Zoolander 2 ‘transphobic’ trailer prompts comparisons with blackface

They’re back … with some iffy casting. © Pascal Le Segretain

Paramount Pictures recently announced that the trailer for their hotly anticipated sequel to Zoolander is the most successful comedy trailer launch of all time. Notching up 52.2 million hits in its first week, the trailer’s leap into the record books might be attributed to the controversy it garnered over a cameo of British actor Benedict Cumberbatch as a trans model named All.

Zoolander asks if All is a male model or a female model, and receives the reply “all is all”. At which point, Zoolander’s companion Hansel crassly states “but I think he’s asking do you have a hotdog or a bun”, prompting a giggle and an “oops” from All.

It’s representative of the brand of lowbrow comedy which characterised the first (massively successful) Zoolander film, and many will have laughed their way through the trailer. But some feel that, amid the humour, the casting and representation of this one role constitutes transphobia.

This is far from the only time that casting has made headlines recently. From the age of James Bond’s female love-interests, to the “whitewashing” of history in stagings of Shakespeare, casting and its relationship with identity politics is under increasing scrutiny.

What’s at stake?

Casting is fundamentally an employment issue: it is the point at which one actor, out of many possible candidates, is contracted to work on a project and to be paid for their labour. Yet the recruitment of actors has an impact far beyond the individual performers in any specific production. Casting decisions help to shape the way we view particular groups within our society, through their depiction in drama.

So on one level we might consider the Zoolander 2 controversy as an employment issue: by hiring a cisgender actor to represent a trans or gender-fluid character, an opportunity for work has been denied to a trans actor who might otherwise have been considered for the role. Similar employment concerns were raised when it was announced that cisgender actor Eddie Redmayne would be playing transgender painter Lili Elbe in Tom Hooper’s latest film The Danish Girl, and when white actors were cast in Middle Eastern roles in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster Exodus: Gods and Kings. Many argue that such casting practices don’t respect minority actors’ right to work.

And in a context where the trans community faces an ongoing struggle for positive representation, Cumberbatch appears to play a caricature of trans identity. An online petition calling for a boycott of Zoolander 2 goes so far as to say that the casting of a cisgender man to play an “over-the-top, cartoonish mockery” of a trans character is “the modern equivalent of using blackface to represent a minority”.

In some ways this comparison with blackface is justifiable: in both cases an actor crosses from a position of cultural privilege to one of marginalisation. And the link with blackface is heightened by the fact that the difference between Cumberbatch, the classically trained, cisgender actor, and All, the apparently superficial, gender-fluid model he is portraying, is used for comic effect.

Problematic comparisons

Yet, as film critic Juliet Jacques has noted, the issues facing trans people and the issues facing people of colour are very different. The analogy of blackface therefore risks eliding the distinct challenges facing the trans and BAME communities. Furthermore, as Lexi C M K Turner pointed out for the Independent: “To have a modern equivalent of anything requires the original comparative to be no longer relevant, and sadly that’s not the case.”

As if to prove Turner’s point, on November 27 Alex Proyas, director of forthcoming blockbuster Gods of Egypt, issued an apology for casting a predominantly white cast in a film depicting ancient Egyptian deities. The film’s studio Lionsgate has likewise acknowledged that “we failed to live up to our own standards of sensitivity and diversity, for which we sincerely apologize”.

But what the analogy does foreground is the extent to which casting can erase marginalised groups from representation. It also highlights the ongoing struggle of minority actors to find positive and meaningful representation of their experiences.

Yet this is slowly changing. The success of trans actors such as Emmy-nominated Laverne Cox, and the popularity of films such as Sean Baker’s Tangerine and television programmes such as BBC drama Boy Meets Girl, both of which star trans actors, indicate a slow but definite shift towards representing trans identity in a more nuanced way.

We are becoming increasingly aware of the power of representation. Social media provides a valuable platform for the discussion of identity. As a result, casting practices are shifting and the actors we see on stage and screen are, on the whole, becoming more diverse.

But of course, we’ll have to wait for the February release of Zoolander 2 to see if the wider context of the film sheds a different light on the character of All. Fingers crossed.