Making Movies With Transgender Protagonists Is Not, On Its Own, Progress.
In the last week, two new films with transgender protagonists were announced. The reception of both films by the transgender community has been predictably frosty with the same accusations leveled against these films as have been against other movies with transgender main characters.
One movie called “Re Assignment” (which had previously operated under the title ‘Tomboy’…no, seriously) follows the story of an assassin who, during the events of the movie, transitions from male to female.
According to IMDB, the catalyst for the movie’s plot is an unwanted gender reassignment surgery performed by Sigourney Weaver on the main character, Frank Kitchen (played by Michele Rodriguez). Frank then begins a bloody quest for revenge as anybody who is unwillingly placed into a gender not-of-their-own probably would. Ironically, it’s an unintended detail that the transgender community can sympathize with.
The other film, this one by Mark Ruffalo is the story of a transgender sex worker named “Freda” in a new movie starring Matt Bomer titled ‘Anything’.
It would be easy for this author to pick apart the details of both films and hold each up for their portrayal of stereotypical trans people doing stereotypically trans-y things, but the transgender community has already scoped out both films and is doing a marvelous job of sniping those details without my help.
Instead, I’ll focus on a different aspect that has become commonplace not just in support of these two films, but has also been used in other movies in recent memory; the assertion that movies like this are great progressive achievements.
In case anyone is still wondering, no. Neither of these films will be masterpieces in progressive ideology despite the fact that they will likely be hailed that way upon their release. In the past, we have seen movies like “The Danish Girl” be praised tremendously for their ‘progressive’ portrayals of transgender main characters.
“I hope ‘The Danish Girl’ makes trans lives better” star of The Danish Girl, Eddie Redmayne said of his movie. It’s a beautiful sentiment to hold that you may help someone through your art, and in some ways “The Danish Girl” did break some boundaries in film. But it wasn’t as dramatic a breakthrough as it could have been.
It’s true that the stories of transgender people have been virtually ignored entirely up until a few years ago, and it’s true that it’s a bold first step for Hollywood to decide that there’s a safe market for telling these stories. But like any art form that targets a specific group of people and intends to tell their stories through an artistic medium, sometimes it’s hard to tell when, if, and how art should imitate life.
Oftentimes, movies like “The Danish Girl” are less ‘bold statements’ and more ‘cheap opportunism’. The Danish Girl had hit theaters in October of 2015, only 7 months after Caitlyn Jenner came out of the closet and lit headlines ablaze with transgender visibility. What’s marketable for Hollywood are in many cases stories that make use of something topical. It’s no surprise that Hollywood scriptwriters would want to tap into something new and interesting in order to fill theater seats.
Hollywood has an obvious incentive to tell these stories, but even with well intentioned actors like Eddie Redmaye, it can also be exploitative if artists aren’t careful. The trouble is that if you want to make art that truly imitates life, then you have to do it in such a way that it actually imitates something real.
One criticism being used against movies like this is that they opt not to use real transgender actors and actresses, likely because the names of transgender performers aren’t as well known and bring far less star power than a Jeffrey Tambor or a Jared Leto would. This is where the whole ‘art imitating life’ thing goes wrong first.
In the old days of film, it would have been necessary perhaps for a movie to feature a character of color. Social stigmas in the past gave rise to ugly gimmicks like ‘black face’ where better known white actors would play black characters for some of the same reasons that transgender performers aren’t used today. It’s true that trans performers aren’t blackballed the way that black performers were during the days of blackface, the absence of trans performers creates the same effect.
More recently, there has been controversy over the use of Tilda Swinton in the new Dr. Strange film coming out soon by Marvel studios. To the confusion of many, Swinton was cast to play an Asian man. Can Swinton pull off the role? Probably, but it speaks more to Swinton’s depth as an actress than it does her experiential suitability for such a role. And even with her capability in acting, it’s still a bit of a distraction.
This particular wall is finally being breached by some talented actors and actresses who have managed to make names for themselves in entertainment. For example, Laverne Cox, of ‘Orange Is The New Black’ fame will be starring as the ‘sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania’, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, in the upcoming TV performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Her performance is sure to be a much more groundbreaking event for the transgender community than Bomer or Rodriguez’ characters will.
It’s easy to dismiss the concerns of the trans community as idle lip-quivering at a problem that doesn’t really exist. Yes, there are still starving kids in Africa, and yes, there are a million other problems in the world that are subjectively more important than the plight of transgender stories being told in TV shows and movies. But society sees us through the stories that Hollywood tells. It is because of this impact that producers should at least try to make movies as authentic as possible by consulting transgender writers and using transgender actors whenever possible.
It’s Hollywood’s prerogative to do whatever they think is best for their industry. The trans community doesn’t get to have permission granting authority over movies that are made, or how they are made, but if Hollyood wants to pay homage to the lives of trans people, production teams need to refocus, spend less time on the window-dressing “progressive tour de force” and more time studying people…real people.