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On Trans Embodiment and the War Between Fantasy and Delusion in Theater

Headshot of Massimo Monfilletto
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." 
The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more!

I was a junior in college when I was first told I would be passed over for a trans role in favor of a cisgendered man.

My BFA program at Drake University carries a section of musical theater instruction in which a local director from the Des Moines community is invited to moderate a series of mock auditions and callbacks, and each of the participants is required to prepare materials to simulate the stakes and structure of a professional casting call. For this particular callback, we were given excerpts from the musical Rent and assigned two specific roles from the wide range of characters in the show. I was assigned Roger, a role in whom I had little interest, and Angel, a Latina trans woman, and a character with whom I identified strongly. Galvanized by the rare opportunity to apply my skills to a character who was neither white nor a man (at the time of writing this, I have taken no steps to transition physically, and thus am often typed as masculine in most casting situations, excluding me automatically from female roles), I began to construct, with great relish, the performance of Angel I thought the text demanded.

On audition day, I was stressed; despite the relative low pressure of the callback (after all, it's not like I would be playing Angel in a production: it was all just an educational exercise) I wanted to be told, among all of my classmates, that I would play the role. None of the men called back with me were trans, and I was the only Latin person in my class. I was determined, because of my position relative to my classmates, to assert what I considered was a natural claim over this character who shared my identity.

After a grueling almost three-hour audition process in which I performed exactly twice, my class sat in front of the director and waited anxiously to hear his criticisms (and, though we didn't admit it, to hear would have been cast as what). I was completely satisfied that I had given the best performance, having approached Angel from a point of view that humanized her bubbly eccentricity rather than caricaturized it. When the director finally came to speak to me, however, he took a small pause, seeming to collect his thoughts.

Any actor will tell you that silence before a criticism is the most nerve-jangling feeling in the world. Applause is sensational, hisses dreadful, but silence is absolutely maddening. After a few moments more of agonizing pause, the director informed me that I had the strongest performance, but that casting me would be “interesting.” He pointed to my beard (several times longer than I prefer to keep it due to the requirements of the production of Taming of the Shrew I was performing in set in the Wild West) and my body hair and posited that I would be “unconventional” casting for the role of Angel, due to these attributes, but that since “our perceptions of gender are evolving so much” he would be interested in casting me in the show as a sort of experiment to force audiences to discuss gender normativity. He went on immediately after this to tell one of the white cis men who also auditioned for the role that he would have been considered right for the part on the spot if only he hadn't done so many acrobatic tricks in his audition. I had not only effectively been told that I was not the “type” to play a Latina trans woman, but I was told a cisgendered white man was more qualified based on appearance to play the role. I had been explicitly excluded from playing a character with whom I shared several identities in favor of a person who embodied none of these contexts, with a pat on the back for reinforcing the director's preconceptions of the nebulous concept of gender.

I cannot believe that I am the first trans woman to run across this difficult matrix of cultural obstacles constructed to delay and subvert trans embodiment in theater. There is a dangerous, lazy ideal permeating the young neoliberal theatre artist today that the presence of a marginalized group onstage is, by default, beneficial to the group as a whole. Representation and visibility are power in this ideal, and the inclusion of these symbolic figureheads (which are often distilled into two-dimensional tropes such as the inspiration-dealing drag queen or the conniving trans woman seductress) automatically implies empowerment to these peoples, giving them autonomy and enfranchisement that was previously denied them by dint of their “invisible” status.

Such forms of thinking often lead trans women into dangerous territories in terms of casting and representation, creating a rubric for the “authentic” trans woman that is as much based in appearance and body regulation as it is in narrative building. After all, who decides what a trans woman looks like? Who decides which trans women are included in trans narratives, and which narratives are held just out of reach for the women to whom the stories apply to most? What does one say to the trans woman who is passed over for a role for a cis man because of preconceived notions of beauty and femininity that place her firmly in the category of “masculine?” This concept of the presence of trans narratives as an immediate and unreserved good glosses over an ugly truth; theater can be used as a tool for the surveillance and regulation of trans bodies just as well. The presence of a trans woman in media does not automatically indicate active resistance against dominant power structures of gender and transphobia; in fact, these presences often work to uphold these structures even as they claim to subvert them.

