Hollywood vs. Theatre Audiences: Understanding Suspension of Disbelief & Social Commentary

As might be expected, a major problem I have with TV and film is the depiction of LGBTQ persons in general. As a male-bodied gender fluid person, I’m most concerned with the depiction of those who fall under the transgender umbrella. In other words, I struggle with my suspension of disbelief as it relates to the lame attempts Hollywood makes toward social commentary.

There are few examples of positive transgender representation in Hollywood and  solid attempt at social commentary. Transparent, POSE. Those are pretty much only. Yes, Orange is the New Black featured a transgender character, but how many times was she on? Rarely. It was as though she was pulled out when they needed a trans person. In the most recent season, we saw her maybe three times, and then she got (SPOILER ALERT!) early release.

Transgender people, otherwise, are used as a trope, and often as a stereotype or punchline. You know, like how minorities, particularly African Americans were 40+ years ago? Remember “black face”? Trans characters tend to be presented as flamboyant freaks. I’m glad to see that changing.

Stage is different.

On stage, like in Hedwig (I admit I’ve only watch clips of it since Hedwig would never make it to my current neck of the woods), a trans woman in a band, angry about how she has an “angry inch” after botched GAS. with an angry inch? Pretty sure that’s not gonna happen in Indiana.

Other examples of positive and prominent transgender or LGBTQ roles in major Broadway and Off-Broadway plays that aren’t stereotyped: Kinky Boots, Boys in the Band, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Rent, and La Cage Aux Folles. This is a PARTIAL list. There are currently a few Broadway and Off-Broadway shows with accurate depictions of queer characters…most of which are PLAYED by queer actors. Actors like Shakina and Pooya Mohseni and so many others are breaking down the wall in theatre. Playing right now to rave reviews is Red Emma and the Mad Monk.

Theatre, thus, is more accepting than Hollywood of the queer community, particularly the transgender community and the exploration of social issues.

Hollywood is lagging…and it might be due to the reaction of people who either love the concept or somehow miss the point. Take, as an example, the recent flap around the new show Insatiable.

A MISGUIDED INSATIABLE NEED TO CRITIQUE

In an episode of Insatiable there’s a scene with the LGBTQ outreach and particularly a bathroom scene where the main character and a trans woman bonded in front of a mirror.

Perusing Twitter, I noticed the hate and anger aimed at that scene. It wasn’t by transphobes though. No. The LGBTQ community and “Fat Studies” groups were the ones bashing the scene. This was puzzling and down right troubling.

The scene depicts the lead character, a young lady who dropped 70 pounds over the summer between her junior and senior years of high school. She’s not “hot” and “sexy”. In all entertainment, we must negotiate timelines and allow ourselves the suspension of disbelief.

What these people are outraged over isn’t all the pedophilia in Insatiable, but at a scene that wonderfully shows we all have internal demons against which we fight, that we all see someone in the mirror that’s not quite right.

It’s troubling to me that the rampant pedophilia is not shocking this audience: the young hot girl trying to seduce the older man, older married man, sabotaging him, outing him when she’s jilted and a scene where an older woman is having sex with a teen in the back of his car are two examples.

All that is fine to watchers. It’s the unifying factor of this scene, the one scene that shows us that we are ALL THE SAME, however, is highly offensive according to many vitriolic reviews.

Here’s the scene: The main protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your perspective) is having a dog washing fundraiser to raise money for eating disorders (yup, she is trying to raise money to combat eating disorders; a point completely missed by those complaining about the episode…COMPLETELY missed). One of the girls “helping” with the fundraiser sabotages the fundraiser and nearly ruins it.

That is until one of her love interests saves the day by convincing his friends—all trans women it appears—to wash the dogs and help the main character raise the money for EATING DISORDERS, a little tidbit clearly missed by many people.

The main character rushed into the bathroom. She’s flustered. She still feels fat (a theme that runs through the show). She feels like she’s not as beautiful as everyone thinks she is. She’s freaking out. A transwoman walks in and they begin to talk. The transwoman explains she too battles dysphoria. For her, it’s the obvious “I see a guy” dysphoria most transwomen have in spades. The main character explains her issues, that she sees herself as fat still. As it turns out, they BOTH see someone in the mirror that is NOT them.

