Anyone who knows me knows that I love the musical “Rent.” I’m a musical-fan in general, but Rent is a standout for a number of reasons, not the least of which being its incredible score and vocal casting. There is simply too much talent in that cast to ignore.
Now, I will put out there that I have not seen the Broadway show, only the movie (for financial reasons, mainly), so any and all comments are directed at that version, but nonetheless, I have a problem. And it pains me to have a problem with Rent, because it has done such an amazing job showcasing the vibrancy and interconnectedness of individual lives, of embracing what the rest of the world might consider sinful bohemianism – drugs, stripping, the struggle with AIDS, being LGB, and most importantly, perhaps, the trans community—in a way that is both humanizing and entertaining.
I was especially taken in by Angel, the drag-dressing transwoman who falls in love with Collins, and eventually succumbs to AIDS and dies, but not without providing the inspiration and reminders of love that keep her group of friends together.
Rent doesn’t address the issue of Angel’s identity directly, but it is alluded to in artful ways, that reveal the cis world’s difficulty in understanding trans people and the multifarious ways they negotiate gender. Most telling is when Angel’s friend Mark stumbles over words when he delivers Angel’s eulogy, occasionally referring to her as a “him,” but then correcting himself. Angel is made complicated in the same way she is made human, by dressing primarily in outrageous drag, yet taking off her wig during support group sessions and while performing out on the street for spare change. She and Collins use the terms “king” and “queen” to gender themselves in the song, “I’ll Cover You,” yet other songs continuously refer to Angel with male pronouns.
This is where I start to have trouble with Rent.
I will admit that I didn’t catch this until just today, while I was cooking up a storm and playing the Rent soundtrack on my laptop, but I started hearing a lot of “him” and “his” and “he” in songs I know were speaking about Angel, and these were songs that were reverent and loving, not humorous ones like “La Vie Boheme,” (A and B) which poke fun at gender and sexuality by turning around negative or incorrectly applied words like “trisexual, faggot, or lezzie” to reclaim agency. No, these were songs like “Halloween,” where Mark wonders about the fate that led all his friends together:
“Why did Collins pick that phone booth back where Angel set up his drums?”
“His death is in vain.”
Now this is where I get confused. While Mark has set some precedent in the movie of being bad with gender pronouns, Roger has never had this problem. And perhaps most disconcertingly, Collins, mourning Angel’s death, says in the same song, only lines earlier,
“Can’t believe he’s [Angel] gone, can’t believe you’re going.”
Collins has always referred to Angel by her preferred gender, as in the song, “Today 4 U,” where, upon introducing Angel to his friends, says,
“And you should hear her beat” (referring to Angel’s rad drumming)
Collins is also her lover. Why in the world would he screw up Angel’s pronoun usage now, when he’d never done so earlier in the movie?
I have 3 potential theories here.
- Pronoun usage is inconsistent because of poor editing and oversight by Larson and his production crew. This seems highly unlikely, as there are hundreds of people who worked on this movie, and the Broadway show before this movie. At some point in the rigorous editing, rehearsing, and production process, someone would have noticed this. I’m 90% sure that this was not the problem, although Occam’s razor suggests it is.
- Each individual instance of incorrect reference has its own contextual reasoning behind it: Mark, who has had little interaction with trans people in general, makes pronoun mistakes out of discomfort with the contradicting language. He “knows” Angel as being male-bodied, and thus, often forgets to address her as a female. Roger, angry and upset, and Collins, distraught and mourning, make their respective pronoun mistakes in the song “Goodbye, Love” because of their emotional rawness, making the “details” of Angel’s gender less important. This seems nuanced enough to be unbelievable to me. Don’t get me wrong- Rent is a groundbreaking and deep movie, but it does not probe identity questions enough in the rest of the movie to assume so much nuance on this particular issue.
- I have interpreted Angel’s identity incorrectly, and ze actually considers zirself as genderqueer or something of that ilk, and has alerted zir friends in some heart-felt moment off-camera that ze doesn’t give a flip what pronoun they use to address zir. This does seem consistent with some of Angel’s behaviors, like taking off zir wig at the support group meeting, and playing drums dressed as a male. However, one may also note that Angel always carried zirself in a feminine way, never mixes male and female clothing, dances in a way that is considered predominantly feminine, and only dresses as a male in “stress situations” (homelessness, sickness in the hospital, and the support group), which indicates that zir priority remains performing female (if not identifying as such) in most situations. Even when Angel removes zir wig at the support group meeting, ze waves by curling her fingers in towards her palm, rather than with her whole hand, indicating that ze is still maintaining facets of female-ness, even when she is not dressed exclusively feminine. For these reasons, I can’t say the term genderqueer fits quite right, yet I’m not sure what might be better.
Regardless of which of these potential explanations are true (or if all of them are wrong), Angel’s character in general gives us a lot of questions to ponder about trans/genderqueer people. How much should one read into physical behavior in gendering a person? Should we, as observers with limited information on a given character, allow ourselves to gender that person at all? Is it safe to say that all of us understand gender and its manifestations differently? How does and how should that affect the way we view entertainment? How much can we assume about an author or director or producers intensions about gender when they are dealing with queer characters/subjects?
All of these questions blur the lines of agency- do characters have thoughts? Do actors form the way a character is interpreted (theirs or their co-workers)? Do writers occasionally place flaws like these in their work to provoke just such discussion and analysis of our modern conceptions of gender?
I wish- truly, madly, deeply- that I had the answer to any of these questions. But unfortunately I don’t. And perhaps that’s my real problem with Rent. There is no conclusive or succinct answer to these queries in the script, and I don’t know if that was intentional or not. I will probably never know. But as James Thurber once said, “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” Rent is just trying to remind me.