1,000 Cranes 10,000 Thoughts: Trans Narrative in Film

Everyone wants to be seen. To have their existence acknowledged and accepted. Everyone desires to find themselves when they open a book, or watch a film, series, or play. For gender divergent people in general and transmasculine people specifically, seeing themselves in media is often fruitless. Transmasculine characters, if they are given the space or acknowledgement to exist at all, are almost always portrayed by cis-men or cis-women. Their stories, voices, and experiences are generalized to a palatable and inaccurate narrative to be consumed by cis-audiences. These representations create a destructive, damaging concept of what it is to be trans. This extends not only to the uneducated views of cis-people, but to the personal perceptions of trans people about themselves, their validity, and their experience. 

In Western culture, our society has structured itself around concepts of man and woman. This delineation defines an individual’s role in society; what they should like, do, be. How they should behave. What they should want. How they should look. This formation of a gender binary is so deeply ingrained that most Westerners cannot comprehend a society without this structure. Cis-gendered people – are comfortable with their assigned identities as a man, with XY chromosomes and a specific set of genitalia; or a woman with XX chromosomes and the corresponding genitalia. Comfort with this is fine, but this comfort has lead to the erasure and violent treatment of gender divergent people.    Presently, this issue is being waged for the acknowledgement – legally and personally – of transgender and nonbinary identities. It is not a new issue; after all, many of the activist leaders such as Martha P. Johnson, were what we now call transgender, gender non-conforming, or non-binary. FtM (female-to-male) individuals lead entire lives long before the 20th century without words for themselves except that they were men. It is only the freedom of media and social media that issues of gender identity have gained such traction. 

Media, however, cuts both ways in its usefulness to bringing attention to injustices. It also serves as an outlet for intentional misinformation or misrepresentation born of ignorance. In the case of gender divergent characters in film, television, and theatre this is both crude and rancorous. Characters, casting, and narratives are frequently written for transgender characters without regard to the reality of the individuals they affect. They are created for comic relief, a sense of tokenism, or a want for inclusivity but an unwillingness to fully educate one’s self. From this extends the practice that transgender characters are not written unless the crux of their existence is their gender identity. Transgender actors are rarely considered for transgender roles and more rarely for roles of characters who are not transgender. 

One of the earliest modern films to focus on a transgender character was Boys Don’t Cry released in 1999 and directed by Kimberly Pierce. At the time, transgender viewers released a collective cheer – at last, they thought, there was a step toward change, a turn in the tide. Two decades later and there has been minimal progress; particularly with the visibility of transmasculine narrative, and the many troubles of the film have been vociferously contested. It is still considered by some, to be a must-see for any young or questioning trans-identified person. Unfortunately, ‘good for its time’ is not an excuse to overlook the exploitative aspects of this film presently. 

“[…] wider acceptance that films like “Boys Don’t Cry” helped usher into Hollywood, but they are not wrong to demand more. To dismiss their concerns because their tactics are caustic would be a mistake.”

Jude Dry ; Trans Students Protest ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ on IndieWire

The issue with Boys Don’t Cry – beyond its casting of a cis-identified woman – is that it is very voyeuristic of the trans experience. Like most films, it is preoccupied with the physicality of a transman, despite not casting one. The character, Brandon Teena, was frequently shown to stare at himself in the mirror. While mirrors may be awash with symbolism, in the case of gender divergent people, they are far more frequently a source of anxiety not conducive to lengthy visual perusal. For many, myself included, engaging one’s reflection for an extended time results in little but disappointment. Every feature becomes a critique in how it does not look appropriate or ‘passable’ as we have been socialized to expect of binary gender. One cannot relay the depth of discomfort and dissocia engendered by a mirror for trans, nonconforming, or nonbinary people with the whimsical over-shoulder stare of a cis-actress.
In my first attempt to watch Boys Don’t Cry, I made it perhaps ten to fifteen minutes into the film as a casual viewer. The entire set-up is off-putting and vaguely nauseating; that this is the go-to recommendation for a transmasculine film is unacceptable. Largely because there is very little positive in Pierce’s telling. No matter how much struggle a person’s life has, or how horrible their end; there were happy moments and it is important that directors and writers do not erase these moments for the voyeurism of pain – and Boys Don’t Cry is little but voyeurism. In an article for .them, Oliver Whitney made the most clarifying statement of the violence depicted against Brandon Teena in Pierce’s film:

