In award-winning movies about transgender people, almost all they do is suffer.
In Boys Don’t Cry, Brandon Teena is shot and stabbed—as he was in real life. In Dallas Buyers Club, Jared Leto’s Rayon, a sex worker, dies of AIDS. The Danish Girl tells the story of painter Lili Elbe, who died from complications of sex-reassignment surgery in 1931. And in A Fantastic Woman, the fictional Marina is repeatedly attacked verbally—and ultimately physically—by her dead boyfriend’s transphobic family members.
So, when is Hollywood finally going to tell—and reward—different kinds of transgender stories? That’s a question worth asking as the controversial Girl, a Belgian film about a young transgender ballerina, heads to this Sunday’s Golden Globes, where it is competing for Best Foreign Language Film.
Transgender critics largely lambasted the film and yet it received raves from the trades, vaulting it into foreign films contention at the height of awards season. Director Lukas Dhont and dancer Nora Monsecour—on whose experience the movie was based—both responded to critiques of Girl, but ultimately the film was not short-listed for an Oscar.
If you know how the movie ends—and read no further if you don’t want to know yet—it’s easy to see why it has generated such a strong reaction. Girl tells the story of a 15-year-old transgender ballet student named Lara who ultimately—one last spoiler alert—cuts off her genitals due to frustration with the pace of her transition.
Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, critic Oliver Whitney dubbed it “trans trauma porn” and “the most dangerous movie about a trans character in years,” criticizing especially the camera’s focus on Lara’s crotch in “multiple full-frontal nude shots.”
“That Girl has been celebrated without commentary from trans critics until now should be a wake-up call to allies in the industry,” Whitney concluded. “If trans people and informed allies had been working on festival staffs and at distribution companies and writing for major publications, Girl wouldn’t have made it this far into the awards conversation.”
The Daily Beast asked Netflix, which acquired the North American rights to the film, for a digital screener and did not receive one. Writing for Slash Film, critic Danielle Solzman drew attention to the challenges facing transgender critics who wanted to preview the film, writing that “by screening the film in select cities and not sending out awards screeners” many of the critics who “should have something to say about [Girl]” are not getting the chance to do so before it potentially wins a prestigious award.
And so we enter yet another awards season where a film about transgender trauma—lauded by cisgender critics—stands to take home a trophy. As a transgender woman who has almost never seen a happy story about someone like me on the big screen, I admit that I care less about whether or not these movies are well made and sharply written—and more about their cumulative effects on my community.
In other words, I’m not so much frustrated with any individual film—even one like Girl that so many of my trusted peers have criticized— as I am with the absolute absence of a landmark film about transgender joy. (I adored Daniela Vega’s turn in A Fantastic Woman, for example, but it left me wanting to see the actress in a role where she didn’t have to endure so much simulated pain, like having her face wrapped in tape.)
We are, of course, a community acquainted with struggle. Transgender people are all too often made the victims of horrific violence. We are disproportionately diagnosed with HIV and engage in sex work for survival. And we do often have pained relationships with our own bodies, thanks to the effects of gender dysphoria. From the outside looking in, these might seem to be the defining features of our existence.
But they’re not. There are plenty of transgender people today whose lives look nothing like the tragic stories we’ve seen onscreen—and, more importantly, even those who do experience trauma should not be so repeatedly reduced to it.
A tear-jerking film here and there about transgender pain can be helpful—A Fantastic Woman reportedly had a powerful impact on the fight for transgender rights in Chile, for one—but two decades’ worth of them sends a sour message to our community: The only thing people want to know about us is how much we hurt.
Meanwhile, we’re largely left without media that reflects the beauty in our lives. We have to go hunting for the diamonds in the rough. For stories about transgender love, I have to turn to small-scale productions like the web series Her Story. My favorite story about transgender friendship—another web series called the T—was filmed on $20,000 that was raised through Kickstarter.
In my opinion, the only higher-profile projects that have captured the giddiness that transgender people often feel even in the face of dire circumstances are Sean Baker’s low-budget 2015 film Tangerine and the new FX series Pose, which somehow manages to show all of the bad—the violence, the HIV diagnoses, the gender dysphoria—without losing sight of the good and the hopeful. There are already strong, if underfunded, examples of what it looks like to depict a fuller range of transgender experience.
But Hollywood, slow-changing beast that it is, has yet to get the memo, choosing instead to maintain its narrow focus on the painful side of our lives. That is, of course, not unusual treatment for any marginalized group: Specific kinds of movies about black suffering, for example, have tended to attract Oscar attention, as writer Xavier Harding recently noted for Mic—mostly historical dramas about slavery and racism.
There’s a lesson to be learned, though, from the commercial and critical success of films like Crazy Rich Asians and Love, Simon and Black Panther: There’s a real hunger for joyful, exuberant stories about marginalized groups. All three of those movies were a refreshing break from the typical template for a movie about minority experiences—and all were well-received not just by the public, but by members of the marginalized groups themselves. It was almost as if there were entire audiences out there going ignored by Hollywood who would turn out in droves if only someone paid attention.
And that’s the real problem with a film like Girl adding to the small heap of movies about transgender people who endure unspeakable things: they’re not really for us; they are for people who see us as pitiable figures rather than fully-fleshed-out human beings. Nearly 20 years after Boys Don’t Cry, the landscape has barely nudged. Hollywood rewards the films that showcase our suffering.
I hope that 20 years from now, there will be an emerging library of transgender rom-coms and buddy movies and even sports films to choose from. Anyone who knows our community knows that our lives run so much deeper than the sadness we experience. There are so many wonderful stories going untold right now, pushed to the side in favor of the sort that are more likely to win awards. It’s time to start telling them.