The Misrepresentation of Trans People in Hollywood and Bollywood
Words by Vidal D'costa
"Representation is often more about courting advertisers and drawing in consumers than it is about transforming our world to be more open to LGBTQ people." - Nicole Morse
For years, trans people within the film industry have not only struggled to find acceptance as members of the ‘fraternity’ but also for representation on screen. Whenever movies do end up representing trans characters, they do so in a manner that only stereotypes and humiliates the trans community rather than presenting them positively. A majority of movies in both Hollywood and Bollywood that I have come across during my research for this article choose to misrepresent trans people through a series of transphobic tropes such as the trans villainess, deceivers in disguise and, of course, a favourite among filmmakers- as comic relief. The ‘cis perspective’ is another method of misrepresentation that rears its ugly head in the fraternity. The focus of this article is on the misrepresentation of trans people in Bollywood and Hollywood movies and its after effects on trans people in real life, taking into consideration several decades: movies from the 70s since this was a tense decade for the LGBTQIA+ community due to the Stonewall riots wherein members of the community were attacked brutally by the police; the 90s when independent filmmakers embraced the new queer cinema movement but mainstream still opted for stereotypical queer representation; and the early 2000s and recent releases. It will conclude with the re-evaluation as well as an evolution of the film industry’s dated treatment and the potential doing away of such transphobic tropes through the years, especially in recent times.
The villainising of trans people
Bollywood movies such as ‘Sangharsh’ (1999) and Hollywood movies such as ‘Myra Breckenridge’ (1970) and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991) presented trans people as one-sided villains and villainesses who anally raped heterosexual men, skinned alive pretty hetero women and kidnapped young children and came with no backstory whatsoever for their actions, or were depicted as being evil simply because they are trans. Similarly, movies such as ‘The Crying Game’, which followed in 1992 soon after ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, portrayed trans women as the deceivers in disguise who ‘prey’ on hetero men while posing as cis women who tricked men into falling in love with them, then broke their hearts, thus victimising the hetero men.
In Bollywood comedies such as 2004’s ‘Masti’ and Hollywood comedies such as ‘Ace Ventura’ (1994) and ‘The Hangover’ (2009), a lot of the derogatory comedy is directed towards trans women who are also portrayed as the devilish deceivers in disguise. Most of it is embarrassing, transphobic, shameful and does nothing to paint trans people in a positive light.
Furthermore, all the aforementioned trans characters have been played by cis actors such as Sean Young (she played the deceiving trans woman Louis Einhorn in ‘Ace Ventura’ and is a cishetero female in real life), Ted Levine (he portrayed the mass-murderer trans woman ‘Buffalo Bill’ in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and is a cis hetero male), Jaye Davidson (an androgynous actor who played the trans lead character Dil in ‘The Crying Game’ and was every 90s filmmaker’s pick when it came to portraying trans or feminine-looking characters on screen) and many more, thus bringing up the age-old problem of the ‘cis-perspective,’ which has been notorious for robbing many trans actors of jobs in the industry and has proved to be a harmful trend since the 70s when drag queen and transsexual Candy Darling lost out an audition to cis actress and well known bombshell Raquel Welch for the role of trans character Myra Breckenridge in the namesake movie, leading to the lesser known Candy quitting on Hollywood and lapsing into severe depression in her later years .
In recent times, trans actors have raised their voices against popular cis actors like Matt Bomer, Scarlett Johansson and Jared Leto, to name a few, who have been playing roles meant for trans actors and then stereotypically portraying them. Just recently, stage actress Kate O’Donnell withdrew from the new stage musical ‘Breakfast on Pluto’ after its producers claimed that they ‘failed’ to hire a trans actor for the lead trans character Pussy Braden but were comfortable casting cis actor Fra Free for the same. ‘Breakfast on Pluto’ was previously adapted into a movie in 2005 and this too had come under fire for casting cis actor Cillian Murphy as Pussy Braden.
What is the Cis-perspective and why is it problematic?
Furthermore, the cis perspective of telling a story or writing a story from a cis filmmaker/screenwriter’s perspective has led to constant misgendering wherein trans people are referred to with improper pronouns in movies as well as scripts. In fact, misgendering or ‘deadnaming’ as it is referred to is now seen as an act of violence and is disrespectful and offensive towards the LGBTQIA+ community and when done by a cis filmmaker or cis scriptwriter it comes off as a borderline sexist act.
