With Matt Bomer’s Casting, Hollywood Again Fails To Have Trans Actors Play Trans Characters

This doesn’t have to keep happening, but it does.

Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo after The Normal Heart won an Emmy for Outstanding Television movie. CREDIT: Dan Steinberg/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images
Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo after The Normal Heart won an Emmy for Outstanding Television movie. CREDIT: Dan Steinberg/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images

Transgender cultural visibility has surged in recent years, but that doesn’t mean the quality of those portrayals has necessarily improved.

This week, news that openly gay actor Matt Bomer had been cast in the role of a transgender sex worker in an upcoming movie sparked fierce backlash, because both the role and the casting reinforced just about every stale trope regarding transgender portrayals on screen.

The film, Anything, tells the tale of a southern widower who moves to Los Angeles and experiences an unlikely romance with a transgender sex worker. As Matthew Rodriguez pointed out at Mic, this is a stock character — the “hooker with a heart of gold” — whose main job is to serve the emotional arc of the real protagonist (generally a man).

It’s increasingly common that this stock character happens to be transgender, and that’s because transgender characters tend to be pigeonholed into certain depictions. A 2012 GLAAD study found that, over the previous 10 years, 20 percent of all transgender characters on television were sex workers. Additionally, 40 percent were cast in some sort of victim role. Transgender actress Calpernia Addams has characterized these cookie-cutter transgender characters as The Four “P’s”: prostitute, punchline, psycho, and “poor thing!” (aka the “noble victim”). The role Bomer is set to play seems to fall into not one, but two of these tropes, and as Rodriguez noted, it bears a striking resemblance to Jared Leto’s character in Dallas Buyers Club.

Bomer’s casting also reflects the recurring problem of cisgender actors being cast as transgender characters. An AutoStraddle analysis of trans portrayals on television over the past 50 years found only 20 percent of the characters were actually played by transgender actresses. Even in more recent transgender portrayals that are less tropey, cisgender actors continue to be cast (e.g., Felicity Hoffman in TransAmerica, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, Leto in the aforementioned DBC, Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent, etc.). Even though productions like The Danish Girl and Transparent have been proactive about recruiting transgender actors and actresses to play other characters, they still have relied on a cis male actor for their lead roles.

Advances in technology have helped some transgender actors get the attention they deserve. The award-winning film Tangerine and breakout webseries like Her Story and Brothers are perfect examples of transgender people taking film into their own hands, both in front of and behind the cameras. Likewise, Netflix is responsible for some groundbreaking opportunities, such as Laverne Cox on Orange Is The New Black and Jamie Clayton on Sense8, a show produced by the Wachowski sisters, who are also both transgender. Still, these are very much exceptions to the rule.

Cis actors being cast over trans actors isn’t just a problem because it eliminates opportunities for trans actors to break into the business. It also feeds into misunderstandings the general public might have about who transgender people are, particularly when cis men portray trans women.

Following the news of Bomer’s casting, Jen Richards, creator and star of Her Story, spelled out this argument — one she has made plenty of times before — on Twitter:

So far, neither Bomer nor executive producer Mark Ruffalo have commented on the controversy, aside from one perhaps telling interaction on social media. When Jamie Clayton, the transgender actress who stars in Sense8, tweeted to both Bomer and Michelle Rodriguez — whose new transgender revenge flick (Re)Assignment is also drawing ire from the trans community — to encourage them to do better by transgender people, Bomer responded by temporarily blocking her.

This apparently defensive reaction from Bomer is a bit ironic, considering both his transgender advocacy and his own journey as an openly gay actor. The rumor mill has long suggested that he was passed over for roles such as Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey or Superman in Superman Flyby, despite the fact he has played prominent straight characters on White Collar and Magic Mike. Though those two particular rumors have been largely debunked, producer Joel Michaely once admitted that Bomer was cut from a casting call for a leading man specifically because he was gay.

Though Bomer has downplayed the impact of his coming out, he hasn’t denied it, saying in 2014, “I think if you start to think too much about things that are completely out of control, it will just drive you crazy as an actor.” This past June, he thanked the producers who hired him to play another straight character on Amazon’s The Last Tycoon, saying that he’s inspired by people “who are willing to choose the person they feel best suits the role regardless of what their personal life might be.”

This may be a laudable sentiment in regards to gay actors not being pigeonholed into gay roles, but it ignores the fact that transgender actors still struggle to get cast in even the tropiest of transgender roles.

Update

Wednesday afternoon, Ruffalo posted the following tweets in response to the controversy:

Bomer has still not made any comment.