A timely, important, and hugely engaging documentary, in which trans creatives chart and analyse the representation of trans lives on our screens.
When this documentary was announced in February as the centrepiece of the 2020 BFI Flare Film Festival (London’s LGBTQ+ fest), it felt timely. When that festival was cancelled due to Covid-19 and the film was only briefly on BFI Player, it felt like a loss. But now it appears on Netflix and is, sadly, even more timely – after JK Rowling saw fit to air her views about the trans community on her huge platform, both the US and UK governments sought to roll back trans rights, the Black Lives Matter protests have taken centre stage and we have witnessed the abuse received by model Munroe Bergdorf from a member of the UK House of Lords.
But as well as a piece of vital, moving activism, this is also a cinefile’s dream as it follows trans representation on screen from the silent era to the present day, through many lows but some more recent highs, all fronted by a host of smart, thoughtful and reflective interviewees.
We all know the arguments in favour of media representation – you have to see yourself to know yourself, and to know what you can and want to aspire to. But imagine if the only times you have seen versions of yourself on screen, it has bee for ridicule or disgust. And this film shows clearly how the screen representation of trans identities has affected both how trans people see themselves, but also how cis people view them and approach them.
Sam Feder’s engaging film demonstrates the toll that takes on so many lives and so many perceptions, but within a framework that allows us still to enjoy the memory of many ‘problematic’ pieces of art, while looking to a better world where, as with Nomi in Sense8, her character was not defined by her transness.
The film discusses the history of cross-dressing being included in film for laughs, but also the problems caused when cis actors play trans characters, reinforcing the idea that being trans is just a performance, highlighted when they turn up on the red carpet in their cis form. However well he might have acted, as Laverne Cox notes, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl was ‘performing transness, not performing the part’. It also tackles the lows (accusations against Jeffrey Tambor after his performance in Transparent) and the highs of Paris Is Burning and Pose, even when those shows were flawed.
The film is at times great fun, at times very moving as the trans interviewees discuss the rejections they have faced – from friends, family or partners – as well as the preoccupation with surgery and anatomy shown by the cis community and, in particular in this film, chat show hosts. It ends on an optimistic note – we see Oprah moving her stance from a few years previously. But we are also reminded that ‘the revolution isn’t over – it could change on a dime’.
As the film recognises, changing representation isn’t the goal, but it is a means to an end – and it can be used to better the lives of trans people off the screen. As Oscar-nominee Yance Ford says: “We cannot be a better society until we can see a better society.”