Diego Luna, star of Rogue One: a Star Wars Story, played a trans woman in the film Berlin, I love you. Let's examine the story and talk about the problems that these casting choices bring to trans women.

Periodically, we always return to the question "is it right to use cisgender men to play transgender women?". And, as always, a thousand thousand debates arise, with one side screaming at transphobia and the other screaming at censorship.

Honestly, this debate has tired me. We are talking about a very complex topic which, in order to be addressed well, also requires a certain knowledge of the history and challenges that the trans community faces. To reduce everything to an accusation of censorship, to an attack on the art of the actor who must also interpret characters other than himself, is short-sighted. Just as those who cry out to transphobia in the aggressive manner of certain adolescent SJWs, who exaggerate, are shortsighted. Speaking consciously and in depth about transsexuality is essential, otherwise you risk being shortsighted and exceeding in one sense or another.

Asking cisgender male actors to play trans women can be problematic and can lead to germinating stereotypes that are also very dangerous for trans women today. These problems must be recognized, analyzed and addressed, without labeling them as a hysteria of respectability and of the good guys.

Let's see a little of what we are talking about.

Give me the Diego Luna hairdresser, though

The role of Diego Luna in Berlin, I love you

First, let's give some context.

Diego Luna (actor that I love to death and that I can't wait to see in the new television series on Star Wars) is part of the cast of Berlin, I love you. It is a romantic comedy that is part of a series of films called Cities of Love, which we have already seen Paris, Je T'Aime e New York, I Love You.

In particular, Berlin, I love you is characterized by a very interesting cast, which sees many well-known names such as Keira Knigthley and Mickey Rourke, both actors made famous by Game of Thrones, such as Iwan Rheon (Ramsay Bolton) and Sibel Kekilli (Shae). In addition, of course, to our beloved Diego.

In this film, Luna plays one transgender woman, whose name we still do not know, which after having quarreled with his boyfriend he has a conversation with a Berlin teenager. The latter feels confused about his sexual orientation and is looking for answers: Does he like men or does he not like them?

So, the boy says, "I wish I knew what it's like to kiss a man."

Luna's character, however, replies like this: “Technically, what you have in front of you right now is a woman. Can not run."

But the boy does not give up: "Yes, but you are a man!"

And the woman then replies: "It's a bit more complicated than that."

And that's all we know about the character of Diego Luna, in addition to the fact that he dresses in a very feminine way, wears a very trash fur, drinks beer, has beautiful curls and sometimes sits like a burina at the bar.

Diego Luna in Drag Queen format (but MAYBE was impersonating a Drag Queen!) Burina and beer drinker - Photo posted by Pinksixty
Diego Luna in burina format and beer drinker - Photo published by Pinksixty

Trans women: what are we talking about?

So, when dealing with a speech like this, I think it is necessary to make some clarifications.

Le trans women they are women who have found themselves having a male body, but whose gender identity is female. These women, therefore, usually undergo a hormonal and / or surgical transition process to give their body the appearance they feel most appropriate.

Trans women have therefore never been men, and at most they had to face a process of becoming aware of their own identity, since since they were born they have been told that they are men. It is also important to underline that undergoing the hormonal and / or surgical transition is neither an obligation nor a requirement to be “ver *” trans.

Terminological note: in Italian usage we tend to see the terms "transsexual" and "transgender" as synonyms. In reality, they are not: "transgender”Indicates a person who does not identify with his or her birth sex; "transsexual”Indicates a person who does not identify with his birth sex and who wants to get closer to his gender by resorting to hormonal therapies and / or surgery. A transgender person, therefore, will not necessarily feel the need to modify their body to feel comfortable. To find out more, I recommend this article.

In that sense, the character played by Diego Luna could be a transgender person. The question is not clear and, therefore, the term "transgender" will be preferred for its broader semantic scope.

Men disguised as women and other prejudices

Now, in the case of characters who are trans women, hiring male actors (cisgender, therefore born and identifying as men, like Diego Luna) can certainly be a strategy to underline how a trans woman who undergoes hormonal or surgical transition faces however he struggles to "To pass" for a cisgender woman. (Which, however, a transgender woman is under no obligation to do.)

