Last night, as Jared Leto won an Oscar for his portrayal of a transgender woman, trans women were the victims of assault, harrassment and casual discrimination. Even if he had played Rayon, his character in “Dallas Buyers Club,” in a sensitive and not transmisogynistic way, he would still be a man playing a woman. The possibility of a man depicting her would never have been considered if Rayon was a cisgender woman, for obvious reasons, and that should not change just because she is a trans character. Having a man depict a trans woman perpetuates harmful stereotypes by implying that the only difference between a trans woman and a cis man is their clothing and make up. It enforces the idea of internal and inherent masculenity in trans women, a pervasive stereotype that contributes to the vast number of hate crimes that trans people, especially trans women, are victims of.
Transgender actors and actresses rarely get the oppourtunities they deserve, and even when they do, they are often delegated to parts that are deemed by the public to be just as strange as they are — prostitutes, corpses, or felons. Laverne Cox’s portrayal of Sophia Burset on “Orange Is the New Black” was a victory for the trans community, but she still plays a felon. Transgender people are seen as inherently separate from “normal” society, and so they are almost exclucively written and cast as characters from which the audience can distance themselves. Rayon, Leto’s character, was obsessed with fashion and yet applied her make up heavily and inexpertly in a way that made her instantly and recognizably other, and much of her character relied heavily on transphobic stereotypes.
Having Leto play Rayon shows that the director thinks that transgender women have more in common with men than with women — in short, they are not women, just men acting like women. Trans women are not a joke, and they are not men playing dress up. Even if the director was incapable of finding a trans woman to play Rayon, choosing to cast a man instead of a woman reinforces transphobic ideas and invalidates the legitimacy of trans people’s identities. A woman would not be cast for the part of a man because society realizes that masculenity is not a costume — something it apparently cannot understand about femininity. It was not that long ago that all female acting parts were played by men, but that practice is now considered to be so sexist that it only occurs today in comedies, many of which center their humor around misogynistic jokes. To have a man play a woman in a play or movie would not only likely have sexist results, it would also be depriving a female actress of a role for which she is far more qualified than her male counterpart.
Even more recently, PoC were often played by white actors in black face or yellow face. Today, the clearly racist practice is less common, but unfortunately still prevalent in pop culture, especially in music videos and ads, or for comedic purposes in movies or television shows. No one would ever dream of having a white actor seriously depict a black character, and even people who use black face as a joke or satire are often criticized for using racist stereotypes or charicatures. Black face and yellow face reinforce the idea that white is the default, and every other race is exactly that — other. If education is the great equalizer, then representation is the great normalizer. So long as trans characters are portrayed by cisgender actors, they will remain “other” in the eyes of the masses.(sorry if this is incoherent, i’m a little angry about this and more than a little tired)