Letting boys be boys: Trans misrepresentation in 3 Generations
I watched and am about to discuss a mediocre coming-of-age transgender male dramedy that nobody saw so you don’t have to: Gaby Dellal’s 3 Generations.
Let’s get a couple things out in the open beforehand. First, I am a cis queer white male. I do not identify as trans and as a result have no authority to speak on what is or is not valid as a trans experience. I have been culturally conditioned to be transphobic and, despite my best efforts, will likely falter in one manner or another in my engagement with transgender representation. That said, I think that while this movie is worth critiquing, it isn’t something that any trans guy should be subjected to. Trans male representation is so scarce to begin with and 3 Generations, good intentions aside, doesn’t add much to the canon with its reductive melodrama and paper-thin characterization. So I’d like to be here to wade through the trash in your stead.
Second, 3 Generations was widely and justifiably criticized for casting a cis woman, Elle Fanning, as the trans male lead protagonist Ray. The director cited as reason that Ray still looks like a cis girl because he is pre-transition. What that means for Ray, whether pre-testosterone, pre-top surgery, pre-bottom surgery, and how the film doesn’t get into that, is a problem in itself, but more to the point pre-transition transgender male teens exist. What’s more, pre-transition transgender male teen actors exist. The director said that the decision was made because they needed guaranteed stars for a small budget production like this, but that’s ignoring the buzz that a breakout trans star would cause. (Or not cause, it’s still the right thing to do and a risk worth taking.) Even if you kept the entire rest of the movie as is, I think trans communities would have rallied for 3 Generations a lot more. Because even if the content of the film rightly stands to face harsh critique, at least we know on a production level that their hearts were in the right place. Because at least in casting they would have had genuine trans representation.
As it stands, it was a mediocre movie that nobody saw and is now already mostly forgotten. I do believe that the filmmakers had good intentions in mind (though their refusal to listen to casting criticisms is infuriating), and in fact I would expect at least a handful of transgender teen boys to watch this and feel validated. (Certainly more than the only other young transguy film I can think of, the brutal PSA announcement Boys Don’t Cry.) But praising such a dubiously progressive movie just because it could have been worse and just because it is one of the very slim offerings in trans cinema, that doesn’t mean it can get away with what it does. 3 Generations is an unsubtle coming-of-age film that tries to bring forward a message of wholesomeness and acceptance, but in getting there it manages to perpetuate a lot of deeply problematic gender and identity politics.
3 Generations tried to market itself with the most fresh and hip story, that of the trans teen character Ray. The whole movie revolves around Ray’s journey toward getting on testosterone. To the film’s credit, it is nice to see the coming out process circumvented in lieu of another stage in a trans guy’s life. But 3 Generations undercuts Ray’s central role by making it mostly about the mother Maggie’s (Naomi Watts) plight. Maggie is trying to accept Ray’s identity, and for the most part is supportive. She corrects those who misgender him and seems more determined than not to sign off on Ray’s hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Though she also keeps slipping up with pronouns and consistently expresses fear of Ray detransitioning, which is why she ultimately wavers on signing off on HRT.
Conflict comes when Maggie discovers that in order to get the hormones, they need the father, Craig (Tate Donovan) to sign the forms as well. This creates some tension, as the mother hasn’t seen the father in years due to some as-yet unstated conflict which ended their relationship. The central conflict then becomes about Maggie trying to get Craig to sign off on the forms as well as reconcile her own reservations about HRT. Which communicates effectively that 3 Generations is a movie that wants you to think it’s about a trans guy, when it is actually about the family of trans guys. (A stance also taken by this review for the Wrap.) This is further communicated through several pedantic scenes in which the characters go over what being transgender means. The first scene, a doctor’s wooden speech explaining what testosterone does to the body, feels like it expects you to be taking notes. A couple scenes later, still early in the film, we have the lesbian grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon) pointedly asking the mother why Ray isn’t just a lesbian, ostensibly a question that will be on the minds of a lot of cis people who don’t know a whole lot about trans identity.
Which just pushes the point home more: This movie isn’t made for trans men. A movie about accepting a trans teen for parents isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but when a film is marketed with trans issues at the forefront, trans audiences need to be considered. 3 Generations insists instead on the cis heteronormativity of its audience.
This is further carried home by Ray’s characterization, or the broad transmen tropes mashed together into something resembling a character. It’s as if the screenwriter watched a handful of transition videos on YouTube and called it a day. Embracing a skaterpunk aesthetic, Ray is seen hanging with friends at the skate park, lifting weights on the roof of his apartment building, recording videos of himself describing the way he wants his body to look, mixing hip-hop, and, most importantly, lusting after a girl. This last bothered me the most, as it follows a problematic pattern I’ve often seen in trans guy narratives: The idea that being a trans guy necessarily leads to being heterosexual. That heterosexuality is a signifier of being a trans guy. That by being heterosexual, Ray is somehow more valid as a boy.
Anyway, every one of the habits and traits that Ray displays could have been foundations on which to characterize him, but instead they’re all used as convenient masculine signifiers. Again, I’m sure some folks can see themselves in Ray, and teen trans guys do tend to swing far into the heteronormative, hegemonic, performative type of masculinity. But if we had greater representation, mass audiences would be better able to understand how little these signifiers actually mean when it comes to how Ray is characterized. They bring together a thin sketch at best, but don’t combine into a convincing personality.
