Sunday, 4 September 2016

Queer Trans Acting Needs No Mansplaining Lookism: Why We Need To Embrace Gender Differences In Film And On TV

So cue the #AggravatingYawn Creatives Klaxon: yet another cis gay man's been cast to play a transwoman character in a so-called "mainstream" movie that's designed to heighten trans character representation and "normalise" it for the heterosexual, geriatric censors and their bemused audiences. Cue the trans liberal ironic community's "no tolerance"tutting reaction, avidly declaring on social media platforms that the "man in dress" trope is being unfairly reinforced whilst unconsciously making "passability tests" cool and groovy again within the cinematic community because somehow not "passing" as a woman is now seen as the ultimate act of evil if you want to be a trans female actor. The agony, the irony, the hypocrisy of it all! We seem to go through the same rhythms year in, year out. Sweeping changes that those who self-identify as part of the trans, queer, non-binary and gender-fluid community have wanted to happen to the Arts community, particularly in Hollywood haven't yet come. Who's really to blame for this lack of change? Trans actors, casting agents, film companies or the tastes of the viewing audience? Where do queer/non-binary, gender-fluid, intersex and asexual actors fit into the debate? Why haven't their narratives been given much credence? Are we focussing too much on improving representation through increasing trans actors on screen? These are the sorts of questions I'm hoping to try and address below.

When Trans Actors can't quite cut the mustard (say most mansplaining casting agents)

It's certainly true that seeing a cis-gay man play a transwoman role in 9 out of every 10 times a play/script that has been created involving a trans female character could be interpreted by many who are living through the narrative being portrayed on screen as perverse, pedantic, parody or even demeaning. I've seen social media reactions to the decision to cast Matt Bomer as a transgender woman and they show that there are plenty of trans women actors out there who would bite a casting agent's hand off to be given a chance to play a lead trans role in a Hollywood movie. So why aren't those trans actors being listened to?

