Rant & Rave

What Message Did The Tenant Really Send About Gender Identity and Mental Illness?

Did The Tenant unintentionally conflate transness and mental illness? Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy The Joyce Theater

Last week, Arthur Pita's much-anticipated The Tenant, featuring American Ballet Theatre principal James Whiteside, had its New York City premiere at The Joyce Theater.

Based on the novel by Roland Topor and the 1976 Roman Polanski film, The Tenant follows a man who moves into an apartment that's haunted by its previous occupant (Simone, played by ABT's Cassandra Trenary) who committed suicide. Throughout the show, the man—Trelkovsky, played by Whiteside—slowly transforms into Simone, eventually committing suicide himself.

But some found the show's depiction of a trans-femme character to be troubling. Whether the issues stem from the source material or the production's treatment of it, many thought the end result reinforced transphobic stereotypes about mental illness. We gathered some of the responses from the dance community:


One of our readers sent a Letter to the Editor:

Dear Dance Magazine,

I am writing to express my anger and disappointment at the transphobic and shockingly uneducated depiction of a trans femme character in Arthur Pita's The Tenant at The Joyce Theater this week.
In an era when information about how to appropriately and competently explore trans-related content abound, there is simply no excuse for this ignorant and harmful depiction.
The writing and performance of this role rely upon (and reinforce) harmful, outdated, and transphobic stereotypes.
While it's very disappointing that James Whiteside decided to proceed with this project, it is a reminder that being LG or B does not mean you understand or respect the T. As this case proves, being a cisgendered gay man does not automatically bestow any understanding of transgender issues.


Sincerely,
Ayden Halton
Brooklyn, NY

A review in Critical Dance called out The Tenant's troubling themes:

"However, the greater problem I have with The Tenant is the piece's manifestation of Trelkovsky's descent into madness. Either as a result of his ingrained mental illness, or of circumstances outside his control, he transforms himself into Choule – physically. He becomes a woman – and maybe had that propensity all along (though that's hardly clear). So is the message here that a man who dresses like a woman or "becomes" a woman does so as a result of mental illness (the program note described him as "pathologically" alienated) or of outside forces that compel him to do what he does? Does it matter? And is the further message that the transformation into a woman (including but beyond wearing woman's clothing) is the real horror story, or at the very least a component of it? Somehow I don't think that that's the takeaway that any of the artists involved in the piece intended to provide, but it's there." –Jerry Hochman

Did you see The Tenant? Let us know what you thought about its depiction of gender identity and mental illness in the comments.

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