Laverne Cox announced she will star in an upcoming Rocky Horror Picture Show remake as Dr. Frank-n-Furter. It's exciting news for Hollywood's most influential transgender performer to be cast in Tim Curry's iconic role, which plays with gender taboos in a campy way. But why does Cox's casting in the Fox TV special make me feel a little conflicted?
Maybe it's because of the song "Sweet Transvestite," Frank-n-Furter's most recognizable number in the cult classic. It's that word, "transvestite" — it's so antiquated, so inappropriate. It makes me cringe a little to think of Cox having to sing it. Back when the movie came out, nearly 40 years ago, people used that word to describe transgender men and women before transgender was a term. Now the word transvestite is a slur that GLAAD — the nation's lesbian gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) media advocacy organization — advises people to never use unless a person self-identifies that way. They instead suggest using the term "cross-dresser," which is not the same as being transgender. Cross-dressers "do not wish to permanently change their sex or live full-time" as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Frank-n-Furter is a cross-dresser, not a transgender woman.
Maybe it's because playing a promiscuous, bisexual, cross-dressing (not transgender) scientist from the planet Transsexual could be mistaken as a step in the wrong direction for the Orange is the New Black star, who has become a hero to transgender men and women for holding one of the rare transgender roles on TV or film actually played by a transgender actor or actress. Peter Dinklage told The New York Times in 2012 that he never took roles as elves or leprechauns because they seemed demeaning. I can't help but worry that this role could fall into that category for Cox. Is her getting this role empowering because it is rare that a trans actor would nab an acting role at all, let alone one of a cis character typically played by cis actors? Or is it degrading because it appears to conflate Cox's identity as a transgender person with the identity of a cross-dresser?
TV Guide boasted in their headline about the remake that Cox being cast as Frank-n-Furter was the "perfect role." And, sure, I don't debate that she'll do a great job — especially after seeing her show off her Beyoncé moves in four-inch heels during a Nylon photo shoot — but it seems like it's been deemed the perfect role because she is transgender and people are conflating that identity with being a cross-dresser, not because she is an amazingly talented actress who has shown her dramatic and comedic range in Orange is the New Black, Grandma, and The Mindy Project.
As the hypersexual Dr. Frank-n-Furter, I can't help but worry that some will unfairly accuse Cox of playing a caricature. That she will be criticized for taking on a role that seems offensive or promotes negative stereotypes. But is that even her job to correct anyone so narrow-minded to assume something like that? Honestly, no. She's an actress taking on a role that won't be everything to everyone no matter how much we want it to be. That pressure has been placed on her since being cast as Sophia on Orange is the New Black. Everyone wants her to be the voice of every transgender person, and it's completely impossible — and she is surely fully aware of the implications of the Frank-n-Furter character and would not have taken the role if she were not comfortable with it.
And maybe I'm being way too politically correct about this whole thing, making a mountain out of a mole hill and looking for controversy where there isn't. Should I be expressing my views on something I really know nothing about? I'm an outsider to this conversation, and maybe I'm using my straight white cisgender privilege to prove some point that doesn't really need to be made. Roles of any kind for transgender actors and actresses are few and far between, and as Bustle pointed out in May, this unfortunately doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon. Cox should be able to play roles she finds interesting and challenging just like any other actor or actress, without feeling pigeonholed.
The fact that Cox is so excited to be in the remake (even tweeting the hashtag, #DontDreamItBeIt) should make me take a step back and really think about the power this could have on a whole community whose faces are rarely seen on network television. After excitedly posting about her upcoming role on Instagram she nabbed 28,900 likes and comments like "Some news just gives me hope for the world."
Rocky Horror is a cult classic for a reason — it focuses on those who don't feel like they're a part of the mainstream. It's a movie that includes incest and promiscuity, and it's supposed to rile up squares who just don't understand. Maybe that's why it's a "perfect role" for Cox, because she can bring some class to this role.