In early 1600s theatre was a highly popular form of entertainment. Without access to modern distractions such as Netflix, computer games or even books (unless you could read Latin), theatre was top of the list in terms of amusing yourself for a few hours. However, not a single woman – half the population! – could be seen on stage, with all female parts being played by adolescent boys. Intentionally or not, Shakespeare addressed this injustice from within by creating strong female roles – and not by inviting audiences to throw rotten fruit at the young male actors. More than four hundred years of evolution later, it is inconceivable that some sectors of society are still fighting for adequate representation in the performing arts. And yet here we are.
One such group battling inequity in the arts is the transgender community. It seems that there are three distinct but inextricably linked strands to the current furore: firstly, the unquestionable fact that transgender artists are woefully under-represented in the arts; secondly, the somewhat contrasting perspective that argues for artistic integrity, based on the belief that casting should not be based on gender politics; and finally we have social media, which has the potential to be a force for good and help bridge these polarised views, yet all too often adopts the role of the troll underneath this bridge.
In 2017, transgender teenager Georgie Stone led a petition challenging a seemingly outdated and discriminatory law which decreed that young transgender people in Australia must go through Family Court in order to access hormone treatment – a vital step in transitioning. Australia was the only country in which this barrier existed for transgender minors. Through successful campaigning, Georgie achieved a landmark ruling which has affected countless lives for the better.
This was a step forward, but it is generally acknowledged that the transgender community still experiences discrimination and face barriers in accessing the same privileges their cisgender counterparts take for granted; the Australian Human Rights Commission has reported that transgender and gender diverse people consistently report poorer outcomes across a range of indicators, including mental and physical health. Data indicates that transgender people suffer disproportionate rates of violence and other forms of abuse. For every trans-inclusive policy it seems there is a transphobic action or attitude; with phrases such as ‘social fad’ being bandied about in the media, harmful stereotypes and stigma can only be perpetuated. Those seen to be supporting the transgender community leave themselves open to derogatory charges of ‘hipness’ or ‘wokeness’. The media and the arts have a role in ensuring that transgender artists have access to both decision-making and performance roles.
Under-representation is an issue – the facts speak for themselves. But is the creation of gender-specific roles the answer? Or is this simply reductive?
Art or Activism?
Last year, theatre heavyweights Miriam Margolyes and Maureen Lipman put their names to an open letter regarding the casting of Falsettos, a play about a dysfunctional Jewish family, in which not one Jewish actor was cast. The charge was one of cultural appropriation. But some would argue that the theatre is about acting, not political activism or identity politics.
So would it be inappropriate for a cisgender artist to perform the role of a transgender character? Well, British actors’ union Equity has actually called for more casting directors to consider casting transgender artist in cisgender roles. Transgender artist Harrison Knights describes such roles as ‘the holy grail’, saying:
‘It is not until transgender artists are being cast in major cisgender roles because we are the best actors for the role, rather than because we tick a box that we have truly arrived’.
This is surely the essence of acting: the ability to convincingly pretend to inhabit someone else’s world? This is perfectly illustrated by Laurence Olivier’s disparagement of Dustin Hoffman’s method acting in Marathon Man. ‘My dear boy’, declared Olivier, ‘why don’t you just try acting?’ One has only to think of Hilary Swank’s performance in Boys Don’t Cry or Felicity Huffman in TransAmerica to be reminded that acting is a craft, not a political agendum. The drama itself addresses the political issues of the day.
Using this logic, of course, only spells good news for transgender performers – wouldn’t it be rather limiting if they were restricted to only transgender roles? Casting based on anything other than talent is open to accusations of intolerance. Cultural commentator James McPherson makes this point in The Spectator, implying that narrowly defining roles and excluding all performers except those who fit a very limited criteria (criterion, in fact) is tantamount to political correctness gone mad, ‘all in the name of inclusion’. The line between acting and cultural appropriation is seemingly a fine one. In argument theory, there is a line of thought which dictates that if the opposite of an argument is ridiculous, then so too is the original argument. In other words, if we say that ‘only transgender performers can play transgender roles’, then by implication we are saying that ‘only cisgender performers can play cisgender roles’. Ridiculous, right? Isn’t it an ‘over-correction’ to address an injustice with an injustice?
It is naïve, of course, to expect that politics and the theatre be separate entities. But let the performance do the talking.
The Troll Under the Bridge?
Social media is itself a theatre of sorts. Whatever the public drama of the day, this is where it is played out. And while much meaningful debate takes place, there is an equal amount undignified slanging matches. We are heading in a doom-laden direction. Social media has the power to shift public opinion and drive positive change. Georgie Stone got it right – campaigning and positive representation is the way forward, not online hectoring and bullying. Shakespeare got it right, too – the stage was his social platform for initiating change.
On social media everyone has a voice – but does everyone have the wisdom to discern when silence is golden?
Whatever our personal views, the world is changing and we must change with it; as we usher in a new decade, perhaps it is time for all of us, as we embrace a new era, to transition to a new way of thinking and behaving.
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