Now you can celebrate greater trans visibility with an American camp classic
We’re in the middle of a very exciting time in Hollywood. Yes, we hear a lot about embarrassing yellowfacing and brownfacing and general insensitivity when it comes to casting decisions, but the good news is we are hearing about it. Media watchers and consumers are no longer content to say visibility on its own is enough for minority characters and performers, and the demand for accurate representation of all people present on screen is getting louder all the time.
So, when you watch the new trailer for Fox’s production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, try not to think of it strictly as a network cashing in on a legacy brand. Instead, take a moment to appreciate that the sweet transsexual from Transylvania (1975 terminology) will now be played by an actual transgender woman (2016 terminology) in Laverne Cox, and this comes just days after a show called Doubt was ordered by CBS that will feature Cox playing a series regular trans character.
The issue of trans performers playing trans characters started getting a lot more attention towards the end of last year when movies like The Danish Girl and About Ray were premiering at film festivals. Both movies featured transgender lead characters embodied by cisgender performers, and people started asking if transgender roles should belong exclusively to members of that community.
In a New York Timesarticle called “Who Gets to Play the Transgender Part?” from last September, a Glaad representative named Nick Adams said, “In certain circumstances, a non-trans person can play a trans character if they do their homework and learn from trans people, as Jeffrey Tambor did.” But in the same story, Tangerine director Sean Baker, whose movie features a trans lead character played by a trans actress, told the Times, “At this moment in time, especially, I think this industry has a responsibility to put trans actors in trans roles… To not do it seems very wrong in my eyes. There is plenty of trans talent out there.”
Tambor has been unanimously praised for his turn as a trans woman in the Amazon series Transparent, and before Eddie Redmayne got his Oscar nod for The Danish Girl Jared Leto took a little gold man home for his turn as a trans AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club. So, Adams’ point about cis actors being able to effectively playing trans seems to be true, but so is Bakers’ assertion that there is an untapped pool of trans talent out there waiting to fill gender appropriate roles.
The question “Who gets to play transgender?” does not have one tidy answer, and right now the important thing is to keep asking the question. In the meantime, Cox continues to rewrite the representation rulebook in Hollywood, and come Halloween we’ll get the chance to see her strutting her stuff as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the mad scientist who launched a million midnight screenings 41 years ago. Those are big heels to fill, but we suspect she’s up to the task.