The spectacle of transformation : (re)presenting transgender experience through performance
In December 2015, when The Public Theater cast two cisgender actors in the leading roles of a musical based on the true story of two transgender individuals and their fight against transphobia in the United States, performance makers from across the country spoke out against the casting decision. This outrage joins a chorus of transgender people and allies speaking out against a continuously growing film, television, and theatrical archive of performance which focuses on transgender characters without centering actual transgender people. While media attention on transgender individuals in the United States might be at an all time high, when it comes to representing transgender experiences in performance, transgender-identified characters are repeatedly performed by cisgender actors whose gender identities do not match that of their character. This thesis argues that these casting choices and the critical praise that these performances (termed “cross-gender performances” by the author) garner reinforce cissexist and heteronormative ideology wherein biological sex and gender identity are inextricably linked. Therefore, self-determined gender identity is invalidated and the lives of transgender individuals are devalued in favor of valorizing the “spectacle of transformation” that the cisgender actor undergoes in preparation for the role. This thesis tracks the legacy of these “cross-gender performances” across U.S. film and stage history in order to demonstrate how critical responses to these performances shift attention away from the transgender character and onto the body of the cisgender actor. After tracing this legacy from the late 19th century theatrical stage and late 20th century Hollywood to early 21st-century Broadway, this thesis arrives at the work two contemporary transgender performance artists, Sean Dorsey and Annie Danger, in order to demonstrate how transgender stories told by transgender performers refutes, reclaims, and repurposes the harmful tropes and stereotypes perpetuated by performances helmed by cisgender directors and producers with cisgender actors for mostly cisgender audiences. Finally, this thesis imagines the revolutionary and liberatory possibilities of finding joy through queer and transgender bodies and experiences, ultimately asserting the value of these lives through their celebratory presence in performance.