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Elle Fanning’s Awful Hair In ‘3 Generations’ Is Why Cisgender Actors Shouldn’t Play Trans Characters

No self-respecting trans guy would leave the house looking like this.

Elle Fanning in “3 Generations”

The Weinstein Company, and Harvey Weinstein in particular, is notorious for using unconventional tactics to promote its films; he flew Daniel Day-Lewis to D.C. to support the Americans with Disabilities Act during the Oscar campaign for “My Left Foot,” and paraded Martin Scorsese around at a Women In Film luncheon to prove “Gangs of New York” wasn’t too violent.

While “3 Generations” likely won’t be earning Oscar noms, Weinstein did score (orchestrate?) a flurry of good press when the MPAA gave the transgender drama an R rating, citing language and sexual references in its decision. GLAAD sent the MPAA an angry letter; Naomi Watts gave an impassioned statement about the “beautiful and touching story,” and the MPAA changed the rating to PG-13. And for one brief and shining moment, nobody talked about how awful the movie was. (Current Rotten Tomatoes: 35%.)

READ MORE: ‘3 Generations’ Featurette: Susan Sarandon, Naomi Watts and Elle Fanning on Their Complicated Family Drama — Watch

Suddenly, a dud that had been in limbo for two years, confusingly changed its title from the vague “About Ray” to the clunky “3 Generations,” and received criticism for casting a cisgender actress as a trans boy, was the epitome of acceptance. “3 Generations” was the little guy (or person) fighting the good fight, standing up to the hetero-patriarchy, spreading the gospel about trans justice. That is, until people actually saw the thing.

3 Generations elle fanning

“3 Generations”

“3 Generations” was directed by Gaby Dellal, who co-wrote the script with playwright Nikole Beckwith. It is about a boy named Ray (Elle Fanning), who was born Ramona. Ray lives in an implausibly enormous New York townhouse with his mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts); grandmother, Dolly (Susan Sarandon); and Dolly’s partner, Frances (Linda Emond). Despite being a lesbian, Dolly still has a hard time honoring Ray’s gender identity, which is actually one of the movie’s more accurate points. Dolly still uses “she” pronouns for Ray, and asks questions like, “Why can’t she just be a lesbian?”

READ MORE: ‘3 Generations’ Trailer: Elle Fanning Plays a Transgender Teen Boy in Controversial Drama

Though Maggie is supportive, her true feelings start to show when Ray’s doctor hands her a consent form so Ray can begin taking testosterone. She also hasn’t spoken to Ray’s father in years (Tate Donovan), and maybe sort of feels like he needs to sign it (she considers forging his signature, lowering the stakes significantly for no apparent reason). Thus begins a meandering goose chase that forces Maggie to confront her past mistakes, and forces Ray to learn the surprising truth about how he came to be.

With its quirky non-sequiturs and asides, “3 Generations” feels like it’s trying to be a comedy trapped inside its melodrama. Dellal must have a penchant for architecture or design, because the movie feels hopelessly devoted to its locations; a three-story townhouse full of creaky staircases and cast-iron pans, and a super-sleek, window-filled suburban house that could pass for a Frank Lloyd Wright. In a frenzied road trip at the movie’s finale, Maggie takes Dolly’s vintage Wrangler, mumbling to herself, “Why have I been renting cars this whole time?” (Maybe because production only had the Wrangler for one day?) Like Ray’s transition, Dellal’s obsession with cool scenery feels like the markings of someone who didn’t know why they were making the movie they made.

3 generations elle fanning trans

“3 Generations”

The film opens on Ray doing sit-ups in a white muscle tee, as he says in voiceover, “Every year on my birthday, I wish for the same thing. I wish I was a boy.” Sure, this is a crudely simple way to explain how trans people feel, but the prevailing thinking is that Ray already is a boy. That’s the whole point. In dark moments of self reckoning, many trans people may make a similar wish. But it probably happens more than once a year.

