Actress Laverne Cox has dazzled viewers as transgender prison inmate Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black. Many of the accolades come from the trans community, as Cox’s work as Sophia has raised awareness about casting trans performers as trans characters. While performers including Candis Cayne, Calpernia Addams, and Harmony Santana have won film and television roles in the past, these casting choices are rare.
What television and film audiences usually see are cisgender men and women performing as a trans characters. Sometimes these roles are played for laughs, sometimes not. Often, trans women are portrayed as hyper-feminized versions of women, with exaggerated makeup, wardrobe, or mannerisms. In the case of male actors playing trans women this is especially problematic, as it can provide ammunition for people who claim that trans women are just like drag queens, another kind of men in dresses. Some people suggest that acting is acting, and make the comparison of straight actors playing gay men or women (and vice versa), but the fact is that a trans woman is a woman, and a trans man is a man. Despite the increasing availability of trans performers, trans people are frequently played by cisgender actors, and far too often by performers of the wrong gender.
Here’s a roughly chronological sampling of 21 times this has happened.
1. Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
What the film gets right: The film, based on a real-life bank robbery, is explicit about Leon’s transsexuality and suggests that trans people can have romantic relationships without hiding their histories.
What the film gets wrong: Chris Sarandon is a cisgender man playing a trans woman, and the film conflates “femme gay cisgender man” with “trans woman,” despite the character’s need and desire to transition.
Overall: Sarandon was nominated for an Academy Award (for Best Supporting Actor) for his portrayal of Leon, but is still a man playing a woman.
2. Veronica Redd as Edie Stokes on The Jeffersons (1977)
What the episode gets right: Edie Stokes, a former Navy buddy of George Jefferson’s, is played by cisgender actress Veronica Redd, without making her up to look more masculine. Also, the episode focuses on George’s efforts to understand his friend’s transition, constantly reinforcing Edie’s correct name and pronoun, and presents one of television’s very few trans women of color.
What the episode gets wrong: Veronica Redd is still a cisgender woman. There is also an unfortunate scene in the middle of the episode when George’s friend Leroy dons a dress and a wig in an effort to convince Louise that he is the real Edie Stokes.
Overall: This episode does a decent job with the material, making the point that George, who doesn’t want to accept Edie’s transition, is the one with the problem, not Edie.
3. William Finlay as Bobbi/Bobby & Michael Caine as Dr. Elliott in Dressed to Kill (1980)
What the film gets right: Nothing.
What the film gets wrong: This film is one of the early entries in the extremely problematic “trans women as dangerous psychotics” category. Finlay’s character is confused and a bit of a mess, while Caine’s character is a murderer and stalker.
Overall: There is no positive aspect of the trans experience in the film, and both characters are portrayed broadly as mentally ill men in dresses and wigs.
4. John Lithgow as Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp (1982)
What the film gets right: Roberta Muldoon is a major supporting character who is not necessarily defined by being trans.
What the film gets wrong: Lithgow, a cisgender man, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as ex-football star Roberta Muldoon, a woman. There is considerable focus on how big and tall the character is (Lithgow is 6’ 4”), and she is often hyper-feminized.
Overall: Muldoon is probably the most level-headed character in the movie (and in the book on which the movie is based), but is still played by a man.
5. Karen Black in Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
What the film gets right: Joanne, a trans woman who comes back to the small Texas town of her childhood, is played by a cisgender woman. In flashbacks, her pre-transition character, Joe, is played by a cisgender man.
What the film gets wrong: Joe is largely considered a gay character, not a trans character, despite the fact that he eventually transitions.
Overall: The character is treated with compassion, for the most part, and is portrayed as brave and intelligent. However, she is still played by a cisgender woman.
6. John Shuck as Gil Kessler in The Golden Girls (1982)
What the episode gets right: Kessler, a trans man, is played by a cisgender man, not by a woman. The character is happily married and clearly a decent guy, and when he comes out, the response from Dorothy et al is confused but largely positive.
What the episode gets wrong: Being trans can ruin a promising city council candidacy. Also, although the only jokes at the expense of Kessler’s genitalia stem from Rose’s inability to grasp the nuances of his transition, there’s still a good bit of focus on what he’s got in his pants.
Overall: The episode’s main humor comes not from Kessler’s trans experience, but from Sophia’s triumph at the revelation that Kessler is secretly Italian. The Golden Girls tends to handle queer issues with aplomb, and this episode is no exception.
7. Jaye Davidson as Dil in The Crying Game (1992)
What the film gets right: The movie suggests that heterosexual men who fall for trans women are indeed straight, not gay.
What the film gets wrong: Dil, a trans woman played by a cisgender man, is defined in large part by her genitals — the character’s penis is the focus of one of the biggest There’s a twist! promotional campaigns in recent film history.
