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On the Physical Embodiment of Trans Women Onstage and the Follies of Symbolic Representation

Performers pose onstage
The cast of Trans Scripts, a documentary-style play featuring a cast made up almost entirely of trans women. Photo by Colin Hattersley.

Trans Women in the National Theatrical Dialogue
Theatre is oft cited as a site of incubation for revolutionary thought, a bastion of progressive theory generated by forward-thinking artists with a vested interest in subversive action. As a historically maligned people caught between the junctions of the gender binary, trans women are the natural subject for a theatre scene with a political profile predicated on a theoretical conception of symbolic representation of marginalized identities as radical and subversive practice. Thus, when discussing the material benefits of theatrical representation, political dialogue trends toward a recognition of the symbolic presence of trans womanhood through the deployment of certain performative tropes as not only materially beneficial to the lives of their subjects, but fundamentally subversive to certain traditional binary thought. I’m writing to raise questions about the material effectiveness of representation in a theatrical setting, and the true nature of revolution as it manifests within trans politics in a commercial space.

The presence of a trans character onstage does not so much signify a significant change in the axes of power that have oppressed trans women as they contribute to their increased exploitation under a guise of neoliberal progressiveness.

The commercial entity that is Broadway has undergone a sort of Renaissance of late, charged by the development of a social media profile spread among several platforms that boasts of a particularly liberal political platform. With the much-discussed “transgender tipping point” that defined both 2015 and 2016 and introduced such high-profile trans celebrities as Laverne Cox and Hari Nef, a new avenue of gender-focused rhetoric has opened on Broadway, centered around a supposed experimentation with gender normativity through the deployment of symbolic representation. Thus, certain trans narratives are introduced—and often reintroduced—as examples of positive representation, and thus contrary to the traditional gender dichotomies that produce transphobic violence in the first place. I posit, however, that in these late stages of capital-driven theatre, that representation does not immediately imply revolution, and the presence of a trans character onstage does not so much signify a significant change in the axes of power that have oppressed trans women as they contribute to their increased exploitation under a guise of neoliberal progressiveness.

The Great Trans Monolith
Trans identity in political discourse occupies an interesting space: it is defined in highly specialized rhetoric generated by academic institutionalization, and a standardized set of categorical definitions based on a summary of gender expression like those most prominently displayed in Buzzfeed articles about gender inequality. What arises from this integration of transgender identity into academic spheres, and its subsequent exposure in public political discourse is a test by which neoliberal theatre artists can display their literacy in gender politics, while summarily disengaging from more nuanced discussion of trans identity and then more easily excluding trans women from participation in their theatrical narratives. Such standardization of political discussion creates a conglomerate LGBTQ identity that is not referenced in its cultural context but in a sort of constructed liberal context by which all identities that fall under the acronym experience material oppression in the exact same way at the exact same time. Such political discourse also positions “visibility” as the most valuable capital in political representation, making symbolic representation not only materially beneficial to the lives of its subjects, but the most beneficial. Thus, trans identity is both generalized and standardized and stripped of the internal divisions that make each of its cultural subsets unique and idiosyncratic.

Such conglomeration of trans identity is most prominently seen in the recent storm of articles and listicles published by major Broadway social media accounts and publicity machines such as Broadway.com and Playbill, each boasting in various Pride-themed articles of a set of characters displaying obvious characteristics of gender-nonconformity, and even explicit transgender identity, but very rarely with a nuanced understanding of the distinctions between disparate identities within the trans community as a whole, and the disproportionate experiences between these constituent identities.

Under this type of rationalization, visibility of trans men in public/representational spaces is as valuable for trans women, as the transgender community is inherently viewed as a single subject for which cis audiences may discuss or expand upon, often missing the absence/marginalization of trans women in narratives about gender nonconformity. The great trans monolith thus elides the material differences in experience between trans men and trans women, nonbinary people, and intersex people, all creating a single mass of characterization by which the cis audience member may perform academic allyship by consuming narratives of gender nonconformity without perceiving its political/cultural context. In this environment, due to the prevalence of transmisogyny that disinvests the cultural achievements of trans women from their historical context (trans women are oft cited as the inventors of drag, and yet mainstream audiences seem absolutely convinced that transgender drag queens are a recent phenomenon), trans women are excluded from trans narratives in favor of a more generalized trans experience, more easily palatable for a neoliberal audience.

Trans Characters on Broadway
With this rhetoric firmly embedded into the political framework through which a theatre community operates, it is simplicity itself to create a trans woman character that either embodies long-held tropes deeply mired in transmisogyny or a two-dimensional stock trans woman (one does not necessarily exclude the other) for purposes of a diversity quota. Thus, representational politics can actually contribute to transmisogynist rhetoric while claiming material benefit through performative allyship.