According to trans actors such as Laverne Cox who lobbied against deadnaming, this act can be construed as invalidating to a trans person who has just transitioned but feels unaccepted and unsupported due to constant misgendering. An example of misgendering is seen in the script for the Oscar winning movie ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ (2013) in which a character named Rayon (a trans woman played by cis actor, Jared Leto) is misgendered as a ‘he’ when the preferred pronoun that this character chooses is ‘she’.
Here is an excerpt from the same film:
‘Sitting on an examining table, meet RAYON, a cross-dresser in his early 30s, in long eyelashes, earrings, painted nails with a pink scarf tied around a full brown curly wig.’
Re-evaluation of the dated trans representation and its evolution
Although over the years cis actors such as Jim Carrey and Raquel Welch have spoken in interviews about re-evaluating their roles in movies such as ‘Ace Ventura’ and ‘Myra Breckenridge’ respectively which portrayed trans people poorly and have even gone to the extent of disowning these movies. Trans people have suffered due to such misrepresentation, facing arrests during the 90s and early 2000s, and have even been attacked under the assumption that they are nothing more than murderers and con artists - such was the case of Brandon Teena who was labelled as a ‘deceiver in disguise’ and murdered by hetero men in the 90s. Furthermore, thanks to this onscreen misrepresentation, young trans people who deserve to have a positive role model to look up to and learn from find themselves growing up in a world that has grown to hate and fear trans people.
While on one hand there are movies such as ‘A Fantastic Women’ (2017) which give trans characters, trans actors and trans people their due by casting a trans actor (Daniela Vega) playing a trans woman struggling against transphobia, on the other hand there are movies such as ‘Anything’ (also released in 2017) which received backlash for contributing to existing transphobia by encouraging the stereotypical cis perspective instead of lending support to trans actors in need of jobs and not telling an authentic story through the trans perspective like it could have.
Meanwhile, Bollywood is gradually trying to bring transgender stories to the fore through upcoming movies like ‘Man to Man’ and ‘Laxxmi Bomb’ (both set for release by 2020), but at the same time, is further enabling the cis perspective by restricting the participation of trans actors and instead casting well known cis actors like Adah Sharma and Akshay Kumar respectively in the roles of the trans characters.
Why does this misrepresentation need to change?
While in Hollywood, trans actors such as Laverne Cox, Tom Phelan, Brian Michael Scott, Jamie Clayton, Jen Richards and others are currently taking back their trans rights and leaving their mark in the industry with TV shows and movies such as ‘Orange is the New Black’(2013-2019), the 2016 remake of the campy 70s musical ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (the original starred Tim Curry, a cis heterosexual actor in the role of the lead character, a transvestite scientist named Dr. Frank N Furter), ‘Sense 8’ (2015-2018) and various other projects which allow them to showcase their potential , Bollywood fails to do justice to the fewer trans actors striving in the industry such as Bobby Darling who has only found fame as a fixture in the 90s and early 2000s movies as the stereotypical trans character who is only relied upon to be the butt of jokes.
“India is no country for trans actors,” Faraz Arif Ansari, a young queer director known for 2017’s critically acclaimed short film ‘Sisak’ (touted to be India’s first silent LGBTQIA+ love story) lamented after a hunt for trans actors for his next movie ‘Sabr’ yielded nothing. “I wanted to tell a story that doesn’t conform to societal norms, in order to actually change those norms. When a director in the U.S. does an open casting call for transgender actors, 5000 or so will show up, but if I did it here, not even 5 people would be able to come because Bollywood is extremely transphobic and no one cares about the emotional impact of misrepresentation.” he added.
Hopefully there is an abundant transformation in the film industry towards the treatment of trans people and trans actors and also an increase in the amount of trans characters on screen. There is a need for rich and positive true trans stories to be told through cinema and through the trans perspective, as well as a decrease in the overworked stereotypes that have led to exploitation of trans lives in the past.
The author of this Guest Post, Vidal D'costa, is a self-published author in sci-fi and romance on Amazon, a blogger and aspiring screenwriter. Vidal also writes content for food, lifestyle and travel blogs and as well as being a movie buff and film critic for The Movie Buff and The Movie Boozer.