How Bad Cis Allyship becomes Transmisogyny

I went to see a play this past weekend. I do this quite infrequently these days, especially for someone who used to participate in theatre with regularity — but I knew someone in the play, so I was able to overcome my huge drive to avoid anything resembling a social interaction or “people” and go. It was a children’s play, how painful could it be? At least I think it was. There were a lot of kids there, and to be frank, I rather like theatre for children. It’s often engaging, powerful, and carries a clearly benevolent and uncontroversial worldview — just one of the many, many ways we indoctrinate our children with ideas of how to be good people before they become preteens and throw it all out the window.

The show was Alice In Wonderland at Illinois State University, which incidentally had made the bold choice to cast a black woman in the role of Alice, who has “traditionally” been cast as white, because in the West we literally cast every potential protagonist as white because we are racist, and for whatever reason diversity representation in media is scary to racists. I later discovered that the entirety of the play was meant to be a statement piece, although it wasn’t initially obvious to me, and to some (for reasons I’ll get to in a moment), it may have never become clear at all.

The plot loosely follows the titular Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland novel by Lewis Caroll, but also borrows elements from Through The Looking Glass — such as the inclusion of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, The White Queen, and the Red Queen, and remained as loyal to the source material as a 90 minute play covering two books can be.

There were two major moments of laughter by the audience throughout the show that I can recall. One was the reveal of the caterpillar, who was amusingly updated to reflect modern smoking trends by being outfitted with an e-cigarette instead of a hookah. The second was the entrance of the Queen of Hearts, at whom the laughter was more enthusiastic, and at whose reveal I immediately put my head in my hands and groaned, because the Queen of Hearts was a man in drag. Get it? Drag QUEEN of Hearts.

I checked my initial reaction because I hadn’t, at that moment, seen the entirety of the play, and context is ultimately what matters, but the Queen of Hearts was the same character you’d be familiar with even if your only experience with Alice in Wonderland is the 1951 cartoon movie, or the more recent Tim Burton film: short tempered, irrational, angry, aggressive, obsessed with decapitations and equally uninterested in reason, understanding, or reality.

How Shared Social Education Informs Our Consumption of Media

Trans women have a long and painful history of “representation” in theatre and pop culture, most of which is terrible. Whether it’s about framing the transitioning from assigned gender to something else as being about the upheaval it causes cis people in things like Transparent, or the high-larity of being “tricked” by a trans woman in movies like Hangover II, or more terrifyingly, a bar applauding and cheering as Paul Hogan sexually assaults someone in Crocodile Dundee II (or III, I dunno, there were far too many installments in that franchise).

Men dressed as women are used to add humor to a scene by enhancing its juxtaposition. Saturday Night Live milked this for all it was worth and then some, as did Monty Python. The root of the added level of humor is “that’s funny because men aren’t supposed to dress like women.” It’s basic, but we’ve been trained to find this innately funny, because whenever it’s done, it’s exclusively done to be funny. Even a show I very much love, Firefly, isn’t above using this for a cheap joke.

Even more recent media, like the rebooted X-Files and, of all things, Deadpool (a character who is traditionally perhaps one of the most progressive individuals in comics), trip up when it comes to representing or making jokes at the expense of transgender people.

I could go on, but honestly I don’t have to. Unless you’ve lived under a rock and never seen any movies before, if you grew up in the United States, you know the relationship mainstream media has with transgender women; however, it’s important to review, because this is the default framing most people have when they sit down to watch a movie or play — and trans people are even more aware of and familiar with this framing, since they have to combat it every day.

