Recently, Time magazine published their annual list of 100 influential people, and there are quite a few reasons to celebrate, and a number of reasons not to. First of all, the theatre community has a few things to celebrate: Diane Paulus, the Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theatre and director of, most recently, the revivals of Hair, Porgy and Bess, and Pippin. She and her company have enjoyed immense success, thus her inclusion in the list of honorees. Serbian-American performance artist Marina Abramovic also made the list, having had a number of recent exhibitions and a high-profile collaboration with Lady Gaga.
In addition, many fellow artists and activists made it on the list, many representing movements that have not had the mainstream media attention that they deserve. The most personal example for me is of Erwiana Sulistanyingsih, the Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong who was brutally beaten and sent back to her homeland without pay or reparations. The advocacy organization I worked for last summer, the Mission for Migrant Workers in HK, took her case on and her case became a rallying cry for a reform of HK’s Foreign Domestic Helper laws, which leave foreign women vulnerable to abuse. Time featured a number of women activists in the US and abroad, making for a diverse list, both in terms of gender and ethnicity.
However, where the list fell short was in gender identity. Laverne Cox, a trans-woman a featured actor on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, was unaccountably snubbed from the list. Time had a public voting session, which the editors made clear was not going to have official sway on the final list, and Cox was voted to be included in the list with an overwhelming majority, beating many other stars including Justin Bieber. Not only was the public overwhelmingly in favor of her being included in the list, but she received one of the top total vote counts! Laverne Cox has been the definition of influential this year; her appearance on an extremely successful series has rocket trans issues into the public spotlight, and has sparked a large conversation about the experience of trans women of color in the US. And in terms of representation, which has been an ongoing conversation in the arts this year, she is a trans woman of color, not playing a sassy sex worker, who has a fully fleshed out story line where we get to peek in to her family life. When other films and shows are saying that it is too hard to find actual trans people to cast, Laverne Cox is proving them wrong be being amazing in her role in OITNB.
Cox’s exclusion from the list confuses me and feels deliberate, especially in light of how many other historically oppressed voices were included. Time stated that there were 41 women included in the list, a record. But that doesn’t mean that we can let Time off the hook for representation in other fields. Her inclusion should have been a no brainer, especially because a few other of the actors included seemed to be simply because their career’s were doing well, and not actually influencing anything on a larger scale. But Laverne Cox has been handling the situation with grace and understanding that at least people are talking about this important issue, saying on twitter, “I am deeply moved by your outpouring of unwavering love & support. This feels like the change we need 2 c”.