Because of the dysphoria, they recognize they’re BOTH very self-conscious about their bodies. They are the SAME. They decide to be brave together and go back out to the fundraiser, proud of their bodies and who they are. As they get out, the social anxiety hits them both.

This scene was nothing short of brilliant. The writer(s) nailed it. As a gender fluid male-bodied person who identifies with primarily female pronouns, I know the issue of seeing one person in the mirror and it not being the true you. And I know many transwomen, and one who is especially close to me agreed that this scene is powerful, and not an insult to trans people at all, but as accurate a description of dysphoria as one can get in a TV show.

This accuracy was missed on several LGBTQ bloggers. But worse were those who jumped on the topic of weight in the episode and the show. knowledgeable about “Fat Studies” (not necessarily academics) were offended by the idea that someone could lose 70 pounds in three months and look like that. It’s expected that an audience understands “suspension of disbelief”. However, the group castrating the show seems to have forgotten this concept.

Anyone who’s been overweight, as I have, knows dropping 70 pounds in three months is NOT going to give you a body like that. For example, where is the hanging skin that accompanies rapid weight loss? Where? She didn’t have surgery as far as we’re told. We are required to suspend disbelief. The negative response to the character’s weight loss, the show and this episode is reactionary to current rebuff social activists. It’s unrealistic and it’s a comedy.

THE AUDIENCE DIFFERENCE

This is the audience Hollywood gets; it’s an audience heavily influenced by an emotional response to passive absorption of current social movements. Were this depicted on stage it would have been better. I’m not saying TV and film watchers are stupid and play audiences are smarter. I’m saying that such cultural commentary is perfect for stage.

And play audiences understand this. They seem to be inherently attuned to the fact a play will contain social commentary and that in many ways they need to suspend disbelief for the message to come through loud and clear.

Had this been done on stage, the response would have been like mine: “WOW! That nailed it! We all struggle with dysphoria! We’re not so different!”

Stage productions deal with cultural commentary in every single play. It’s Broadway’s bread-and-butter. It’s what they do.

It is for that reason, the stage’s insistence on cultural commentary in every single play, that stage, theatre, Broadway is moving more quickly to accepting ALL persons into their fold and why there are a growing number of labs, commissions and fellowships available to transgender/gender nonconforming playwrights.

Theatre hungers for the most current. It never has and never will shy away from controversial topics while simultaneously embracing the old—revivals of old plays are a staple of Broadway. And transgender issues are one of the final frontiers to explore…and Broadway never shies from addressing new topics. Ever.

Becoming a Queer Playwright: Why I Moved to Stage Writing from TV & Film Writing

Becoming a Queer Playwright

My earliest memories of loving film and TV and stage plays and radio dramas—liking melodrama to be more precise—was racing home after elementary school to turn on the radio and trying to get a clear signal for “The Shadow”. The Shadow knows what evil lies in the heart of men. It’s part of the reason I went back to my roots, my primary love, and switched to writing stage plays rather than TV shows and films.

I loved it because I could create the scene in my head. I created a play, a movie, a TV show as I saw it, not as someone else told me it was.

That’s the greatest issue I have with TV and movies. Things aren’t that well presented as pieces of creative thought. That is, characters aren’t always correct, portrayed properly. They get the wrong actor or actress, the wrong something, they change key aspects of a story. Like casting ScarJo as a transman…as if that’s believable in any way.

In other words, they fiddle with everything and have so many hands in the work that things get mucked up. Consistency is lost.

I know a film writer who got called to work five days on a movie. She wrote three jokes. All but one was then cut from the film because the star didn’t like them after the director put them in. The director had another character deliver them instead and still two got cut and the one left in didn’t make sense because the wrong character was delivering it. Five days to write three jokes to be delivered by the wrong character and two being cut. Seems like a waste of time and effort, doesn’t it?

