This is my first blog posting, and I wanted to open with an innocuous, impersonal piece by way of testing both my ability to write engagingly in the blogging register, and whether or not there is an audience for what I have to say. The first episode of the BBC2 sitcom ‘Boy Meets Girl’ first aired on UK television shortly after the nine o’clock watershed on Thursday, 3rd September, 2015. I initially thought I could offer a review of this series opener as my first blog posting, but it now feels as if – with ‘Boy Meets Girl’ having completed its six episode run on October 10th – I have missed the cultural moment a bit with that objective. Instead, what follows are some of my thoughts on the one aspect of the programme that made it so notable: namely, the casting of a transgender actor in a transgender role.
[To save you a trip to Wikipedia: ‘Boy Meets Girl’ told the story of the relationship between a 26 year-old biological male called Leo (played by Harry Hepple), and 40 year-old male-to-female transsexual, Judy (played by Rebecca Root). The pilot episode (written by Elliot Kerrigan and filmed in Newcastle-upon-Tyne) was the product of a competition held by the BBC in 2012-3, which invited writers to submit scripts containing positive portrayals of transgender characters.]
The main conceptual stumbling block of ‘Boy Meets Girl’ was that it tried to achieve two contradictory things simultaneously; seeking both normalise the notion of transgender at the same time as problematizing it. Leo’s reaction to Judy’s revelation (with which the show chose to open) that she “used to have a penis” was the very epitome of open-minded acceptance. Leo, truly, was a paragon of laissez-faire magnanimity. He couldn’t have been any more tolerant: his wide-eyed, artless smile practically a facial shrug that allowed Judy’s confession to roll off it with a dismissive so what? And Leo wasn’t the only character to have accommodated transsexualism so comfortably into his worldview – to have the rare gift of being able to treat someone’s gender history as casually as the colour of their hair. Judy’s mother and sister were equally at ease with her lifestyle choices, as was almost everyone touched by the natural ebb and flow of Leo and Judy’s social interactions (like the Italian waiter who was the other witness to Judy’s neat summary of her penile antiquity). After a bit of half-hearted humming and hawing in later episodes, Leo’s brother and northern everyman father were similarly unfazed by Leo’s choice of partner, and treated Leo to nuggets of platitudinous wisdom to the effect that they had no issue with whomever his girlfriend might be, as long as she was decent, and he loved her.
Which is, of course, how things should be. But for a story to have any impetus, something within in has to constitute an obstacle that must be overcome; and for a story to have any thematic relevance, it needs to subject an issue to some sort of scrutiny. A television programme that trumpets itself on having cast a transgender actor in a transgender role, moreover, would be guilty of dishonesty if the very fact that one of its characters had transitioned form one gender to another wasn’t – at least in part – the issue that gave the drama its… well, drama. For ‘Boy Meets Girl’ to have any edge at all, it needed to be about transgenderism as well as having transgenderism form part of its makeup, and so the liberal broadmindedness shown by Leo needed tempering with a glance at society’s dark underbelly. In episode four, there is a scene that takes place in a bowling alley: on a date with Leo, Judy has abuse hurled at her by two spotty teenagers. From the adjacent lane, these pasty, instantly forgettable shibboleths of transphobia shout the word freak, and demand to know, with the befuddled and incongruous logic of the bigoted, what Judy is, exactly. (“She’s your girlfriend?” one of them demands of Leo. “How can that be?”) The angry youths, however, have all the savagery of a sleeping puppy; no-one swears or threatens violence; and there is no sense at all of the terrifying and irrational aggression that can lead, say, to the June 2015 murder of Mississippi transgender teenager Mercedes Williamson.
Leo and Judy’s struggles to come to terms with their own relationship (and the response to it of the world around them) are low-key and prosaic. As ‘Boy Meets Girl’ strives to remind us every time it appears as if the transgender ‘issue’ seems in even the slightest danger of overwhelming the show’s otherwise cosy ambience, Leo and Judy are just an everyday couple who face the same petty trials and tribulations as everyone else, and Judy’s gender history isn’t the only threat to the ordinariness of their relationship. There is also the fourteen year age gap between them, which, whilst being hardly a romantic deal-breaker, is wide enough for Leo to be operating within a framework of completely different pop-culture references and assumptions. It is difficult to tell whether use of this age gap as a structural springboard for exploring transgender issues is a deliberate trope of ‘Boy Meets Girl’, but it makes it possible for the writers to turn Leo into a student, with Judy as his teacher. Into Leo’s mouth, therefore, are placed the questions that the passingly curious might have about gender transition (Why do you need to take hormones? When did you start the change? Can you still have sex?), and, true to form, Leo takes all the answers in his stride. His questions, though, would be equally applicable if his girlfriend was (merely) a menopausal cougar, and not also a transgender menopausal cougar.
