Gender inclusive casting

published on Jan 01, 2023

CATEGORIZED AS: theater | inclusivity

A starting point for conversations on how we can be more inclusive in our casting language for theater & film.

We've started doing more scripted shows at CATCh, and that's brought forward considerations about how we list auditions to be more inclusive of gender non-conforming actors (e.g., trans, non-binary, agender, and others). The key consideration for this post is the listing itself, rather than questions about casting, such as how to avoid gender biases when auditioning actors.

I went online and did some casual research. Most of what I found from theaters seemed to focus to trying to use gender-expansive language when referencing the actors. For example:

"Women and women-identifying actors"

Or, worse:

"Actors identifying as women, trans-women, and nonbinary"

Aside: People tend to over-think gender-expansive language. Simpler is better.

  1. "Women-identifying" is unnecessary: anyone who identifies as a woman is just... well, a woman.
  2. "Women and trans women" (no hyphen, please) is othering; trans women are women.
  3. "Women and non-binary" is horribly dismissive of non-binary people, who might be masc or fem, demi-masc or demi-fem, gender fluid, and more. Please stop assuming non-binary people are all feminine-presenting AFAB people.
  4. Trans people don't "identify" as trans; they just are trans by virtue of identifying as a gender different from their AGAB.

N.B.: Please never, ever use language such as FtM, MtF, natal sex, "born as a ____", etc. when referring to trans people (or, heaven forbid, "natural woman" or "natural man" when referring to cis people). Such language makes the transition the focal point of the person, when the identity should be the focal point. Really, you shouldn't be referring to how a trans person was born in 99.99% of situations anyhow; just use "trans man" or "trans woman". If you absolutely must for clarity (as I did in item 3 above), reference their assigned gender at birth: AFAB (assigned female at birth) or AMAB (assigned male at birth).

Just say "female presenting" or "feminine presenting".

Where these miss the mark is in focusing on the actor rather than the role.

Is it really important that the actor themself present a particular way? More often than not, it's the character that requires a particular presentation to the audience. It's the character that is a gay man (which could be played by actors with a range of genders). 

So why not use normal gender-inclusive language when referring to actors, and then describe what the role calls for?

  • Mark (gay man, 35-45)
  • Sarah (female presenting, any age)
  • Chuck (masculine, 20's)
  • Tracy (any gender, pregnant young adult)
  • Neighbor (ungendered)

Use the least specific description needed

As you're reading through the script and preparing to list the audition, consider whether the role really needs to be a man rather than "male presenting", or even "masculine".

Use terms such as "feminine", "masculine", "androdgynous", etc. for roles reflecting those traditional gender expectations.

Use "presenting" when the actual sex/gender of the character is less of a concern, but you want the character to... well, present a certain way. For example, if the character's experiences highlight societal concerns such as unwanted sexual advances at a bar, "feminine" or "female presenting" works just fine. 

There will be situations where the character is clearly cisgendered (that is, their AGAB matches their internal gender), such as a male character whose integral experiences in the story are clearly exclusive to those of a cis male. Or, more simply, a transphobic bigoted man.

Use in real life

I was helping Kevin prepare the audition listing for the play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. Most of the characters were shaped by their experience as students in a Catholic school which pushed "traditional Christian" gender roles and morays on them. Their reaction to those strictures as adults is integral to the story, so it's important that the characters are percieved to be cis by the audience.

Even so, using "presenting" rather than "cis" does not upset the narrative of the story.

Staying Open and Versatile

I often tell improv students that they need to hold scene ideas "in an open palm", meaning they should support the idea without holding on to it. That principle applies here: our understanding of gender, especially internal gender, is finally breaking out of traditional constraints. This means that the concepts around gender are just now being explored and gaining depth, and we should expect the language to change and evolve as well.

From an artistic standpoint, embracing this evolution creates opportunities for new and vibrant dynamics for and among your characters — and brings a more diverse set of actors to your auditions.

gender identity
gender expression

Commentary from the multiverseConsume at your own peril

Abigail Head

Improv nerd, geek girl. She/her.

Theater owner, actor & improviser, writer, filmmaker, minor league humorist, and generally-opinionated scuttlebug.

Lover of the em dash, proponent of the serial comma, and staunch defender of "literally" literally meaning "in the literal sense". 

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