Editorial: Trans/ending Normal

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.

Signed,

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


Update:

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

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16 Comments Add yours

  1. Jasper Jones says:

    I’m sorry, but I beg to differ. The writer(s) of this editorial don’t seem to have any idea what theater and acting are about. Playing against type is often much more interesting and provocative for both actor and audience. I don’t see any good argument for forcing a theater group to typecast. It seems to me *that* sends the very message you’re seemingly arguing against here. However loaded the cis/trans issues are, it looks to me like the Senior Theatre Festival is raising the issue, not lowering it, by purposefully casting against type. Bravo!

    1. anomynous says:

      Agreed.

  2. no thanks says:

    This is hilarious. Did any of these people even see the show or were they writing purely from petty gossip? You speak of canceling the show following auditions… You realize this is a thesis? A culmination of four years of theater classes, not to mention a semester of dedicated preperation? One does not simply cancel a show. Please do your research before writing hateful editorials.
    P.s. I can’t wait to read the editorial shaming STF for “misgendering” Hamlet.

  3. Jane Doe says:

    This editorial was hurtful to everyone involved with not only Looking for Normal, but with the theatre department itself. I appreciate that our department took a risk with picking this play, but I also understand that at no point along the way was the goal of this performance to show violence against any member of the queer community. While I do know that it would’ve been ideal to cast a gender queer member of the campus community, they chose otherwise in the interests of this project. While Ruth may have been played by a cis gendered male, her character was handled with great poise and sensitivity. It would have been a disservice to the actor to deny him this part only on the basis that he identifies as a cis gendered male. He worked hard to present Ruth and handled the character with both empathy and honesty, as any actor would do with any part. The theatre members involved in Looking for Normal used their thesis to present an issue that is quite prominent in our community, and I admire the risks they took in choosing Looking for Normal.

    1. With all due respect to the individuals involved, Jane doe, it seems to me like presenting an issue that is quite so prominent our community should justify taking this issue a little more seriously. Namely, what does it mean in our community that a public performance decided to present an issue by having it presented with a cis actor? I think that signals not much that’s different from the status quo, which is: cis people speaking and acting as if they could on behalf of, or as if they are, part of the trans community. Cis peoples’ representations of trans people are frequently dangerous and incorrect, and the representation of a trans woman’s body by reference to a cis man continues a specific historical tendency of transmisogyny that I do not think this performance has justified at any level.

      Poise and sensitivity and disservices aside, I think it is relatively unethical to cast a cis person to play a trans role in general, regardless of what theatre thinks about itself. I think that whatever theatre thinks about itself, if what it thinks about itself justifies the status quo of cis people being cast to play trans roles, then it seems like theatre needs either 1) a wake up call or 2) to get ready to deal with trans frustration. No matter what theatre thinks about itself, this response of frustration will always be justified. If theatre is primarily aesthetic, then it still seems like critique of the representation forwarded should be justified. If theatre is primarily political, then it still seems like this sort of critique should be invited. If theatre is both of these things and more, then, even more so, we should invite this kind of critical response.

      If someone wants to use their thesis in this way to start a public discussion of issues “quite this prominent,” then I think everyone should be happy that trans people are vocalizing our concerns on this issue. If someone isn’t actually interested in what we have to say then why would we participate in that discussion on their terms. It wouldn’t be in our interest because, as per all these comments, our demands and concerns are sidelined in the name of things like “theatre” and “casting across type” or other apologia to justify the cisnormativity of theatre. Peoples’ defenses of theatre seem like typical ups #allies

  4. L. says:

    Jasper,
    I hear your argument about casting against type being provocative. But when a character with a marginalized identity is played by a character without that identity, that marginalized identity is intentionally silenced. Far too often, trans* voices are not heard in films and plays because cis people are cast to play them. This play was written in order to combat that trend and give a voice to trans* people in general, but the casting decisions denied a trans woman’s opportunity to bring her personal experience and identity to the role, dismissing her identity and choosing instead to play into the stereotypes mentioned earlier, like that trans women are just “men in dresses.”

    And how often are these roles ever reversed? It is extremely difficult if not impossible to find any notable examples of trans* people earning roles as non-trans characters. If the scores were even then yes, this casting decision could be seen as thought-provoking and not discriminatory. Trans* people can barely get roles as trans* characters, nevermind as cis characters, so where are the trans* voices? This isn’t anything new. White actors “played against type” too, by just using blackface. How thought-provoking!

    So clearly no, I do not think that perpetuating violent stereotypes and further marginalizing oppressed voices deserves a “bravo,” especially on a campus that supposedly cares so much about diversity, inclusion, and mutual understanding.

    1. anon says:

      But didn’t the article mention that the trans* actor in question who didn’t get cast in the trans* role still get cast in the play as Wayne? (Who despite what the article says, after seeing the play I don’t think that character is transphobic, just confused and upset) so doesn’t that mean that trans* people are getting cast as non-trans* roles? Is the role of Roy/Ruth the only role in the festival that she should have been considered for?