What exactly is ‘Boy Meets Girl’ about, then? Is it about what it is like to have a transgender girlfriend? Is it about what it is like to be someone’s transgender girlfriend? Is it about being in a relationship with an age difference? Making an original sitcom can’t be easy when the genre has been so refined and subverted. (Take, for instance, Vic Reeves’ and Bob Mortimer’s 2014 ‘House of Fools’, which distils the sitcom genre so insightfully down to its essence that each episode only makes any sense in the context of its own internal logic.) The sitcom is a tired format, and ‘Boy Meets Girl’ needed to be about something new in order to constitute more than just another wheeze of a dying and anaemic televisual beast.
There are other things about ‘Boy Meets Girl’ that niggle me. It isn’t very funny, for one, and I’m troubled by the implied whiff of failure that hangs around the fact that Judy – who is 40 years old – lives with her mum. This simple domestic detail (and if any aspect of transgenderism deserves deeper exploration through the medium of comedy, it is this) speaks volumes about the lifestyle options of transsexuals. Here is the tacit but chilling suggestion that, unless you have the safety net of immense wealth and inexplicable celebrity (unless you are, in other words, Caitlyn Jenner) to cushion you once you transition, an appalling consequence of the decision to bring an end to a lifetime of depression by changing your gender can be unemployment, friendlessness, and penury so severe that you are left with no option other than to move back into the parental home.
But, but, but… For all its faults, ‘Boy Meets Girl’ has taken the heretofore unthought-of step of casting a transgender actor in a transgender role, and Rebecca Root is exceptionally good. She is authentic, sincere, and delivers some of the clichés of the transgender condition (“It’s like being born in a prison and never having a release date”) with a straightforward conviction that is genuinely heartbreaking.
(At the start of 2014, I had a series of coaching sessions with Rebecca Root in order to help me lift my voice to a more feminine pitch. I was a lazy student, and must have been an unrewarding project for Rebecca, but I enjoyed the lessons – and Rebecca’s company – a great deal. Each hour began with a physical warm up that reminded me of the sorts of self-conscious drama lessons I didn’t relish as a teenager, followed by exercises aimed at helping me visualise the rises and falls in my voice – like a sine wave – as I attacked the first consonants of words, and then formed them into sentences with the appropriate cadences and uncertain hesitations that typify societal expectations of women’s speech. After six classes, though, I never progressed further than the initial M sounds of words and a recitation of ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou, although the blame for my sense of being permanently stuck in ‘lesson one’ can in no way be attributed to Rebecca.)
It is staggering to think that, considering the relatively high exposure transgender people receive in fiction and the popular media, Rebecca Root is the first transgender actor to be cast in this way. Not even the great ‘Coronation Street’ (which can, in all sincerity, claim to be the only truly feminist soap opera on British television) had the courage to cast a transgender actor when it introduced the first mainstream transgender character ever – Hayley Cropper, née Patterson – in 1998. In November this year, Focus Features will release ‘The Danish Girl’: the story of Lili Elbe, who became a transgender pioneer by undergoing, in 1930, one of the first surgical procedures of sex-reassignment. Transsexualism was a nascent science at this time, and the surgery was both experimental and dangerous. I hope I’m not spoiling the ending of the film by pausing to note that it is likely that the fourth operation Lili underwent – which sought to create a vagina – led to her death at the age of 48. The film is also the story of Lili’s relationship with her Danish wife, the painter Gerde Gottlieb, and, whilst I’m sure their relationship was far more complex – and will generate a great deal more drama – than the one portrayed between Leo and Judy in ‘Boy Meets Girl’, it seems distasteful that the role of Lili should have been given to Oscar-darling Eddie Redmayne, rather than to a transgender actor.
The reasons for Redmayne’s casting in the role of Lili Elbe are, depressingly, as obvious as they are frustrating. Redmayne’s name on the poster guarantees the film a great deal of exposure; without him, the studio would probably never have stumped up the cash to get the film made in the first place; and his presence, crucially, pretty much ensures that ‘The Danish Girl’ will make a tidy profit for its financial backers. Redmayne isn’t the first dashing, young, attractive, heterosexual, middle-of-the-road non-transgender actor to play a transgender character, of course. This list of mainstream movies featuring (or headlined by) a transgender character who was played by a cisgender actor is quite a long one. To name but three: Jared Leto was handed an Oscar for his portrayal of Rayon in ‘Dallas Buyer’s Club’ (2013); Gael García Bernal played transgender actor Ángel in 2004’s ‘La Mala Educación’; and Hilary Swank landed the role of transman Brandon Teena in 1999’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry’.
