15 April 2009

Who Should Play Transgendered People? How Sould They Be Played?

Today I stumbled over a blog I plan to check out every chance I get. It's called "Femulate," and bills itself as "the weblog of a male, (sic) who emulates female."

Its hostess, Staci Lana, has a number of interesting entries. (If only I were as good and as prolific a writer as she is!) But the one that caught my eye was about the issue of women portraying trans women in movies and TV shows. In particular, she talked about the notion of Nicole Kidman playing a transwoman in the upcoming film The Danish Girl. "Sure, Nicole Kidman is tall, but except for height, how many transwomen resemble Ms. Kidman?," Ms. Lana wonders.

Well, I couldn't agree with her more. I know I bear no semblance to Nicole Kidman and know no other transwoman who does. And, believe me, I know quite a few who are simply beautiful, and plenty more that are simply better-looking than I am.

Then again, I'm not so sure I'd want to resemble her. Sure, she's pretty, but I always thought she was just another pretty girl. That's also pretty much how I feel about Jennifer Aniston. On the other hand, if I woke up one morning and saw someone who looked like Angelina Jolie, Isabelle Huppert, Rihanna or Michelle Obama in the mirror, I'd be ecstatic. And I'd want to age like Sophia Loren, Jeanne Moreau or Lena Horne.

Anyway...Staci Lana got me to thinking about the portrayal of transwomen in the media. Too often they're murdered. That reflects what happens in real life: I read somewhere that we're twelve times more likely than average to be killed by someone else, almost invariably for being ourselves. But I also recall a report that said more than forty percent of all African American men in certain cities have been involved in the criminal justice system, and that nearly half of all Latinos don't finish high school. Imagine the (justifiable) outcry if all the blacks on film and TV were getting arrested or sent to jail, or if all the Latinos were uneducated and unable to speak English well.

But, as if all those dead transwomen (Transmen, it seems, aren't portrayed at all.) weren't bad enough, they are as likely as not to be portrayed as having been sex workers or hustlers of some other kind. Thus, in the minds of many people, the dead transwoman "had it coming to her" or died as a consequence of her "choice" to do sex work--or to be a transwoman in the first place.

Of course, we could say that any action we take is a choice. In theory, we could choose not do most of the things we do, but sometimes we don't want the consequences of not making that choice. As an example, someone who kills someone else in self-defense possibly could have made another choice--provided, of course, that he or she had more time and the other person's gun were not pointed at his or her head.

I think now of something Paul Fussell told me when I was one of his students at Rutgers. (Has it been thirty years--almost--already?) "There's no way to justify killing another human being," declared the Purple Heart and National Book Award winner. "No one ever has the right to take the life of another," he averred. But, he also admitted, when a gun's pointing in your face and a finger is pulling on the trigger, you don't have a whole lot of time to weigh your alternatives. Or maybe your alternatives aren't very tenable ones.

So, yes, some teenaged trans girl who stopped going to school because she was getting beat up and who's been kicked out of her family's house can choose not to become a prostitute or drug runner. She can also choose not to shoplift food, clothing and medicines, not to mention cosmetics. I mean, isn't it more honorable to starve than it is to practice "the world's oldest profession?"

And I guess Jean Valjean could have chosen not to steal that loaf of bread or to committ that petty crime that violated his parole. Had he made those choices, he wouldn't have had Inspector Jalabert on his tail for all of those years.

Sometimes I wonder what other choices would I have made had I begun my transition earlier in my life--or if I hadn't tried to masculinize myself by playing sports and otherwise trying to be "one of the guys." What if I'd been one of those girls who didn't finish school and whose parents threw her out? I think now of Sylvia Rivera, whom I met near the end of her life and the beginning of my current life. Her father abandoned her family; when she was three, her mother committed suicide. Until she was eleven, she lived with a grandmother who put her out of the house after she started wearing makeup and women's clothing.

So what's an orphaned trans girl from the Bronx to do when her grandmother expels her from their home?

Of course, she didn't remain a sex worker. Had she, she probably wouldn't have lived as long as she did: to the same age that I am now. (Actually, I'm a few weeks older than she was when she died.) But she never escaped the poverty into which she was born. If anything, she was probably poorer: She lived on the streets for long periods of her life.

And I--even with my rather tenuous employment situation on the lowest rung of the college faculty ladder, and having earned little money from my writing--am among the better-off transgender people. I first realized this during the brief time I worked for Housing Works, which was also the first time I met (relatively) large numbers of transgendered people. Unless you're born with a silver spoon in your mouth, being transgendered and making that transition early in life has been a virtual recipe for poverty and even homelessness, not to mention early death. That has just begun to change: Some trans kids are getting the support they need. But it's still a very, very risky world for us.

It's telling that the status I have now--which would be low for a straight person of my age who's living by the gender assigned to him or her at birth--is largely the result of things I was able to do before I transitioned. I probably would not have had the chance to study with Paul Fussell, Alicia Ostriker, Marc Crawford, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Valentine or Thomas Lux, much less become a professor, had I been in a situation like Sylvia Rivera's, or that of any number of trans kids. I probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to live in another country or to talk with Norman Mailer. And I almost certainly would not have whatever credibility I have (or have left) in the worlds of work, and generally.

So I did not have to make the choice to become a sex worker or drug dealer. But that's not the same as not making the choice. The difference is that I have never had to suffer the consequences of making, or not making, such a choice.

Now, I don't think anyone's ready to see a transgendered four-star general or admiral. Frankly, I wouldn't want to see such a thing, anyway. But I also don't think most people would find a transgendered CEO or a tranny Mother Teresa terribly credible, either--at least not today. But, if filmmakers and TV producers are going to portray trannies as hookers who end up dead, they should at least start making stories that show how those trans people came to be sex workers. I mean, at in Les Miserables, we know why Jean Valjean commits his crimes. Heck, in L'etranger, we know that the protagonist has no real motive for the murder he commits. And when we're talking about transgendered people becoming sex workers or other kinds of criminals (at least according to the laws on the books), we're not talking about the seemingly-motiveless malignity of Iago in Othello.

So...I think Staci Lana is right when she decries casting directors' choices to play trans women. However, I think it's not just a matter of who plays them; it's also a matter of how they're portrayed.

Still, I am intrigued by her idea of getting more men to play trans women. (It seems that there simply aren't enough transgendered actors to go around.) What would happen if casting directors started to think as Staci Lana does? Well, they would certainly rule out lots of actors: Some wouldn't be credible, and too many others could never vacate their own egos long enough to do such a thing. But I think that the real difficulty in portraying transgender people is that we are all acting--pretending to be someone else--until we begin to transition. Few people can understand what it's like to act in one's everyday life, simply to stay alive. Somehow I doubt that Nicole Kidman or Tom Cruise could understand this.

What few also understand is that almost no one who had to perform in order to survive would choose to continue performing, no matter how well he or she might be paid for it. That, I think, is one major reason why there are so few transgendered actors. No transgender person wants to do drag, if you will: Even playing a transgender character--at least the types we've seen in movies and TV--is, in a sense, returning to the closet. Why? I can't think of any transgendered character in a mainstream film or TV program that served any purpose but being transgendered--or, more precisely, embodying the stereotypes of transgendered people.

So we need not only the right actors, we need writers, directors and casting directors who are more aware. Then we'll have Sean Penn or Meryl Streep or whomever playing demure transgendered account executives. Oh, happy day!

Then again, I am waiting for an opera about a woman and her cat(s) rather than about monarchs or military "heroes." Meantime, I guess I have to content myself with Felicity Huffmann in Transamerica.

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