Now about the previous comment where the person believes that transsexuals will b helped only with proper psychological counseling and the world just has to become openminded to
      men crossdressing well i must say that whilst u have a point on the latter but it wont help transsexuals that feel suicidal and a limb is not more important than life

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