A Trans Actor On What the First Transgender Superhero Means & What Still Needs to Change

"It helps me believe that the change we're fighting for is coming"

Transgender actress Nicole Maines wearing an off-the-shoulder black and pink flowered blouse with her hair tied back in a ponytail, smiling on stage at ComicCon

(Photo: Getty)

Supergirl just made history.

The CW hit, now entering its fourth season, announced the casting of TV’s first transgender superhero at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. The character of Nia Nal will be portrayed by 20-year-old transgender actress Nicole Maines, with the newest superhero described by producers as a “soulful young transgender woman with a fierce drive to protect others.” It’s a fitting role for Maines to take on, as she’s a superhero of sorts IRL, gaining notoriety when she challenged her school district over her right to use the women’s restroom, winning a discrimination lawsuit in the process.

The casting of Maines feels especially important, as it comes straight on the heels of Scarlett Johansson’s v. controversial casting in (and subsequent withdrawal from) Rub & Tug. For those unfamiliar, the film is about the life of Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man who owned a chain of massage parlours in the ’70s and ’80s. For further clarification: Johansson is a cisgender female, so her casting in the role just really did not make sense. Backlash (justifiably) ensued, and Johansson issued a less than desirable response before ultimately pulling out of the film.

The casting of Maines was met with support online, especially from members of the trans community. “Oh my god,” one user wrote. “Trans girl superhero. On network television. Played by a trans girl! When I was a kid, I honestly never though I would see this in my lifetime. There’s a lot of shit in in the world, but maybe we’re actually clawing our way forward, too.”

“Trans actor playing a trans role. Here I am, watching Supergirl again. They’re doing it right,” tweeted another fan.

Offline, the support from those within the trans community seems equally as positive, especially from those in the film and TV industry.

“I love it,” Avery Jean Brennan says of the show’s casting. “I’m thrilled. I don’t know her, but I am so excited for her success and for comic and superhero fans to see trans representation in the media.” Brennan, a Toronto-based actor, is also transgender, and she says this is a big step forward for the community. “Casting directors are starting to see the importance of casting actual trans people to tell trans stories,” she says. And that’s important for actors trying to make it big, or even get a foot in the door. Brennan says she remained closeted as a trans woman for six years, for fear of no longer being able to work as an actor once she transitioned. “Until very recently, the industry was a very hostile environment for me as a trans person, both before and after I came out,” she says.

While Brennan didn’t audition for the show, she was aware of—and impressed by—the casting process. Supergirl put out an open casting call for self-taped submissions, a move Brennan says demonstrated awareness of the plight of trans actors. “It really showed me that the people in charge of casting for [the show] were aware that the majority of trans actors do not have the level of experience that cis actors may have, simply due to there being so many more opportunities for cis actors, and, as a result, they may not have a big enough agent —or an agent at all—for them to be submitted for the role,” she says.

Maines’ new gig is obviously *big* for representation. “Young trans kids—who may not even know that about themselves yet—get a chance to see themselves on screen,” she says, “which is so important in helping people understand that who they are is valid.” And not only do more visible trans actors and roles help those within the community, but they also further educate non-transgender audiences, some for whom shows like Supergirl may be their only exposure to transgender people and their experiences. That’s why the casting of cis actors—like Johansson, a woman pretending to be male—in trans roles can be harmful. It perpetuates the (problematic) idea that trans people are just dressing up, says Sydney Martin, a Vancouver-based production assistant and set designer who is also transgender. “It doesn’t make it clear to [audiences] what we’re trying to make clear: the idea that we are men or women,” he says. “A transgender person is a woman, they just happen to be transgender.”

Also worth noting? The character of Nia Nal, herself. Often, we see transgender characters in storylines as the victims of sexual or physical violence, or with an emphasis solely on their transition. (Films like Hilary Swank’s Boys Don’t Cry and Eddie Redmayne’s The Danish Girl come to mind.) But Brennan says she feels Maines character is different. “She really does [seem multifaceted],” Brennan says. “It appears as though the writers really want to make her something larger than the story of her transition, while simultaneously maintaining that aspect of her,” she says. That’s not to say that storylines should completely omit trans-identity. “I think it’s important to address the specific issues that she, as a trans character, may face in the world of this show, so as not to ignore or erase that aspect—and [it’s] just as important to show that she’s also got a life beyond her gender.”

Brennan says she’d love to see more roles and storyline likes this, because it rings true and reflects her reality. “My gender is a very important part of myself and shapes my perspective, but it’s only one aspect of me that contributes to that perspective.” Like Maines’ character, and any character—she’s multifaceted.

While the existence of a character like Nia Mal, played by a trans actor, is definitely something to celebrate—“It helps me believe that the change we’re fighting for is coming,” says Brennan—there’s still a lot of work to do both in front of and behind the camera.

“We need to allow space for more trans people in all facets of the industry, not just onscreen or on stage,” Brennan says. “More trans writers crafting stories from their unique perspective, more trans directors shaping shows and productions… [and] more trans agents and casting directors who understand the importance of storytelling.”

Casting transgender actors and actresses in cis roles is another significant milestone that needs to happen. Martin, who has worked in the industry since 2014 on shows like Riverdale, says he knows trans actors can take these roles on, it’s just a matter of time. “We have come a long way,” Martin says, “but I think it’s [up to]  public approval… and funding and the producers who everyone has to answer to. [The powers that be] must think the world is more accepting of what it’s used to… which is kind of getting old.” 


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