Pose, the show, is itself an incubator of opportunity. The show features five trans actresses of color as its series regulars; between cast and crew, Pose employs at least 140 LGBTQ people, many of them trans. “I want this show to do more than just present a talented cast of trans actresses,” Murphy told the writer and producer Janet Mock, who also made her directorial debut with “Love Is the Message,” the show’s sixth episode. “I want ‘Pose’ to be uplifting and to give others who have not been given a chance a real opportunity to tell their own stories.” Writing for Variety about the experience of being the first trans woman of color to write, direct, and produce a television series, Mock echoed his sentiments: “My hope is that my work on ‘Pose’ does more than merely make history. I want it to make people feel their way through our characters, whose experiences have for so long been othered, invisibilized and sidelined.”
The show’s significance is, of course, partly informed by the dearth of productions like it on network and cable television. There is no shortage of trans-led stories in more democratized production spaces such as web series and YouTube channels, but the nearly intractable hierarchies of Hollywood largely push trans people out of any substantive, possibly career-defining, opportunities on either side of the camera. While cisgender actors rightfully worry about pay equity, the Her Story co-creator Jen Richards says many trans actors “would just be so thrilled to get a deeper part and to get paid at all.” The absence of trans people in popular entertainment isn’t an accident; it’s the result of purposeful exclusion. That sidelining manifests itself in multiple ways, perhaps the most obvious being the default rejection most trans actors experience throughout casting processes.
The stakes of exclusionary casting have once again come into focus, as news of Scarlett Johansson’s casting in the upcoming movie Rub & Tug circulated. Johansson was cast as the film’s lead character, a transgender man named Dante “Tex” Gill, and has since withdrawn from the film. But both Johansson’s initial response (deflecting criticism via a press representative who pointed to previous examples of cisgender actors playing trans characters) and the critical conversations that followed continue to shed light on just how far Hollywood—and critics—have left to go before any sort of meaningful equity is achieved.
On Friday, Angelica Ross, an actress on Pose and the founder of TransTech, an incubator for LGBTQ talent, spoke with NBC News’ Think. She weighed in not on her role in Mock’s television series, but on a question that has framed the trajectory of both women’s careers. Asked whether cisgender actors should be able to play trans characters, Ross spoke with clarity, conviction, and nuance:
What’s hurtful is when you have portrayals like, you know, when you have someone like Jared Leto who accepts an award for Dallas Buyers Club after playing a trans woman standing in a full beard and looking fully cis male, it is communicating to our audiences that underneath all of that, it’s still a man under that. And I feel like oftentimes with casting directors and directors that I’ve spoken with, myself and many other trans actors have been denied the opportunity because they tell us that we don’t look trans enough and that the audiences won’t get it, they’ll be confused. And what’s terribly painful and insidious about doing that is that what they’re trying to say is, as the movie’s going along and as the audience is watching, we don’t want them to forget that there’s a woman underneath there or there’s a man underneath there.
And actually that’s the point. We want you to forget. We want you to just see that this is a person, this is a human story. Forget what’s in between their legs, forget how they identify and their gender. That’s the objective of telling a good story. We should all be able to play a lot of different roles, but I would say until we reach that ideal we need to find ways of supporting one another that help to move society forward.
Johansson’s casting, like Leto’s, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Both are symptoms of larger problems within the industry, and the culture it shapes and reflects. To cast a cisgender woman as a transgender man—or, as is more frequently done, a cisgender man as a transgender woman—is to reinforce the narrative that trans people themselves are interlopers. But these castings do more than make statements questioning the veracity of trans identities. They also, as Ross noted, push trans actors out of work. The preponderance of these exclusionary choices is precisely what makes a show like Pose, with its LGBTQ-heavy cast and crew, revolutionary. Mining trans narratives without supporting trans creators isn’t new; it’s the norm.