When Are Trans Actors Allowed to Act?

The FX drama Pose is the rare example of a show that actually gives trans actors top billing—an effort made all the more urgent by a recent controversy that saw Scarlett Johansson cast as a transgender man.

Candy (Angelica Ross) and Lulu (Hailie Sahar) of the FX drama 'Pose'
Candy (Angelica Ross) and Lulu (Hailie Sahar) of the FX drama Pose (FX)

On Sunday night’s episode of Pose, the Ryan Murphy–helmed FX drama that follows the lives of several young queer and transgender people in New York’s ballroom scene, opportunities vanished.

In one scene, Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) confronts Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel), one of the abandoned queer youths she’d brought into her house, after she finds out that he’s been selling drugs. As he tries to defend himself, Lil Papi points out that there are precious few employment options for a 20-year-old with a limited education.

In another moment, the House Abundance mother Elektra (Dominique Jackson), one of the more established trans women in the scene, finds herself shut out of a relationship with Dick Ford (Christopher Meloni), the wealthy paramour whose love (and financial support) came with the condition that she not undergo gender-affirming surgery. Upon finding out that Elektra had paid for the surgery using the money he’d been giving her, Ford walks away from her—and leaves House Abundance without its most consistent source of funding for living expenses. After Candy (Angelica Ross) and Lulu (Hailie Sahar) discover how Elektra’s decision to embrace the last frontier of her own womanhood has jeopardized their livelihood, they confront her and resolve to leave even if they’re not yet sure where they’ll go.

Pose, the show, is itself an incubator of opportunity. The show features five trans actresses of color as its series regulars; between cast and crew, Pose employs at least 140 LGBTQ people, many of them trans. “I want this show to do more than just present a talented cast of trans actresses,” Murphy told the writer and producer Janet Mock, who also made her directorial debut with “Love Is the Message,” the show’s sixth episode. “I want ‘Pose’ to be uplifting and to give others who have not been given a chance a real opportunity to tell their own stories.” Writing for Variety about the experience of being the first trans woman of color to write, direct, and produce a television series, Mock echoed his sentiments: “My hope is that my work on ‘Pose’ does more than merely make history. I want it to make people feel their way through our characters, whose experiences have for so long been othered, invisibilized and sidelined.”

The show’s significance is, of course, partly informed by the dearth of productions like it on network and cable television. There is no shortage of trans-led stories in more democratized production spaces such as web series and YouTube channels, but the nearly intractable hierarchies of Hollywood largely push trans people out of any substantive, possibly career-defining, opportunities on either side of the camera. While cisgender actors rightfully worry about pay equity, the Her Story co-creator Jen Richards says many trans actors “would just be so thrilled to get a deeper part and to get paid at all.” The absence of trans people in popular entertainment isn’t an accident; it’s the result of purposeful exclusion. That sidelining manifests itself in multiple ways, perhaps the most obvious being the default rejection most trans actors experience throughout casting processes.

The stakes of exclusionary casting have once again come into focus, as news of Scarlett Johansson’s casting in the upcoming movie Rub & Tug circulated. Johansson was cast as the film’s lead character, a transgender man named Dante “Tex” Gill, and has since withdrawn from the film. But both Johansson’s initial response (deflecting criticism via a press representative who pointed to previous examples of cisgender actors playing trans characters) and the critical conversations that followed continue to shed light on just how far Hollywood—and critics—have left to go before any sort of meaningful equity is achieved.

On Friday, Angelica Ross, an actress on Pose and the founder of TransTech, an incubator for LGBTQ talent, spoke with NBC News’ Think. She weighed in not on her role in Mock’s television series, but on a question that has framed the trajectory of both women’s careers. Asked whether cisgender actors should be able to play trans characters, Ross spoke with clarity, conviction, and nuance:

What’s hurtful is when you have portrayals like, you know, when you have someone like Jared Leto who accepts an award for Dallas Buyers Club after playing a trans woman standing in a full beard and looking fully cis male, it is communicating to our audiences that underneath all of that, it’s still a man under that. And I feel like oftentimes with casting directors and directors that I’ve spoken with, myself and many other trans actors have been denied the opportunity because they tell us that we don’t look trans enough and that the audiences won’t get it, they’ll be confused. And what’s terribly painful and insidious about doing that is that what they’re trying to say is, as the movie’s going along and as the audience is watching, we don’t want them to forget that there’s a woman underneath there or there’s a man underneath there.