New Sight

But in a play. In a play, it was what I saw and see in my mind. It’s as though the playwright always knows what’s in my head. When I see Belle or The Phantom or any number of other characters in plays, I’m not surprised and left scratching my head as to why the hell the Hunchback of Notre Dame isn’t a hunchback at all. Or why Miss Saigon isn’t set in the right place or why a sniper keeps missing an easy shot on the bad guy (because the show/film needs to keep the bad guy alive for the time being usually). I don’t have to worry about watching the story fall apart as it goes on because of some editing snafu or some writer decided not to read the backstory of a character and had them say or do something out of character.

In a stage play (and on radio), every character, every location, every word is perfect. Nothing is out of place because nothing can be out of place.

It’s perfection. Sure, some stories are more engaging than others, but there’s never a loss of continuity in plays.

An Unfair Comparison?

Some readers will say, “That’s an unfair comparison. Plays aren’t serialized.” To those I say, “Neither are movies, and yet…” movies are made that jump all over with no rhyme nor reason or have an ending that just doesn’t seem to fit. Netflix made “This Is The End”…problem is, there was no end. We’ve no idea if the world ended or not and how it did and so on.

Plays suck you into them. They are personal. And that’s why they are so popular. It’s really the spectacle of it all.

While movies…let me stick with that comparison since movies are in a similar vein as stage plays than are radio and TV…While movies are going for the big money—millions of dollars can be had with the right one—plays aren’t primarily concerned with the money. That’s certainly a top goal, as is making the play run for as long as possible (30 years maybe!) but it’s not the primarily reason. The main reason is to entertain, then to teach. They are all social commentary in some way. From Thoroughly Modern Millie to Cats to Hamilton to Wicked and Phantom, there are no plays that don’t shine a light on some aspect of our culture. They are intelligent in how they lambaste cultural conceptions. You don’t get that brilliance with movies.

Plays have to engage. They’ve no choice. People can wait until a bad movie gets to Netflix or Amazon or hulu. The movie, regardless of how horrible it is, will get played. But a play is do or die. If it’s not good, it’s dead. It’s gone.

There are no edits to make it look better than it really is either. A play stands on its own. The actors, playwright, director, crew and anyone else connected to the production must be at their best at all times. There’s no cut, no editing, no splicing. It’s the group of actors on that stage night in and day out, not for a series of filming days where errors can be easily edited out.

A forgotten line on stage spells disaster. A forgotten line in filming is a re-do until it’s done correctly.

Becoming a Playwright: Agency, Inclusion, Diversity & Queerness

While I enjoy writing TV shows and gradually fiddling with movie script writing, my heart is in stage plays.

Why? That’s not where the money is.

Life’s not about money. It sure as hell helps, but my work is too niche for TV. But it’s perfect for Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway. On these stages, queerness is explored freely. It’s not hindered. It’s not glossed over. It’s not a punchline. A queer character is always integral to any play with one in it. The character is given agency unto itself.

In movies, we see all the stereotypes play out. On stage, we see it every now and again, but as a general rule, queers are viewed as just another person, another character. They serve a purpose to advance the narrative, push forward the plot.

Hollywood fights inclusion a great deal. Broadway thrives on inclusion, on diversity. Sure, Broadway isn’t as diverse as one might hope, but it’s always been more diverse than it’s Hollywood sibling for decades; just look at the diversity numbers for each: Broadway diversity versus Hollywood diversity.

Broadway demolishes Hollywood in the diversity of topics too. Minority, queer, gender…all of these are openly addressed in stage plays.

When you hear the protests about trans actors, about LGBTQ representation, about minority representation in films, well, that’s Hollywood. Not Broadway. I’ve seen many, many, many calls for auditions for plays that specifically call for queer actors to fill a queer character. I’ve been told many times about how a minority had been cast simply because they were the best for the job. Does it really matter if Rum Tum Tugger is played by a white woman or a black man? Not at all. Can the Phantom be an African American? Absolutely! In fact, he has been on stage a few times!

This dedication to diversity on stage is what draws me the most. It’s where I feel most comfortable.

After all, the play is the thing.