READ MORE: Emmys 2016: ‘Her Story’ Nomination Is the Cinderella Story Trans Creators Needed

Ray films his workout regimens, speaking to the camera vlog-style. Though we never see a YouTube page, it’s clear he is posting these videos somewhere, and YouTube has an active trans community that similarly documents their transitions. He has stringy red hair that flops around under his beanie as he skateboards. Halfway through the film, as he prepares to confront his father, there is an obligatory dramatic head-shaving scene, resulting in a patchy and uneven buzz. It has to be a wig, because there is no way human hair could look that bad.

There’s no crime in a movie wigs. Fanning is a girl, she usually plays girls, and she probably had subsequent projects where she needed her hair to be long. However, if the studio had simply cast a trans or gender non-conforming actor instead, they probably would have been willing to cut their hair.

3 Generations Elle Fanning

There’s an argument that the producers needed someone pre-transition, since that fits the character. However, there are plenty of queer or gender non-conforming actors who have not taken hormones, nor do they plan to. They may not have the name recognition, but plenty of coming-of-age films made careers for unknown young actors in the past. With Watts and Sarandon to carry it, the Weinsteins could have plucked a capable trans actor from obscurity and given them a shot. And they wouldn’t have had to worry about a wig.

READ MORE: ‘Growing Up Coy’ Review: Transgender Rights Documentary Humanizes the Bathroom Debate

It comes down to this: Trans people are a historically marginalized group. When studios cast cis actors in trans roles, they are telling the very people whose story they wish to honor that they are unworthy. When a cisgender writer writes a screenplay about a trans person, they are assuming they can learn all they need to know by watching a few YouTube videos. And when nobody goes to see your movie, audiences are telling you that they can see right through your bullshit.

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Comments

Faram Rakynee

I think your view is too narrow to accurately comment on the subject you wish to understand. You seem to infer a movie with a pretty girl dressed down is some kind of revelation that only the Youtube generation can comprehend in its infancy. Give it more time, i’m sure you will understand it is not the actor in the role but the subject of the role that will dictate if the film can find an audience.

Anonymous

As a transman I could not disagree more with this article. I am completely happy for cisgender actors to play trans character roles just as I’d expect trans actors to play cisgender roles.

I dislike the notion that only trans people can play trans parts, because I feel like it’s treating me as an ‘other’ gender category when I’m not. I am a man, who was not born in the correct sex.

I also feel like even if you did get a pre-T transguy actor, it would be a horrifyingly painful and dysphoric part to play. Going through that early stage of identity and transition is harrowing enough, nevermind having to experience it ‘twice-over’ for a film. It’s a volatile place to be. For me personally, I felt no desire to be ‘out there’ in any way at all.

I understand that the intentions of the article are good, but speaking as a transman it really makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t want people to read this article and misunderstand that these are the feelings of trans community or of myself, because they are not.

I also found the hair comment a bit too far. Offensive even, to imagine that ONLY a trans/non-binary person would cut their hair short.

my89

And only straight can do straight roles right? Is it the 1950 again? What trans people need is trans stories on movies. What they don’t need trans people to get a role even if they are not the most talented actor out there can be that story meaningfull for the audience. Yuo people try to be so progressive thay you are becoming the most conservative.

Hp101

The road to self respect is a long one and it doesn’t always feature immaculate hair.

LR

Anonymous at 5:15am, I respect your thoughtful response to the article and lending an ear to your experience as a transman. I think it’s essential to note that the trans community isn’t monolithic. However, in past pieces the author of this article has come out as a trans person. It seems to me that Jude Dry’s passionate response to the portrayal of trans identities in this movie, as a trans person, is important to heed. I’m an ally and I’m taking notes. Who’s to say this author wasn’t triggered and dysphoric throughout this movie because of such a bad portrayal of the trans experience?

