Logan’s Trans March: A Look at 31 Trans-masc Films and Media
Note: this is a transfer over from a WordPress blog of mine, so apologies for any errors that come with. Originally written in March of 2019.
“I was a rather awkward child, I never felt like I belonged, and then one day I tried on my brother’s school uniform, and that was it. I knew I was home for the first time.”
- Colette, 2018
March 31st is the recognized day of Transgender Visibility, and this one is the first I’m able to celebrate as an out trans man. To commemorate this, I decided to look into myself in my favorite medium second to writing — film. I’ve heard up and down, left and right about movies and their depictions of trans women- I got thirty minutes into a hate-watch of “The Danish Girl” before rage quitting, so we’ll categorize my general knowledge there as “not great, mostly negative outlook”- but going into March, I realized I could count on one hand the number of movies I knew of that depicted men like me, regardless of quality. Thus, I compiled a list (that can be found for reference here) of 31 movies that in some way depicted trans men, from the early 20th century to now.
Qualifications for a movie to be on this list were that I had to a) be able to find it in some medium, be it DVD, online rental, or a book that the movie itself was originally based on, and b) the movie obviously had to include some depiction of transness, fictional or biographical. Many of these earlier movies are noted for having “trans depictions” while being movies about “women in suits”, so please keep that in mind for the first ten or so entries. I’ll tag any possible triggering content a movie might contain, but if you intend to watch any of these movies, I encourage looking them up on your own as well. A broad warning for spoilers for all of these movies as I intend to discuss them relatively in-depth.
Edit: if you don’t have the time for a full article but would like to get a general idea of these films, consider watching this video I compiled (link). Note that this is not endorsement of any of these films.
1. The Amazons (1917) dir. Joseph Kaufman
Warnings: mention of light transphobia within the article
For our first entry, “The Amazons” falls into the category of might’ve-been and who-knows. Released in 1917, the film has since become one of many lost, and very little information is available on it as a result. The plot, which was preserved in part by a magazine review, is that three girls, raised as boys without contact with cis men, eventually go out into the world and cause shenanigans. The Wikipedia stub for this movie does very little in describing any exact characteristics of any of the three siblings, though it notes by the end they all marry men as women. If anything, it feels like if the writer of “Sleepaway Camp” had (spoilers) decided to take the ‘made-trans-through-abusive-parental-figure-wanting-another-gender’ story twist and veered away from the horror movie idea.
On AllMovie.com, a shorter but slightly more relevant synopsis states that “Marguerite Clark plays Tommy, who decides at the end that she’d sooner be a female in love than a lonely “man-woman””, which, yeah, that probably sums up general attitudes towards ‘gender-deviancy’ in the 1910's.
Still, the existence of a film like this so far back is worthy of mention. Only a handful of images remain of the original 5 reels (and add to the fact that the director, Joseph Kaufman, died the year after the film’s release), I consider it a miracle that we know of “The Amazons” existence to begin with. Looking at what we know about it through the lens of the early 20th century, it seems perfectly on brand for that time period and understanding of gender. It’s hard to be harsh on lost history.
2. The Hoodlum (1919) dir. Sidney Franklin
Rating: 2 / 5
“The Hoodlum”, a movie now within the public domain and easily accessible on YouTube of all places, really probably shouldn’t be on this list. It’s not about transness in any meaningful way, but it was featured within in an information zine from the 80’s, and back then you really had to take what you could get. By 2019 standards, this is more of an “eat the rich” movie than it is a trans one.
Per the plot, it follows a spoiled rich girl named Amy, played very expressively by Mary Pickford, who goes from doting under her equally awful grandfather’s arm, to living in a slum with her father when he returns from a trip and intends to write a book about…something. It’s not exactly clear, but the short of it is he needs to live in New York slums, and Amy hates it for a while, but then eventually comes around and befriends the children of the neighborhood and the lady who lives with her family (nanny? dear friend? hard to say) who looks suspiciously like Broomhilde from “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”. Her grandfather comes back after a while, disguised as another old man to see what Amy is up to in the slums, and goes from disgust at her becoming a ‘hoodlum’ to “eh, alright” in about two scenes.
The scene that landed this movie in the transgender information zine was one near the end, where Amy has to break into her grandfather’s house with this other guy from the slums, and to do this she disguises herself as a man. It’s a very tiny portion of the film, and I think it’s inclusion on that zine is indicative of the confusion that continues to exist that transness = dressing up as the “other gender”.
Good movie? Eh. The plot is kind of hard to follow if you don’t have the Wikipedia summary open in another tab, and I don’t think my lack of experience in silent films was the problem. But the lead actress is clearly working her ass off, and I can’t not recommend the scene of her cat having “a fit”. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen, and I can’t be too hard on something made so early on in American filmmaking.
Good trans movie? Nope.