This all leads into a discussion about the theater as a breeding ground for resistance. I believe wholeheartedly that theater artists (and all artists by extension) are in a unique position socially to cultivate resistance through the reconstitution of reality. The theater is a space in which reality as we know it is unfixed, malleable, capable of profound destabilization. The theater artist holds in their hands the ability to create realities in which cultural dominance never existed, and violent dichotomies and matrixes of power have no effect, or rather, are actively subverted, even destroyed. As a laboratory for spatial and temporal manipulation, the theater carries within it a promise of liberation, and the conceptualization of worlds and realities (most of them achievable) in which oppressive power structures are sundered. In contrast with this beautiful dream-smith quality, theater also contains within it the power to shore these power structures up, defending them while contributing to mythologies of willing complacency and active forgetting.

If we are to give this active subversion of reality as it exists within the context of political, racial, and capitalistic dominance a concrete name (and what an ugly act, to assign such a beautiful abstract concept a clunkly singular label), we might call it fantasy. Somewhere in this fantasy created by theater exists a space in which the trans woman is given space to play roles that are not dependent upon her physical appearance, on her ability to “pass for a woman” or upon loyalty tests that find her praising cisgendered people for their ability to sympathize with her struggles. It is in this fantasy that trans actresses are permitted to perform art about them on their own terms, with voices not filtered through a neoliberal agenda working to reduce them to two-dimensional tokens.

By this same token, we might call the active support of the same power structures delusion. The purpose of delusion is not to criticize transphobia or racism or capitalistic exploitation, though it might purport to do so and more. Rather, delusions seek to simplify complex relationships between people and these power structures and provide simple, short-term solutions to these struggles (a trans woman is included in the cast of a play with minimal dialogue and a tendency to fetishize herself as a “female illusionist”; progress). Such delusions are not dependent on the participation of trans women to make them effective; in fact, minimal trans women are included in such art in order to maximize cis inclusion. Delusion works to reinforce commonly held perceptions of trans women that allow for exploitation, creating spaces for trans women that are really avatars for the cisgendered audience member looking to fulfill their compassion quota for the day.

I posit, then, that theater holds enormous potential as a liberative agent for the trans woman, as it creates a space in which the trans woman can visualize herself in multiple roles, free from the constraints of gender and sexuality that hold her firmly in a particular aesthetic and behavioral pattern, with deadly results for disobedience. This type of theater is inherently disobedient: it makes space for the butch trans woman, for the trans sex worker, for the millions of women that embody trans femininity. This theater thus removes restrictions of femininity and the gendered gaze and creates a space in which a trans woman is able to develop her own womanhood in opposition to the oppressive dualisms operating on her body. Trans women are not summarily excluded from narratives about them due to their adherence to a popular standard of trans femininity because in this grand fantasy, such restrictions do not exist, and a trans woman can look and behave how she wants, without the supposition of her gender.

The suggestion that this fantasy is apolitical is false; I personally abhor aspirations to an apolitical art. Nor does this conceptualization of theatrical fantasy endorse escapism; on the contrary, theater gains its power to resist from a willingness to acknowledge oppressive realities and reconstruct them as a means of subverting them. It is in the telling of this promise of a world in which borders are torn down, exploitative dualisms are crushed, and oppressive regimes are undermined that the theater reaches its true potential as an incubator for resistance; it is this fantasy of a reality in which the disenfranchized are empowered that true artistic resistance can be cultivated.

Being excluded from a two-dimensional trans role in a mock callback didn't kill me. Nor did it sever my love for theater. It did, however, make me aware of the precarious position I as a trans woman am placed in. Given my lack of adherence to the trans aesthetic constructed by a neoliberal cisgendered audience, I am simultaneously considered a token minority for an industry desperate to use my physical presence to bolster a sort of liberal profile, and excluded from these narratives created to symbolically represent “people like me” by dint of my unwillingness to fit my entire presence inside these rigid structures.

Perhaps the bodies of trans women are too difficult to control to be allowed the freedom to manifest in theater according to their wills. Trans women are a natural contradiction, the physical embodiment of the contradictions and failures of binary gender politics. Perhaps theater as an art is incapable of dealing in populations, automatically relegating an entire people to a single insufficient figure. I believe wholeheartedly, however, that theater artists' unique ability to construct alternate realities in which dominant power structures are symbolically undermined is the most important tool to the empowerment of trans women to resist the very powers that prevent them... us... from participating in the art that claims to represent us. It is in this fantasy, the spirit of resistance lives in theater.