I don’t know if you know this, but the internet can be frustrating.
No, but seriously. That whole expression ‘this is why we can’t have nice things’ is always on my mind. When Beyoncé drops LEMONADE, there are people who, instead of appreciating it, say “Yeah but white women are disrespected too!”, unable to see ‘right, but this isn’t about that’. When Prop 8 was being overturned, there were arguments, “There are other things that are unfair that aren’t being worked on, why aren’t we focusing on those?”
Okay, yes, but it doesn’t negate the intrinsic goodness of repealing something horrible (and don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying ‘wait your turn’).
It’s even harder when it goes the other way.
It’s hard because generally speaking, Mark Ruffalo is right there on social issues. Far, far more than most celebs or people we look up to. He has spoken out about women’s access to safe and legal abortion. He went to marches about sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Tweeted about supporting Black Lives Matter (and received a lot of fallout as a result). He gets it. He’s not oblivious.
But even an actor we all love can be on the wrong side of history. Maybe it’s because he’s so woke that we have higher expectations for him. But when the announcement came out that Bomer, who is of course cisgender, was playing a trans character, Twitter was mad, and they were right.
Representation matters. Having people to tell the stories in the way they should be told matters. Not looking hard enough to find a trans actress to play this role matters.
I can hear the defense. Under different circumstances, I could make it myself. Bomer is a proven actor whom audiences will pay to see…like Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. Investors want proven box office talents, and the only trans actress most people can name is Laverne Cox.
Not a good enough excuse.
You know what else Hollywood loves? A breakout star. A ‘came from nowhere’ story about the person who is inevitably nominated for an Oscar 19 months after they’re cast in the movie. It worked for Jennifer Lawrence. Sure, there aren’t any bankable, movie-star trans actresses who are household names...until there are. At one point there weren’t 20-million-dollar black actors. There weren’t Indian actors with their own shows. There weren’t Latina leads cast opposite white men. You get the idea. There’s no trans actress who is strong enough or bankable enough for the role? Find one, and don’t make the movie until there is one. What’s the excuse not to?
So Ruffalo should know this. Should have known. Yes, it might have been harder to get the funding, and of course, Matt Bomer is talented. Nobody’s debating this. But the idea that a cis man playing a trans woman can understand and affect all the nuance that role might require is short-sighted and insulting, as is the attached sentiment that it’s ‘brave’. (There’s a different conversation to be had here about Transparent, where having Jeffrey Tambor play Maura is affecting because her family, whose journey is as important as hers, knew her as Mort, and because both Maura and Mort are explored in flashbacks.)
More troublesome, to me, are Ruffalo’s comments on Twitter:
To the Trans community. I hear you. It's wrenching to you see you in this pain. I am glad we are having this conversation. It's time.— Mark Ruffalo (@MarkRuffalo) August 31, 2016
“I’m glad we are having this conversation. It’s time.”
It kind of reads like he made this casting decision so that he could help people have this conversation? Very likely not what he meant, but not ideal, and also not what people expect from someone who usually gets it. But the tweet of someone who gets it would read a lot more like, “I f-cked up.” And while everyone would love to read it, he still has a movie to distribute. He’s still thinking ‘I have to get this in front of people, so that we can have the conversation.’ It’s not a totally wrong view, it’s just not seeing the whole picture.
Not that this controversy will hurt, exactly. All press is good press, he’s definitely reading a lot of what’s being written, and I would not be surprised if, wrapped into the film’s marketing, there’s a lot of discussion and conversation about this casting choice, and if Matt Bomer, who is openly gay, speaks about how important inclusion and representation is to him, and why not looking for the same inclusion in this casting was a misstep.
That’s okay, by the way. Being someone who is socially conscious doesn’t mean never being wrong, or always getting it. It means being able to admit when you’re wrong and ask what you need to learn. I’m not saying for certain that will happen here, but it’s more likely from Ruffalo than some of his contemporaries.
It’s also great because this is where we live now. Because if you see something wrong, you can say so and know that you won’t be alone. Our world isn’t perfect, and celebrities and entertainment and representation therein are definitely not perfect. But one voice can become many voices more easily than ever before, and despite everything, that’s intrinsically good.