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Why We Need to Cast Trans Actors in Trans Roles: It Isn’t a “Jagged Pill” to Swallow

When Jagged Little Pill first started Broadway Previews, it was expected to be one of the biggest shows of 2019, if not beyond. Created by world-famous musician Alanis Morissette, the show sold out its first week, making $1.1M in ticket sales. Since then, the show has grossed nearly $35M and was nominated for 15 Tony’s, of which they won two. While the stats make it look like a smash hit, Jagged Little Pill has seldom been able to maintain a solid fanbase and is not expected to last long if/when they reopen on Broadway. Already, they’ve lost two cast members and numerous members of the creative team have spoken out against the show—deeming it “scandal-plagued” and “toxic.” Many layers and stories contribute to this newfound negative public reputation, but the most publicly impactful of those is transphobia—an issue that has been present and ignored in the entertainment industry for far too long.

The story of Jagged Little Pill (JLP) is centered around a character named Jo (they/them), played by actress Lauren Patten (she/her). Throughout the show, Jo explores their sexuality and struggles to get a grasp on their identity with the overriding disapproval of their mother. During the early stages of the show’s development, it became clear to Patten that the relationship JLP fans had with Jo was rooted in gender identity and she knew it would have to be addressed. Patten started the conversation with the show’s creative team, bringing what experience she had as a masculine queer woman. These conversations were held without trans people in the room to provide insight into the trans experience and call out any insensitivity that flew over the heads of the team. From that point on, Patten only referred to Jo using they/them pronouns, setting the standard that her character was nonbinary. While this conscious decision was anticipated to be received with pride, it came with more backlash as Jagged Little Pill would now have a cis woman portraying a trans/nonbinary character, thereby defeating the intention of diversity and representation. When the show’s team became aware of this, they immediately reverted to using she/her pronouns for Jo and made an official statement that “Jo was never written as anything other than cis.” When Patten was nominated for and later won the Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in a Musical, people began calling her out in social media comments, sharing their stories, and asking Patten either to expand on her own or quit. Her response? She muted her comment section and ignored the feedback entirely.

She went on to thank the trans community in her Tony’s acceptance speech and released a recorded discussion she had with trans actress and activist Shakina. In this video, she talked about her own experience as a queer woman and briefly discussed the harm she caused towards the trans community. Even if there had been a formal apology on her part (which, for the record, there was not), the action she would need to take to repair her reputation would be leaving the show.

Of course, it would be hard for Lauren Patten to quit. She’s been with JLP since the very beginning and has watched the show grow firsthand. She just won a Tony award for her portrayal of Jo and in her world, it looks like nothing is at stake. If she were to take a step outside of her ego, she might see the damage that she continues to cause towards the trans community. Even staying in her own little bubble, she could see that her career is at stake. Especially with the way Broadway and entertainment continue to progress, nobody is going to want to work with someone who has a history of insensitivity and borderline transphobia.

Though it’s incredibly unfortunate, this isn’t a rare occurrence in the entertainment industry. Particularly on Broadway, it’s come up with Tootsie, Head Over Heels, and most recently the development of Mrs. Doubtfire. Trans characters are constantly being developed by cisgender creators and portrayed by cisgender actors. People will try to defend their role by making their queer identity a focal point of their platform, but being queer does not mean you’ve lived the trans experience. The only people who can accurately speak on and portray the trans experience are trans people themselves. Placing a cis person in that role only erases and invalidates the trans experience.

Of course, everyone has their own stories and experiences with gender identity and is allowed to keep that to themselves: you don’t have to come out for your identity to be valid. But if you’re presenting yourself as cis while playing a trans character and you aren’t in a position to directly and openly speak about your own experiences with gender, think about the impact that could have on your own community. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience—you are an actor after all and looking at life from all different perspectives is your job.

There are so many layers, stories, experiences, and creations that contribute to transphobia within the entertainment industry, but the steps that need to be taken and reparations that need to be paid aren’t unimaginable. Simply listening to trans stories and making an effort to hire trans actors for trans roles is enough and it shouldn’t be too much of a jagged pill to swallow.

A native of the Pacific Northwest, Chiara is currently a freshman at Kenyon College and is so excited to be writing for HerCampus!
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