Julia Serano has recently waded into the murky waters of the trans representation debate in a new essay: " Expanding Trans Media Representation: Why Transgender Actors Should Be Cast in Cisgender Roles" (May 2016). This essay highlights a number of important points which I aim to critique a little here.
  • Serano makes a very important point in her essay when she addresses the "men in dresses" trope currently doing the rounds on social media platforms: "Well, there are quite a few trans people out there — such as those who cannot afford or choose not to physically transition, and those who have physically transitioned but do not "pass" or "blend in" as cisgender — who probably do strike the average trans-unaware person as "men in dresses." If a person identifies as a transwoman and has body hair which is difficult to remove because it causes blistering of the skin and they cannot yet afford the treatment to permanently remove the body hair and want to be involved in a trans production, should they be banned from doing so because producers might fear they "reinforce a stereotype"? Equally, should depictions of such a trans woman be banned from appearing in creative media for the same reasons?
  • Serano argues that audiences who are unaware or unwilling to learn about trans issues will not care a jot whether a cisgendered man, trans woman with body hair or a fully transitioned woman plays the role, because in their minds they will still see them as a "man in a dress". A response to Serano's article by a supposed casting agent, Gregory Smith, shows how engrained such views remain even within a supposed liberal Arts community: "casting a male to female transgender is tricky if they have an Adam's apple. If I need a woman, she better look like a woman. If I need a man, the same deal." Yet despite his opinions he tells trans actors to "try their luck" but not expect "Hollywood to celebrate diversity"; so basically if you have to act for him, you'll have to rely on your looks and voice to "pass the test" but you've probably got a cat in hell's chance of being picked. Same old bigotry, same old passivity pass-ability test. The only way we will truly get over such hurdles is to change the culture within the casting industry and one way to achieve that would be to convince trans or trans inclusive people to consider a career as a casting agent. Conservatives may think that means liberals will gain a foothold within the industry but I feel that if they are unprepared to disregard their "mansplaining lookism" and see the person in front of them as having potential talent to play the role regardless of biological gender or appearances (provided they haven't been specified) then they need to be challenged for their casting agent job. Simple as that.
  • Equally what happens if trans people wish to have gender reassignment surgery but cannot because of medical reasons- e.g. if undergoing vaginaplasty might lead to bladder/kidney issues they already have being exacerbated or if they had diphtheria as a child which has weakened their heart to the point where going through 6-7 hour surgeries might stop their heart from working. It isn't their fault they cannot fully transition so if they label themselves as trans and the usual mansplainer suspects don't agree, is it right  that they get locked out from media and creative representation by trans people as well as cisgender people? Are we all really going to be as heartless as those who continue to deny a "trans identity exists"?
  • Depictions of trans people within mainstream drama sitcoms and soaps has certainly improved over the last decade - EastEnders and Hollyoaks have led the way in the UK during the past year with the introduction of a regular transman and transwoman character who happen to be from different age groups, social backgrounds and sexualities.(Riley Carter Millington plays a young transman who is a talented chef in EastEnders who met his sister Stacey for the first time last year and Annie Wallace plays the sassy headmistress Sally St Claire in Hollyoaks and was revealed as gay character John Paul's biological father).  
  • What's amazing is that casting agents in the UK are taking more of a chance with trans creatives by hiring trans actors to play these roles and writers and producers on these shows have created characters and storylines around those actors to help give an air of authenticity to their narrative. Equally there are comedies around dealing with trans relationship issues by providing a sympathetic, lighthearted portrayal of how trans people deal with their day to day lives and the issues that they are confronted with; for example Boy Meets Girl with the fab Rebecca Root (another trans actress) in the lead role of Judy tells of an age-gap relationship which develops as a result of a chance meeting and ends with Judy being given a "White Wedding" day to remember in the final episode of the second series, shown in August 2016.
  • However, there haven't been any trans actors in primetime hit TV shows in the UK, especially crime dramas. There's been no lead crime fighting character who has been trans- no Mrs J B Fletcher, Poirot or Miss Marple being cast in the title role. There's been no sports drama dealing with a rugby playing teenage "guy" going through transition to become a man!
  • Trans writers shouldn't be dissuaded from wanting to tell cisgender stories that intrigue them. I'm annoyed that the first female playwright to be published in English and to have her plays performed on the stage - Aphra Behn has not received the recognition from mainstream drama channels (like BBC) and Hollywood that she deserves. Anyone can read The Rover Part I and II and see how gifted a satirist Aphra really was (even the great Restoration satirist John Dryden celebrated her works and her plays were second only to his during the 1670's and 1680's!) Yet her story has languished in the classrooms of Gender Studies and English Literature lecture halls for decades whilst Jane Austen is universally celebrated as a witty romantic whose novels are regularly adapted into period drama. I'm intrigued by Aphra's story because she refused to conform to traditional notions of femininity; she refused to let mansplaining satirists like...get to her. Queer trans people in particular can identify with that kinda narrative.
  • Writers should never create a trans character "for the sake of increasing trans representation", especially when they need to be incorporated into existing rigid storylines in the vain hope of boosting flagging ratings. With a TV series dealing with the abolition of slavery in Jamaica, would a writer be convinced enough that creating a trans character would add anything to the story? There were no well known activists who were self-identifying as non-binary, let alone as wanting to live in their "opposite biological gender". Most people would point to the idea that trans operations didn't exist prior to early 20th century (as we know from the now well publicised story of Lili Elbe) and argue that trans characters shouldn't be wrote into these types of historical narratives even though gender theorists know that the ideas/thoughts/feelings/emotions of wanting to live differently within an existing dual-binary understanding of gender existed well before the late 19th century. However, this doesn't mean that a transwoman could not be considered for a cisgender female part in the drama. As long as they have the talent and passion that the casting agent, producer, director and writer are looking for, it shouldn't matter whether that person had identified as a man, woman or chicken in the past. Julia Serano prophesises of a day when this might happen in an endnote to the second edition of Whipping Girl: "Personally, I’d rather see the focus of this debate shift to championing trans actors being cast to play cis roles — this would provide trans actors with far more opportunities while simultaneously challenging societal cissexism (i.e., the notion that our genders are inherently inferior or inauthentic)."  If casting agents, directors, writers and the Arts community at large finally accept trans people have the talent to play cisgender characters, it will finally give trans people hope that they can be involved in a competitive yet rewarding community.
  • It would seem nonsensical to introduce a transwoman character into a TV series that was dealing with an adaptation of Lord of the Flies unless you were deliberately choosing to present a radical re-interpretation of William Golding's novel, as has happened with Shakespearian plays since the mid 1960's. It seems the attitude for such radical projects hasn't yet been ignited and perhaps we do need to start trying to make radical series and films to present to a mainstream audience. But where's the funding streams to allow this to happen?  Radical projects need to be adequately funded so they can "get off the ground". Crowdfunding may only go so far to pay for the basics- i.e. finance staff, clothes, some acting and filming time but if creative trans teams wanting to tell trans stories cannot attract funding from the British Council, British Film Institute (BFI), BBC or even Film 4, then how will they get their project off the ground? Does there need to be a level of positive discrimination shown by these organisations to focus on getting trans creative team made films and TV series into production and dissemination on screen ASAP?
Why are non-binary, queer, gender-fluid characters "left on the shelf?"
Trans activists have hit the nail on the head when it comes to lack of representation within the Arts community. Yet it makes me think if trans actors, directors, writers, producers and costume designers find it so difficult to get work on a mainstream film or TV series, what about those who oppose the dual gender binary in the first place. Where can they fit into the discussion? I'm not really aware of many characters who have self-defined as non-binary or gender-fluid in Hollywood films. I remember a character in Hollyoaks in the mid 2000s (Kris Fisher) who was bi and non-binary but played by a cisgender actor (Gerald McCarthy). Part of the reason why non-binary, gender-fluid or queer actors may be unable to find roles even in British soaps is because the arguments over their gender classification are "much less rigidly enforceable" because there is no need for an indication of a biological change occurring in the character. The casting agent of Mr Smith's ilk would argue that it doesn't necessarily matter whether the actor identifies as man, woman or other outside the studio provided the actor is prepared to immerse themselves in the character's backstory whilst they are filming. Casting agents are fickle, notoriously difficult to please and they wouldn't rest during casting sessions until they find the right individual to play the role. So unless we have casting directors and agents in place who may be more sympathetic to getting trans, queer, non-binary and gender-fluid actors hired into lead roles, the likelihood of these actors increasing their presence on screen reduces dramatically. Equally if there aren't producers, directors and writers who identify openly as gender-fluid prepared to create stories that feature gender-fluid, queer and non-binary characters, the likelihood of their interesting narratives being presented on-screen is greatly reduced, just because there is still a stigma attached to those who wish to challenge the dual gender binary.

