On-Screen Transitions

Trans actors are changing the way we think about gender roles.

In the first episode of Boy Meets Girl, Judy and Leo are sitting down to a romantic dinner at a fancy restaurant. Before ordering, Judy announces that she’s got something to tell Leo: “I could tell you later or I could tell you now, and I’d rather tell you now. I was born with a penis.” The stunned waiter, who happened to walk in on that unorthodox bit of dinner conversation, awkwardly asks the pair for their orders. Judy sends him away with a nervous smile and Leo stares uncomprehendingly while the audience—and Judy—wait for Leo’s response.

“It’s a love story about a boy and a girl and one of them happens to be cisgender and one of them happens to be trans and that’s that,” says Rebecca Root, the British actor and trans woman who plays Judy in the sitcom. The second season aired last summer on the UK television channel BBC Two. “It’s incidental that she’s trans. It’s a love story at it’s core.”

Indeed, Leo finds the fact that Judy was born with a penis a mere technicality: “So, you were born in the wrong body.” And with that ready-for-prime-time explanation, the story progresses with the typical ups and downs of modern relationships, plus the additional challenges of an age gap (Judy is “a woman of a certain age”) and kooky, meddling family members. But 26-year-old Leo, played by doe-eyed British actor Harry Hepple, seems open to learning about Judy’s obstacles and triumphs, and the audience learns as well.

Debuting with 1.5 million viewers, Boy Meets Girl was received positively as having a heartfelt storyline with earnest actors. The Guardian called Root, who also appeared in The Danish Girl, “a star in the making.” Although the Daily Mail critiqued its “instruction manual” scripting surrounding trans issues.

Laverne Cox

Laverne Cox attends the premiere of Orange Is the New Black.

While Boy Meets Girl keeps working to win over hearts and minds in the British Isles, American audiences have been enjoying trans-focused storylines at least since the runaway Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black debuted in 2013. The comedy-drama series, set in a women’s prison, features trans actor and activist Laverne Cox as the prison hairstylist, a trans woman who gets a heavy dose of screen time and a fleshed-out backstory. Cox has been outspoken about media representations of trans people, especially when the attention has focused so prominently on the transition process.

Many in the trans community hope that increased visibility, especially in media and entertainment, will help change public consciousness about trans people. “Any time you give a trans person the opportunity to be ourselves, you are creating a shift in the way society sees us,” says Trace Lysette, who has had TV roles in NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Starz cable network’s Blunt Talk opposite Patrick Stewart. Her highest-profile role yet is that of sassy yoga instructor Shea on the popular, Amazon-produced comedy series Transparent, the story of a retired, divorced college professor who finally tells his adult children and the world that he identifies as a woman.

Transparent has been very well received, winning five Emmys and two Golden Globes for its first season, but there has been some criticism that the protagonist is played by a cisgendered actor, Jeffrey Tambor, who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his role. Tambor’s controversial casting is the latest in a line of cisgender actors playing trans people in prominent roles, some fictional (ex-football player Rebecca Muldoon in The World According to Garp, played by an Oscar-nominated John Lithgow; disease-stricken Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, played by an Oscar-winning Jared Leto) and others real life (murdered trans man Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, for whose portrayal Hilary Swank won a Best Actress Oscar; trans pioneer Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, for which Eddie Redmayne earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor).


Trace Lysette and Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent.

Speaking to The Advocate at the 2015 Outfest Legacy Awards honoring the 15th anniversary of Boys Don’t Cry, Swank said of her casting, “[i]t’s challenging. I think if the transgender actor is right for the role, then I think they should get the role, if they’re the better actor for the role,” she said. “But in the end, we’re people who are portraying characters. …It’s like someone saying to me, well, you’re not gay, lesbian, or transgender, you shouldn’t play Brandon Teena. I think they thought I just happened to be the right actor at that moment to portray that character.”

Trans filmmaker Andrea James has a more pragmatic take on the issue of on-screen representation. “There are business realities that force the industry to make certain kinds of decisions that aren’t necessarily in our best interest as a community,” James told The Advocate in 2015. “I understand from both sides of it. As a producer, I see why you want to get the best, and biggest, and most experienced person you can for a film, especially if you’ve worked on it for years and years and have investors who you want to pay back. But on the other hand, the other part of me wishes that there were more kinds of those opportunities for trans actors.”

Ian Harvie

Actor Ian Harvie.

Many trans performers have found that humor has been the key to shifting closer to that perfect world. “I think making people laugh is disarming,” says Ian Harvie, actor and stand-up comedian who is one of the few well-known trans men in the entertainment business at the moment. “Your first laugh, you’ve opened up in a way that I can access you. Get you to agree, both laughing at something, then get you to think about something you hadn’t considered in this way before.”

Harvie has had recurring roles on Transparent, as well as that of a romantic lead—yes, transgender—in the fourth season of the popular ABC nighttime soap opera, Mistresses, the first major role for a trans man actor on a prime-time show. As trans performers continue to break down barriers, playing romantic partners to cisgender characters and playing characters whose gender is immaterial to the part, it becomes easier to imagine dream roles becoming reality. “I would love to be the next Tomb Raider,” says Lysette, known as much for her community advocacy as her acting. “We need a trans actor to play a superhero eventually.”

[©Image 1, 2 and 5 courtesy of Rebecca Root, Image 9 courtesy of by Marion Curtis/Netflix, Image 10 courtesy of Amazon Studios, Image 11 courtesy of Ian Harvie]

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