As for cis actors playing trans actors, I challenge my fellow commenters to check out the many articles on Jared Leto’s role as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. When it comes down to it, cis actors shouldn’t have the audacity to play trans roles because it’s not their story. Should we welcome white actors to do black face because they *think* they can act well enough to convey what it feels like to be a black person? Surely not. That would be offensive. Same concept, different identity. Not to mention the intersections of class that weren’t even discussed in this article. I help facilitate a community theatre classes for LGBTQ youth in NYC. Many of these actors live in poverty, have few resources for jobs as trans youth, but are so amazingly talented. They also have actually gone through the harrowing experience of coming out as trans to unsupportive parents and endure oppression each and every day as trans folks. Don’t you think it would’ve meant SO MUCH MORE to one of these actors to get a chance to show their story to the world in this movie? But no. Elle Fanning, who has cisgender and class privilege, gets to profit off the backs of these kids instead. To be honest, I am furious that she got this role instead of someone who could’ve used this role as powerful chance at reclamation.

    Anonymous

    @LR:

    Thank you for reading my response, and for being an ally. It’s rather hard to articulate everything appropriately in my original comment. I did not know that the writer of the article identified as trans. Still, I stand by my feelings towards the subject, and hope that you can recognise that there may be multiple views on the subject.

    I must say that it makes me uncomfortable when this subject is compared to the topic of whitewashing in Hollywood. It’s worth noting that I am ethnically Chinese. And so I feel the frustrations that come with whitewashing.

    Whitewashing is an issue, but I feel like people are taking the concept of it, and applying it to the trans roles. But it’s not the same thing. Like I mentioned, I personally feel that being trans should not be treated as a separate category or ‘race’. And I feel like expecting trans actors to take on trans roles is limiting us, and pushing us into a seperate category.

    I do acknowledge that this is a very much a personal opinion. But my feelings of being trans have always been more of a medical issue. Hence, I cannot see this as being an issue similar to whitewashing. Just as I would not expect a cancer survivor to play the part of a cancer victim. I don’t understand why a trans actor would need to play a trans role. As I mentioned in my original comment, I also find the idea of having to relive that kind of experience on-screen, nauseating.

    I have been through the hurt and the pain of transitioning. The unsupportiveness of my parents is something that I still battle with (although things are better these days). But all that I go through is to try and live as regular of a man’s life as possible. Truthfully, I don’t want to be labelled as a transgender man. I just want to be a man. Please know that it is not out of shame, but because the battle of transition is tiresome and painful, and the very least I ask for is peace within myself. And to have those days where I go without remembering that I am not like everyone else around me.

    Also know, that I am stealth; I am not openly out. I strongly believe that the perspectives of stealth transgender people are rarely seen in the public because of the nature of our privacy. Please consider that your understandings of trans perspectives are biased towards those who are open/out. That is not to say that they are wrong perspectives! Just that there are many of us out here living our daily lives, and do not choose to reveal that information, and our voices are rarely heard. Also I ask that this is considered when speaking of any filmmakers behind projects about being trans. Who knows if the people involved with 3 Generations, whether cast/producer/director are stealth trans! We just don’t know.

    I understand your frustration. For me, I’m actually just happy to see my story being explored at all. I know the difficulties of getting funding for a project, and the necessities of getting big names to do so. It’s not pleasant, but without it, we wouldn’t be talking about this at all.

Ari

TBH you don’t have to look far to see why the director didn’t cast a trans teen for this role. She seems to have a negligible understanding of gender for someone who made an entire movie about a trans kid’s journey. One google search and this is what the director had to say about her understanding of trans people and her ftm character in a Refinery29 article:
When asked about her understanding of trans people:
Dellal says “They weren’t as transparent. I’m not saying they didn’t exist, but I didn’t know about them”
When asked about the part of Ray, the transgender afab character:
“The part is a girl and she is a girl who is presenting in a very ineffectual way as a boy”
“She’s not pretending to have a deeper voice. She’s just a girl who is being herself and is chasing the opportunity to start hormone treatment. So to actually use a trans boy was not an option because this isn’t what my story is about” …..lol what is “your story” about then?

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