Note: We wish to recognize the efforts of individuals associated with the Theatre Department in their efforts to shed light on the problems outlined below.
The following is an Editorial of Wetlands Magazine:
This past weekend, the Senior Theatre Festival (STF) launched its first production of the semester, Looking for Normal. The story follows the life of a trans woman, Ruth, as she attempts to navigate many obstacles throughout her transition. While the story itself illustrates important themes and we welcomed the inclusion of a trans narrative during the 2015 STF, our enthusiasm quickly turned to a sense of helplessness and frustration upon learning the specifics of the casting decisions. It came to pass that a cisgender man was cast into the role of a trans woman, while a trans woman who did audition for the role, was rejected. Her rejection from the role was further compounded by the decision to instead offer her the role of a transphobic man. This decision required a disavowal of her merit as an actress; clearly, she has the merit to perform some role in the performance. But, rather than interpreting this merit through the lens of an appropriate casting decision—that of casting her as the trans woman, the directors instead did an actual violence by casting her in the role of a transantagonistic character. The casting of a cis-man into the role of a trans woman is expressive of a deeper and more systemic modality of domination by which the complex identities of trans women are interpolated within a structure of cis-sexism and transmisogyny that renders trans women as “in fact” cis men, misgendering them ideologically and exposing them to material violence.
The actions of the director, and by extension the Puget Sound Theatre Department, are reflective of this larger structure that misrepresents trans feminine identities. Furthermore if the Senior Theatre Festival was unsure if adequate casting, as defined by deliberately seeking and privileging the casting of trans women actors to act in the role of trans women characters, was a possibility, they should not have continued with the production of Looking For Normal.
Trans people are almost never given the space to self-represent. The lack of adequate representation is most intense for trans women. We live in a society that situates trans women at the intersections of misogyny, heterosexism, cissexism, and anti-femininity and in proximity to a broad spectrum of intensely violent structures. Frequently trans women are further disadvantaged by classism and racism. This creates a lived experience for trans women that is defined by violence. The most egregious forms of this violence are murder and sexual assault, motivated by both hatred and fear: subtending this is also the material structure of privilege/disprivilege that creates a wide range of daily interpersonal violence directed at trans women.
Systemic violence against trans women is only amplified by our society’s continued toleration and reliance upon dehumanizing representation of trans embodiment, which stems from allowing non-trans women to represent trans women as if this were adequate or appropriate. Trans women already have no voice in our society and are targeted with structural violence on a daily level and disproportionately exposed to interpersonal violence.
Dehumanization is frequently connected to false representations of trans identities and contributes to the prevalence of harm done to the community. Within the spheres of our society, including film, literature, theatre, online media, television shows, and music, there is little representation of trans self-narration of trans experience. The vast majority of films dealing with trans characters feature cisgender actors playing the roles of trans women. Such in the case of popular media such as, Boys Don’t Cry, Albert Nobbs, and Transparent; where all of the trans characters are played by cisgender people.
There are two core problems with these misrepresentations: first, trans actors are consistently overlooked for these roles, with directors assuming that cis actors are more equipped to tell the stories of trans characters, which not only creates working environments and “professional” theatrical standards that are inimical to trans success; but also, these individual casting decisions contribute to the overwhelming lack of precedent supporting the casting of trans women as trans women. Cis men are almost never unintentionally cast to play cis women, and yet cis men are assumed to be adequate representatives of the lives of trans women. This assumption is not only incorrect, but is harmful to trans communities.
Assuming that cis-men are qualified to play the role of trans women furthers a narrative that positions trans women as “illegitimate women,” as the phrase “men in dresses,” a common slur launched against trans women, expresses, society delegitimizes the self-narration of the trans body at every turn. Assuming that a trans woman can be even slightly represented by cis men does absolutely nothing except tell the audience that trans women are actually more akin to cis men, rather than representing trans women as being actual women. This is replicative of the original trans exclusionary radical feminist, Janice Raymond, who argued that the ideal resolution to trans life was to “morally mandate transsexuality out of existence.” The festival itself reproduces this discourse when it casts cis men to play the role of trans women by presenting a “trans” theatrical performance in a way that is unacceptably complicit in hegemonic discourses and which constructs an inadequate representation of trans women’s bodies.
In short, the roles of cis-men and cis-women are always clearly defined in the script, and casting decisions for them almost always reflect that, therefore it is inappropriate to assume that scripts denoting trans women characters can be interchanged with cis-men. To make such an assumption is to further perpetuate violence against trans women by explicitly disallowing them the ability to narrate their own stories and portray their own bodies.
If the Senior Theatre Festival wishes to engage in meaningful dialogue about trans identities and seeks to lessen the overt oppression and threat of violence that trans students face, then STF should then be equally concerned with adequate representation of trans lives. This directly relates to the misrepresentation of trans women in Looking for Normal. If the director, and the Theatre Department by extension, was attempting to shed light on systemic violence that defines the lived experience of trans women, they ultimately failed. If they felt they were unable to cast a trans woman in the role of Ruth, the production should have been cancelled upon that realization. Instead, STF made a deliberate decision to cast a cis-man into the role of a trans woman, rejecting a trans woman for the role in the process, and further acting violent toward her by offering her the role of a transphobic man.
It is inexcusable to assume that the identities of trans women and cis men are interchangeable. The assumption that it was even mildly appropriate to cast a cis man into the role written for a trans woman is based in a deeply problematic assumption that trans women are actually men who are attempting to be women, as opposed to recognizing that trans women are inherently women, and thus their stories should be told by other women. The actions of those involved in the casting for Looking For Normal are abhorrent and perpetuate systems of violence towards trans women and absolutely need to be addressed to prevent similar acts of violence in the future.
Wetlands Magazine Editorial Board
Aryeh Conrad, Editor-in-Chief
Blake Hessel, Executive Editor
C.J. Queirolo, Senior Content Director
Shanna Williams & Elaine Stamp, Senior Copy Editors
Rory Jacobs, Senior Prose Editor
Adrian Kljucec, Senior Poetry Editor
Kailee Faber, Senior Art Editor
Official endorsements from the following:
Taylor Applegate, Editor-in-Chief, The Trail
Ken Aviananda, General Manager, Photo Services
Colleen McNeely, Editor-in-Chief, Tamanawas
Associated Students of the University of Puget Sound Senate