Transgender portrayals in film

Feature by Ioana Poprowka.
Published 16 April 2006

I once read a quote which passed comment on the dubious honour bestowed upon any actress chosen to portray a transsexual: on the one hand, the casting director feels you have the talent to tackle such a challenging and controversial role; on the other, they think you look like you might once have been a man. Although this does rather over-simplify a complex issue, it does highlight the problem of successfully bringing transsexual issues to life on screen: should one cast a woman or a man?

When actress Julie Hesmondhalgh took on the role of Hayley in Coronation Street, she became Britain's Teatime Transsexual, and took on much more than just an acting job. Although some campaigners were upset that a biological woman had been chosen for the part, they had nothing but praise for Hesmondhalgh's dedication and sensitivity. Hayley was, for many viewers, the first transsexual they had ever knowingly allowed into their home, and Hesmondhalgh realised that with this came a responsibility - she has become an outspoken activist for trans rights, and as Hayley, she has heralded a new level of acceptance among people across the country.

Perhaps the aspect most instrumental in this acceptance is the fact that, after the initial ratings-grabbing storylines, Hayley settled into the Street as just another woman, leading the same drab hum-drum life as everybody else. It's refreshing to see a transsexual character brought so convincingly to life. Her character has a depth which makes it possible to forget her gender identity, which is exactly as it should be. Had a man been chosen for such a long-term part, it's difficult to know whether the British public would have so easily taken Hayley to their hearts.

Unfortunately, for many transsexual women, their transgender status is not something they can so easily forget about. The fear of being given away by one's broken voice, feeling awkwardly larger than other women, having to disguise masculine features and a five o'clock shadow with heavy make-up, being mistaken for a drag queen: can a biological female ever truly portray these problems? Kathleen Turner's deep rasping voice landed her the part of Chandler's father in hit US sit-com Friends, and with her hair teased as high as the Empire State Building and make-up thicker than George Bush it's just possible to believe she might have, as her on-screen ex-wife quipped, "a little too much penis to be wearing a dress like that." The plight of the transsexual will always be easy to poke fun at, but such
problems aren't funny when experienced first-hand.

In Canadian romantic comedy 'Better Than Chocolate', Peter Outerbridge plays Judy, a transsexual lesbian just weeks away from her final surgery. The portrayal is beautifully observed: Judy is softly spoken, a nod to a technique taught in speech therapy to help transsexual women hide deep voices. She even gets to sing in a tuneful falsetto, and performs a hilarious number, I'm Not A Fucking Drag Queen, in which she challenges people's misconceptions of her. My favourite moment in the film is when Judy fends off homophobic attackers, who spit at her and yell "Dyke!"
Delighted at having passed as a woman, she beams and calls thanks after them. Although Outerbridge has unmistakably masculine features and build, his portrayal of Judy as a delicate, genteel woman is utterly convincing.

Gender-bending on screen can be beneficial to the actor as well as the cause: Terence Stamp, tired of being forever typecast as the villain, was said to have been about to give up acting altogether until he read the script of 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert', in which he played transsexual showgirl, Bernadette, and his career was reborn. And Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her controversial film 'Boys Don't Cry', in which she played trans man Brandon Teena. It is interesting that female-to-male transsexuals don't reach popular culture anywhere near as much as their  male-to-female counterparts; somehow the comedy falls short when the tables are turned.

Of course, you can only truly understand someone when you've walked a mile in their size twelves, and given that there is a distinct lack of out transsexual actors, casting directors must make their own decisions. It would be interesting to see how people would respond to an out trans person playing a non-trans character; I'm reminded of a quote by Riki Anne Wilchins, in response to misguided people telling her she looks just like a real woman: "And you look just like a real transexual. Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't realise that was an insult."