“[…] film’s final 45 minutes. The based-on-a-true-story ending isn’t unexpected; the issue is how Peirce depicts that violence, emphasizing the details of Brandon’s assault and death over his life before the days leading up to it. The film’s disturbing rape scene is made even more traumatic by Peirce’s choice to intercut it with the police interrogation of Brandon the following morning. We’re forced to watch two forms of assault on a trans person simultaneously: First, the horrifying (and gratuitously graphic) rape, and then Brandon’s forced recounting of it to a cop who denies his identity. The scenes where Brandon gets shot and stabbed, or is stripped and exposed by his eventual rapists and murderers, John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III), in Lana’s bathroom, are jarring and upsetting.”

1999 marked the first film which focused around a transman – or featured one. Since then, little has improved in representation or quality. In television, there are some strong examples of transmasculine characters, film has not fared so well. In theatre, few plays have been written with transmasculine characters, few have cast transmasculine actors; in this area it is a simple matter of there being such a tiny pool of content compared to the number of transmen engaged with performance art. 

Tatiana Maslany was cast as the trans character Tony Sawicki in Orphan Black  in 2013. Victoria Atkin was Jason Costello in Hollyoaks 2010 – 2011. Daniela Sea, a bisexual woman, as Max Sweeny in The L Word 2004 – 2009. Jordan Todosey as Adam in Degrassi – a series so lauded for its ‘queer frinedliness’ would not cast a trans teen. Zelda Williams as Drew Reeves in Dead of Summer 2016. Finally, Hannah Alligood was Frankie Fox in Better Things 2016. All of these are high-profile television series. All featured cis-women in the roles of trans-men, it is likely ctual trans-men were never considered. I find this limiting for the potential of a character and that of the actor. Viewers are given an oft shallow and limited view of the entire life experience of a trans person. 

Films since Boys Don’t Cry have cast Janet McTeer in Beyond Albert Nobbs 2012. Elle Fanning in 3 Generations 2015, and most recently Nicholas Alexander, a cis teenager, as Adam in Adam 2019.  Adam is also a topic of hot-debate at the moment because, the character himself is not trans. He is a cis-boy who pretends to be trans to keep the attentions of a girl who has mistaken him as trans. Some consider the film a problem because of how many trans teenagers and adults are abused and accused of ‘faking.’ 

Adam contributes to the idea of a phenomena of ‘trans-trenders’; people who allegedly pretend or fake being trans for alleged attention. It must be conceded that given how many people fetishize trans* folks, there will undoubtedly be those who do affect a state of trans-ness to attract this form of attention. This is not a common situation. These are not actions representative of people legitimately questioning their gender. On this topic, it should also be clarified that not everyone who at first thinks themselves trans will discover, on their journey, that they are trans. Some will identify as nonbinary, some only as gender non-conforming, some as gender fluid. Others will find that they are indeed cis-gender and unwilling or dissatisfied with the societal expectations of their assigned gender. Their experiences and journeys are not invalidated no matter their conclusion. 

Adam presents a complex conundrum in a film. In one sense, it could be looked at as an explanation made understandable to cis-gendered audiences. The character Adam undergoes research similar to that of a questioning trans teen. He engages this research to best impersonate a transman. This behavior, while painted as the innocent mooning of an adolescent is also predatory. His behavior is exploitative not only of the girl whose attention he seeks, but in the real dangers faced by countless trans teenagers every day. He and others can read about the fear of murder, homelessness, assault, sexual assault, public humiliation, and general dehumanization faced by transpeople every day – but they could never understand it. This film may have the potential to broach a narrative perspective that could be informative. However, it has come at a time when queer identified people face daily struggles to retain basic human rights. Adam will do more damage than good. It will join the ranks of singular incidences used by anti-trans and extremist groups to discredit and attack transgender people. This is not a film for queer people, it is not a film for trans people, it is not a film that will or does empower. It is only another example of how a cis-white-male can exploit marginalized people for his own benefit. 

