The Tonys Nominate: Transmisogyny

As a trans theatre-maker and critic, many people have asked me my thoughts on Tootsie, and most of them are surprised when I say I think it’s unsalvageably transphobic. After all, the show doesn’t have any trans characters, nor does it contain any explicit messages of hate directed at trans people. But just as a celebration of German culture can still be antisemitic even if it never mentions Jews and a boss who calls his secretary “sweetie” can still be sexist even if he never explicitly tells women to die, the core conceit of Tootsie’s plot strengthens tropes that harm trans women in pervasive, implicit ways.

Even a one-sentence description of the show raises red flags. Tootsie is a musical comedy (adapted from the 1982 movie of the same name) about a hard-pressed male actor who disguises himself as a woman in order to get a job. Any time male-to-female cross-dressing like this is played for laughs in contemporary US culture, the man-in-a-dress joke is inevitably in the air. The core premise of the man-in-a-dress joke is that it’s ridiculous and unnatural for a man to wear a dress. Because mainstream society, by and large, thinks of trans women as “men in dresses” instead of women, the man-in-a-dress joke perpetuates the idea that trans women are “unnatural” and fit for ridicule and scorn. For a recent example of how this man-in-a-dress joke framing hurts actual trans people out here in the world, see this recent post from trans actor Maybe Burke, who was explicitly misgendered as a man in a dress in one review of a play they are currently in.

This would be bad enough, but pushing further into the plot reveals more problems. Once Michael, the main character, lands a job as a woman, he’s wildly successful, to the point of getting a Broadway team to rewrite their entire show to revolve around him. Even before we get to the transmisogyny here, this is already a slap in the face to cis women acting in musical theatre. (Cis is an adjective that means not trans.) Cis women have to compete for fewer available roles than their cis male counterparts — in the 2017–18 Broadway season, only 37% of the leading roles were for women — and, once cast, they face ongoing sexism in the rehearsal room. And this is exactly where the transmisogyny comes in.

One talking point among those intent on driving trans people out of public life is that treating trans women as women instead of men will be unfair to cis women. This argument is usually a muddled mixture of two claims: 1) That trans women will be “naturally superior” to the cis women in the same space and 2) That cis men will pretend to be women to score an easy win. You see this argument most clearly when it comes to gender-segregated sports leagues — an issue there isn’t space in this article to address — but Tootsie is a clear example of it in musical theatre. The show is a transphobic talking point come to life: A man pretends to be a woman to get a job that was meant for a woman, outclasses everyone around him and finds success that he never had when he was living as a man, and is richly rewarded for as long as he keeps up the act.

This does not happen in real life. In the real world, coming out as trans tends to torpedo an acting career, not boost it, and being a cis woman is a decided disadvantage compared to being a cis man. It’s hard to say which of these is more pertinent for Tootsie — Michael is either being read as a trans woman by the characters around him or he’s passing as a cis woman (and it could, admittedly, be different for different characters, just as passing in real life is highly contextual and can vary from person to person and day to day) — but insofar as Michael is read as a cis woman, the show denies the reality of misogyny, and insofar as he’s read as a trans woman, the show both denies the reality of transmisogyny and strengthens the literal transphobic talking point that trans women are a threat to cis women’s livelihoods.

Note that none of this analysis hinges on a close, line-by-line reading of the script. These issues are baked into the core of the show; they cannot be fixed with a line tweak here or a few re-writes there — addressing them requires completely reconceptualizing the show from the ground up. Note also that I’m not saying anything about the creative team’s personal beliefs. Yazbek, Horn, and everyone else involved in the show may have only the most positive and affirming thoughts when it comes to trans people, but the show they have created, intentionally or not, is a show that strengthens ideas that directly harm trans women.

I also want to emphasize that these complaints are not new. Trans people have been raising concerns with this show since it was announced, some of us publicly and some of us only privately, out of concerns that voicing public criticism could have repercussions for our careers down the line. So far, this has felt like screaming at an automated steamroller — utterly ineffectual. Even when the show pulled a line of breathtakingly transphobic merchandise, they offered no public explanation or apology, seemingly assuming that they can get away with quietly brushing trans complaints under the rug or ignoring us outright. With eleven Tony nominations to show for it, that assumption seems to be correct.

The mood in the trans theatre circles I’m a part of on Tuesday morning was bleak. People were bitter, exhausted, furious, and demoralized as we once again saw a show that harms us and our communities being blithely celebrated by an industry that likes to paint itself as a safe, inclusive, and progressive scene. Each one of Tootsie’s nominations is an embarrassment to the entire field of musical theatre; each award that it wins will be a damning indictment of this industry’s ignorance of trans existence. Broadway must do better. The time is long overdue.