However there are instances where non-binary, queer and gender-fluid actors should have an advantage over trans actors:
  • Period dramas are more problematic for trans actors because the notion of transgenderism didn't exist in its modern form prior to the late 19th century. However there were people who would have been openly seen as "different" to their peers, hence opening a space for the creation of queer/gender-fluid and non-binary characters. Trans actors may be able to audition for such roles but only alongside those who identify as queer/gender-fluid and non-binary.
  • Audiences are becoming more aware of theories challenging traditional notions of masculinity and femininity alongside multifaceted forms of gender identity. This means they are more likely to be receptive to innovative, challenging films and dramas which focus on telling an authentic story from the past, present or the future. Millennials in particular would be more likely to watch  period dramas which have queer characters appear as leads.Trans and queer writers have to be prepared to tell these stories and write them in such a way that would appeal to talent scouts within television and film companies. There are a number of areas such a writer may wish to focus on to create a great screenplay; I'm reminded of tales from the Molly Houses of the late 17th and early 18th century where gay men would actively dress up as women and marry each other in disguise behind closed doors and the story of Margaret Clap (or Mother Clap), one such Molly House proprietor who was raided by the venomously conservative Society For The Reformation Of Manners is one that requires more exposure on the TV screen (despite the great play Mother Clap's Molly House written by Mark Ravenhill and performed to great acclaim in 2001).  The story hasn't yet been properly told but it's just as juicy as reading Fanny Hill or Moll Flanders.
  • Sports films haven't yet fully dealt with the notion of queerisation; I feel that audiences who are receptive to trans authentic narratives would also enjoy watching a short TV episode about a male gymnast who cross-dresses behind closed doors yet dreams of presenting his true gender-fluid self to the world without being ridiculed for his preferences. Such episodes wouldn't need to focus on his sexuality as being part of the reason why he cross-dresses, but he may go to a club where crossdressing is fetishistic/sexual based to contrast with his own feelings of it being innocent/ for himself as opposed to pleasing others in a sexual way. EastEnders recently introduced a new storyline for undertaker Les Coker, who is revealed as having an alter ego Christine which he had kept secret from his wife Pam for many years. They showed how Pam came to terms with Les's "outing" and the terrible types of abuse, including financial (blackmail) can ensue when a secret comes out into the open. I believe this storyline shows how non-binary/gender-fluid/queer characters can exist even if their alter-egos or gender identity expressions are not brought out into the open until the character's other storylines have progressed. Some non-binary, queer and gender-fluid activists would say Les is not an example of how they live their lives but it did show audiences how elderly characters may have had to deal with their gender expression prior to acceptance of the disintegration of the dual gender binary. Conservative moralists still don't accept gender fluidity so showing such stories on screen is important, relevant and authentic. It's a start!
What about intersex and asexual characters?
Intersex people are rarely referenced to by mainstream media outlets let alone on TV and in films. The recent case of Caster Semeyna proved that most sports viewers were unaware that men and women can have natural hormone imbalances let alone the fact that a man may have been born with a womb and uterus even if they are unable to procreate. Most intersex actors will not reveal that they are intersex at a casting call because it's something that the agent cannot see. They are happy to present as a woman or man depending on what gender role they have grown up in. Intersex people certainly aren't all trans yet they can be labelled as such and then denied a cisgender role based on the "mansplaining lookism" mentioned earlier. Intersex characters do provide an intriguing basis for a captivating narrative and there is plenty of room for these characters to discuss the notion of intersex with their friends/family and present characters who criticise them because they believe intersex isn't true. If a film, TV drama or soap character provides an access point for audience members to discuss intersex issues then the film/TV drama/ soap has succeeded in raising awareness without it feeling forced or inauthentic.

