Notes in screenplays show that writers often have a good deal of contempt for the trans characters they create. With almost no exceptions–and this includes movies that won major awards such as The Danish Girl–trans characters are seen not as human beings struggling with an incredibly difficult existential dilemma, but as members of a freak show that can be used to entertain the ignorant and insensitive, which often includes those who write the screenplay.
I have reached a point where I don’t think that cisgender writers ought to create trans characters if those characters are more than briefly passing through a story.
I sometimes write fiction and have completed two novels and some short stories. As someone who knows a bit about writing, let me observe that because I am not African-American I would never feel competent to write about the inner lives of those who have lived that experience in a racist society such as ours. I’m not that arrogant.
Please boycott the movie “Anything.”
Hollywood keeps perpetuating the myth that transgender women are cisgender men in drag who look and act like someone’s hairy, straight husband on Halloween. This is a myth that can get us killed because straight men are often dangerous. We’re not.
At our holiday party a few months back, the staff and volunteers from the trans center and some sister organizations, their spouses, partners, dates, and kids took over one end of a large restaurant. There were over 30 in our party; most of the adults (and a couple of the kids and teens) were trans.
The other diners didn’t notice. We looked like an ordinary large holiday office party (in our case, it was a non-profit), which is exactly what we were.
One of our cisgender social workers brought her husband. She introduced me, a tastefully dressed older trans woman, to him. I smiled and said hello. He just stared at me with his mouth and eyes open.
I was not what he was expecting! I guess I didn’t look trans enough.
If you want to see an honest film about a trans woman, check out A Fantastic Woman.
“Jen Richards describes being told that she doesn’t look transgender enough to play a transgender person on film, even though she is in fact transgender.
“They said you don’t look trans enough,” my agent told me over the phone, “What the hell does that mean?”
I laughed. I was finally joining the club that included my friends Angelica Ross, Trace Lysette, Rain Valdez, Jamie Clayton, and Alexandra Grey.
“It means that they want the audience to know the character is trans just by looking at her,” I explained, “And in their mind that means a guy in a wig.”
Today I had a conversation about the film A Fantastic Woman with a cisgender friend. She said that she and another friend had seen it and the other friend didn’t find believable Marina’s behavior in the scene where she starts jumping on a car with Orlando’s family inside because up to that point Marina had been quite submissive to the cisgender majority.
Recently my psychologist observed of me: “In your soft way, you’re furious.”
When you are a trans woman in a society where most police departments don’t consider the murder of a trans woman worth spending more than a few minutes on before filing it away as unsolved–there was a real investigation in the recent gruesome case here only because the victim’s sister kept melting the phones of local police officials until they grudgingly started looking into her disappearance–where in 2018 medical providers and other professionals feel safe in sneering at you openly and misgendering you in front of others working with them, where you might find yourself on the receiving end of at least some nasty little smirk or comment–or something much, much worse–any time you get clocked, you learn to get quiet, to pretend not to hear the hateful words or the clearly intentional misgendering, to be secretive, and to avoid drawing attention to yourself by speaking up for rights that will most likely not be granted.
You learn your place.
But that constant drip, drip, drip of petty cruelties and little humiliations builds up an anger you try to pretend isn’t there. Eventually it may erupt and you may be startled by the sound of a deeply wounded woman venting her hurt and rage.
And that furious woman is you.
So I for one find completely believable the scene in A Fantastic Woman where Marina–who has been robbed of her beloved and everything she shared with him in their life together, has been slandered and humiliated and even assaulted merely for trying to mourn a man she deeply loved–finally erupts and starts jumping on the car with Orlando’s family inside and demanding the return of the dog he gave her.
I saw A Fantastic Woman yesterday. Even with the magical-realism bits here and there, it was the most realistic big-screen film about how most straight people treat us trans women that I have ever seen. Daniela Vega was so involved in creating the story–she was originally hired by the producers as a consultant on transgender culture–that a real transgender sensibility comes through.
The hateful things said to her and the brief scene where Orlando’s family physically attacks her even a cisgender person would register, but I picked up on a lot that would probably be lost on a non-trans person watching it.
I winced in sympathy with her fear at one point when a cop asked for her ID (cisgender people don’t know that cops not infrequently assault us) and when her employer, who didn’t seem to know she’s trans, was sniffing around in a way that would have scared anyone in stealth to death. I’m not sure that a cisgender person would know that Bad Things Happen When We Get Clocked which is why we are often extremely reluctant to share any information at all. It becomes a habit. In the film, Marina follows that pattern, which gets read by some cisgender characters in the film as an indication that she must be up to something criminal.
Unlike most American movies, A Fantastic Woman doesn’t have the built-in assumption that the audience is stupid and has to have everything spelled out. The film does end on a note of optimism that things are going to get better, but it’s a rough ride to get there.
I am very impressed!!!
A Fantastic Woman just won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film!!!!
“Hollywood has come under increasing criticism for celebrating trans stories played by non-trans actors, while failing to cast transgender actors — Hilary Swank (“Boys Don’t Cry”), Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”), Eddie Redmayne (“The Danish Girl”) and Felicity Huffman (“Transamerica”) have all garnered Oscar nominations for trans roles, with Swank and Leto winning.
Lelio said it was important to him to cast the part of Marina with a transgender actress. He initially started working with Vega as a consultant for the film but in the process of honing the script together, Lelio realized his adviser was his star.”
Nearly every film or television program ever made with a transgender character was written by clueless cisgender writers and the trans character performed by a clueless cisgender actor.
These are never realistic portrayals of what it is like to be one of us. This includes some films that won major awards. They always have at least a scene or two–if not the entire movie!–that make us cringe with how horribly wrong the people producing it got things and how much the film reinforces harmful stereotypes.
To say nothing of not even being allowed to have one of us on the screen. We aren’t supposed to speak for ourselves.
Joan Roughgarden, a biologist and trans woman, notes that twenty years ago when she transitioned, public forums in university settings about trans people were often dominated by cisgender mental health “professionals” who instructed the audience to disregard whatever the trans people willing to openly discuss their inner lives were saying. Obviously it couldn’t possibly be like that.
Imagine a white person being able to get away with telling an audience to pay no mind to what African Americans said about how it feels to live every day knowing that they were likely to encounter racism. Obviously it couldn’t really be like that.
This is what privilege looks like. You get to invalidate the inner lives of those who don’t have it.
I have high hopes for A Fantastic Woman. I haven’t been able to see it yet, but from the reviews it may be the first major film (there have been one or two art-house or internet-only shows) to realistically portray what the life of a transgender woman is like.
We may finally be allowed to tell our own stories. If you can’t tell your own stories, then others get to define who you are. Those others are often people who hold you in contempt.