There is an unfortunately accurate perception that transness is not marketable in a person. If a person is a transman they will not be castable as a cismale character or a transman. Trans-mens’ bodies do not look much like a cis-man’s. Occasionally we see these individuals who are able to afford HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and ‘top surgery’ – a mastectomy – and fit the mold for ‘male-ness’ in theatre, film, and television. These few individuals have a higher, but still not great, chance of finding work and being cast. The characters are there, they are being written; but they are not being cast and that is unacceptable. This becomes exploitation and tokenism; another “this series has a trans character, watch it, applaud me for it, but I cannot be bothered to include you in the benefits.” 

Not every film released erases transgender existence. Writers, directors, and producers do not universally deride, miscast, or exploit narratives. I am not claiming that every bit of media needs to include an obviously transgender person. What does need to happen is for the casting and narratives within these media to expand their perspective. Overwhelmingly our society consumes the literature of upper middle-class, cis-hetero white men. A mouthful, but no less true. Media does not reflect the vast spectrum of lived experience and it is a loss to storytelling and visual pleasure. On a less whimsical note, what we are exposed to influences our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. When those stories are overwhelmingly derogatory, dismissive, or negative – it affects how we see ourselves. If affects, as a society, our response to difference. It limits people just as it limits stories. 

“In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.” 

Ernst Fischer

Rotterdam is a play written in 2015 by Jon Brittain. It explores the life of a young woman and her partner who comes out to her as transgender. The two navigate his transition and her rediscovery of her own sexuality. Rotterdam premiered at Theatre503 in 2015 and transferred to Trafalgar Studios in 2016. While Brittain himself is not transgender, he remarked in an interview about Rotterdam that the themes within the play were long coming.

“It had been bubbling for a while. I had some friends who transitioned and I started thinking about the fact that I hadn’t heard many trans stories in popular culture. I think the stuff you end up writing is the stuff that has an emotional resonance with you.

Jon Brittain for What’s On Stage on Rotterdam

While the play was focused around transgender narrative and sexuality, the original cast were all cis-actors. This is, again, disappointing. The play itself was a step-forward according to The Independent in opening opportunity for more transgender plays to be taken to stage. However, in early 2020 we’ve seen little to no improvement in that visibility. Mainstream theatres are still not producing transgender content. They are still not casting trans actors. We often hear the litany that they ‘simply are not there.’ But they are. They work side jobs to pay bills and give up acting, directing, and writing, because their work goes unacknowledged and unseen. Their bodies do not ‘fit the type casting’ and their narratives do not fit heteronormative perspective. 

All of the best writing and best acting training or thoughtful discussions with transgender people will not make up for their lack of physical presence in media. 

“… there’s some significant media representation for LGB folks, but an argument could pretty easily be made that there’s not any positive representation for trans folks in film, certainly not outside niche indie and small international releases at least. Even the little that exists, like Tangerine and A Fantastic Woman, are flawed and arguably more trending towards neutrality than positive. Not to mention that transphobia is much more accepted in film than homophobia these days. I can’t go to the movies and watch a comedy movie without at least one transphobic joke where trans women or trans people in general are the punchline. And criticisms of that transphobia are quickly and sharply brushed aside. And then there’s the whole issue where no one’s willing to cast trans folks, no one’s willing to [hire] trans writers, no one’s listening to trans actors when they provide feedback on making their roles and dialogue better, etc. We’re deeply tokenized, used as [O]scar bait or punchlines, and that’s generally it.”

Anonymous participant in survey conducted by Carson Levy

This participant in the survey conducted by Levy puts into words the very frustration myself and other trans people experience when sitting through films. Beyond the political implications of this, beyond the lack of inclusivity, is the ridicule. Transphobic behavior enables transphobic behavior, when this occurs in film it validates transphobic people – it empowers them. An already marginalized group becomes more alienated. 