And actually that’s the point. We want you to forget. We want you to just see that this is a person, this is a human story. Forget what’s in between their legs, forget how they identify and their gender. That’s the objective of telling a good story. We should all be able to play a lot of different roles, but I would say until we reach that ideal we need to find ways of supporting one another that help to move society forward.

Johansson’s casting, like Leto’s, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Both are symptoms of larger problems within the industry, and the culture it shapes and reflects. To cast a cisgender woman as a transgender man—or, as is more frequently done, a cisgender man as a transgender woman—is to reinforce the narrative that trans people themselves are interlopers. But these castings do more than make statements questioning the veracity of trans identities. They also, as Ross noted, push trans actors out of work. The preponderance of these exclusionary choices is precisely what makes a show like Pose, with its LGBTQ-heavy cast and crew, revolutionary. Mining trans narratives without supporting trans creators isn’t new; it’s the norm.

After the initial news of Johansson’s casting, a wave of criticism, from writers such as Meredith Talusan, the executive editor of them, Condé Nast’s LGBTQ-focused publication, argued that cisgender actors should never play trans characters “as long as we live in a society where trans people see a fraction of the opportunities afforded to cis people.” The pushback to these sentiments was swift and facile. Perhaps most notably, last Thursday morning, the then–Business Insider columnist Daniella Greenbaum started her second internet maelstrom of the week. First, the writer published a piece defending Johansson’s casting; then, when the company deleted her piece after it received heavy criticism, Greenbaum announced her resignation from her post by tweeting the letter she’d sent to the media company’s global editor in chief. Her note began with a simple question: “Can an actor act?”

“That is the question I wanted to weigh in on when I saw the brouhaha about Scarlett Johansson’s role in the upcoming movie ‘Rub and Tug,’” Greenbaum continued. “My judgment: Yes. A woman can play a man or a trans man.”

After asserting this curiously demarcated opinion (trans men are, after all, men), Greenbaum took aim at her detractors, who’d called her piece transphobic for its defense of Johansson:

Apparently, that radical view—that actors should be free to act—is beyond the pale of acceptable opinion, as just a few hours after it went up, the piece was erased from the site following a campaign against me.

Greenbaum, in the letter, casts herself as a victim of the putative mob mentality that arises when “political correctness” goes unchecked:

Unfortunately, what happened with my piece—the tarring of a commonsensical view as somehow bigoted or not thought out; the capitulation on the part of those who are supposed to be the adults to the mob—is a pattern happening all over the country within institutions that pride themselves on open-mindedness and liberalism.

The assertions she makes, in the name of the purportedly lost arts of common sense and intellectual inquiry, are largely the domain of circular political posturing, but the question with which she opened her letter—Can an actor act?—is a more nuanced, interesting premise than her original work ever explored.

Far more instructive than debates over whether cisgender actors are “allowed” to play trans characters is the question of whether trans actors are supported in any acting. This is not to ask whether transgender actors are talented and capable enough to enter the entertainment industry, but to ask whether they are presented opportunities for success. Can a trans actor with the same level of skill as Scarlett Johansson ever ascend to the same strata that the blonde cis woman has occupied? Can a trans actor blithely court controversy and be offered … even more opportunities to stir up controversy?

As it stands, the answer to all these questions has overwhelmingly been no or almost never at best. Trans actors are routinely discriminated against before even auditioning, pigeonholed into stereotypical roles (sex worker, addict, thief). Johansson’s casting matters not just because of questions of authenticity, but also because of whom her hiring pushes out. For a trans actor, the role would be monumental. It would open doors. (Daniela Vega’s casting in A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio’s portrait of a trans woman struggling through grief after her partner’s death, is a particularly moving—and influential—example.) For Johansson, meanwhile, it’s yet another addition to a résumé with enough mismatched casting choices that they’ve become meme fodder.

Shows like Pose are only now beginning to shift this tide. Their efforts are slowly being recognized, but the burden of upending an entire industry’s history of discrimination should not fall on one LGBTQ-led show, or on trans actors alone. The entire exclusionary apparatus will have to dismantle itself, and that can start with cis actors turning down the roles for which they’re given preferential treatment. The resulting entertainment landscape—one in which trans stories are imagined and shared and driven by trans people—is worth these sorts of small sacrifices. Perhaps one day trans actors will not be summarily shut out of most opportunities in Hollywood and the stakes of these casting choices will not be so high. Until that vision becomes reality, though, these incremental changes matter. Or, as Ross said, “We can grow and evolve together, but right now we need the most authentic representation.”