Like many trans people, I’m a huge fan of Laverne Cox. She’s not only an incredibly talented actress, nominated for an Emmy for her role as hairdresser Sophia Bursett in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, but also a well-respected trans activist. Cox presents an important positive public image as a trans woman, perhaps most significantly as a trans woman of color. She’s a trans community leader and public voice who is also a pioneer in so many ways that it would take the bulk of this article to properly describe them all here.
In short, Laverne Cox does our community proud. It’s precisely because of this that I read the news of Cox’s casting in the lead role of Fox’s remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with some trepidation.
While I’ve never heard her sing, it’s not about Laverne Cox herself. There’s no doubt in my mind that her acting skills are more than up to the task of bringing to life the role of the alien cross-dressing mad scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
It’s also not about The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The campy musical comedy was originally performed as The Rocky Horror Show on the London stage in 1973, with later productions staged in several major cities in Australia and the U.S., including a 10-month run on Broadway. The production was then restaged and filmed with many of the original cast reprising their roles and retitled The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was released in 1975. The film did poorly in national distribution but soon afterward developed a cult following in New York City that spread to many small theaters across the U.S. over the next few years.
As a deeply closeted teenage trans girl, I was a regular weekly attendee at showings of the movie at midnight Saturdays at an art cinema in central New Jersey. I knew all of the responses to the dialogue the audience would shout at the screen, and I once even dressed as the character Columbia for a stage performance of “The Time Warp,” which took place as the number was playing on-screen, my very first public appearance dressed as a woman.
While my friends knew nothing of the reasons I was enraptured by this film, it was one of the first times in my life when a film spoke at least a little to who I really was, rather than the masculine role I presented to the world. I simply could not get enough. As Frank sang, I didn’t just want to dream it, I wanted to be it, and at the age of 17 in 1979, I found The Rocky Horror Picture Show was as close as I could come to that ideal.
Rocky Horror is special to me, and so is Laverne Cox, but for very different reasons. One reflects the immature, disorganized, uneducated, and sensationalized fantasies of my youth, while the other represents the more grounded, realistic, and mature hopes and dreams of the woman I’ve become and for the trans community I’m proud to consider myself a part of.
It’s not Laverne Cox or Rocky Horror in and of themselves individually that make me nervous, but rather the combination of the two.
While those within our own community will likely draw the proper distinctions, cisgender and heterosexual people are far less likely to possess the necessary insight or inclination to understand. I shudder to consider what some right-wing groups and politicians might do with video clips of a spectacularly staged production of a fully transitioned celebrity trans woman singing “I’m just a sweet transvestite.”
There are those who will argue that there should be no barriers to the roles a talented actor should be able to play, but Laverne Cox, as talented and capable as she is, isn’t just any actress. She’s also a symbol and a leader of an extremely persecuted minority group.
Laverne Cox is one of the best-known trans people in the U.S., arguably in the entire world. When Laverne Cox appears in the media, she represents not only herself but all of us who identify as trans.
The role of Dr. Frank-N- Furter, even though fictional and played for camp and comedy, isn’t one of someone who is assigned male at birth but considers themselves female. The character is presented as a bisexual man who cross-dresses for fun and pleasure, a very different thing.
Much as in the case of Neil Patrick Harris portraying the title role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, an actual gay man cast as a fictional trans woman will be popularly seen as exactly that. In large part due to the long established history of drag as well as NPH’s longer history of mainstream media appearances, almost all of which have been as male, it’s unlikely for the actor’s gender to be confused or questioned because he appears in such a role.
Unfortunately, we’ve not yet reached the cultural point where the same can be said of a fully transitioned transgender woman. Trans people in the media have surely made significant inroads in this regard recently, but not so much that we can be certain that those who are ignorant of or actively antagonistic toward trans people won’t use Cox’s performance in this role as evidence of her true gender and assume that she, like Frank, is actually a cross-dressing man, a transvestite, rather than accurately as an actress, a woman who happens to be trans, who is portraying that role.
As a community, we’ve worked long and hard to change popular cultural perceptions of trans people, to cast ourselves as authentic in the genders we see ourselves as belonging to and live our lives in rather than based strictly upon how our bodies are perceived by others. My concern is that just as Laverne Cox’s public notoriety and community leadership have helped to move trans people forward culturally, her performance of this role on television could not only impede that progress but potentially even reverse it.
There’s no doubt that Laverne Cox is quite capable of portraying a sweet transvestite on television, but the real question is whether the trans population she represents will be capable of weathering the almost inevitable cultural headwinds that will strike us as a result.