Overall: Although Dil is portrayed mainly with compassion, her trans identity is mostly used for shock effect.
8. Olympia Dukakis as Mrs. Madrigal in Tales of the City (1993)
What the miniseries gets right: Mrs. Madrigal falls in love, reconnects with family, and defeats a blackmailer. She also has a complex backstory and a storyline that is not defined by being trans.
What the miniseries gets wrong: Once again a cisgender woman plays the part of a transgender woman. Some viewers have also found her too flamboyant and hyper-feminized.
Overall: Mrs. Madrigal is in many ways the heart of the Tales of the City books and the PBS series, and Dukakis works to prevent the role from becoming gimmicky.
9. Terence Stamp as Bernadette, in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
What the film gets right: When a straight man falls for Bernadette, neither of them is punished for the relationship, and it’s never suggested that the man is actually gay.
What the film gets wrong: Stamp is a man playing a woman, despite the fact that he does so for the most part without most of the makeup and wardrobe that often plague these roles. Also, Bernadette is not effectively differentiated from the two drag queen characters, which makes it less clear that she is a transsexual woman, not another type of cisgender gay man.
Overall: Stamp was nominated for several major awards for this part, including the Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards for Best Supporting Actor, making him yet another man to be rewarded for playing a woman. Also, the film does mention Les Girls, a troupe of female impersonators and drag queens (some of whom were trans women, or who transitioned later), but the references are vague at best, and may confuse viewers who are not familiar with Australia’s drag culture.
10. Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
What the film gets right: Real-life trans guy Brandon Teena was still legally Teena Brandon, and part of the drama of his story comes from the ways that he dealt with his breasts, period, and other female markers, not to mention his driver’s license.
What the film gets wrong: Swank is a cisgender woman, and her performance blurs the lines of whether or not Brandon was “really” a man. There is also quite a lot of onscreen punishment.
Overall: The film is deeply invested in Brandon’s story and point of view, but is somewhat vague on whether or not viewers are supposed to accept Brandon as a man or think he was actually a confused butch lesbian.
11. John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
What the film gets right: Hedwig’s dysphoria and disorientation make a strong backdrop for her life as a punk rock star. The glam rock influence gives the film an androgynous aspect that strengthens characterization.
What the film gets wrong: Mitchell is a cisgender man playing a trans woman. Also, as the movie’s title suggests, there is considerable focus on Hedwig’s botched genital surgery.
Overall: There have always been trans women in rock music and underground film, often playing versions of themselves in queer movies, so Mitchell could have cast one of them. Alas, he did not, and the next iteration of Hedwig will be played by another cisgender man, Neil Patrick Harris, on Broadway.
12. Lee Pace as Calpernia Addams in Soldier’s Girl (2003)
What the film gets right: The film portrays the relationship between Addams and murdered Army Private Barry Winchell as clearly heterosexual, and treats Addams with compassion.
What the film gets wrong: Lee Pace was nominated for several awards for his performance, including an Independent Spirit Award nod for Best Male Lead (despite the fact that the character he plays is a trans woman).
Overall: Having a cisgender man play a real-life trans actress is a particular affront, despite the sympathetic tone of the film. (As an aside, Ms. Addams acted as a consultant on the film and turned down an onscreen appearance.)
13. Felicity Huffman in TransAmerica (2005)
What the film gets right: Huffman is a woman playing a woman, and is not punished (in the long run) with the loss of her son for being trans.
What the film gets wrong: The filmmakers took pains to make Huffman look and sound more masculine, and included scenes showing her naked from the waist down both before and after surgery, emphasizing both her assigned-at-birth-gender and her before/after genitals. There is also considerable discussion of Bree’s vaginoplasty.
Overall: Huffman earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Bree, but is still a cisgender performer. Also, throughout the film there is a reinforcement of problematic (and wrong) ideas about trans women, including estranged parents, the stereotypical lonely transsexual, and the frequently reinforced concept that vagina = woman and penis = man.
14. Sofia Vergara as Loridonna in Grilled (2006)
What the film gets right: Sofia Vergara is a cisgender woman, not a man.
What the film gets wrong: Her role in this direct-to-DVD film is designed to give Ray Romano and Kevin James someone to make fun of, and be disgusted by, after a make-out session.
Overall: When an interviewer asked Vergara about her Grilled character, this is what she said: “I look like a transsexual anyway…I’m a woman, but I’m super-exaggerated with my boobs, my ass, my makeup, and my accent. When I get ready for an event, I always look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘I look like a transvestite!’ I love it.”
15. Daniela Sea as Moira/Max on The L Word (2006-09), and as Blake on Law & Order: SVU (2009)
What the show gets right: Sea began on The L Word as Moira, a sort of butch lesbian, so it made sense to cast a woman in the role.
