Vijay Sethupathi, known for breaking the mould and playing a wide range of characters, has made it to the headlines once again for his upcoming film Super Deluxe.
The star is reportedly playing a trans woman in the film and the first look, which shows him wearing shades, a pottu, saree and sporting long hair, has won much appreciation from fans. Previously, actor Sarath Kumar, has also played a trans woman in Muni 2: Kanchana.
Considering Vijay Sethupathi has the image of an actor who does good films, fans do hope that the role he portrays will be essayed with sensitivity. That said, such portrayals of trans women, played by cis men, can add to the already existing misconceptions and prejudice against transgender people.
Tamil cinema does not have a stellar record in representing LGBTQ communities with respect and authenticity. Trans women and gay men, especially, have for long been used for comedy and subjected to humiliation on screen. I, Kadavul Irukaan Kumaru, Thozha, Vetaiyaadu Vilayadu and so on are just a few examples of films which have had objectionable scenes, dialogues and references to LGBTQ communities. Others like Irumugan have foisted a "different" sexuality on the villain to make the film more "interesting."
Even if Super Deluxe steers clear of such insensitive depictions, it is still problematic to have a cis male actor play the role of a trans woman. Firstly, in a country where most people including our lawmakers and their advisors barely know who a trans person is, a cis man playing a trans woman only adds to people’s prejudiced view that trans women are really just men.
As this article written by Jen Richards who is a trans woman actor, points out, a trans woman is often thought of to be a "dude in a wig." Considering the isolation of the minority community, perceptions about trans women are heavily influenced by popular culture. With male actors appropriating the body, gender identity and sexuality of a trans woman, the idea that trans women are really just “men in drag” is strengthened.
This not only reduces the transgender identity to an eccentricity, it also becomes a huge obstacle in the way of trans women who face discrimination and violence every day, in private and in public.
Take for instance the Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Ramdas Athawale’s recent comment about transgender women: “They are not men, they are not women, but they are human... why should they wear a sari when they are not women?" Clearly, the Minister couldn’t imagine that a trans woman would want to identity as a binary woman, and not the blanket ‘third gender’ that politicians are quick to ascribe to all trans women.
Another fallout of trans women being seen as “really only men” is the violence and erasure they face while forming romantic relationships with heterosexual men.
As Jen says, "I was trapped in the same cycle many of my friends were: We dated straight men who were afraid other people would think they were gay because the public thinks transgender women are just men with good hair and makeup. And the public thinks that because the only trans people they know of are men with good hair and makeup in movies."
Further, trans women are kept out of spaces that are designated for women, like public toilets, train compartments and so on, out of the belief that they are really men and therefore a “threat.”
Very few Tamil films have had trans women in roles that go beyond a single "comedy" scene or song sequence. If the trans woman character has a substantial role, then it is usually played by a male actor. Vaanam and Onaayum Aatukuttiyum are among the few exceptions.
The audience sees little difference between what actors like Kamal Haasan and Sivakarthikeyan have done in an Avvai Shanmugi or Remo and a transgender person. It is especially troubling when a big male star plays the role because the audience never buys him as a woman at all, but is rather entertained by how well he's playing at being one.
This is an accusation that trans women confront in everyday life and it doesn't help the community when the perception is magnified on the big screen. It is necessary for mainstream cinema to represent LGBTQ communities more and to do it with sensitivity. However, this has to be done while taking into consideration the very real challenges that popular culture foists on already disadvantaged communities.