“Why the casting of TV’s first trans superhero is so important”

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Juno Dawson
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The casting of Nicole Maines in Supergirl is something we should all be celebrating, says Juno Dawson

Two very different stories regarding transgender characters on screen have been floating around over the last seven days. One, a celebration of the casting of Nicole Maines in Supergirl, the other a furore as Scarlett Johansson was forced to drop out of playing a trans man in movie Rub & Tug.

Let’s start with the good news. Nicole Maines, 21, is a relative newcomer to acting. She’s better known for her activism. In 2013, the Supreme Court of Maine ruled it was unlawful for Maines’s high school to deny her usage of the girls’ bathroom. Maines is a transgender woman, you see, and that’s the real reason why her casting in Supergirl has been so well-received.

As the Warner Bros series heads into its fourth season, Maines will play Nia Nal, a reworked version of DC Comics character Nura Nal, AKA Dream Girl. Now renamed Dreamer, Nia has the ability to foresee the deaths of other characters. Details are sparse at this stage, but it’s thought Maines will arrive as a journalist co-worker of Kara/Supergirl, as played by Melissa Benoist. 

Nicole Maines at Comic-Con this year

In the comic books, Nura Nal isn’t explicitly transgender (that we know of) but this isn’t the first time Supergirl has taken steps to address diverse representation. The character of Jimmy Olsen, usually portrayed as white, has been played by black actor Mechad Brooks since the first episode. Kara’s adoptive sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh) came out as gay after embarking on a relationship with Maggie (Floriana Lima). As an aside, Maggie Sawyer is usually the fictional girlfriend of Batwoman – also soon to be adapted for television by the creators of Supergirl.

While there are always a handful of die-hard fans whining on Twitter about diverse casting – believe me, I’ve just written the first Doctor Who novel to feature Jodie Whittaker’s incarnation of the Doctor – the diversity of Supergirl has been largely celebrated. In fact, the Alex/Maggie relationship is probably the most popular sci-fi pairing since Willow and Tara back in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Maines’ casting – as far as I could see on Twitter – has been warmly welcomed by the fandom.

The fact that Maines is playing the trans character in particular has been praised and this leads us neatly into The Problem With Johansson. Already smarting from the backlash over her portrayal of a Japanese character in Ghost In The Shell, Johansson has now wisely dropped out of Rub & Tug, a biopic of trans man Dante ‘Tex’ Gill.

The concerns are the same concerns critics expressed over Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club and Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent: these actors are men ‘dressing up’ as women, and that is an accusation that has been levelled at, I’d imagine, all actual transgender women. I’ve certainly been accused of it. The reverse is true of trans men, who are often accused of ‘mutilating’ their bodies.

Johansson has now wisely dropped out of Rub & Tug, a biopic of trans man Dante ‘Tex’ Gill

It doesn’t really wash when producers claim these films wouldn’t have been made without the star power of the actors listed above. The issue is that while cisgender (not-trans) actors hog all of these juicy trans parts, no actual trans actor can attain the sort of recognition or clout those actors can. 

Asked about Johansson’s casting for Variety, Maines said: “We have straight people playing gay people all the time and that’s because there isn’t a larger conversation around—there’s not so much harmful rhetoric flying around that they are parading around, dressing up, pretending and so you have to think about context with that. And with trans folks, we have a lot of people accusing us of just playing dress up for whatever reason, and that’s not true. 

“And so having trans people play trans roles shows that we are valid in our identity and we deserve to exist as we do. And so when we have cisgender actors play trans characters, it furthers that stereotype that we are playing dress up, which is not true.”

It’s also worth noting, I think, that 84% of Americans don’t know a transgender person in real life. That means characters on TV and in films are the only time they’ll see a trans person. Having that person played by a man in a wig isn’t ideal for trans people who may have faced ridicule and discrimination.

It seems casting directors have two very simple choices to make when it comes to casting transgender characters: cast a cisgender actor and face the backlash, or create opportunities for trans actors and garner praise for authenticity. A precedent has been firmly set by shows such as Orange is the New Black, Boy Meets Girl, Emmerdale, Eastenders, Pose and now Supergirl. With such progressive leaps forward in terms of representation, I see no reason why we’d need to go backwards.

Images: Getty