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Cissupremacy: The Hollywood Edition

November 14, 2009

Or Hollywood Actress Gains Serious Acting Cred by Playing Trans, Yet Again. So Nicole Kidman is the latest in a series of cissexual Hollywood actors who have stumbled down that path of ignorance and bigotry which leads to playing a trans person. In The Danish Girl she will star alongside a number of other cissexual people in the film adaptation of a fictionalized account (by a cis person) of the life of an actual trans woman, Lily Elbe. Don’t worry if you don’t know anything about Lily Elbe, by the end of this film you won’t either. From Variety‘s item on the film:

One afternoon in 1920s Copenhagen, Greta, a portrait painter, asked her husband to stand in for an absent female model. Slipping on a dress, stockings and woman’s shoes began a metamorphosis into Lili. When the photos became wildly popular, Greta encouraged her husband to do more, but a harmless game evolved into something deeper that threatens their marriage.

Oh, my stomach already hurts. I could do a sentence by sentence deconstruction of why this is transmisogynist and cissupremacist (“metamorphasis”, the list of clothing, etc.), but that would just make my stomach worse. Of course there is heteronormativity – THREATENS THEIR MARRIAGE!!! – but before you cis queers hop on that bandwagon, remember it is heteronormativity done in the service of transmisogyny. I’ve seen and heard more than my share of heteronormativity come out of the mouthes of cis queers at the expense of trans women, so I’m feeling a bit conflicted about sharing this platform with you right now (I’m looking at you, Mr. Cis Gay Man at the Pride parade who had to loudly opine “Why would you get a sex change and be a dyke?” as the Dykes on Trikes rode by). Before I get into the nuance of discussing portrayals of trans people in cisspremacist media let me make this point clear: A cis person performing as a trans person is bigotry. There’s no “good” way to do it, it does trans people nothing positive, and it is at best ignorantly complicit with a system which at its extremes kills trans people to keep us in line. Apologists need not bother engage me on this. We’ve been through this before, of course.

Transamerica was the product of a cissexual writer/director, a cissexual producer/director, with a cissexual lead, all allegedly telling the story of a trans woman’s experience. I’m sure the special effects artists who prepared the silicon penis for cissexual lead Felicity Huffman to wear was cissexual, too. It was given awards and praise from the cis LGB community, but I didn’t know what exactly I was supposed to take from this film that couldn’t miss the point of my experience any further if it tried. That’s not the point, though, is it? Films such as Transamerica (and as The Danish Girl will be I am sure) are for cis audiences, to reinforce their fears about trans women, and to laud their own for acting out their culture’s bigotry. I have made the point before: Cis dominance and control of the narratives of trans lives is the central mechanism through which trans people and trans women especially are marginalized. It provides the framework for apologists to our assaults and murders, and justifies cis fear and hate. Whether it is a Hollywood film with real movie stars, or the straw man ranting of transmisogynist feminists making effigies of lives I never come across as described by actual trans women, it denies us real experiences and voices to keep us apart and othered, less than human. It sets an acceptable standard for often fatal violence to reinforce this system. Think about that before you pay one dollar to see films like these, please?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Cere permalink
    November 15, 2009 7:44 am

    That link is just awful. I read it earlier and she refuses to even consider that what she’s saying is hurtful. It just the worst.

  2. Maggie permalink
    November 25, 2009 9:40 pm

    I’m about halfway through the comments, and it is…yeah, awful. So hateful.

  3. November 26, 2009 12:17 pm

    Yeah, it is pretty jarring, the degree of hate people will engage in for people they don’t even know. I try to ignore those kinds of blogs/idealogues, but it is good to remind people this is the background static of the lives of trans women.

  4. Maggie permalink
    November 26, 2009 12:26 pm

    I actually hadn’t realized that trans women had to deal with this crap from the LGB and feminist communities too. So it has been instructive. Depressing as hell, but instructive.

  5. November 30, 2009 9:14 pm

    I’ll bet Nicole Kidman is planning to rack up some Oscar nominations with this one. –sigh–

    (Also, comments on that blog post — “there’s no such thing as cis privilege”? What kind of an alternate universe does this person live in?)

  6. Emma permalink
    December 3, 2009 4:29 am

    Am I missing something here, I only see four comments, the majority of them calling the shit out?

  7. Emma permalink
    December 3, 2009 4:57 am

    Oh, found it – nevermind. And truly, a lot of that blog post is hurtful – mainly the fact that many of the writers don’t seem to know much of the actual lived experiences of the people they’re attacking.

