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why is elle fanning playing the lead in about ray?

Trigger warning for the trailer below: misgendering, transphobic low-level violence

Next month About Ray will be released in the US, adding to the stories being told about trans folks right now – the key word being about and not by trans folks. About Ray looks like it will not only be a great film, but a significant one, adding to the debate about the importance of transitioning early. Unfortunately, Hollywood has taken this amazing role and given it to a cisgender actress, Elle Fanning.

I don’t doubt Fanning’s talents, but Hollywood has a troubling habit of casting cisgender actors as transgender characters. Transgender people have become more visible in the media than ever before, but too often their stories are portrayed by cisgender actors. While these actors generally have the best intentions, these portrayals are problematic at best and damaging at worst. This conversation recently came to the fore with Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club, a part many said he, as a straight cis man, had no right to take.

The occurrence of trans characters in Hollywood films is few and far between. Even Laverne Cox, the first black trans woman to win an Emmy and who appeared on the cover of Time with the words ‘Transgender Tipping Point’, started out playing only sex workers: ‘There are so few well-rounded trans female roles out there,’ she’s stated. So, now that Hollywood is starting to write these roles, why are they giving them to cis actors?

One argument is that projects like About Ray, Dallas Buyers Club and 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry need Name Actors to draw an audience. But TV shows like Orange is the New Black and Sense 8 are successfully launching the careers of their trans actors. Back on the big screen, Aussie flick 52 Tuesdays, about the transition process of a trans man and his relationship with his daughter, managed to cast a trans person in that role.

It’s troubling that in their rush to be on the right side of history when it comes to LGBTQIA+ rights film companies keep green lighting projects written, produced and acted out by cisgender people, instead of projects like “Her Story” and “Happy Birthday Marsha!”, which are struggling to raise funds. Without the lived experiences that trans people have, production companies have missed the fact that they’re perpetuating some pretty damaging stereotypes.

Choosing Elle Fanning to portray a trans boy maintains the misconception that trans men are just women who bind their chest and cut their hair. Conversely, trans women are not just men wearing dresses, although you wouldn’t know it from watching Dallas Buyers Club. These films don’t just misgender their characters in their casting, but also their scripts. Misgendering trans people can be seriously damaging and it can also trigger dysphoria. Many film companies are completely unaware of the damage they can do with a misplaced pronoun, let alone their casting choices.

Transgender covers a whole range of gender identities and, as a cisgender person, it can be hard to understand what that entails. The best and really the only way for understanding of transgender lives to grow is for transgender voices to be heard. When their stories and experiences are hijacked by Hollywood for profit, is Hollywood really on the right side?

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