Such performance can be seen in a multitude of Broadway shows that have made their debut in the last few years, each boasting of a certain level of visible gender-nonconformity, and each carrying either a transmisogynist trope or a stock trans woman character. Take, for example, the musical Kinky Boots, the subject of which is a drag queen with a penchant for shoes. Halfway through the first act, as Lola, the aforementioned queen, is introduced to the workers at the factory in which she'll be manufacturing shoes, she sits on the lap of a worker who has clearly mistaken her as a cis woman. She toys with him for a moment, playing up the ruse, and then quickly reveals her apparent manhood to him, to cries of disgust and frustration. Such small little gags seem barely relevant on an issue so large in scale as trans representation, but the “trans-woman-as-sexual-deceiver” trope has long been deployed as a method of dehumanization and fetishization. Even in a show in which a person performing gender-nonconformity is implied to be cis (admittedly improbably; though Lola speaks several times about being a man, she only ever takes off her women's clothing and makeup at the request of her cis male coworkers), such tropes perpetuate violence against trans women in particular, who are often portrayed as men in dresses cruising for some sexual satisfaction through deceit and manipulation.

Gregory Haney as La Cienega in Bring It On: The Musical.
Gregory Haney as La Cienega in Bring It On: The Musical. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Other examples of such typing of trans women include the cardboard-flat trans woman La Cienega in Bring it On: The Musical, the trans-woman-as-political-metaphor Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and even the sadistic, deceitful Dr. Frankenfurter of Rocky Horror, who uses their fluctuating gender presentation as a mode of sexual assault against both the straight woman and straight man. Trans roles on Broadway are often retroactively assigned the laurels of symbolic representation without attention to the violent tropes that they embody.

Such complicated and (in the true academic sense of the word) problematic interpretations of trans womanhood is perhaps due to the lack of trans writers in theatre, or even the lack of familiarity of cis writers with any trans issues extending past a Caitlyn Jenner interview.

Broadway is capable of hiring trans women to play trans roles and contribute to trans embodiment onstage, to provide financial stability and visibility to talented actresses who otherwise are not given the chance.

Trans Embodiment
In terms of material benefits to trans women in theatre, representation can be argued to serve many functions for audiences, none of which are particularly easy to measure, and none of which seem to make any impact in the rising levels of homicide, poverty, and homelessness among trans women nationwide. However, there is one particular way in which Broadway is capable of directly and materially improving the lives of trans women onstage, albeit not every single one. Broadway is capable of hiring trans women to play trans roles and contribute to trans embodiment onstage, to provide financial stability and visibility to talented actresses who otherwise are not given the chance. This is simple enough in theory, and a surefire way to provide protection and career stability for the communities that Broadway claims to represent.

Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Neil Patrick Harris playing the title character in the Tony-winning 2014 Broadway Revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo by Joan Marcus.

However simple in theory, Broadway has made little effort to place trans women onstage. Such high-profile works as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, featured trans women played by cisgender men, some of whom went on to win awards for their work that would allow them to make major strides in their theatrical careers. The visibility of trans women on Broadway and in the New York theatre scene has always been complicated, but the absence of trans women in trans parts in the commercial theatre scene seems to echo a lack of interest in the physical embodiment of trans characters.

Perhaps the lack of trans women playing explicitly trans roles would seem less glaring if trans women were cast in roles that were not specifically trans; that is, if trans women were permitted to perform the way cis women are. There is no lack of talent in the Broadway scene, as New York's illustrious history of trans woman performers in experimental theatre has shown. However, since trans women are generally not permitted to perform in roles typically played by cis women, and are systematically excluded from explicitly trans roles, the Broadway community makes the implicit statement that trans women aren't physically valuable enough to be placed within their own narratives. Thus, the dynamic shifts from representation to exploitation; queer and trans narratives are appropriated by a capitalist industry for the express purpose of marketing a corporate entity as inclusive and diverse. Trans women are simply a subject through which well-meaning cis theatre artists can construct a liberal aesthetic without conscious investment into the well-being of trans women in theatre.

Co-Option of Trans Womanhood in Commercial Spaces
In order to understand the precarious place that trans women occupy in commercial theatre spaces, one must face the uncomfortable answer to a difficult question: why include trans women in political discourse without their participation? What good does talking about a marginalized identity do if representatives of that identity are not included in the discussion?

The answer is hard to swallow; symbolic representation is not and never has been focused on the material needs of trans women. Symbolic representation within a capitalist setting does not so much constitute political action so much as it creates avenues for commodification. A marginalized identity is made the subject of such discussion for the means of compiling and maintaining a liberal aesthetic that can be made profitable. Such action is inclusive symbolically, but does little for the subject; thus trans identity is both subjected to hyper-exposure and thrust to the margins once more.

The true answer to the problem of trans embodiment on Broadway cannot simply be fixed by the manufacturing of more trans women characters. Broadway producers must begin to distinguish between what is good for trans women and what is good for Broadway and appreciate the value of trans voices both in the development and performance of trans narratives. Trans women cannot simply be a subject for discussion and debate within artistic representation; under the strict demands of commercial theatre, this cannot provide them with material assistance. Trans women must be allowed to both create and embody their own narratives for a truly revolutionary theatre, one that actively subverts the conventions of both transmisogyny and capital-based representation.

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Also La Cage au Folles.

Broadway always lags behind the rest of the theatre community in terms of inclusivity and progressive culture. There are PLENTY of theatre companies producing work that presents trans people as they are, without trope. Eventually, the large commercial houses will catch up.