  8. Samantha permalink
    December 3, 2009 5:17 am

    I’ve lurked here forever but my horror at that link has compelled me to (finally) post. Reading that rant describing trans women as “fuck toys” for men is truly disturbing. As a cis female feminist I was certainly aware of the reputation of certain radfems for transphobia and transmisogyny but oh. my. word.

    The whole “I’m not transphobic because I think trans people deserve the same human rights as I do, but I reserve my right as a privileged cis person to dehumanise trans women by referring to them as ‘fuck toys’ and a varied assortment of other deeply offensive terms. And there’s no such thing as cis privilege” thought process makes me want to eat my own head. And writing as if what she is saying is somehow daring and transgressive; because no-one ever criticises, dehumanises and questions the gender presentation of trans people, never! Except, you know, everyone, all the time. Gah.

    I’m so enraged by that I can’t even talk sense, and I’m only half way through the comments.

    As for that movie… it sounds like all kinds of fail.

  9. Gingembre permalink
    December 3, 2009 7:27 am

    That factcheckme post is unbelievable. She boils every issue surrounding gender down to man oppresses woman, and if something doesn’t fit in with her phenomenally simple world view then it just doesn’t exist. She genuinely thinks that transpeople choose to transition just for shits and giggles (I guess gender dysphoria doesn’t exist either). She thinks that the oppression of women comes down to their capacity to become pregnant, and that because transwomen can’t do this, they magically don’t experience oppression. (Does she also think that infertile ciswomen have a get-out-of-patriarchy-free card? I bet not.)

    Someone needs a crash course in intersectionality.

  10. Claire permalink
    December 3, 2009 8:11 am

    This is so sad on so manyy levels, not only because the story was written from a platform of cis-priveledge and probably doesn’t reflect the real experiance and complexity of this woman’s life, but because there are so many beautiful and talented trans actresses out there. Give one of them the spotlite for a minute and a half!

  11. Fay permalink
    December 3, 2009 9:32 am

    Gingembre: I masochistically looked through a bunch more of her posts, and I am pretty sure she wouldn’t even sign up for the course. Sigh.

    I am by no means an expert on trans issues, but to just keep asserting “there’s no such thing as cis privilege, la la la I can’t heeeear yooou” is just… appalling.

  12. alix permalink
    December 3, 2009 10:41 am

    I’m just curious as to how you feel about transgender women being played by men — I recently watched the HBO (I think it was HBO…) film Soldier’s Girl. Calpernia Addams was played by Lee Pace — and I believe the real Capernia Addams was actually involved in the making of the movie.

  13. DBN permalink
    December 3, 2009 1:49 pm

    I can’t even comment on the main topic of this post, having read the ‘factcheckme’ piece. That had so much more hate and vitriol than- … than I even have words for.

    I know better than to think that all people who identify as ‘left’ are allies; I’ve seen plenty of bigotry among the (more) privileged in my own political camp. Even still, I’m shocked.

    I’m so sorry that your eyes and mind were tainted by that, and sorrier still that trans people have to contend with such hatred from people who really *should* be allies.

  14. December 3, 2009 11:37 pm

    My god, that post. Apparently the name of the game there is “Obtuse”.

    I think it’d have given one of them a heart attack to hear that I’m a bi-leaning-toward-homosexual trans man who never identified as a lesbian.

  15. awh394 permalink
    December 4, 2009 8:36 am

    I’m going to echo Maggie – I had no idea that the LGB community had this type of hate for those who are trans. That factcheckme post blows my mind, like a person just magically wakes up one day and decides to transition and then they’re trans…. It’s basically saying that biology (chromosomes and genitalia) trumps brain-based gender identity, which doesn’t make any sense at all. I love the line about residual male privilege, cause being beaten or murdered for who you are is really privilege. I never thought I was any sort of expert on gender identity, but the bigotry displayed by that post is shocking.

  16. JupiterPluvius permalink
    December 4, 2009 9:58 am

    Shouldn’t trans women be played by trans women, and trans men by trans men? There are professional actors who are trans, after all—it’s not an unreasonable level of specification/identification to encourage that.

  17. badhedgehog permalink
    December 4, 2009 10:14 am

    I knew that some in the LGB community and some who call themselves radical feminists were very transphobic, because a trans friend told me so a long time ago. I hadn’t seen *that* level of hatred and othering and denying before (yeah, cis privilege, I has it). I read over half of the comments and I genuinely felt kind of ill.