The story circumvents Ray in order for the parents to talk about him instead, and the scenes in which the filmmakers do attempt to characterize him only do so in broad strokes. The cinematography also keeps its distance from Ray. Sure, the camera might fixate on his face in many scenes, as if to highlight the dichotomy between his “feminine” features and his desired masculinity, but we rarely see the story from Ray’s perspective in the way scenes are shot. The narration, which we are to suppose is the soundtrack to his body vlogs/music videos that intersperse the film, are meant to place the audience in his head, but these monologues are again extremely broad. For the most part they discuss body dysphoria and the resulting ennui. An important topic to talk about, certainly, but again it assumes its cis, hetero audience. We’re getting an unessential intro that says more about the assumptions of the filmmakers and about the lack of knowledge of the audience than it does about the character.
Moving beyond the words that carry these Ray-specific scenes, Ray’s body is always put on display in this distant, anthropological manner. Of course there’s a mirror scene. Not as explicit as “the tuck” scene in The Danish Girl, but another case of filmmakers emphasizing the bodies of their trans characters over their, well, actual character. This is one of the first scenes we see of Ray, far before we learn the little we do discover about him throughout the film. It’s a depersonalizing context. Invasive, even. Scenes like this can and should be shown, but through the proper lens. We aren’t getting to know Ray when we see him taking off his ace bandage binding and looking forlornly in the mirror (sidenote, if the mom is as supportive as the movie wants us to believe, shouldn’t he have an actual binder by now?). We are, instead, as a cis, heteronormative audience, getting the inside scoop on The Transgender Teen Boy Experience.
The film’s treatment of cis men is questionable at best, though it admittedly is too ambiguous on the matter to critique it too harshly. It is, however, still worth noting. By the end of the film, Maggie has reconciled with everybody and gotten over her transphobia and Craig agrees to sign the forms and is trying to get over his transphobia. Ray doesn’t really go through anything outside feeling bad about not being on testosterone and then getting happy when he does get to be on testosterone. Which, again, is further proof of Ray’s thin characterization.
The film ends with Ray requesting that he and his family get to know Craig and his family (his wife, their three kids, and his brother) better. There’s a sense here that Ray’s masculinity would otherwise be compromised without a father figure. Or rather, the reason that Ray wants the dad to be a part of his life is because his family is masculine-deficient. Which is something somebody could conceivably think, but again we don’t know enough about Ray to really follow a line of reasoning. The feeling instead is that the filmmakers believe masculinity is dependent on having cis male role models, or at least having a cis male presence in his life. Again, it is too ambiguous to be completely damning, but it felt odd and unconvincing as a conclusion.
At the end of the day, I’m unconvinced the filmmakers actually believe that Ray is male. That we should treat trans men with just as much nuance as cis men. This feeling stems in large part from the above outlined problems with Ray’s characterzation, or lack thereof. We likely get to know Ray so little precisely because the writers don’t know much about Ray either. They seem to consider Ray as some “other”, not fully cis male enough to portray as male, but not a woman either. The very title 3 Generations puts Ray in comparison with his mother and grandmother in an awkward way, the insinuated full title “3 Generations of Women: With A Twist!” Har har har. Plus, director Dellal has stated that Ray was supposed to present as male “in an ineffectual way“, which is all sorts of messed up for trans guys who might look like Ray already dealing with dysphoria to hear.
This comes across most tellingly in Elle Fanning’s performance. Like the many, many cis men who have played trans women in film, Fanning simply isn’t trans and won’t on a visceral level ever know what it’s like. It isn’t something that can be emulated. Like Tom Wilkinson in Normal (whose misguided take on trans women is outlined in Julia Serrano’s book Whipping Girl) or Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto (who modeled his portrayal of a trans woman on a drag queen), Fanning just won’t ever get it. It is no fault of cis people for not being able to understand trans experiences, but it is their duty to uplift trans folks, not steal away their limelight. I haven’t found much content where Fanning actually discusses her role as Ray, but the fact remains: She is Elle Fanning, cis actress first, and Ray second, and this comes through in the film.
3 Generations isn’t the worst movie in the world. It isn’t believable as a story, for sure. The dialogue is wooden (responding to his mom’s claim that he’s “just having a shitty day”, Ray actually yells “I’m having a shitty existence!”). The loosely defined mother/son relationship doesn’t make a ton of sense. If those scenes at the beginning establishing them as close are to be believed, then why does the mom have such trouble telling Ray about needing the father’s signature? The conflicts don’t add up either. Why would Maggie’s having an affair ten years ago with Craig’s brother have any bearing on whether or not Ray gets to be on testosterone? When, after that scene, Ray starts screaming “You ruined it!” over and over again at Maggie, I had very little clue why Ray would assume that everything was ruined. Especially because, a scene earlier, they had established Ray and Craig as developing a friendly relationship.
But whatever. It’s soap opera drama. Representation is good and all, and I do want to emphasize that I think some good could definitely come out of seeing this film. But if it had actually considered trans men more thoughtfully, had truly centered their experiences instead of keeping a bizarre, anthropological distance from trans experiences (while pretending to center them), it could have done so much more good. It could have been a good movie. A memorable one at least. Instead, it’s an insignificant footnote written by two cis women who didn’t have a whole lot of business assuming the plight of an identity they aren’t themselves a part of in the first place. Even in the empty wasteland that is trans men-centered narratives, 3 Generations reveals that just showing up isn’t enough.
(Article originally published on my blog.)