3. Almost a Lady (1926) dir. E. Mason Hopper
Rating: 3 / 5
I promise there are actual film reviews later on in this list — it’s by complete accident that two out of three of these first entries are essentially lost films, because nobody kept movies from the 20’s around I guess. However, Hopper’s “Almost a Lady” is preserved in two places, both ultimately inaccessible to me. But unlike “The Amazons”, the short story on which “Almost a Lady” was based is available on a scan of the 1922 Cosmopolitan magazine where it was initially published. So we’ll combine the story and film synopsis for an overall, general review.
“Almost a Lady” is based on a 1922 short story titled “Skin Deep”; the short story itself involves no elements of transness whatsoever. In very brief summary, a socialite named Norma decides to play dress-up with her maid, Clarice, and take her to an opera on the same night that her socialite opera-buddy Mrs. Homer takes along a friend of her nephew, Peter Haynes. Peter and Clarice meet, instantly fall in love the way that you do, some pearls go missing, it’s almost the Titanic necklace subplot for a hot minute, and then it’s revealed that a minor character had actually stolen the pearls all along and Clarice and Peter are free to run off and have their instantaneously perfect romance in the sunset. It’s a very fast read, and if you enjoy stories were it takes longer to find it than it takes to read it, you’ll have a fun time.
As for the semi-lost film itself, very little information is available, but from the single piece of plot synopsis I have, it seems that the plot veers from the original source material:
“Marcia, a pretty young girl, goes to work as a model for a lecherous dress-shop owner. She resists his advances, despite his giving her expensive gifts. One day Mrs. Reilly, a prominent society woman and a customer of the shop, invites Marcia to a party she’s throwing. Marcia winds up impersonating a famous writer in order to impress a “duke” for Mrs. Reilly, who doesn’t know the “duke” isn’t really a duke. Complications ensue.”
From what I can gather from various other sources, it seems like the movie went for making Peter a duke, further going for the “whoopsie-he’s-a-she” twist. That’s kind of been a common theme for these movies so far, which I can’t say doesn’t make sense, because it’s still the 20’s at this point in the list, and even now in 2019 most people can’t figure out that trans people aren’t just “girls in boys clothes” and vice versa. Disappointed, not surprised.
Again, since so little of the film’s plot is available, and since it clearly strays from the original short story, I can’t say how this ““twist”” works or doesn’t. I don’t think the 20’s were gutsy enough for Peter and Clarice (Marcia) to still end up together in the event of Peter not being cis, so I can’t make any statements on that elephant in the room. However, “Skin Deep” the short story is a completely passable piece of fiction, amazingly preserved through some history buff’s dedication. Props to that dude. If you decide to look it up, you won’t find a trans story by any means (or, you can step into Logan’s brain, and still read it with the trans subtext; because lets be real, no cis man ever falls in genuine love with a woman so fast), but you’ll find a fine romance/semi-mystery nonetheless.
4. The Crystal Cup (1927) dir. John Dillon
Warnings: casual racism, attempted rape
Rating: 2 / 5
Another lost film; for this section, we look at the original source material, also titled “The Crystal Cup”, written around that same year of 1927 by Gertrude Atherton. It cost $20 on Amazon, and ought not be confused with the book of the same name by Dracula author Bram Stoker.
The story plays out as follows — Gita Carteret is a young woman in the 20’s who, as a result of childhood upheaval and trauma at the hands of her father, has an intense hatred for men. However, when her grandmother is on her deathbed, she makes a deal with her that upon inheriting the property and land, she will make an effort to behave more femininely. Grandma dies, Gita becomes moderately more outwardly feminine, and lots of old society drama happens.
I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice, but this gave me very similar vibes to what I imagine sitting through that book to be like. I think Gita is, however, more inherently badass than anything I could picture in that book; she proposes a marriage of convenience with a man and stays completely nonsexual towards him (the asexual term is used quite a lot in this book, actually, and not inherently negatively), shoots said husband when he tries to rape her, and successfully outruns her friend trying to run her down and murder her with a car. If the book cut out about 50 pages of 1920’s high society talk and party discussions, I think it’d be much quicker in its pace and an easier read than it ended up being.
Gita’s more masculine persona really only makes it through the first chapter completely intact before it starts to get dismantled. In that first chapter, mostly just a dialogue between her and her grandmother, she talks a lot about how she wishes she’d been born a man and how much she inherently hates being a woman. The result of childhood trauma rather than discomfort in a body, it’s still a more modern understanding of trans feelings than we’ve seen yet. It’s not a major element of the plot past the first few chapters, as the focus quickly shifts from “possible issues with being a woman” to just “definite issues being around men”, and it is a story about overcoming trauma and finding comfort in yourself and those around you. Despite that, I’m glad I bought this and gave it a read if nothing else than for seeing what I considered strictly modern terminology and ways of thinking being published more than 90 years ago. If you can find a copy online, I can recommend giving it a flip through if you’re at all curious.
