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.
And it could be an entire generational cycle of influence before actors born with dwarfism achieve Dinklage's level of uncompromised success, let alone get fair consideration for roles they both naturally embody and can otherwise slip into. Playing such characters is, after all, what essentially typifies acting, although being considered for them has largely been a privilege afforded to able-bodied and cis performers.
"There are films where they take average-size actors and make them smaller," notes actor/comedian/activist Danny Woodburn, who was born with dwarfism and is best known to audiences as Kramer's adversarial friend Mickey on Seinfeld. "On the other hand, would they ever consider making me a six-foot character using special effects? I don't know that that would ever happen. So why is the reverse of that OK?"
For many in Hollywood, the answer is that they're doing their best to make casting a pure meritocracy, where the actor most capable of conveying a character's story gets the job, without discrimination or overly conscientious inclusion. "I think that it's fantastic that I was able to cast Laverne [Cox] and that we went very real with that," offers Euston. "But just because she's a transgender actor doesn't mean she got the role. She still had to be able to act. The same with [Transparent's] Jeffrey Tambor: He's not transgender, but he gives the most beautiful performance as Maura."
Some, like AHS's Fraser, take a harder line, viewing the casting of, say, an able-bodied person in a disabled role as tantamount to blackface. "Finding a two-headed actor is pretty difficult, we'll all agree on that," Fraser concedes. But he suggests, as a case study, casting a character who's "a 30-year-old, heterosexual, wheelchair-using Caucasian woman who works in a cupcake shop in Manhattan. Now, there are going to be at least 15 available [disabled] actresses, and they may not have as much experience as the non-disabled actresses. I get that. But I'm sorry: You have to choose one of those 15. The end. There's just no excuse anymore."
Transparent creator/executive producer Jill Soloway, who hired transgender cast members, consultants and crew in addition to Tambor, is also unsure meritocracy "can be trusted." Her skepticism, however, has less to do with how decision makers level the playing field than a more deeply embedded big-picture patriarchy. "Who is saying 'best'?" Soloway asks of the casting process. "It's probably a straight, white guy. We do all these in-house, DIY transformative action things [on Transparent] that are not only leveling the playing field for trans people, but radically welcoming them into every aspect of the show, understanding the civil rights movement and trying to go way beyond, 'We're willing to see transgender people for the role.'"
Representation vs. Exploitation
All of this begs the question: Are characters like OITNB's Sophia and Game of Thrones' Tyrion a true sign of sweeping mainstream normalization, or merely a small but significant step toward television mirroring societal tolerance? To be more pointed, are actors with congenital disorders playing carnies in a miniseries dubbed Freak Show still inherently being exploited?
"As someone who is an advocate for disabled issues, I find it sort of a yin and yang," says Woodburn when asked about the latest AHS installment. "I'm awed by the fact that we have employment of several people with disabilities on a show such as this, but I'm also torn with some of the perceptions. You have a ghost character [played by Wes Bentley], who was supposed to be the moral compass, say, 'I never cared for dwarves. They're power mad, the lot of them.'…. It struck a nerve with me. It felt derogatory."
Woodburn's reaction to what may have scanned for most as a throwaway gag underscores the challenge for writers and producers looking to simultaneously entertain and educate: One flip bit of dialogue can undo much of the good accomplished in simply casting atypical leads. After all, we're not terribly far removed from a time when, say, most transgender people on TV were portrayed as victims and/or prostitutes.
"It's incredibly important to depict these individuals in a way that's more representative of how things really are," offers Charles Joughin, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). "When you have characters who are either trans actors playing trans characters or cisgender actors playing trans characters, the focus tends be on the fact that they are trans — and not any other aspects of their identity."
Movie producer/director Jenni Gold, who has muscular dystrophy, recently wrapped a documentary titled CinemAbility, which features interviews with everyone from Ben Affleck to Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and explores Hollywood's past and present relationship to persons with disabilities (PWDs). She shares a bit of Woodburn's hopeful hesitancy and Joughlin's cautious optimism while contemplating a possible-game changer like American Horror Story's current season.
"Obviously, Freak Show is a titillating title and it's about showing something that's unusual," she says. "But the way in which it's handled can be very proactive and positive. If it was written [like] a freak show — pay your dollar and watch this to say, 'Oh, this is weird' — then that's a disservice. If they write stories that show how everyone is ultimately a human being with the same desires, needs and relationships, then it can be very powerful."
The irony of playing a humane freak isn't lost on Fraser, but he feels that "what [AHS showrunner] Ryan Murphy has done is fantastic. I'm sure lots of people have lots of criticisms, but he's the only person who stopped talking about it and actually gave us work. He's not an angel. He's just a really sensible, clever employer." And for those who "would like an icon of exploitation of disabled people on TV," Fraser says he'll "happily replace [Murphy] with Jerry Lewis."
The most telling indicator of our readiness for acceptance may come less from fictional work than television's most polarizing platform: reality programming. TLC's Little People, Big World has chronicled the Roloff family, three of whom were born with dwarfism, since 2006. And while the show has drawn praise from PWD advocates, its network muddies much of that good intent with a prevailingly exploitive roster of franchises including My 600-lb Life and the recently canceled Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
On the flipside, there have been few transgender sightings in the genre outside of Real World: Brooklyn cast member Katelynn Cusanelli in 2009, but that ratio is about to get shaken. The Tyra Banks-produced docuseries TransAmerica, featuring trans model/actress Carmen Carrera, is slated to air in early 2015. Ditto for Discovery Life's New Girls on the Block, which premieres on April 2nd and follows the journeys of four couples, in which at least one partner is trans. That includes Macy and Sharon, a black couple living in Kansas City, Kansas, who've remained together through Macy's transition to female, enduring their own adjustment period in addition to battling workplace discrimination (Macy has lost her job since starting her transition).
"If you look at the history of how transgender people are portrayed in the media, this gives us a chance to realistically portray transgender people," explains Macy. "Hopefully, folks will see a little bit of themselves in us, whether they're trans or not."
Given reality's reputation for the sensational, there are bound to be skeptics about how New Girls on the Block or TransAmerica can overcome the base tendency toward ratings, but Transparent creator Soloway – who hasn't seen either series – feels that "it's possible" they can capture America's imagination in a responsible way. "The ideal would be that the reality show was produced, written and directed by trans people," she says, "because the other-izing thing happens so naturally."
While neither Tyra Banks nor New Girls on the Block creators are transgender, NGOTB's co-executive producer Caroline Gibbs does head up the Kansas City, Missouri-based Transgender Institute, which provides therapy and coaching to the trans population. She insists that telling Macy and Sharon's stories this way "is critical, because it's the only medium that gets such a huge audience…[we're] going to be making a show that is going to normalize and un-marginalize this population."
The New Old Normal
Gibbs and Macy's enthusiasm speaks to what CinemAbility director Gold sums up as the "ultimate goal: to accept people with their differences, no matter what that difference is" and help incite a cultural shift where the bigots are the fringe dwellers.
"I believe in the power of television," says OITNB's Euston. "I really do. It's not overnight, and it's never gonna be overnight, but we're doing much better."
"That was one of the things we talked about with Transparent," adds Soloway. "We kind of wanted the trans people to be at the cool kids' table, and if you didn't really understand how to correctly gender somebody, then you were kind of missing out on the edge of the moment."
And far as Fraser's concerned, it's high time to hold the television industry accountable. "TV executives — bless their little, normative, unimaginative cotton socks — they're people that only want to produce something that was last year's hit," he says. "Because they're so scared that if they do anything their boss might not like they'll lose their job. They're wrong. Audiences are ready. They want to see us on TV."