What the show gets wrong: When Moira decided to transition into Max, Sea stayed in the role, which soon became rife with stereotypes – Max got violent because of his hormones, was really hard for everyone else to deal with because of his moodiness, and then eventually decided to get pregnant as a man.
Overall: Sea followed her portrayal of Max by playing trans guy Blake in “Transitions,” an episode of SVU in which the character mostly wrung his hands over the fate of transgender teen girl Hailey (played by cisgender teen boy Bridger Zadina) and argued for taking trans kids seriously.
16. Jai Rodriguez as Amanda Knott in Harry’s Law (2012)
What the show gets right: Nothing.
What the show gets wrong: Everything. Rodriguez is a cisgender gay man, and trans woman Amanda is a laundry list of stereotypes – she’s depressed, crazy, a stalker, etc. The episode discusses her penis, has one character explain that Amanda’s affair with a married straight man is much worse because she’s trans, and treats the simplistic character as disposable, unsympathetic, and a punchline.
Overall: In addition to Amanda, Rodriguez performs gender-crossing roles fairly often, generally in the men-dressing-as-women-for-laughs category, which further blurs the reality of trans experience for viewers. In 2012, alongside this role, he played a drag queen on Detroit 1-8-7 and a cross-dresser/performer/drag queen on Are You There, Chelsea?
17. Jeffrey Carlson as Zoe/Zarf on All My Children (2007)
What the show gets right: Carlson’s character first appears on AMC as somewhat androgynous rocker Zarf, who has not yet begun to transition. For the most part, the character, as she moves from Zarf to Zoe, becomes more realistic and more sympathetic.
What the show gets wrong: Once again, a trans character is played by a cisgender actor of the wrong gender. Also, the narrative surrounding both the character and her transition is confusing at best.
Overall: Carlson is notable for playing the first trans character on a major soap opera.
18. Walton Goggins as Venus van Damme in Sons of Anarchy (2012)
What the show gets right: One of the bikers tells a younger man that having sex with Venus doesn’t make him gay, because she’s a woman.
What the show gets wrong: Walton Goggins, a cisgender man, plays a transsexual character designed to be hyper-sexualized and hyper-feminized, an escort with giant breasts and a latex cat suit. Her role (which may become recurring) is to provide the Sons with a way to blackmail an enemy.
Overall: Goggins has spoken in interviews about his wish to take Venus seriously, but he also sometimes refers to trans people as nouns, as in “Let’s make the character a transgender.”
19. Chloe Sevigny as Mia in Hit & Miss (2012)
What the show gets right: Sevigny has seen mostly good reviews for her portrayal of a trans assassin with family troubles, and at least she’s a cisgender woman.
What the show gets wrong: Mia is yet another trans character defined by her genitals. Filmmakers advertised specifically for a “pre-op transsexual” for the role before going with Sevigny, who has talked at length in interviews about how she felt about her prosthetic penis.
Overall: The character is multi-dimensional and usually sympathetic. Perhaps also of interest: she played Hilary-Swank-as-Brandon-Teena’s girlfriend in Boys Don’t Cry.
20. Alex Newell as Wade/Unique on Glee (2012-present)
What the show gets right: Unique is complex and talented, and speaks out often about how she does not want people to consider her based only on her trans identity. Other characters defend her presentation decisions and support her preferred pronouns.
What the show gets wrong: The character is often presented as a high-strung diva (although this may be a function of Glee’s race issues more than its LGBTQ issues). She often shows up only when the character’s flamboyance serves the plot or when they need her voice, unlike the majority of other Glee club members. Her romantic interest in a cisgender male character caused him to retreat in dismay and disgust.
Overall: Until the most recent season Glee was a show on which the use of anti-trans slurs was both a common occurrence and an act without consequence (unlike homophobic, racist, or ableist slurs), so it will be interesting to see how Unique is treated going forward. Because Newell created the character of Unique during his time on The Glee Project, other performers were likely not considered for the role. Newell, who identifies as gay and male, has talked in interviews at great length about how he wants viewers to love Unique and see her as a role model.
21. Jeffrey Tambor as Mort in Transparent (forthcoming from Amazon)
What the show could get right: As yet unknown, although the tone seems to be that the character wants to live an “authentic” life, and is looking for family support in the process.
What the show could get wrong: Most of the reporting around the show refers to the character as “a transgender,” although it’s unclear whether or not this error has its provenance in Amazon’s promotional materials.
Overall: Introducing characters at the beginning of transition makes casting more challenging, but perhaps we’ll get a better character than just George Bluth in a dress. Jill Solloway, who wrote and directed the pilot, worked on a few episodes of ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money, which included trans actress Candis Cayne in a recurring role as a main character’s trans mistress.