Hollywood is awash with "sexualised propaganda" according to ultra conservative outlets such as Breibart. How ironic is it then that asexual actors and characters are amongst those who feel the most left out of debates on artistic representation. Most casting agents cannot understand why asexual people can't describe themselves as "celibate" and fake sexual acts on the camera just so they can compete and get the lead roles in films. Somehow if you are as ripped as Daniel Craig or Aidan Turner you are meant to be sexually promiscuous and be prepared to strip at a moment's notice. Sexual desire isn't a tap that you can turn off or on at a moment's notice just to suit the whims of the filmmakers. So no wonder asexual actors feel there is a need for better understanding of their feelings and more writers prepared to tell their stories. I'm looking forward to the story of famously asexual Smith's frontman Morrissey being presented to British audiences next year so they can see that sex doesn't have to be hinted at or be at the heart of adult TV drama storylines to be of interest to an audience. And the fact being asexual doesn't make you any less interesting, subversive, sassy or beautiful, beating those myths peddled by jealous detractors right down into the patriarchal dustular remains.

Conclusion:
Mainstream media and creative output has progressed in the right direction during the last decade and most members of the LGBTQIA community who self define as trans have appreciated that their narratives are being taken seriously. Much work still needs to be done to improve the career prospects of trans actors and whilst trans women's voices have seemed to occupy the spotlight, trans male characters are still relatively rare. As a queer trans woman I'm also glad that the narratives are presented that question the inherently solid idea of dual gender identity. However for me, there is a LOT of work that needs to be done by Hollywood and British BBC producers alike to improve representation of queer, gender-fluid, non-binary, intersex and asexual people on screen and behind the cameras. We need to break through the idea that gender should only be seen through a dual binary prism, that it is interesting creatively to present characters who refuse to ascribe to normal stereotypes and do not wish to change their bodies just to fit in with the gender-binding fashions of the day. Casting agents need to go beyond lookism and consider all candidates for a role based on engaged, detailed discussion with the whole creative team, including writers. We need to encourage more LGBTQIA writers, costume directors, producers, directors even grips and production accountants to consider a career in the film and TV industry and make it easier for them to gain the experience and skills needed to convince major companies to take a chance on their projects. Those LGBTQIA creatives already in the industry must do all they can to support new talent. Funding organisations need to be prepared to look "outside the mainstream box" and consider funding films that may appear as if they come out of a "Pandora's box" of talent to find the next Steven Spielberg or Ken Loach. So let's be supportive, let's be passionate and prepared to engage in finding new narratives and creating more.