Despite the fact that hormones work wonders, in fact, there are many trans women who do not feel feminine enough, or who are afraid of still having a masculine enough body to make people notice that they are transsexuals. This fear is not simply due to some kind of embarrassment towards one's transition, but is due to real threatens to be attacked by transphobic people.

tend, transphobia is the daughter of the thought that trans women are actually men in disguise, men who pretend to be women and who, after taking off their make-up and dress, are male (complete with a surprise!). It is a thought that we know very well in Italy and which is still very much alive, when journalists, speaking of the death of a trans woman, write “the trans”. Or when Vladimir Luxuria go talk to the program At the blackboard! and the comments to the newspaper articles are as follows:

This vomiting of a man dressed as a woman in the early evening is a defeat for our state with a 2000-year-old Catholic culture…. (ANSA)

They should not let a transvestite broadcast on TV, it is not fair for children, at least he dressed as a man ... (Daily fact)

The princess with the bunch and the beard against the hair .... but on .... the diversity must be accepted .... but you can't flaunt it continuously .... but who the hell allows it ... (The newspaper)

It should also be emphasized, then, that the erroneous idea according to which trans women are nothing but men disguised as women is not only typical of certain bigoted and / or burini circles, but is also carried on by a certain type of feminist rhetoric.

We are obviously talking about the infamous TERF (Trans Exclusionist Radical Feminists), who place a lot of emphasis on the physical femininity of women and who exclude trans women from their spaces. Because, according to them, trans women are men who are trying to infiltrate women's spaces to attack women.

So why shouldn't transsexuality be treated like a costume?

Basically, why when treated like a costume, transsexual and / or transgender people get into trouble. A common reaction that trans people get when they come out is the "not true, you are pretending".

So, under their female clothes, under makeup and wig, under hormones and even under cosmetic surgery, trans women for many people would be men who play the role of women. Where trans men, under testosterone and male clothes, would be women dressing as men. The watchword is "you are not real women" and "you are not real men" and "you are just pretending".

So in a society where transphobia is alive and well, having a cisgender man like Diego Luna who plays a trans woman in his own way reinforces the stereotype that wants these women to be men in disguise. Fake people, people pretending, people wearing costumes but who, AH-ah!, when taking off make-up and wig it reveals their masculinity, which is their true condition, according to general thinking.

The issue was dealt with in depth in the open letter of transsexual activists to their Hollywood colleagues. I seriously recommend you read it!

The opinion of the journalist and trans activist, Gwendolyn Ann Smith, on the casting of Diego Luna, compared to the casting of Nicole Maines in the role of the trans superheroine, Dreamer, in Supergirl
The opinion of the journalist and trans activist, Gwendolyn Ann Smith, on the casting of Diego Luna, compared to the casting of Nicole Maines in the role of the trans superhero, Dreamer, in Supergirl

And therefore an actor cannot do his job, that is to play a role different from what he is?

In a perfect world, a cisgender man could play a trans woman (as Diego Luna does), a trans woman could play a cisgender man, a cisgender woman could play a cisgender man and a trans man could play a cisgender man. Because in a perfect world, for an actor the genre is just another costume to wear, a further challenge to face. And trans actresses could play both trans women and cisgender women.

But in our world, the one where people like Luxuria get those comments and in the USA a trans woman is killed every two weeks (and therefore, in comparison, they are more at risk of violence than cisgender women), the only case where the genre is just another costume to wear is that of a transsexual character.

That's why Diego Luna in Berlin, I love you plays a trans woman, not a Cisgender woman. If the genre was really just another costume for professionals to wear, we would more often see male actors dressing up as women to play female roles, as happened in the ancient theater. But did Jared Leto tend to dress as a woman to play a Cisgender woman, or did he dress as a woman to play a trans woman? Ed Eddie Redmayne, in The Danish Girl, did you dress as a woman to play the role of any female character, or was it chosen as a man specifically to play the role of a trans woman?

How many times have we seen Scarlett Johansson play a cisgender man? And how many times have we seen a male actor play a woman who was not a transsexual?

Very very rarely.

So seldom that at the moment I can only quote Tilda Swinton, an androgynous and quick-change actress of excellence, who in the remake of Suspiria made by Luca Guadagnino, she played three characters: the elegant dance teacher Madame Blanc, the old and monstrous founder of the Helena Markos academy, and the elderly psychoanalyst Jozef Klemperer.

Indeed, for Swinton the masculinity of an 80-year-old man is just another costume to wear: in addition to the prostheses and make-up on the face, in fact, the actress also requested a reproduction of male genitals. As reported Movieplayerin fact, Swinton “wanted to feel that something between his legs to play a man”.

Tilda Swinton can interpret anything.
Tilda Swinton can interpret anything.

Possible solutions: to involve trans women more?

