EastEnders’ current executive producer, Dominic Treadwell-Collins, announced last month that the 30-year-old soap would introduce its first ever trans character. After American TV has been pioneering the way for transgender stories with programmes like Orange is the New Black, it’s just as important that UK shows such as EastEnders inject the same realism to the makeup of this country.
But that’s far from all when it comes to this news. In Dominic’s announcement, he also stated that the character would be played by a trans actor, something no other soap has done before. (There were a lot of inaudible noises of excitement made from me at this point, though not everyone shared my feelings about it.)
I was having a conversation with a family member about this story and their response was, surprisingly, very similar to the opinion of the internet’s detractors – it’s great and good on EastEnders, but it’s only acting; the part can be played by anyone. This was a consensus heard far and wide and, although that particular mindset isn’t necessarily transphobic, it’s one that lacks understanding of how it is important for trans roles to be given to trans actors.
If we take the ‘it’s just acting’ stance for casting decisions like these, we fall into a difficult territory of lacking diverse representation, even more than what we have now. It’s not a want, it’s a need. Seeing yourself, or your community, reflected in the media – and not just fitting into whatever racist, homophobic, sexist or transphobic stereotype there is going – shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s an important milestone to see Laverne Cox paving the way for underrepresented voices, especially when trans issues have been so rarely discussed on mainstream media platforms.
If we say that it is all fair and game for a cisgender person to play trans roles because it is ‘just acting’, can the same argument be used for a white guy like Christian Bale to be playing the part of Moses, someone who is originally a person of colour? One isn’t worse than the other, they’re both not cool. At all.
When we know someone is cisgender, like Jared Leto or Hilary Swank, and we see them playing a role in a film depicting the lives of trans men and women, it strips away the realism and almost trivialises their struggles. Trans characters shouldn’t be seen as costumes.
Like Dominic said: “The power of EastEnders is that we can change the world a little. You can change it gently and influence people who may be quite bigoted.” And he’s completely right. The show is in such a great position to educate its audience, particularly one that may not necessarily be familiar with the difficulties of the trans community. They’ve had an up and down history with LGBT representation no doubt (Sonia and Naomi’, anyone?), but they have tackled certain storylines with an element of honesty, like the relationship between Syed, who was from a very traditional Muslim family, and his boyfriend, Christian.
So, rather than snipe down the casting decision with the ‘it’s just acting’ card, let’s embrace the fact that one of the BBC’s flagship programmes, watched by millions every week, is raising the profile of trans issues in a promising way.