Conveyance is the Artist’s Responsibility

I keep thinking about the uproarious laughter the Queen of Hearts got when they arrived on stage. Children and adults, simultaneously and immediately, laughed, when the Queen had not done anything except merely exist. This, of course, is enough to be a full and complete joke in and of itself, without any research, effort, or buildup required, as trans women are, culturally, acceptable punching bags. Joli St. Patrick goes into this at length in her piece Trans Women as Humor Objects and Humor Agents:

…the single most paramount human right is the ability to laugh at anything whatsoever, and never, ever feel bad about it or reflect on your choices. In particular, trans women are required to be a walking joke at all times…

Children and adults laughed, because even at a young age they’ve already been educated on the tropes readily relied on by our pop culture.

As the Queen continued to rant, rave, hyperventilate, threaten and yell with a commanding, hypermasculine presentation, I couldn’t help but wince throughout the rest of the show. Trans women have to fight the toxic cultural idea that they are men pretending to be women all the time. It’s the root of the “deceitful trans” archetype mentioned above, but it’s not just something that exists in our media. In fact, it’s the central transphobic concept behind the anti-trans bathroom laws that are making headlines. Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists dedicate more time to trying to extricate trans women (one of the most oppressed and marginalized groups of people in the United States) from feminist spaces than they actually do advocating for women.

The Queen of Hearts, as a character, was meant to be a caricature satirizing the perceived fickle instability of royalty by the common people, and was perhaps even a direct satire and commentary on Queen Victoria specifically. She is irrational, scary, and powerful, where her consort, the King, is meek, demure, and shy. By themselves, the characters buck traditional Western stereotypes of femininity and masculinity, although likely problematically contribute to other stereotypes about women in power and how they emasculate their male partners.

It wasn’t wholly until this moment that I realized that this production of Alice in Wonderland was meant to be a statement piece, and a progressive one at that. It featured a diverse cast, a general disregard for traditional gender allocations in casting (Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum were both women, for example) which ultimately brings us to the question: what statement is the Queen of Hearts making?

At face value, it seems to be perpetuating the stereotypes of trans women being “men in disguise,” irrational, and mentally unstable. Even more worrisome, if there was some sort of underlying social commentary meant to challenge traditional storytelling and societal archetypes, it was lost on everyone, myself included. To the general audience, it was “haha, man in dress.” Regardless, the message that certainly wasn’t there is “Trans women are real women, too.”

There were innumerable degrees of options for transgender character inclusion in this particular show, and the one character that was chosen to represent trans people was the most irrational, angry one of them all. At best, it translates as a tone deaf misstep, at worst it’s exploiting harmful stereotypes for a laugh.

I don’t know the director, and I don’t know what specifically went into the casting and directorial decisions they made. It doesn’t matter, ultimately. As an artist, your intentions are meaningless, only conveyance matters. As a friend of mine aptly put, “good and respectful intentions are necessary for creating respectful art but do not guarantee it.”

When you choose to present an audience with a trans character with the intention of being progressive, and the first thing that happens is everyone laughs, you’ve fucked up. You’ve lost sight of the cultural narrative of trans women being the brunt of every joke, and instead of fighting it, you’ve contributed to it.

We Need to Stay in Our Lane

I’m a cisgender man. A cisgender white man, to boot. I care about equality, representation, diversity, and inclusion. I’m not an expert on transgender justice. I do know a lot about not staying in my lane, however, and I’ve learned to recognize when other people are veering off course into territory they have no business being in.

Cis people are the status quo — we are the most hyper represented, and have the most power in storytelling. Because of this, our understanding of the trans experience will always remain woefully incomplete — and that’s okay. It’s not going to change any time soon, so we have to learn to accept and internalize this. And to that end, we need to be incredibly, incredibly delicate in our treatment of trans people in our stories. We need to be cautious of our use of non-cisnormative representation in the name of “progress.” In short, cis people should not be making artistic points about trans people if we’re incapable of doing proper research, understanding the problematic cultural narratives we claim to be challenging, and can appropriately fight them. If we misstep, we stand to instead fuel the fires of oppression rather than help douse them.

And my final words won’t be my words at all, but rather Feminista Jones’ thread about why allies don’t exist, and why we need to reframe the fight for social equality.