Shelly L. Craig and Lauren B. McInroy have conducted many studies about the effects of film representation on LGBTQ+ youth. They found that, overwhelmingly, seeing characters like themselves had positive effects. The issue is that, despite the leaps made in homosexual representation, little has progressed for transgender representation. Their studies were published in 2015 and 2016, and yet, in 2020 transphobia in the industry and in film is more accepted than criticized. Voices against such prejudice have had positive impact, but not to such an extent that trans narratives are allowed space. In 2017 Andre Cavalcante wrote that “film plays a large role in a cis-gendered audience’s ability to understand transgender people.” This is achieved predominately through those trans* texts which break into the mainstream industry. 

“Rothenberg (1990, p. 146–147) discussed the need for adolescents to turn “to creative work as a means of examining and resolving issues of identity.”

Effects of Trans* Representation in Film by Cisgender Actors

The trend of casting cis* actors as trans men has influenced not only the self-confidence of trans* folks but their standards for themselves and each other. We will inevitably attempt to mimic who whe admire. The bodies on television screens are tall, muscled, hairy, traditionally masculine and predominately white. What this has done to the trans community is to create an environment of transphobia and body policing. In an effort to be accepted and validated by society at large, a mentality to become as “cis” as possible has erupted. This is not universal, but it is common enough to be a problem in an already targeted group. 

Despite what may seem like an overwhelming lack in transgender presence in the industry, it is not hopeless. The actor Brian Michael Smith is a major face for transmen in film and television. He has spoken frankly and courageously on his struggles, triumphs, and experience. He advocates consistently for visibility. He has appeared as both transgender and non-transgender characters in series such as 9-1-1: Lonestar, Blue Bloods, and is a recurring character on Queen Sugar and The L Word: Generation Q in addition to others. Brian Michael Smith as appeared in interviews both printed and streamed concerning LGBT youth and queer representation. He teaches in youth filmmaking and leads activist groups for LGBT youth in film such as the Gear Up Program. What is most important to this thesis however, is that he exists as an example to other transgender people that success can be achieved.

Lex Horwitz is a more recent face for trans* activism in the industry. They model for transmasculine apparel such as binders, undergarments, and a face for prosthetics – items such as packers that mimic genitalia. More recently, they participated in the New York Fashion week with a queer fashion label and walked their designs down the runway, before the eyes of New Yorks industry leaders and fashionistas. Many of these pieces featured him bare-chested, in a display of physicality not often accessible to trans* folks. Lex is neither muscular or strictly masculine. Lex is not an actor but they are important to representing non-binary transmasculinity. Their voice is one other queer folks look as an example of success without possessing a cisnormative body. 

Jake Graf is another transgender activist who focuses writing, directing, and acting in short films that normalize queer experience. He is based in London and is recognized internationally for his acting, directing, and writing. Most impressive is the sheer scope of work Jake has involved himself in, and his platform is a large one. His voice is one the industry looks to. According to his website, Jake Graf is one of the UK’s “most visible trans men.” He has appeared on Lorraine, SKy News, Good Morning Britain, Channel 5 News, and London Tonight. His writing has featured in The Evening Standard, Cosmopolitan, GNI Magazine, BOYZ, and Gay Star News. He started with a background role in The Danish Girl and has since moved on to star in Colette directed by Wash Westmoreland, ITV’s Butterfly, and has moved on to development of his own feature film with MisFits Entertainment. Most telling to the power of Jake’s platform, and the importance of media in giving voice, presence, and safety to marginalized groups, is that through this, Jake was invited to speak as a panelist on trans* issues at The White House. 

