Chloe Sevigny's Penis, and the Challenges of Casting Transgender Characters in TV and Film

Why don't trans actors get trans roles? It's a problem.

Jun 26, 2012 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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Chloe Sevigny as Mia in "Hit & Miss"

When I first heard that Chloe Sevigny was starring in a TV series about a transgender assassin, I was... perplexed.

The reflexive political/critical response to these sorts of series is to question why they would not cast a trans actress -- although, on a superficial level, such a requirement would seem to defy the purpose of acting. Still, though, there are few enough visibly trans folks working in acting, and offering roles to them first would not only increase their opportunities to work, but would also ensure that trans people are actively involved in representing themselves in media, and having a say in how they are portrayed (unfortunately, most trans roles are either comedic punch lines or dangerously psychotic killers, and who can blame trans folks for not wanting to contribute to these stereotypes?).

An article in the UK’s Guardian earlier this year explored this criticism

Critiquing stereotypical portrayals in “Whipping Girl,” Julia Serano stated that "in a world where transsexual and intersex works of art … are not considered mainstream enough to be nominated for Emmys and Pulitzers, the facade presented in [HBO drama] Normal … profoundly shapes audience opinions about transsexual and intersex people". The problem, argued Serano, was that Normal appropriated gender-variant experiences without including transgender perspectives, replacing them with the director's unchallenged prejudices, which, intentionally or not, felt deeply transphobic.

This is not an idea unique to trans characters, but is often leveled at any television series or film that attempts to include underrepresented individuals acted by non-members of the group in question. One obvious example is the character of Artie on “Glee,” whose portrayal by a non-disabled actor disappointed many people hoping for a positive push for better disabled representation (and, of course, the dubious treatment of the character by the show’s writers with little no input from actual disabled people has not helped matters).

I do like the idea of casting disabled actors in disabled roles, and I also like the idea of casting disabled actors in roles not explictly marked as disabled, which is how representation is really improved. In HBO’s late lamented Deadwood, Geri Jewell -- a pioneer in this effort, as the first disabled actress to have a regular role in prime time (in “The Facts of Life,” years before) -- stole damn near every scene she was in, more than proving the value of her contribution.

More recently, what would Game of Thrones be without Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister? Honestly, it’d be a show I didn’t watch, because he is the best thing about it, to the extent that I can’t even imagine anyone else in that role.

(As an aside, I also love it when period dramas practice so-called “colorblind” casting -- easily the only instance in which the word “colorblind” doesn’t make me roll my eyes.)

There is always going to be resistance to the idea that an actor should have lived a piece of the role they play, and it’s a fair question to ask what’s to be done when there is no representative person “good enough” to play the role. When dealing with any underrepresented group, it is imperative that members of that group be consulted on how they are portrayed -- even if the person playing the role is not disabled, or trans, or whatever the experiential sticking point may be. This can be accomplished by involving representative individuals in the production at some level.

Of course, some actors will always try to live a bit of their parts. In 1999’s "Boys Don’t Cry," struggling actress Hilary Swank earned an Oscar for her portrayal of intersex trans man Brandon Teena. Swank spent a month binding her chest and going out in public as a man to prepare for the role with as much authenticity as possible given she is not, herself, trans, and the result certainly proves that non-trans actors who commit to such a role can succeed at it, at least insofar as appealing to mainstream audiences. 

The new series that Chloe Sevigny is set to lead is entitled “Hit & Miss,” and was produced in the UK, where it began airing last month. Sevigny stars as Mia, a trans gun for hire who is suddenly thrust into the guardianship of a family she didn’t know she had from a prior relationship. The series’ promotional materials seem annoyingly overfocused on the state of Mia’s genitalia, repeatedly referring to her as “pre op” -- a problematic term given that not all trans people count surgery among their ultimate goals, and that surgery itself does not determine one's gender identity.

To their credit, apparently the series creators initially ran tryouts in search of an appropriate trans actress, but were unsuccessful, and Sevigny -- who, ironically, auditioned for the role of Brandon Teena over a decade ago, and was cast as Brandon’s girlfriend instead -- won the part

Sevigny, who had to wear a prosthetic penis to play Mia, a pre-operative transgender assassin, said while she was impressed with the script – written by Sean Conway from an idea created by Abbott – she was also worried about doing the role justice. "I was wondering why they didn't want to cast a man or a real transgender person and I guess they'd met with a lot of people and it didn't work out. And I was afraid of the pressure from the gay community or the transgender community and how they would feel, and wanting to be respectful," said Sevigny. 

In this instance, Sevigny is playing a woman who is a woman, with a penis that is prosthetic in multiple senses -- Sevigny requires a faux peen to suit the genital confusion audiences expect (if not demand) from transgender representation, but to her character the penis might be just as superfluous. 

Why do we need to see it anyway? Wouldn't it be enough to show her as a woman... being a woman? Normal-like? It's worth noting that even Swank packed with a pair of socks, although many trans folks today do choose to wear far more realistic packing cocks. I suppose it's obvious why that particular lump is so critical to the story, but still I wish in these stories we could focus more on the person and less on the mystery between their legs.

Says one reviewer:

…Even when Mia showed us her penis in the shower (credits for prosthetics artist and prosthetics supervisor were well earned), it was a hard one to swallow, if you'll pardon the inescapable metaphor. Put bluntly, she still seemed more like a woman with a willy than a man with breasts.

Which, if true, would make her well-suited to the role, even if she is a disappointment to viewers who are looking to see something startling and inexplicably alien.

I haven’t seen “Hit & Miss” yet, as the series’ US airing is taking place on DirecTV’s Audience Network, and I’m still sticking it out with old-fashioned cable. But the trailer looks anything but predictable, and I’m hopeful that the character of Mia won’t cater to the same tired negative stereotypes, and may even provide a nuanced and non-uniformly-tragic trans narrative, tragedy often being central even in the most sensitive portrayals. 

I can hope, anyway. "Hit & Miss" premieres Wednesday, July 11, on DirecTV’s Audience Network.