      1. anony says:

        I agree with anon. I feel like typecasting any one person by their identity or gender would have been a greater injustice to everyone involved. the goal of a theater and its actors is to be versatile in their ability to play characters and represent them to the best of their abilities.

      2. Honestly...... says:

        First of all, the character’s name is Ruth. She identifies as a woman and her name is Ruth. She has always been Ruth, you do not change trans people’s names in the past tense.

        Second of all, the point is that the trans actor who auditioned did not want to be cast as Wayne and it is violent to cast her as Wayne because of the triggers and violence associated with the role. Also, trans actors can and should be cast as cis people (of the gender they identify as) because that is the gender they are. But aside from that, you should just generally engage trans actors and ask what gendered roles they feel comfortable being cast as, because there is violence and oppression associated with being trans and not having your gender validated….whereas cisgender people do not feel that and do not experience that.

  5. Anon says:

    I would like to point out that people are often cast in our theatre department to play roles that do not allign with their gender. For example, the lead on Hamlet for this STF will be a woman. The actor that played Wanye in Looking for Normal, a cis male character, does not identify as either male or female. I’m not trying to compare the issues trans* actors face for being cast in roles on a larger scale but our theatre department often does not cast based on the gender of a role.

    Also, I would like to point out that simply labeling the character of Wanye as transphobic is a simplicification of his narrative. While he does make transphobic comments during his monologues, all of this is directed at the fact that it was his father that was going through the change. None of his comments are directed at the transgendered community as a whole and by the end of play, Wanye has come to accept Ruth’s identity. Wayne’s frustration is more about confusing then any actual transphobia. If Wanye was truly transphobic, he would have never sent his parents an anniversiy gift or, from the way it was performed during STF, accepted Ruth’s transition.

    1. anon says:

      I agree. I think labeling the character of Wayne as simply “transphobic” denies any of the growth the character has throughout the play and also silences a very real response (that while not being justifiable, is certainly understandable) that people have to family members (or friends, peers, etc) revealing their gender identity doesn’t match the gender they were born with. Confusion and anger are very common in this situation and while many of his lines were horrible and upsetting, the character (especially the way he was performed in the show) was one that an audience could sympathize with (though, again, his words/actions were certainly not justifiable)

  6. anony says:

    I don’t understand why gender or identity should matter at all in a theatre production. By making this into a huge deal, you are in a sense segregating the community even more rather than praising our ability to look beyond gender and identity. This isn’t something that should be an issue. If you preach equality, that means everyone should have equal opportunity to play Roy/ Ruth and it shouldn’t be given to someone based on their gender or identity.
    Furthermore, I feel like because of this issue no one is recognizing how many barriers were broken down because of this play. Not to mention the fact that most of the participants both on stage and behind the scenes were gender/ queer and women.
    If there should be any problem with this play it should be from the play itself and not the way it was directed, cast, or produced. If you truly want to realize what the play is, research it. Read the script and realize that the issues could ultimately stem from the play write and not from everyone else who was involved.

    1. T says:

      It matters because there is violence and oppression attached to the identities of transgender students and the transgender experience, there is no such struggle attached to being cisgender.
      Also. Ruth****…the fact that you all still maintain this Roy/Ruth thing just further demonstrates that you do not understand the point and you do not understand what respecting trans identities looks like.

  7. T says:

    TW: VIOLENCE, DEATH MENTION, DEATH TW, SUICIDE TW, ANTI TRANS SITUATIONS

    ———————————————————————————————————————————–

    ———————————————————————————————————————————–

    ———————————————————————————————————————————–

    I’d just like to put it out there that the fact all of you find Wayne to just be “confused” and “upset” completely minimizes the hurt and violence experienced by transgender people who are harmed by people who “aren’t transphobic” by your definition. Honestly, I don’t think that anyone should be defining what is and isn’t transphobic except for the trans community. The violence within the show is not even what is at question and you’re completely missing the point. This really is not about the show itself, it’s about a culture that has been so ingrained that ya’ll think it’s okay to commit such micro-aggressive violence against transgender students. Your responses to the transgender community’s pain are actually worse and more violent than the casting itself. This just goes to show how much you all actually care about the experiences and identities of transgender folks. You really will find any way to justify the hurt and the violence experienced. I’d also just like to point out that what you’re saying as not transphobic is essentially the same way that 49 states of 50 justify the murder of transgender women. The trans panic defense says that an individual can be so panicked, confused, and emotional upon finding out that someone is transgender that murdering that individual is an understandable reaction. Also, the point about Wayne is, why would a transgender woman want to play Wayne? Do you know what gender dysphoria feels like? Do you know what triggers are? How triggering having to play that role would have been for a student who has recently experienced a lot of anti-trans violence by her family, classmates, and other people in her life? Why is that an appropriate role? Those involved in this decision clearly had no regard for her, her safety, or her identity. The fact that she had to leave because the “talk back” was made so unsafe for her and her birth name was used to refer to her? Honestly? Do none of you understand how your response to this editorial is violent within itself? How reading these comments make transgender students feel angry, outraged, upset, unsafe, etc +so many other negative feelings?

