We’re More Than a Plot Device
By Jude Samson
As you may know cis-actor Matt Bomer has been tagged to play a trans person in an upcoming film by actor Mark Ruffalo. Additionally, Michelle Rodriguezmade a poor choice when she took on the role of a hit-man who is surgically altered to become female without their knowing it (and even the ‘alternate’ character name is simply – Tomboy) in the upcoming and already boycotted (Re)Assignment. Both of these films are new and not-yet released and both speak volumes about how Hollywood still sees us as just a plot device. I wanted to talk about some of the wonderful movies where we weren’t the butt-end of a joke, the villain, the lunatic, the deviant. While I found many great flicks that I will discuss at another time, the search brought to light something a bit more interesting.
“..TRANSGENDER, DRAG PERFORMERS, AND THE AGE-OLD PLOT DEVICE OF BODY SHIFTING ARE THREE ENTIRELY SEPARATE THINGS.”
Understanding that transgender, drag performers, and the age-old plot device of body shifting are three entirely separate things. While the lines can, indeed, blur depending on the individual, it is not appropriate to lump all three into a singular “trans” category. In researching the other article I found countless websites and lists dedicated to movies about “transgender” people or subject matter only to see film listings for Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Switch/Goodbye Charlie and others included in the list. Let’s take a moment to discuss each of these specifically so as to better understand why we shouldn’t be lumped in with what Hollywood thinks is a convenient entertainment twist.
The shtick of switching bodies is almost as old as Hollywood itself and they use it in two different ways. Freaky Friday (old – midway – new), Like Father Like Son, Change-Up, Switch (or its original Goodbye Charlie), Prelude to a Kiss and so many others. These all (and so many others) use the ploy that somehow a person enters the body of another person and typically it’s the opposite gender, although not always. Usually hi-jinks ensues, but occasionally you can find the body-swap in a drama. This does not mean the movie has anything to do with being transgender because the person inside the other body did not want to be there, they did not want to change their existing body from one gender to another, they did not experience dysphoria or anything else we experience. It’s merely a tool used to sell some tickets and tell a story. It does not equal being transgender and, therein should not be on a list of transgender films.
The second method of using this particular device is have the person purposefully take on the role of the opposite gender. You may think this would simply fall under the drag category and it may in some instances. However, I’m making a clear distinction here when we’re talking about Connie and Carla, Victor/Victoria, Just One of the Guys, Some Like it Hot, Nobody’s Perfect, and I’m even going to include Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire and – yes, even Yentl, in this category. These films are typically about people who need to accomplish some kind of goal and in order to achieve that goal they must “infiltrate” or pretend to be the opposite gender. Morality aside this, too, can lead to comedy gold (i.e. Mrs. Doubtfire) and poignant moments such as when Dustin Hoffman discusses why the role was so important to him. Overall, these are people who are happy being the gender in which they were assigned at birth (cis) and they’re happy with their existing sexuality whatever it may be. The infiltration into the other gender is not about any actual emotional or deep-seated need but, once again, acts as a vehicle in which to tell a story.
“WHILE YOU COULD BE TRANSGENDER AND A DRAG PERFORMER, IT’S NOT AUTOMATIC THAT JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE A DRAG PERFORMER YOU ARE THEREIN TRANSGENDER.”
Next we have the depictions of drag performers such as we see in Flawless, To Wong Foo, Torch Song Trilogy, and Rent (movie and Broadway) and of course the TV Show RuPaul’s Drag Race. These films are specifically about those who identify as drag kings/queens and have embraced being a performer. Drag is not all they are about, but it’s a very important factor to their lives. While the drag alternative identity can have a life of its own and is a vital part of a person’s life, they are not transgender. While you could be transgender and a drag performer, it’s not automatic that just because you’re a drag performer you are therein transgender. So, once again, none of these films listed thus far should be included on a list for transgender.
Let’s get down to what movies we should be including on such a list. Of course we all know Boys Don’t Cry, Dallas Buyers Club, Becoming Chaz, Transamerica, and The Danish Girl. Some others you may not realize should be included are Dog Day Afternoon, Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (although technically this could be in both categories), The World According to Garp, and even Wonder Boys. Notable television shows would include Transparent, I Am Jazz, Sens8, Orange is the New Black and Orphan Black (where Tatiana Maslany plays Tony who is a trans man). While this is truly not an inclusive list I selected the ones most likely known at the moment as a point to illustrate that they’re specifically about, by, or feature a transgender person or character. While some may take issue with certain aspects such as having Jared Leto play a trans woman instead of giving the part to an actual trans actress, the character remains as a trans woman regardless of who portrayed her. The same exact thing holds true for those disputing Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl.
The list for specifically “transgender” based/related/subject movies could become rather interesting and a lot longer than one may anticipate initially. It does not need to be misguidedly fluffed with other films that have nothing to do with us. The overall lumping of these movies all together indicates that we have a long way to go with the world understanding us. We can get angry, we can petition, we can boycott, but ultimately we need to educate. The Twitter incident between Sense8 trans actress Jamie Clayton and Matt Bomer in response to the upcoming film could have been handled better, but now that Bomer has unblocked Clayton maybe the two (and Ruffalo) could have a discussion and provide education about why we’re so upset when this happens.
“THE LEVEL OF DISGUST THAT SPEWS FROM THESE REMARKS IS ONE THING, BUT THE SHEER IGNORANCE IS ANOTHER AND IGNORANCE CAN BE DANGEROUS.”
Rodriguez, however made disturbing responses to TMZ in response to the out-cry regarding her film saying: “I remember a day when white people were playing black people. So it’s just about the evolution. Thank Kris Jenner [Rodriguez didn’t even know it’s Caitlyn she was referring to] for becoming who he became, and now you have a popular subject matter that nobody wanted to make a movie about and now everybody’s on it.” The level of disgust that spews from these remarks is one thing, but the sheer ignorance is another and ignorance can be dangerous.
We need Hollywood to start to open its eyes to see us as real people with real stories. Thankfully we have powerhouses like Lilly and Lana Wachowski who will hopefully continue to open doors in interesting ways, but it’s important for us, the fans, to provide information rather than only giving backlash. In the meantime, let’s help educate folks about the differences here and claim our own films and shows for ourselves.