Paris Lees has mixed feelings about ‘The Crying Game’

Queer Icons

Queer Icons is BBC Radio 4’s celebration of LGBTQ culture. Guests on the station’s daily arts and culture programme Front Row choose queer artworks which are special to them.

Paris Lees is a journalist, presenter, and transgender rights activist.

A film that’s really special to me is ‘The Crying Game’, which is by Neil Jordan from 1992. And I first remember coming across it when I was at college and I had a friend who was transgender and she used to go on about this film because she was a hairdresser and she was mixed-race as well and she said “There’s a film with someone like me in it!” But I think it was probably the first time that I’d really seen a transgender person represented in Hollywood.

The film’s transgender lead, Dil, is played by Jaye Davidson and there was something about Dil that connected with me.

I’d say the story revolves around Dil. She’s the character who sticks in your mind, but it actually revolves around an IRA man played by Stephen Rea who makes a promise to somebody he’s befriended in quite strange circumstances, in a hostage situation. He makes a promise to look after this guy’s girlfriend and he ends up falling in love with her and finding out that she’s transgender in quite a spectacular fashion, shall we say. She does this big reveal and takes off her dressing gown and reveals that she has a penis dangling between her legs for all to see.

So it’s really problematic, looking back on it now. I love the film, but in terms of the trans-politics it’s really dated now. The idea that you would use somebody being trans as a plot twist feels a bit exploitative and there’s the fact that Stephen’s character throws up, he goes and vomits.

I find that really difficult to watch actually because there just weren’t any representations of transgender people. You could count them on one hand up until about five years ago and one of the only times that you’d ever see a transgender person is if we were the object of ridicule or pity or disgust.

Now when I was in a similar situation to Dil and I was dating people at that time of my life nobody ever vomited. I’ve known people to react badly in that situation, I’ve known people to become aggressive actually, but the majority of people have been quite relaxed when I’ve been in that situation.

And it’s a trope that we see again and again. There was something like that in Family Guy. There was a scene where a character was revealed to be trans and somebody vomits. We saw the same thing in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and it’s almost like trans women are disgusting, physically disgusting. And that’s a stain on the film as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t think it detracts from a great film and I think it’s of its time and obviously we’re all on a bit of a journey in terms of how we think about transgender people and how they’re represented on screen.

It was really great that this character was played by Jaye, a transgender actor, because I think Jaye is completely convincing in this role. I totally believe that at that time he could have been her, he could have been that character. And it just reminds me of so many friends that I’ve known over the years.

And when do we hear these people’s stories? When do we hear a working class, black, transgender woman’s story being told? And it is a shame that it was done in such a sensational way, but actually if you stay with the film it does have a heart and her character’s got some depth and you know she’s not just there to be exploited, and it turns out to be a very quirky, very unusual love story like… like… I just can’t think of anything else quite like it.

—Paris Lees

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