Thanking Carlotta – a pioneer for sex and gender diversity

Eamon Farren as Ava and Jessica Marais as Carlotta. Photo by Simon Cardwell. ABC

In 2005 the road film Transamerica, directed by Duncan Tucker was released. It was a controversial film for its time simply for telling a trans story on the big screen. A complex transsexual character featured at the centre of the story rather than providing a titillating shimmer at the periphery.

Carol Byron/ Carlotta. AAP/ Peter Carrette

Felicity Huffman’s casting as pre-op transsexual woman Bree was not at all controversial then by any means. Huffman was not hailed by commentators as heroic, taking the role on was not deemed “risky” as it is for hetero-identified male actors portraying gay characters on screen. Instead Huffman was praised for an empathetic and tactful performance. In fact, she was praised for bringing the qualities of her gender to the performance, qualities that made that portrayal possible.

I recall sitting in the movie theatre afterwards wondering how long it would be until we began to see trans actors playing trans characters. Why in 2005 was that such a risky proposition, a dangerous idea? The first of these questions now seems hopelessly naïve.

And now, to 2014.

Last night the telemovie Carlotta screened on ABC 1. The film is based on the life of Carol Byron, better known as gender illusionist and lead performer at Les Girls nightclub for over two decades, Carlotta. The film documents an important slice of local history, of Sydney’s bohemia during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s.

How does the film feed into popular discourses and understandings about gender and sexuality? What kinds of conversations does it invite now that sex and gender diversity issues are increasing on the agenda?

Who gets to play Carlotta in 2014?

Today it is the casting of Jessica Marais as Carlotta that is attracting controversy.

Jessica Marais as Carlotta. ABC

The question being asked is why a (female) woman rather than a trans woman is playing the lead. Well, in short Carol/Carlotta, identifies as a woman, not a trans woman. She is said to be one of the few Les Girls performers to have undergone sex reassignment surgery, as it was then known. Herein lies the first clue and important context for Marais’ casting.

In the film Carlotta’s determination to be the woman she knew herself to be is emphasised by counterpoint with her dear friend Ava’s uncertainty and fear of “vag surgery”, a still relatively experimental procedure in those days and certainly not for the fainthearted. Herein lies the second clue.

The new trans activism

The last decade and a half has seen a flourishing of trans activism internationally together with the emergence of the field of transgender studies.

In an academic context the development and penetration of queer theory propelled a raft of transgender scholarship. In its contemporary form transactivism is part of a broader movement for social and legal recognition of sex and gender diverse people albeit one with a twist.

Unlike most of the social movements of the past half century, this latest one confounds some of the hallmarks of identity politics. That is evidenced by the fact that its constituents traverse gender identity and sexuality categories.

Simon Cardwell, ABC

The success of any social movement can be measured by the degree to which its goals and aspirations become embedded in the everyday, woven into the social fabric of a culture or society. In other words, shifts can be tracked by the extent to which a phenomena becomes normalised. Changes to passport rules in 2011 and the recent High Court ruling in the case of Norrie suggest the process is well underway.

Carlotta reminds us that its been a long time in the making. Social change is rarely abrupt in the making.

To return to the controversy. Following sex reassignment surgery Carlotta is no longer transsexual she is a woman – who was once a boy. This is the premise upon which director Samantha Lang based her film. Under these terms, there is in fact nothing very provocative about casting an actor who is a woman; in fact it makes sense.

In an ideal world roles would go to the best person for the job, irrespective of gender or sexuality. That requires an acting pool that reflects the sex and gender diversity evident out in the “real world” and so would include some kind of critical mass of actors who were trans and actors who were intersex for example.

Shifting gender norms

But does it work to shore up gender norms – or reproduce normative gender – in its portrayal of gender difference? Perhaps not when one considers that the role requires, in fact demands, Marais undertake a series of gender illusions in order to portray Richard, Carol and Carlotta.

Lang has described the work as having a “twist worthy of Shakespeare”. A woman plays a boy who becomes a transsexual and then a woman who performs on a stage with transsexuals and drag artists (who are played by contemporary Sydney drag artists).

Eamon Farren as Ava and Jessica Marais as Carlotta. Simon Cardwell, ABC

At the end of the day Carol Byron/Carlotta sought recognition as a woman, the kind of recognition that speaks quite literally to Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that one is not born a woman but becomes one. Of course it wasn’t just mainstream society that has historically taken issue with such demands, radical feminists have been fierce contestants of transwomen’s claims to womanhood.

Popular culture provides a barometer through which to gauge the successes of social movements.

Eamon Farren as Ava, Jessica Marais as Carlotta and Andrew Lees as Peggy. ABC

The world of entertainment provides a vehicle for bringing all sorts of trangressive phenomenon into visibility. At the same time it provides a safe context for those swimming in the mainstream to explore their curiosities, and indulge their fantasies at arms length thus containing their fears.

Among Carlotta’s list of groundbreaking achievements is her casting as a transwoman in the popular Australian “adult” soap opera Number 96, back in the 1970s.

For those who preferred to walk a little closer to the wild side of Sydney’s bohemian enclaves during the 1960s and 1970s, Les Girls provided well-heeled hetero couples an opportunity to consume gender variance at relatively close distance. The venue and its stars were popular precisely because of their shock value and transgressive nature.

The fact that sex- and gender-diverse people are increasingly visible in popular culture and present in the public imagination is due in no small part to pioneering figures such as Carlotta who broke new ground through refusing to apologise for their particular difference.

Carlotta is a pioneer, an elder, and an ambassador for sex and gender diversity in Australia. It is thanks to Carlotta that we are able to have some of the kinds of conversations about gender that we have today.