Trans actor demands right to play 'cis' roles

"It's about whether I'm the right person to tell the story of this character," Rodriguez said, "whether she's trans, cis, gender non-conforming, a monster, superhero or alien."

Libby Emmons Brooklyn NY

MJ Rodriguez is a trans actress who doesn't feel that her transgender identity should hold her back. Rodriguez, a biological male who identifies as transgender and uses female pronouns, said she wants "to be able to play anything." This statement follows high-profile incidents of actresses who were shamed out of playing trans male characters.

"It's about whether I'm the right person to tell the story of this character," Rodriguez said, "whether she's trans, cis, gender non-conforming, a monster, superhero or alien."

It was after getting an Emmy nomination for the role of Blanca in Pose, which was notably the first nomination for a biological male in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category, that Rodriguez told The Guardian that she wants "to be seen as a human being first."

Rodriguez doesn't want to be typecast as "the trans actress." Instead, she said: "I just want people to see me as a performer. An actress." Rodriguez doesn't want the fact of her being a biological male who identifies as transgender to prohibit her from being seen for her full potential.

"I would love it if my trans-ness was not always the leading cause of why I am celebrated," she said. When people watch me singing on stage I don't want them to be thinking about my trans-ness. I want them to be thinking: 'Who's that girl up there? She's turning it!'"

It was in 2016 that Jill Solloway, writer and creator of the hit show "Transparent," told Vulture that it was unacceptable for a cis man to play a trans character. She said that "The time has come where it's unacceptable for cis men to play trans women," noting that "It's pretty ironic coming from me, where I have a television show where a cis man plays a trans woman."

The idea behind this concept that an actor who is biologically male and identifies as male should not play a character who is biologically male but identifies as transgender stems from the idea that a transgender person's lived experience could not possibly be known or communicated by an actor who had not experienced that life.

In 2018, actress Scarlett Johansson was cast as Dante, a biological female who identifies as transgender, in a film called "Rub & Tug." After backlash from transgender-identified performers, Johansson pulled out of the project.

There were ethical considerations, Johansson said, to her playing a biological female who identifies as transgender when she is a so-called cisgender woman. She said at the time: "While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante's story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, an I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film."

At the time, Rodriguez's co-star Janet Mock took issue with Johansson's initial acceptance of the role, saying that though she hadn't read the script, the fact that Johansson had been cast in the role at all was not advisable. She said that Pose "proved that trans people can play trans people on screen and you don't need a star name (for success)."

Mock noted further that if Hollywood is comfortable having cisgender people play transgender people, they should also cast transgender people as cisgender people. This despite Johansson being shamed into dropping the role. "If cis people can play trans folk I think that it should happen vice versa," Mock said.

2020 saw Halle Berry shamed out of taking a role wherein she would have played a biological female who identifies as transgender, and she apologized for even having considered it. In July 2020, Berry said: "Over the weekend I had the opportunity to discuss my consideration of an upcoming role as a transgender man, and I'd like to apologize for those remarks."

"As a cisgender woman, I now understand that I should not have considered this role, and that the transgender community should undeniably have the opportunity to tell their own stories," she wrote on Twitter.

"I am grateful for the guidance and critical conversation over the past few days and will continue to listen, educate and learn from this mistake. I vow to be an ally in using my voice to promote better representation on-screen, both in front of and behind the camera," Vanity Fair reported.

Berry had said that she initially accepted the role, in part, because she wanted "to experience that world, understand that world." These remarks were considered offensive to trans-identified actors, who were of the opinion that Berry wouldn't be able to understand it.

"That's what I want to experience and understand and study and explore," Berry said at the time. "It's really important to me to tell stories, and that's a woman, that's a female story—it changes to a man, but I want to understand the why and how of that. I want to get into it."

Berry was praised for pulling out of the project and apologizing for her remarks. "We are pleased that @halleberry listened to the concerns of transgender people and learned from them. Other powerful people should do the same. A good place to start is by watching @Disclosure_Doc to learn about trans representation in media," GLAAD, the LGBTQ+ advocacy group said.

In reporting on the incident, Refinery29 wrote that "Representation for trans people means recognizing their unique struggles and giving them the agency to speak their truth to power — that starts with casting the right people to tell their stories."


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