Fifty seven streaming services and nothing on.
I know, that’s not quite fair. One way or another almost every film ever spliced together is available somewhere, and there’s more every day. But as I aimlessly scrolled through the offerings of Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and, yes, even Tubi the other night, I just wasn’t finding anything that clicked.
I wanted to watch a story about someone like me.
Now, as we all know, it’s important to be specific with wishes. Not just any transgender tale would do. I wanted to see the kind of big, cheesy spectacle I so loved growing up — the big budget pulp stuff like Indiana Jones and Godzilla — but with a trans person in the story.
The apps weren’t much help. Most of the offerings felt like the greatest hits of a boomer’s VHS collection, heavy on the John Candy and Steve Martin. Somehow the constant sniping and yelling of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles isn’t quite so funny when our media landscape is still peppered with a surefit of grumpy cishet men. I compromised with Birds of Prey again for some comfort food — mmm, breakfast sandwich — but the thought kept picking at my brain. Is it really that hard to put trans or otherwise queer people into popcorn-pushing flicks?
It seems the answer is “yes.” Not for any logistical reason. There are plenty of trans, nonbinary, and queer filmmakers, actors, and other people working even now. It’s that Hollywood is still pandering to “Middle America” the way everyone else is, the same way the middle class needs to be stroked and petted and courted by politicians.
This is why recognizing that — shock — gay people exist has been treated as a major breakthrough in movies like Avengers: Endgame and Onward. And such pandering gets praised, as much as a dehydrated person revels at a drop of water touching their tongue. If I want something more than a passing reference, it’s off to the Damn These Heels film festival or dramas that seem fixated on either coming out or dying. Meanwhile, directors and execs mumble about how recognizing a queer character would break the flow of the movie or some shit.
Now, if you haven’t already, I expect that you’re going to say “But Riley, what about The Matrix?” Hoo-ray, we get one, a tale so ensconced in bullets and rubber that honestly I did not track the trans metaphor at all until someone else mentioned it to me. (If I’m honest, Little Shop of Horrors still feels like more of a trans fable to me.) That’s not to take away from what the Wachowskis made! It’s just that The Matrix isn’t really what I’m talking about, and, even if it was, one is hardly enough.
I’m not asking for more stories about transition — though if a flick got the comedic curiosity of trans body changes in the same way as This is 40 or Trainwreck, that might not be the worst thing. What I mean is that I want trans characters to be important to the story and part of whatever world is being created, to treat us as part of the story in a way that isn’t just a fixation on our pain. I want to know there are adventures for us, too. Comedy, sci-fi, action, whatever it is, I want more than the same cishet story run around one more time through the blender. Not to mention that a movie with a transgender werewolf would be amazing.
Of course there are more immediate concerns for our health, our safety, our rights. But I think our invisibility on the broader media landscape is part of the broader problem. We’re seen as fringe partly because you can only find us in an arthouse, and even then we’re often played by cis actors. Movies are fantasy, but they are shared fantasies, and perpetually excluding trans people from stories because Missouri’s District 4 went to Trump isn’t going to help us gain acceptance any faster.
It’s difficult not to think of my younger self, endlessly watching whatever WPIX 11 played each weekend. Back then, through my bedroom 10" screen, I came to love movies. The ‘Burbs, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Batteries Not Included, Predator II, JAWS III, Batman, RoboCop, Big Trouble in Little China, and on and on. What if I saw characters — or even a character — in any of those that spoke to the person I’d become, that offered an alternative to the same cishet messages and icons I saw over and over again? I can’t say what would have happened, but it makes me by turns sad and angry that we’re not doing any better in 2020.
Movies aren’t real. They’re often fantastic and absurd, imagining what life would be like “if only x.” And yet we can’t seem to imagine a world in which trans people are part of life, part of society. That we have lovers and friends and neighbors and acquaintances, feelings and thoughts and drives that mesh with the rest of the world at all. Perhaps the cis imagination is too tightly bound, and that’s sad for us all.