(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Hollywood needs to get better about transgender representation.)
When the 2019 GLAAD Studio Responsibility Index was released in May 2019, the most disappointing news was that not a single major studio film featured a transgender actor.
While it’s true that there was transgender representation in mid-major releases, the same could not be said of the studios. The report examines the output of the following studios: 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Brothers, and four of their subsidiaries. Additional distributors include A24, Annapurna Pictures, Bleecker Street, FilmRise, Gunpowder & Sky, IFC Films, Magnolia Pictures, The Orchard, Orion Pictures, Samuel Goldwyn Films, Strand Releasing, and Wolfe Releasing.
While it’s admirable to mention those films from the smaller distributors, their releases just don’t have the reach as the mainstream studio films. Strangely enough, the blurbs on Annapurna nor Bleecker Street mention the casting of transgender actors in The Sisters Brothers and Colette, respectively. GLAAD rightly takes Colette to task for the casting of a cisgender woman as a transgender man let alone not using the preferred name.
One can praise a film such as Saturday Church all day long for its use of transgender talent, particularly MJ Rodriguez and Indya Moore. But the thing is: these films don’t get a wide release. They’re lucky if they can find themselves screening in more than a few theaters across the country.
Sarah Kate Ellis writes in her introduction to this report:
One way that film continues to lag far behind other entertainment media is the complete lack of transgender characters in any major release last year. This is a particularly glaring omission when compared to television which in 2018 introduced TV’s first transgender superhero on Supergirl and the largest cast of series regular actors who are trans on Pose.
The lack of trans characters in 2018 comes in the same year when Sony Classics’ A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The win is historic for a number of reasons. How often is it that a film with a transgender lead is nominated, let alone wins? I can’t really think of a previous time. Moreover, it’s important for representation in general. Only 16 percent of Americans reportedly know a transgender person. This pales in comparison to the ninety percent of people who know someone that is lesbian, gay, or bisexual, according to a 2017 GLAAD/Harris Poll.
When people see themselves represented on screen, it helps to ease the comfort in coming out. Someone can point to someone on TV or film and explain that they’re just like them. I didn’t benefit from this in the 1990s, because transgender representation was slim pickings. This isn’t to say that people weren’t working, but you had to look in the right places.
Transgender representation in film really does pale in comparison to television, where even CW superhero shows have trans characters. One of the places that the conversation must start is in the casting. The casting directors are the ones that need to be the loudest in making suggestions. They Casting Society of America did have an open casting call at various offices across the country in 2017. This helps get names on the radar in the short term, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee work in the long term. The questions they need to be asking, and the question they need to be forwarding to filmmakers, is this: does a character have to be cisgender or can they be transgender? Do they have to be a mainstream actor? Could the actor with the bigger name take a supporting role while a trans actor gets the opportunity for a leading role? This is where there needs to be room for improvement. Listen to the amount of transgender talent out there saying that we need to get in the room.
One of the arguments in 2018 was how can trans actors make a name for themselves when we aren’t getting an opportunity to audition. It starts with the casting!
While LGBTQ representation has risen over the past few years, the lack of transgender/non-binary characters is staggering. I do know that there is going to be some improvement among the studio releases this year. It’s not much, but at least we won’t be completely shut out like we were during both the 2017 and 2018 calendar years. Spider-Man: Far From Home will feature two transgender actors, Zach Barack and Tyler Luke Cunningham. Meanwhile, Rebecca Root has been cast in Paul Feig’s Last Christmas. There’s no word as to how large these roles will be. They could be appearing on screen anywhere from a few minutes to a sizable portion of the film. The latter is highly unlike in the case of the new Spider-Man film. Regardless, three actors is not enough.
There is a path to a working solution. The studios would be wise to study TRANSform Hollywood, a digital guide offered in partnership by GLAAD and 5050by2020. Many prominent production companies have signed on. Ultimately, it comes down to this: allow transgender writers and filmmakers to have a say in how their stories are told.
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