‘About Ray’ isn’t really about Ray

By casting a cisgender actress in a transgender role, director, film misrepresent minorities

Helen Keller said, “the highest result of education is tolerance.” Tolerance must be taught because people can’t be accepting of a person if they don’t even understand how that person feels. This goes for nearly any minority community, and the transgender1 community is no exception.

When I first saw the trailer for About Ray, a movie featuring a transgender teenager as the main character, I was ecstatic. This was going to mean representation! Representation would lead to education, and from there tolerance would blossom. This was going to be a huge step forward for the community.

That is, until I saw that Elle Fanning was playing Ray, a teen transitioning from female to male. It’s not only that Fanning is the very picture of femininity, it’s that she is cisgendered2. A cis actress playing a trans character gets complicated fast, as does the conversations surrounding such miscastings. However, Fanning isn’t to blame for accepting this role, at least not entirely. After all, if it wasn’t her, it would be another young woman. Why? Because auditions for the part of Ray were not open to transgendered actors.

Cisgender actress Elle Fanning plays Ray, a transgender character seen in the trailer for About Ray.

An interview with the director of the movie, Gaby Dellal (who is cis) revealed that casting a cis actress was her intention, because, “this isn’t what my story is about.” Wait. Hold up. A film about a trans person isn’t about a trans person? Where did our representation go?

Reading about the interview, it’s obvious that Dellal isn’t entirely educated on life as a transgender person, and therefore was probably not the best choice for the director of a movie about the struggles of a trans boy. After all, she refers to Ray as ‘she’ instead of his preferred pronouns he and him. Dellal also not only called her main character the wrong pronouns, but the wrong gender as well: “The part is a girl and she is a girl who is presenting in a very ineffectual way as a boy.” No! That’s so wrong!

Let me say it loud and clear: a trans boy does not have to present as a boy, dress like a boy, or have medical procedures to be a boy. A trans girl does not have to dress like a girl, wear makeup, or have any medical procedures to be a girl. No matter what a person looks like on the outside, do not tell them that who they feel they are on the inside is invalid. If Dellal woke up tomorrow morning in a man’s body, she would not say, “I am a man.” She might say, “I am a woman, but I am inexplicably in the body of a man.”  Explaining the sensation of being in a body that is not yours is so difficult because according to a study by the Williams Institute, nearly 99 percent of America has never felt it. Even if Dellal’s intentions as a trans ally were good, she has unintentionally does harm by misunderstanding and misrepresenting what it means to be transgender.

Elle Fanning speaking at the 2014 Comic Con International.

Elle Fanning speaking at the 2014 Comic Con International.

Now, don’t misunderstand, allies are not just important, they are essential to the LGBTQA+3 movement. Being an ally is a wonderful, brave thing to be, but it does not in any way mean you may speak on behalf of those who can speak for themselves. Many people in the LBGTQA+ community aren’t in a safe place to advocate for rights, to boycott problematic views in movies, or to even come out as who they are without being physically or emotionally attacked, but when they are in a position to speak out, to write, to act, to advocate, to demonstrate, they are often (not always, but often) pushed into the background while cisgender allies take the spotlight. When it comes to promoting the transgender media, producing it and siding with it, cis people are welcome and within their right to participate. Lines begin to get crossed when cisgender actors don wigs and makeup to make a movie successful at the box office, trying to become the people they are claiming to defend. This crossdressing perpetuates the idea that trans women are just men in dresses (wrong) and that trans men are just women who don’t shave and wear baggy clothes (wrong). Some casting directors argue that there aren’t established trans actors who will bring in the revenue. There are holes in this logic, especially in the case of About Ray. Susan Sarandon and Naomi Watts- who have a combined net worth of 70 million dollars- are Fanning’s costars. Even if the role of Ray was filled with an actor who had never seen a legitimate role in their life, the movie would still be star-studded.

It’s simple- just don’t go see the movie. If your family would like to see it, if your friends invite you, tell them you don’t feel like it. Or even better- explain your reasons for skipping out, and educate them.

We have to ensure that boycotting ‘About Ray’ and other movies like it don’t send the wrong message to Hollywood. Some may say that beggars can’t be choosers, because after all, this movie was born from good intentions, but when it comes to representation, transgender people deserve a space where they are portrayed positively, dynamically and accurately. We must speak up and make it clear that we’re skipping out on the theaters not because we aren’t interested in LGBTQA+ stories, but because we can’t settle for half-hearted representation.

Cisgender people are the clear majority in all parts of the world, so much so that many people don’t know any transgender people personally. They may start to wonder, how does this affect me? Why do I care? For a time, it may not affect you. You may not see the struggles of a trans person up close for many years; it may be a fight that is pushed in the dusty bits of the back of your mind. But one day someone you know, someone you care about dearly, might tell you that they feel like they’re in the wrong body. Transgender people have always existed, and they will never cease to exist. Transgender people come from all walks of life, all races and all social classes. You can’t tell someone’s gender identity and pronouns by looking at them, for all you know your bus driver, the kid next to you in history class, or your friend’s parent could be transgender. And that’s OK. You don’t have to know, and for God’s sake you shouldn’t ask rude (yes, rude) questions like, “are you a boy are a girl?” or, “have you had any surgeries?” Ask about pronouns, but don’t pry about gender. Associate with people because of their hearts, not because of their genitals or the name they would like you to call them by. Spread tolerance wherever you go.

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