According to a well-known study carried out by King's College London (which you can read here), in fact involving transsexual and transgender people when talking about transsexual and transgender people is a good idea. Additionally, this involvement usually makes the resulting product more truthful about the experience and representation of trans people. I quote from page 8, my boldface:

The survey concluded that the most effective way to improve media representation of trans people is to involve more trans people in the production process of media content. […] This conclusion is supported by many comments about examples of positive media that were produced by or featured trans people, without their trans status being the main issue.

So as far as cinema is concerned, in fact choosing trans people as trans actors is advisable. Also because there are quietly transsexual women who are still a little masculine and have a physicality comparable to that of Diego Luna in a dress. Also because, as I said, a trans woman does not have the obligation to adhere to some kind of ideal female appearance, nor should she be forced to not be able to express herself as she wants, nor can being masculine ever make her less woman.

Then, a trans actress, when she takes off the costume of the trans character she plays, is still a woman. He is not a man disguised as a woman and therefore does not throw gasoline on the fire of injury.

Furthermore, it would also be an important job opportunity, as generally Trans actresses and actors tend to struggle to make a career in film. In fact, it is already almost impossible to find transsexual people who play cisgender people, and if then all the roles of trans people are given to cisgender actors, you also understand that the opportunities are very narrow.

Indeed, it was indeed a surprise when in the film Colette (always with Keira Knightley) a transsexual man, Jake Graf, he played a cisgender man. The actor says that the experience for him was absolutely natural, which shouldn't come as a surprise: of course it comes naturally to him, he's a man who plays a man!

Then, we can argue that a cisgender woman is more or less acceptable in the role of a transgender woman, because it does not fertilize the stereotype of the man in disguise. Not all of the trans community finds it acceptable and many would prefer to always have trans actors and actresses in these roles. However, Felicity Huffman's performance in Transamerica, in which the actress plays a trans woman, is extremely successful and has also received a lot of praise from the trans community.

Jake Graf (center) in Colette
Jake Graf (in the center) in Colette

But don't you self-ghetto yourself?

Eh, this is also a good observation.

In fact, as many point out, allowing only trans people to play trans characters could actually lead to a worse situation in which trans Hollywood actors are relegated solely to playing trans characters. A sort of "self-ghettoization", in short.

It is not a small concern, in fact, because it is true that, if it is right that trans movie characters do not bring negative and harmful stereotypes to real people, this could actually relegate trans actors to a certain type of role.

However, it must be remembered that ghettoization, as a process, is always something that is undergone, not something that is actively sought: it is due to the lack of other possibilities and, in this case, of career openings.

This, of course, can be avoided if these actors were also hired for play cisgender roles. Also because a trans actress who plays a cisgender woman, when she takes off her make-up and hair, she is always a woman, and she wouldn't be a man in costume. This greater engagement of transsexual / transgender actors and actresses also in other roles would obviate a substantially self-referential career with no other outlets apart from that of the trans person on duty.

So what do we do with trans roles?

A complex solution for a complex situation

The truth is that there is no simple solution.

If we start preaching equality in a naive way, saying that male actors playing trans women are okay because “we should all be FREE to play the different from us”, we are not solving the real problem. That is, male actors in the roles of trans women convey a message that creates real and real problems for real trans women.

But it's also true that the trans community shouldn't be ghettoized into playing trans roles only.

But it must also be taken into account that, if trans actors do not receive cisgender roles, it is also due to the fact that they are not considered "enough men" or "enough women" to play people who are not transsexual.

So what do we do?

Personally, I don't have the perfect solution, which will save the situation and make the world a better place. However, I think it is extremely important to remember that, to write well and truthfully about trans people, you have to talk to trans people.

If in the casting choice of Diego Luna (or Eddie Redmayne) he asked himself feedback or collaboration to actors and members of the transsexual community, probably many negative stereotypes would have already been avoided. The actors could have dealt with life experiences useful for their performance and all the work would have been truer, more interesting and more respectful.

The same fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson he explains (I report it in this article) who, to write about experiences far from his own, always tries to deal with people who have had those experiences, making them read and correct their writings.

Involving trans people means both hire them in the cast (maybe not just in trans roles), either take them on in the rest of the production process, and have them like external experts. Contacting academics who deal with the problems and social challenges of trans people would also be great.

In short, we must recognize that we cisgenders are not transsexual experts. And when we want to talk about it, we have to refer to trans people. Also because, if we tell their experience and their existence badly or in a stereotyped way, we risk exposing these people to real dangers.