Amid the generally sparkling reviews for the new Amazon series Transparent, there has been one consistent criticism: many transgender people and their allies are upset about the casting of cis male actor Jeffrey Tambor in the role of Maura, a trans woman who is just beginning her transition at the start of the show.
When I reviewed the Transparent for Bitch after its debut two weeks ago, many people spoke up with this critique. “Having a cis male actor playing a trans woman perpetuates the idea that trans women are just men in drag,” explained one reader. “It also reinforces the idea that femininity is an artificial mask of sorts, about appearance—and it advances transmisogyny.”
I agree that more positive trans representation is sorely needed in entertainment and that, all too often, roles that should go to trans actresses and actors go instead to their cis counterparts. But I don't agree that every trans character is best portrayed by an actor or actress who has physically transitioned.
That statement may sound confusing, or even counterintuitive, but I'll try to explain it. In Transparent, we meet Maura at the very outset of her transition. She is at retirement age and has lived her whole life as a male-assigned person. Likewise, the show surrounds her with family members who have only ever seen her in that persona. While the show affirms her female gender, much of its drama stems from the emotional and psychological shifting that trans people and those around them experience when the trans person comes out and begins socially transitioning. To my mind, this idea can be dramatically executed very well by a cis male actor.
I'm aware from the comments made on my review that this isn't a universally held view. For me, it comes from my own experience of transitioning in my late 30s. Like Maura, I'd lived decades as a male-assigned person and my body had developed in a way typical to someone who'd been exposed to testosterone. The first year or two of my transition, I experienced acute dysphoria: I knew myself to be female, but, prior to my hormone treatments kicking in, prior to laser treatments that eliminated my facial hair growth, and prior to my hair growing the length I wanted, the person that people saw me as (and even the way I saw myself) was not the person I experienced myself to be inside. A cis male actor like Tambor, because of his physical development, can convey this discrepancy.
I've written critically in the past about the casting of cis male actors for trans woman roles, such as the casting of Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer's Club or Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. In those cases. I find the choice of actor to be sensational—they treat trans women as exotic creatures to be imitated, rather than humans who can portray themselves. Dallas Buyer's Club director Jean-Marc Vallee wondered aloud during an interview whether trans actresses exist, inadvertently displaying the depth of his ignorance about the trans experience, and, to my mind, his lack of qualifications to be depicting us in his stories. In contrast, Transparent creator Jill Soloway has been a model of conscientiousness, populating her set with trans actresses and actors, trans crew members, and consultants. Trans woman Zackary Drucker and trans man Rhys Ernst, both producers on Transparent, say they understand criticisms the casting of Tambor have sparked.
"We welcome debate," Drucker told me last week. "It's a complicated and thorny issue."
Jill Soloway and Jeffrey Tambor, as Maura, talk on the set of Transparent. Photo by Gregory Zabilski via Amazon.
Both Drucker and Ernst realize that their show and all shows involving trans characters enter a world that's been historically hostile to trans identities.
"There's a hunger for representations of people in our affirmed genders," says Ernst. "I understand that. We're very much behind that impulse."
"We're starting from zero," adds Drucker. "We're coming from a place where representations have been aggressively problematic."
Ernst says he agrees that productions have a responsibility to cast trans actresses and actors in trans roles "98 percent of the time," but feels exceptions ought to be made in cases involving child roles and pre-transition situations like that of Maura’s. Given that the show begins with Maura still presenting as a man, he thought it would be offensive to hire a trans woman and “put her in male drag."
It's not clear whether Maura will medically transition, say the producers. Further along in the show, she may settle into a genderqueer identity, which could mean introducing a large audience to a part of the trans umbrella they might not previously have encountered.
Meanwhile, Drucker and Ernst both talk about the importance placed on making Transparent a "globally" transgender show, meaning that trans views, input, and experiences inform every aspect of its creation. Ernst uses the term "trans-firmative" to describe the production: in its first season, Transparent provided 15 speaking roles for trans actors and employed 10 trans crew members. Hiring as many trans people as possible behind the camera and "placing trans people in a place of authorship” has been a major priority for the show, says Drucker.
"I think there are times when hiring a cis actor can be done correctly, but it has to be a big picture choice, and has to be for the right reason," Ernst says. "One thing I've noticed since working on this production is a growing sense of pride. I hold my head higher from being a part of this community, and being professionally affirmed as I have."
Leela Ginelle is a trans woman playwright and journalist whose work appears in PQ Monthly, Bitch, and the Advocate.
Related Reading: Check Out These 41 Transgender-Friendly Books for Young Kids.