Cisgender actors can play trans roles

Jordan Todosey, Adam Torres on Degrassi, with show creator Linda Schuyler at the 70th Annual Peabody Awards. Photo credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Oshawa’s Jordan Todosey is known for her role as Lizzie on Life with Derek, and for her role as Adam Torres on Degrassi. Torres was a female-to-male transgender, and his story on the show focused on his life as a trans man, and a teen in high school.

The role was a first, as Torres was the first trans teen to be a series regular on a scripted TV show. Todosey was praised for her role as Torres by GLAAD and her performance was described as “authentic and multi-dimensional”.

Todosey, however, is not transgender yet she was able to portray Torres respectfully and, as a result, quickly became a fan favourite on the show. She wasn’t met with backlash or criticism for taking the role.

This example proves cisgender actors can portray a transgender character as long as the portrayal is appropriate and done so respectfully.

If a cisgender actor is trying to portray a transgender character for the sake of telling a story, then they should be able to do so.

Scarlett Johansson is cisgender, which refers to anyone whose gender identity matches the sex they were born. Gender identity is a person’s sense of their gender, separate from their biological sex.

Johansson was met with backlash from the trans community earlier this year after being cast in the lead role of Rub & Tug, a film based on the true story of a transgender man who ran massage parlours as a front for prostitution.

Todosey wasn’t met with backlash, and Johansson shouldn’t have been either. As of July 2018, reports say Rub & Tug may be scrapped due to Johansson pulling out amidst backlash. If this happens, a story about a trans man will not be told apart from its first iteration in 2002.

The idea that cis actors, when portraying trans characters, take opportunities away from trans actors is a valid point. There aren’t many trans actors in Hollywood who get the same recognition as cis actors like Johansson.

But it would have been better had the trans community just let Johansson do the film.

Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto have both played male-to female transgender characters. Their portrayals earned them awards such as Redmayne’s Oscar for the Danish Girl and Leto’s Oscar for the supporting role in Dallas Buyers Club.

But many in the community were not pleased with having cisgender men portray transgender women.

The feelings are valid to a certain degree. It is true trans women already struggle to be seen as women even without cis men portraying them.

Todosey and Degrassi weren’t condemned for casting a cis woman to play a female-to-male transgender. If one cis actor can portray a trans character, then that should apply to all actors.

One could argue trans actors don’t often get cast in non-trans roles and by extension, the argument could be made that cis actors shouldn’t be cast in trans roles.

By saying only trans people should play trans roles it, in a sense, puts them in a box. For trans actors to be cast in non trans roles, cisgender actors should be allowed to portray trans characters without backlash.

Strides are being made for trans actors, look at Laverne Cox for example. As a black, transgender woman, Cox’s role on Orange is the New Black was an important milestone for the trans community. No trans person had ever been on the cover of Time magazine before her.

Yes, there is still a long way to go, but acting is about stepping into the shoes of someone else. A role should be given based on talent and ability, not on what is or is not in someone’s pants.

The trans community still struggles to be accepted and seen as equal, and having an A-list celebrity, like Johansson, Redmayne and Leto, can help put a trans storyline out there in the spotlight. It doesn’t matter if they’re trans, what matters is the story gets told.

Todosey’s role as Torres on ‘Degrassi’ was met with positivity and praise, and it did no harm to the trans community. It actually helped increase representation and visibility. The same should apply to anyone else who portrays a trans character, so long as they’re respectful in their portrayal.

What’s important is the trans community is visible and their stories are told respectfully and appropriately, because any trans person watching needs to see themselves represented in television and film.

Media has the power to change society and the way people view one another.