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Blog: Trans Actors Portraying Trans Characters

Blog: Trans Actors Portraying Trans Characters

How cool is it that there are transgender actors playing transgender characters on mainstream TV shows—and not in an exploitative way? Much press has been given to Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black, a Netflix show about inmates in a women’s prison. As Sophia, Cox is a transgender woman incarcerated for credit card fraud after she went into debt paying for her physical transition. She is terrific in the role, and her storyline is quite moving. Laverne Cox is also a wonderful spokesperson. Now we have Tom Phelan of The Fosters. The Fosters, on ABC Family, is about an interracial lesbian couple who are raising the son of one of them, a brother and sister they adopted as young children, and another brother and sister they take in (during the Pilot episode) as foster teens. Although probably aimed at a younger audience than I, I was talked into giving it a try and was immediately drawn in. What I love about how The Fosters deals both with the sexual orientation of the parents and the gender identity of Cole (Phelan’s character) is that they’re just one aspect of the people involved. That is, while the writers don’t sidestep that Steph and Lena are gay, and some of the obstacles they faced as a result are discussed, their sexual orientation is not a major part of the plot. Yes, they are lesbians, but they are also fully fleshed out individuals with lives and jobs and children. Cole was new to the show this past season and he is not a main character, so the writers haven’t had a chance to completely develop his character. But the very fact that they hired a transgender actor is evidence to me that they are committed to providing a three dimensional portrait of Cole rather than a character whose sole identity is that he is transgender. Kudos to both The Fosters and Orange is the New Black for breaking new ground in a thoughtful manner.

One further note on this subject, which I will discuss more thoroughly in a later post. I have not yet seen the movie Dallas Buyers Club, so I don’t feel that I can intelligently comment on Jared Leto’s portrayal of a transgender woman. Obviously, many critics thought it award-worthy. However, it should be noted that many in the transgender community (along with their allies) are unhappy that a cisgender (not transgender) actor was chosen to portray a transgender woman, as it perpetuates the idea that transgender women are, essentially, men pretending to be women. A similar conversation has arisen around Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of a transgender woman in Arcade Fire’s recent video for their song, “We Exist.” I will explore these ideas and my view of Leto’s portrayal once I have squeezed watching “Dallas Buyers Club” into my very busy schedule of catching up on House of Cards, Parenthood, The Fosters, and The Good Wife—before the June 6th premiere of Season 2 of Orange is the New Black, where you will find me glued to the couch for several hours.

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