    Crazy that someone who identifies as a feminist would have such a lousy idea of the different ways in which male privilege is actually transmitted (I’m not expecting everyone to have it right, out of the starting gates. I don’t expect cis or trans women to know the a-z of male privilege without thinking about it a lot, but someone who supposedly HAS thought about it? Oioioioioi). But sadly, when people have got their hearts set on being complete and utter bigoted shits, evidence and reason don’t shift them.

    (Hi, by the way. Any North American who digs Slade is cool in my book)

  18. ruth permalink
    December 5, 2009 12:43 pm

    weel.. i know that a cis-gendered person probably cant write an accurate account of a transpersons life experience. but act it? a good actor should be able to (act a transpersons story i mean) it just strikes me as tiresome and dumb. the equivalent of the black girls story written from the stuff you see looking out your window driving through her suburb. and that link is.. wow.. vicious. and such CRAP (i kept hearing echoes of racist rhetoric (“all these people”do/have X bad thing- anyone?) all the way through that.. grow up and see your own bigotry.

  19. December 6, 2009 11:10 am

    I know better than to think that all people who identify as ‘left’ are allies; I’ve seen plenty of bigotry among the (more) privileged in my own political camp. Even still, I’m shocked.

    *ding ding ding ding*

    Yeah. I often said I am more leery of my allies than my so-called “enemies”. There is just as much motivation to maintain privilege , while trying to usher in a kinder, gentler version of the status quo.

    I knew that some in the LGB community and some who call themselves radical feminists were very transphobic, because a trans friend told me so a long time ago. I hadn’t seen *that* level of hatred and othering and denying before (yeah, cis privilege, I has it). I read over half of the comments and I genuinely felt kind of ill.

    What I have observed is single issue activists recapitulate some of the systems of privilege/oppression towards marginalized folks and do so without of trace of irony. Pretty much the only community that welcomed me as a queer person of color in my early days of sorting out my sexuality identity were TRANS WOMEN.

    Pretty much the only community that stuck it neck out for my brown ass back in the bad old days of early 90s feminism were TRANS WOMEN.

    Tacking a couple of letters at the end of an acronym is NOT activism, direct action or inclusion. But folks within the queer community can continue to believe so.

  20. firefey permalink
    December 6, 2009 11:15 am

    i’ll take a stab at the “why can’t a cis actor do this, i mean it’s just acting,” question.

    a cis actor can play a trans person, but it’s like getting a bunch of white actors to play the all asian cast of avatar. it’s wrong. add to this the fact that nicole kidman is a very feminie, very pretty woman and you’re treding all kinds of “passing” issues. she’s what women are supposed to want to look like, and unrealistic beauty standards asside, there’s a less than subtle undercurrent of telling trans women that unless they look like her, they can’t ever really be women. it’s a lot of the issue i remember having with Felicity Huffman in transamerica. there was all this talk about how she was manly-looking enough to play a trans women (while still having a femininity), and how square her jaw was, and all the makup she went through to look more like a trans woman. again, enforcing this idea about what trans women look like. only in this case they were trading on the “men in dresses” trope.

    and the reality is that there are very talented trans actors out there hustling for work, who would be more than capable of birnging their talented selves to this film. just like there are really talented first nations actors who could have been cast in the new twilight, and asian actors who would have rocked in avatar, and persian actors who would have been awesome in prince of persia, and albino actors who should have gotten the part in davinchi code, and on and on and on. but to hollywood, those marginalized actors only make marginalized films seen by marginalized audiences with marginal profits. it’s not so much the question of can any actor play any roll no matter the race, gender, orientation or dis/ability of the character but rather the question is SHOULD they.

  21. Rikki King permalink
    December 12, 2009 10:55 pm

    thanks for writing this.

    it’s thought-provoking.

  22. Alice Sofia permalink
    June 20, 2010 6:33 pm

    I hate it when cis men portray transwomen but I don’t mind ciswomen portraying transwomen. It feels like those making those casting decisions are equating transwomen with ciswomen and vice versa, which is what we want, right?

    But the few times I see the other way around, transwomen portraying ciswomen, that’s the best!

    I’m glad Nicole Kidman got cast. “Tranface”? Yeah, if you’re talking about cis guys playing transwomen, but not this.
    A woman portraying a woman.


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