How Does the Transgender Community Feel About Laverne Cox's Frank N. Furter?

How do transgender people in the Quora community feel about Laverne Cox starring in the new Rocky Horror Picture Show? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Jae Alexis Lee, trans woman, on Quora.

I watched a good chunk of the new Rocky Horror Picture Show featuring Laverne Cox last night (I missed the first 30 minutes or so).

I absolutely think Laverne Cox owned the role in a fantastic way. In general, I walked away with a lot to love about the show. There's a huge chunk of social commentary I need to make, but I want to go into it by very clearly stating that I watched it and I enjoyed it.

So what's the social commentary?

Dr. Frank N. Furter was a transvestite, a fetishistic crossdresser. Laverne Cox is a trans woman. As trans women, we fight hard against the idea that we're some kind of extreme fetishists because that stereotype is seriously damaging to trans people and is part of the cultural backdrop that fuels violence against trans people. Trans women aren't transvestites.

I think it's important to put things in context and ask some important questions. In the early 1970s when Rocky Horror Picture Show was written, there was a very different understanding of transgender women. The difference between a transgender person and a fetishistic crossdresser wasn't well understood even by researchers in the field. In 1989, we still had people publishing studies to demonstrate that trans women were either autoerotic fetishists or extremely effeminate gay men. In 1973 when the Broadway musical premiered, almost no one knew the difference. The lines weren't as well defined as they are today.

So, to me, the question is: Does Dr. Frank N. Furter belong to crossdressers or to trans people? Both? Neither? Was the original intention in writing the character to present a cisgender man with a penchant for wearing women's clothes, or was the intention to present a character who is non-binary transgender identified, or was the intention to present a view of trans women? Or none of the above?

Rocky Horror, especially the new one, does some great things playing with identities and sexualities that aren't strictly binary. That, to me, is the strength of the film, along with letting us play with what the word "queer" means to all of us. It lets us revel in some of the things that modern politics forces us to ignore or deny with this pressure to be mainstream and to fit into narrow boxes in order to have any form of acceptance.

There's something that Laverne Cox said about the experience that really speaks to me. Cox herself told Entertainment Weekly that the experience was "magical," and that it allowed her to be herself by using her "chest voice."

"As a trans woman with a low voice, I had been so afraid of those low tones," she said. "This is a character where it's absolutely appropriate that I sing in the bass baritone register that I have."[1]

How often have we, as trans women, tried to squish ourselves into a cisnormative image of womanhood because it's expected and required of us in order to have our identities respected? Can we take time to celebrate our transness and parts of ourselves that we've carried over from the gender we were assigned at birth as a part of ourselves? Can we be whole people who don't have to eschew everything we were before in order to find acceptance?

Seeing Laverne Cox playing a gender-bending role, digging down to that deep register that she has, for me was a powerful thing. I didn't think it would be, but the fact that she was a woman was blatantly clear, and the fact that she was trans and queer and was still powerful and beautiful was also very clear. For me, that was a powerful thing.

For some people, like drag performers and cross-dressers who are cisgender men, it may feel like we're coopting one of their icons to have Laverne Cox in the role. For some trans people, it may feel like we're representing a trans woman as a fetishist and cross dresser in ways that we've been (literally) beaten down for. It's rough both ways.

Personally, I think it's positive and I think that the Rocky Horror Picture Show belongs to all of us who are queer and gender nonconforming. I'm glad to see that there was space for a trans woman to own a gender nonconforming role, and I hope that maybe next time around we'll see a non-binary actor in the role, or someone else who is actually queer. I think Rocky Horror has a way for us to revel in the same kinds of things we revel in during Pride when we can boldly celebrate being queer, and I think that maybe, just maybe, having a trans woman in this role, whether it was Laverne Cox or Jamie Clayton or anyone else, maybe that, right now, is better than putting another cisgender male in the role. After all, aren't we all sick of seeing cisgender men making a mockery of gender nonconforming people on TV? (Though part of me wouldn't have minded Neil Patrick Harris in the role, either.)

Footnotes:

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