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 Ive 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 theyd been.
I think Huffmans first instincts were right – it seems to me this is a fairly crass bit of casting and unenlightened gender politics. At one level, were back to the old problem of whether its appropriate for an actor to play someone with a radically different bodily appearance: a white actor playing black, a physically able actor playing someone whos disabled, a thin actor in a fat suit. (This isnt about whether you can act something youve never experienced, e.g. a straight actor playing gay, an actor pretending to be a Nazi. Its the specifically physical aspect here). Roughly, on these matters, the trend seems to be that its felt that its acceptable only in two cases. One is if there are very few actors who are physically near the required type (there arent 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 its not. And such passing is very difficult, and often unsuccessful. (See http://books.guardian.co.uk/extracts/story/0,,1733547,00.html for Norah Vincents discussion on how hard it is for a female to be taken as male, arguably the easier way round). Ive 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 wasnt 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 audiences reactions both to the character and to the characters 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.