Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

NYT: Acting Roles For Trans Performers Track Stereotypes

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | July 29, 2011 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Calpernia Addams, Candis Cayne, Erik Piepenburg, Gun Hill Road, Harmony Santana, Laverne Cox, musical, New York Times, trans actors, trans performers, transgender actors

The New York Times has an article up in the Arts & Leisure section discussing trans performers.

It's all too often that trans actors are passed up in favor of their cisgendered counterparts, even for roles about trans people. Yes, I know it's called "acting," and one doesn't have to inhabit a particular social identity in order to perform a role. But when a particular social identity is largely excluded from acting roles over a long period time, except for very specific roles that perpetuate social stereotypes, then something's up, and we as a society ought to examine it and move to change it.

This isn't a new phenomenon exclusive to transgender and transsexual actors. It's been well-documented as a long-standing problem for African-American actors, and Asian-American actors, the celluloid closet of gay actors, and others. The exclusion of certain types of actors tells us something about the biases of the people who sell the "suspension of disbelief" for a living.

Transsexual actors who don't look transgender can't get a role playing a trans person, because those roles are usually based in crude stereotypes. The Times Article quotes Laverne Cox, a reality-television star with a role in the coming Susan Seidelman film "Musical Chairs":

"Ms. Cox said that many casting directors don't know what they want when a script calls for a transgender character and think she looks too feminine to convincingly play someone who was born male. To her dismay, she said, she finds herself 'in auditions with drag queens a lot.'"

It's clear that Ms. Cox isn't saying anything negative about drag queens, but is pointing to the fact that casting directors want someone visibly genderqueer for these roles because the role is playing to a stereotype.

This is reminiscent of the great short film made by Calpernia Addams and Andrea James, Casting Pearls, which makes the point humorously but eloquently.

Casting Pearls from Frameline on Vimeo

As important as issues of law and politics are to obtaining formal recognition of respect for our community, issues of culture and the arts are equally important in creating the respect in the social system that must necessarily precede any foothold in law and politics.

The title of the New York Times piece gives me pause: "When They Play Women, It's Not Just an Act." That's very sly -- it's saying it's not just an act, so it's validating, but it is an act, because it's an act that's not "just an act." Wait...my head is exploding. Well, I'll let others chew over the issues of respect and not-quite-respect that it implies. Sometimes, any publicity is good publicity.

In any event, the piece details the casting of actress Harmony Santana, opening commercially in New York on Aug. 5. The way it's written, the foregrounding is that she has little acting experience and lives in a group home. Not exactly the kind of publicity I'd want as an actress. I'm not saying that it's not the truth, or that there's anything wrong with being upfront about her experiences, but it's not the first thing to know about an amazing young actress.

Monica Roberts of TransGriot gave the film a thumbs up and the trailer she posted gave me the chills. I recommend you take a look at the TransGriot post and the trailer there. Santana is an amazing actor. I want to see that film after reading Roberts' review. I didn't particularly want to see it after reading the New York Times piece, and I checked it out only because I wanted to be thorough. But my criticism is really a quibble, because it's important to see this issue of the exclusion of trans performers being discussed. Kudos to author Erik Piepenburg.

The piece goes on to discuss cross-dressing in film, and correctly notes that trans actors "are for the most part left to watch from the sidelines." The author also points up, thankfully, the important differences between drag and gender identity. Laverne Cox hits home the point well:

"I have such respect for drag queens," said Ms. Cox, who has been living as a woman since the late '90s and competed on VH1's "I Want to Work for Diddy" before starring in a VH1 makeover reality show, "Transform Me." "But what is troubling about the mainstreaming of drag, and people conflating drag and being transsexual, is that people think this is a joke. My identity is not a joke. Who I am as a woman is not a joke. This is my life."

The author goes on to talk about the discovery of Ms. Santana, quite a story in itself, and the uproar about the dreadful film "Ticked Off Trannies With Knives.."

It would have been apropos to talk about the upcoming role of Jamie Clayton on the TV show "Hung," but I suppose there's only so much you can put into a newspaper story.

Bottom line: I want to see more of the amazing trans performers out there in roles in TV and film, both in roles involving trans characters and non-trans characters. It's high time that writers, directors and producers recognize that trans people are more than a joke, a tortured soul or a prostitute.


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The most powerful statement in the Times article (which also contained some rather problematic language by the Times and Gun Hill Road's director) was that Harmony Santana is still living in a shelter for queer and trans youth. How many other young stars who gave an acclaimed performance in an award winning film would still be in that situation?

Damn good point. Wonder what artist representation she had? I'd like to see that contract.