    The “Talk Back” hosted was violent, these comments are violent and dismissive, and I really don’t think any of you are ever going to understand what it feels like to feel the way we do. To live the way we do. To have to deal with the bull shit that we do. This isn’t high stakes acting/professional theater. The trans student who auditioned wouldn’t have been compensated, this isn’t her job, this isn’t currently her profession, this was a school run play. There was no reason to jeopardize a student’s mental health and well being for the sake of artistry. Until you get beat to death in the streets, murdered by your family members, killed by classmates, sexually assaulted in public spaces, shot, drowned in toilets, hung, and overall treated like you aren’t worth more than the dirt on the bottom of someone’s shoe—you do NOT get to tell the transgender community, specifically transgender women, how to feel about this, about the casting, about your comments, about a role, about violence. I lived 17 years of my life hating myself, thinking everyone hated me, I tried to carve parts of my body off that I knew did not belong. I will be reminded every day of my life that I am not cis. Gender will be a constant and pervasive part of the anxiety I experience from life. I have struggled, hurt, and put up with so much to be recognized as who I identify as. We get to decide what is transphobic and what hurts us. This hurts us. THIS is violent. The fact that people keep referring to Ruth as Roy/Ruth is violent, and dismissive of the fact she is a woman. I don’t care if you’re talking about the first half of the show or the end or whatever, she is Ruth and was Ruth the entire time. The fact people kept calling her by he/him pronouns during the talk back is violent.

    If this was about the show itself, we would be protesting the creators. This is about the way you have all handled the show, the way you decided to ignore casting advice given by LGBTQ, specifically trans, people. This is about all of the violent sentiments you’ve been expressing after the fact so that you can justify your art. You (several theater participants) have made it abundantly clear that you care more about theater than the actual lives and identities of transgender individuals. You have made it clear that you do not care about our health and well being and you would rather co-opt our stories for “good story telling” than respect our identities. If only you respected transgender people as much as you respected theater, then maybe we wouldn’t have this problem. It’s incredible that you would rather debate the plot points of this show than actually engage in humanizing trans individuals. That you are more caught up in and bogged down in the portrayal of cis characters than the REAL actual feelings of trans people. I guess fictional cis people will always be defended by cis people, more than real trans people will ever be. The above comments made by people are a microcosm of the reasons I will probably never feel like a respected and welcomed a part of this campus community.

  8. anonymous says:

    I agree with the idea the editors are proposing. It is true that trans* individuals are not represented in art and media to the extent that they deserve, and it is true that that needs to be discussed and absolutely needs to be changed. This is a very good point, and at no point in this discussion is anyone here trying to say that that’s not true.

    However, what I do not agree with is the delivery of this statement. There is some very sensationalist language used in this argument that makes the director and the theatre department sound like horrible monsters who decided not to cast a trans* actress purely for the purpose to hurt the individual and the trans* community. Maybe the director was looking for someone who had more experience in acting and had a little more developed technique. Maybe they were looking for an actor of a certain height. There are dozens of reasons why the director made that casting choice, but unless you went up to them and asked, there’s no way to know. So writing this article assuming that the wrong choice was made because they are grossly ignorant and have no concept of how to treat non-cis individuals like humans is kind of an unfair assumption.

    I continue to have a problem with how the non-cis community at this school goes about educating others. Yes, it is extremely important for everyone to learn about issues like this. I would like to learn about issues like this. But you have to give people a learning curve. I spent 19 years believing that there are biological men and biological women, and that was it. The concept of being trans* was something I read a paragraph about once in my health textbook my sophomore year of high school. I learned what being intersex meant when I took gender studies during my first semester here, and I hadn’t even HEARD of gender fluid or gender queer or gender neutral; I didn’t even know that was something that people could be. Even now as a sophomore, I still accidentally misgender some non-binary friends every now and then. I don’t misgender them because I hate them or don’t respect their identity–I (wrongfully) misgender them because I literally JUST learned that there’s a whole world outside of 100% male and 100% female, and I now have to integrate that into my knowledge of gender identity after basically 20 years of being conditioned to see it a certain way. Luckily, I have patient friends who understand that I make mistakes and I respect who they are, but like, you have to give me some time to wrap my head around the concept. It sure would be swell if you could handle it the same way, Wetlands editors. People who are just learning about these kinds of issues deserve the benefit of the doubt for at least a little while, and they shouldn’t have to be yelled at or publicly shamed on a forum like this for making a mistake. If you have a problem with how this show was handled, opening up an in-person discussion for education instead of jumping straight to shaming would be better. Even better, it sure would have been nice to say something 4 months ago when something could have been done about it before now, because now the creative team can’t look back on the 4 years of hard work they put into this production and feel proud after an aggressive response like this.

    1. T says:

      Just so you know, something was said 4 months ago. The crew on this show asked the opinions of SIRGE and Q&A and ignored the advice of both groups on campus. So while that sentiment makes sense, they directly made a choice that they knew (to my knowledge) to be against the wishes of queer/trans leaders on campus.

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