The entertainment trades lit up late last month with news that Elle Fanning had signed on to play a transgender teen boy in Three Generations, also starring Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon. The splashy casting announcement was carefully timed and placed for maximum impact at The American Film Market, an annual convention and trade show for independent filmmakers that ended earlier this week, around the time the first photos of Fanning in character surfaced.
Both Fanning and transgender issues are having moments in the public spotlight right now, so connecting the two has an air of inevitability. While many film fans may be excited about the casting news, within the trans community, an increasingly rancorous debate rages about what some call “transface,” a derogatory term for the practice of casting non-transgender actors as transgender characters. Some trans activists equate it with minstrelsy and blackface, believing these roles should go to trans actors.
Many trans people believe traditional casting creates a paradox: If all the major trans roles go to non-trans actors, how will trans actors ever get opportunities and experience needed to land major roles? It’s almost impossible to make a full-time living as a working trans actor in film and TV, and watching all the plum roles go to non-trans actors can make it feel like a war of attrition. Even Laverne Cox, who plays breakout character Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black, was about to abandon acting when her big role came along. So why do established actors keep taking most of the good trans roles?