More unsavoury still are the decisions to cast women as male-to-female transsexuals. ABC’s comedy series ‘Ugly Betty’, which ran from 2006-10, starred Rebecca Romjin as fashion magazine editor Daniel Meade’s transsexual sister, Alexis; Felicity Huffman’s preparation for 2005’s ‘TransAmerica’ included coaching in how to look and sound more masculine; and – spoiler alert – the villain played by Sean Young in the postmodern satirical masterpiece ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’ (1994) is revealed in the film’s denouement to be a transgender woman.
There are two possible reasons for these lazy and cowardly casting decisions, and neither of them are particularly pleasant. The first is that film and television producers assume that audiences find transgender characters who cannot be deemed sexy in any conventional sense unpalatable. The second is that the principal motive for the production of any of these movies is the generation of profit, and putting a familiar face in the transgender role (whatever that actor’s personal gender history) is a way for film and television studios to hedge their bets because they know that devotees of a particular performer will purchase cinema tickets or buy the DVD for whatever they’re in. And if financial gain is the real reason these movies get made (rather than, as was surely especially true in the case of ‘Ace Ventura’, because someone at the studio believes that these are important stories that need to be told), then the whole notion, concept, culture and community of transgenderism is being exploited. Storytelling, raising public awareness, or whatever noble aims they ascribe themselves for this exploitation, are not the producers’ priorities when they commission any film containing transgender characters or exploring transgender themes: their goals are nothing more elevated than getting bums on seats and putting cash in the bank.
Western popular culture has (almost) moved on from the exploitation of ethnic groups for cheap laughs, and the practice of casting white actors in non-white roles is now something we look back on with a mixture of shame and bemused embarrassment. ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ last appeared on British television in 1978 (although its official live tour endured, jaw-droppingly, until as late as 1987). It is testimony to changes in attitudes that it is now unthinkable for an actor to black-up to play Othello (as Lawrence Olivier did in 1965, when the National Theatre’s version of the play was committed to celluloid), and we are able to recognise Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr Yunioshi in 1961’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ as the film-wrecking anathema that it is.
Whilst attitudes towards cross-racial casting may have improved considerably over the last two decades (by which I am not referring to the whitewashing of characters so that a Korean American, for example, becomes a blonde European, or a Muslim character is rewritten as black), the propensity for Hollywood to cast cisgender actors in transgender roles remains the norm rather than the exception. The same appears to be true in the casting of disabled characters. Eddie Redmayne (him again) won the 2015 Oscar for best actor for his impersonation of cosmologist and brainbox Stephen Hawking, whilst Daniel Day Lewis was similarly lauded for his portrayal of writer and artist Christy Brown in 1989’s ‘My Left Foot’. I had always been a grudging fan of the Fox Network show ‘Glee’ (2009-15): something about the achievement of solidarity and shared understanding by a group of high-school misfits through the power of song appealed to me, until I found out that the character of Artie Abrams – a cipher used to explore issues relating to paraplegia – was played by an actor perfectly capable of springing out of his wheelchair and moonwalking to cover versions of Michael Jackson hits. That actor Kevin McHale wasn’t in the least bit disabled was a casting stroke of such dishonesty that it undermined the sole redeeming message of ‘Glee’: that it is okay to be different (as long as you’re only pretending to be).
A man would never play the role of a biological woman in a Hollywood movie; a woman would never play a biological male; a white actor would balk at the idea of painting their face to portray a black character; and the days are gone when any self-respecting Equity member would sellotape down their eyelids to take on a Korean, Chinese or Japanese role. With these simple truths in mind, why is it still considered acceptable for an able-bodied actor to be cast as someone with motor-neurone disease or cerebral palsy? And why, for that matter, are we not outraged when cisgender actors play transgender roles? Because no-one else could play them? That would be a lie.
I can only think of one possible reason why casting directors aren’t brave enough to dip into the transgender and disability talent-pool when the right part comes along, and it is founded on the erroneous assumption that, unlike ethnicity (which is something you’re born with and cannot change), disability, sexuality or gender identity is something you acquire, choose, or – with a great deal of effort and the right treatment – can reverse. With this logic, it remains a norm of popular culture that it is okay to patronise certain groups in our society by hijacking their right to tell their own story, and to make money whilst doing so. For this reason, the casting of Rebecca Root – and the optimistic agenda of ‘Boy Meets Girl’ – do represent a significant milestone in the way the makeup of society is represented in film and television. However: until all trans-characters are played by transgender actors, the story being told about the transgender experience can never be the whole story.