It is easy to look at actors and celebrities, to see them as nothing more than entertainers, to say that they have ‘no right’ to bring politics into the industry – but has art not always been about politics? The greatest works came to be from criticisms or commentaries on society. Bertolt Brecht was driven to make his audience think, Nietzsche sought to question our perspective on life, and Machiavelli challenged hierarchical foundations with his humanist characters. Film and television have not escaped this propensity of theatre to exist in a sphere of political commentary, but in our modern age, mainstream film and television have become swamped in mundanity. Film should only entertain, but it should only entertain with conventional social values. This entertainment should be white, heternormative, and male focused. This entertainment should not challenge, because to challenge is seen as a departure from its purpose. Mindless entertainment has its place, but is that place justifiable or even acceptable when it comes at the cost of individual well-being – simply because that individual is a minority? 

“More than half of transgender male teens who participated in the survey reported attempting suicide in their lifetime, while 29.9 percent of transgender female teens said they attempted suicide. Among non-binary youth, 41.8 percent of respondents stated that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.”

Rokia Hassanien, HRC.org

Bibliography

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Dry, Jude. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ Protests: Why We Should Listen to Trans Activists Criticizing The Milestone Film – Editorial. IndieWire, 14 Dec. 2016, www.indiewire.com/2016/12/kimberly-peirce-boys-dont-cry-reed-transgender-1201757549/.

Graf, Jake. https://www.jakegraf.com/about

Hassanien, Rokia. Study Shows Shocking Rates of Attempted Suicide Among Trans Teens. Human Rights Campaign, 12 Sept. 2018, http://www.hrc.org/blog/new-study-reveals-shocking-rates-of-attempted-suicide-among-trans-adolescen.

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Kantor, Kevin. Non-Binary Actors and the Theatre Industry: An Interview with Kevin Kantor. LGBTQ Policy Journal, 22 May 2019, lgbtq.hkspublications.org/2019/05/22/non-binary-actors-and-the-theatre-industry-an-interview-with-kevin-kantor/?fbclid=IwAR1V9A4zlGUuyT3FE194Cw3AgWLoL4VSjQ6oqoD9jY8jiy4vGCEmm2oQCu0.

Kaufman, MJ. Don’t Call Me Ma’am: On the Politics of Trans Casting. Howl Round Sept. 29, 2013. 

Levy, Carson. Effects of Trans* Representation in Film by Cisgender Actors. Medium. 7 May 2018. Web Article. https://medium.com/@carsonlevy/effects-of-trans-representation-in-film-by-cisgender-actors-fca370fd5434

Villarreal, Daniel. These 10 Trans Male TV Characters Represent the Best (and Worst) of Queer TV Tropes. Hornet, 26 Mar. 2020, hornet.com/stories/10-trans-male-tv-characters-tropes/.

Whitney, Oliver. Boys Don’t Cry’ and Hollywood’s Ongoing Obsession With Trans Suffering. Them., 13 Dec. 2018, http://www.them.us/story/boys-dont-cry?utm_brand=them&utm_social-type=owned&utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&fbclid=IwAR3tquzs9I3BecM_XQ9MxdN_EzNit36uJUJTNrNqZAJp73CJQULir76VPVg.

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Brace. Dir. Jake Graf. Youtube 2014. Short Film.

Body. Dir. Nathan Cooper. Youtube 2019. Short Film.

Boy. Dir. Lucas Helth Postma. Perf. Laura Hancock, Christina Selden, Oliver Wollenberg, Pernille Dahl Nielsen, Susanne Solberg Hansen. Station Next. STAMMEN 2014. Youtube.

Boys Don’t Cry. Dir. Kimberly Pierce. Perf. Hilary Swank. Fox Searchlight Pictures 1999.

Dallas Buyers Club. Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée. Perf. Matthew McConaughey. Truth Entertainment, Voltage Pictures 2013.

Girl. Dir. Lukas Dhont. Perf. Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter, Katelijne Damen, Valentijn Dhaenens. Distributed by Netflix NA 2018.

Headspace. Dir. Jake Graf. Youtube 2019. Short film.

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The Danish Girl. Dir. Tom Hooper. Perf. Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander. Working Title 2015.

Hir. Taylor Mac. Dramatist’s Play Service 2016. Play.Rotterdam. John Brittain. Bloomsbury Publishing 2015. Play.