Last year, "The Danish Girl" came out in theaters. A couple of my cis friends loved it and asked me what I thought about it. I told them I couldn't care less.
I didn't care about the film because I realized the film was not made for me. "The Danish Girl" and indeed any film that casts cis men as trans women is not made for trans people, it's made for cis consumption.
Ask any trans person and they will probably give you the same answer. Several of my trans friends and I like to joke about how bad and cliched these films often are. The trans character is always a drug addict. There's always a scene where they dramatically put on make-up. And of course there's always a joke about them having a penis. And yet for some reason, cis people give these films Oscars.
Last week, there was news that Matt Bomer, a cis man, would be playing a trans-feminine sex worker in Mark Ruffalo's "Anything." When I first heard this news, I just rolled my eyes. But as I saw so many of my trans siblings up in arms over this casting, I began to get much angrier.
There is a very long history of cis people exploiting trans women in the media. Most often, trans women were used as punchlines for jokes. While transphobic humor certainly has continued to this day, it has become less common recently due to there being more trans people ready to call people out. This has lead to another form of cis exploitation which involves cis people using trans-feminine bodies as "art."
Let me explain what I mean by that. Cis people who make films like "Dallas Buyers Club" or "The Danish Girl" don't actually care about representing transness as it exists. Rather, they want to represent a cisnormative idea of transness, i.e. a feminine, white trans woman who is very clearly "a man." In fact, several trans actresses have reported being denied roles for not looking "trans enough." As a side-note, this also explains why many trans people feel so alienated by cis portrayals of trans women.
When I look at "Anything," I can't help but feel like this is what's going on. It doesn't seem like the film will do anything concrete to help trans liberation. If the filmmakers truly wanted to help empower trans people, they should not have cast a cis man. But of course, they did. In fact, trans actress Jen Richards auditioned for the film but was denied a role. She mentioned later that she believed this was because she did not look "trans enough."
I'm particularly bothered by the fact that Matt Bomer is a man. If it were a cis woman playing this role, I would still not be thrilled, but I would not be as upset. The reason for this is because having men play trans women reinforces the notion that trans women are actually men.
Trans people are an extremely small sub-set of the population. Because of that, a lot of cis people have very little experience actually interacting with trans people. So when they see a man play a trans women in high profile roles, they internalize the fact that trans women are actually men.
Not only is this extremely invalidating, it is dangerous. As Jen Richards very elegantly pointed out, this can lead to actual violence against trans women. Straight men are simply attracted to trans women, no matter how much they try to deny it. Since these men have internalized that trans women are actually men, they often feel emasculated by their attraction to us. They then respond to their feelings of emasculation by acting very violently.
This might seem like hyperbole but it isn't. Many examples of transphobic violence involve a straight man who feels he is less of a man for liking a trans woman. There is also the trans panic defense. This is a defense in which someone accused of a assaulting a trans woman claims they could not control their actions once they found out the victim was trans. This defense is legal in every state except California.
The main argument I hear in favor of casting cis men as trans women is that there are no trans actors. That is quite simply not true. There are plenty of trans actresses but they are not given exposure because of cis men that get cast in every trans role. Plus, there are examples of successful media that star actual trans women. "Tangerine" was an extremely successful film that starred two unknown trans women. There is also "Her Story" which was the only indie series to be nominated for an Emmy.
The more I think about this film, the more convinced I am that it will only harm the trans community. The only thing we might get is a halfhearted thank you from Matt Bomer when he accepts his Oscar.