Outcasting: Inside TV’s Revolution for Transgender and Disabled Actors
The most shocking, and remarkable, thing about today’s television landscape is that nothing’s shocking. Cable networks and streaming services have helped forge an era of unprecedented inclusion and representation in both content and casting. We turn on HBO and root for dwarf hero Tyrion as he topples bad guys on HBO’s Game of Thrones, swoon while phocomelia-afflicted Paul stirs romantic intrigue on FX’s American Horror Story: Freak Show, and tear up along with transgender inmate Sophia on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. These characters aren’t on screen to be mocked, gawked at or kicked around — at least not without a fight. But what makes them truly groundbreaking is that all three protagonists are portrayed by actors — Peter Dinklage, Mat Fraser and Laverne Cox, respectively — whose physicality mirrors that of their alter egos.
Without casually equating transgender performers and those with congenital disorders, these groups do share something in common (outside of vocal activist arms): Collectively, they’re among the last segment of our society who haven’t naturally integrated into mainstream pop culture, even after tremendous strides in less stereotypical storytelling. But thanks in part to providers who are willing to push the envelope through more equal-opportunity casting – call it “outcasting” – these individuals may finally have a place at the small-screen table that transcends narrow perceptions of gender identity or physical limitations.
“I would hope that this is that sea-change moment,” says Adam Moore, national director of equal employment opportunities and diversity for Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG – AFTRA). “There are positive signs that indicate that [if] we let this thing play out over the next several years, it will prove to be a turning point.”
Statistically speaking, it’s becomes more complicated for SAG-AFTRA or media-watchdog organizations like GLAAD to keep pace with shifting trends as the very notion of what constitutes television grows harder to define. But the blurring of that definition is one of the very reasons progress is being made. “There are so many more platforms for people to tell stories on now,” adds OITNB casting director Jennifer Euston. “So you’re not just dealing with the networks. That increases the need for stories, and that means opportunities for people who were considered marginalized. We have so much more creative freedom.”
The Merits of Meritocracy
It’s hard to forecast what, exactly, the widespread impact will be seeing American Horror Story‘s Fraser evoke pathos, or in following the protagonist of Amazon’s critically acclaimed Transparent, a drama about a middle-aged man transitioning into his real self — “Maura” — and dealing with a largely cisgender (i.e. those whose “self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex,” according to the Oxford Dictionary) family.