5. Beggars of Life (1928) dir. William Wellman
Warnings: multiple brief instances of attempted rape
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Only released on DVD two years ago, this silent film from the late 20’s is the first in this list that actually feels like it belongs on a list of trans media, at least a little bit.
In “Beggars of Life”, we’re very quickly introduced to Jim, who stumbles upon a dead guy at his dinner table while looking for food in exchange for work. Right upstairs is Nancy, and equally as quickly, she is found, but explains that she murdered this guy (her adopted dad) because he had a serious case of being an awful attempted rapist (good on her!). With her disguised as a boy, the two start off initially on separate paths, but eventually decide to flee together to Canada, where Jim has family.
Along the way, they hitch rides on trains, subsequently get pushed off those trains, run into hobos, and barely manage to escape the police on multiple occasions. Among the hobos they start to travel with is this primordial sort of Randy Quaid-looking guy called Oklahoma Red, who starts out trying to rape Nancy (fun), but by the end, helps fake Nancy and Jim’s death so that they can escape, which ultimately ends in his death by the end.
Aside from the weird, last-minute humanization of the drunk rapist, I really enjoyed the first forty, fifty minutes of this. It plays out like a period piece Rapunzel, with a girl escaping abuse stumbling into help via another criminal who very easily goes along with helping her and abandons his own plans in order to do so. Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen have really good, genuine chemistry together, to the point where you kind of get irritated with the hobos they run into, because you really just want to watch Nancy and Jim travel the country and banter.
Nancy existing as a man lasts up until the last twenty minutes, as she gets passed off as Jim’s younger brother for as long as they can. For as much of it is just disguise, one of the scenes with her and the first night in the hobo camp actually do work with mirroring trans fears. In essence, Nancy is singled out as a woman by one of the camp leaders, and the back and forth between his staring and slow, menacing walk towards her, and her clear and visible discomfort, really works as the same kind of fear one gets with deadnaming or misgendering. I’ll admit I was really surprised by how immediately I was able to identify that parallel; it very much felt like a scene that would exist in a modern movie about trans people, which I didn’t expect going into it.
“Beggars of Life” was a pleasant little surprise. It’s available in it’s entirety for free on YouTube with a soundtrack pasted over it (a sound version of the movie did, at one point, exist, but has since been lost to time. I found the soundtrack did help me move through the movie easier, even if it’s music not originally from the movie itself), and overwhelmingly pleasant despite some of it’s brief dark moments. As a trans movie, it falls into the “woman as boy” trap as almost all of these do, but has a few identifying moments as accidentally really understanding some of the paranoia that comes with being trans in public.
Good movie? It lost me some in that third act, but I’ll give this a yes. Richard Arlen gave very strong James Stewart vibes to me, highlighted whenever he gets defensive of Louise Brooks’ character, and I enjoyed that.
Good trans movie? …Eh? I liked that scene in the camp, accidental though it may have been. But it’s a lady in a suit again, so by modern standards, no.
6. Wild Boys of the Road (1933) dir. William Wellman
Warnings: offscreen rape, police violence, leg injury and amputation, ableism
Rating: 3.5 / 5
The same director as “Beggars of Life” comes back for another people-on-trains movie, marking the first entry on the list to have audio to it!
There’s a lot of weird child violence in this movie, which part of me was kind of amused by, and part of me was kind of horrified by, depending on the scenario. Sometimes its kids just pelting cops with rocks and throat-punching them, and sometimes its everybody crying as a boy gets his leg amputated after being run over by a train. It’s a very strange balance of almost-slapstick and realistically grim. Two black kids drop a watermelon on a cop and say “a kiss from Dixie!” about 90 seconds before a boy named Tommy tries and fails to drag himself away from the train and has his leg completely mangled, later to be amputated, as an example of this.
The movie follows Eddie (who looks suspiciously like Eddie from 2017’s “It”) and Tommy, two teen boys who start jumping trains in order to find jobs in the midst of the Great Depression. Along the way they meet up with a girl named Sally, create a mob to murder a rapist, Tommy loses his leg in a train accident, they stage a few more riots against cops, and ultimately land in New York to find jobs, promising to go home once they have enough money. One thing I forgot I loved about older movies was the casual intimacy between male characters; Tommy and Eddie have a good handful of moments where all I could think was “kiss him you fool, you’ll never have a better time”. And even though “Beggars of Life” proved that Wellman can do a solid romance, it was a nice break to see romance play little to no role in this movie. All the characters are likable, a rapist gets murdered, it’s been preserved by Congress as being culturally significant!
One again the transness that put this movie on my radar is the “girl dressed as boy” trend. The audience’s introduction to Sally is as a faceless person also on the train with Eddie and Tommy, who ends up beating the shit out of Eddie before the two boys realize that “he’s a she!”, and they end up tagging along with her out of quick necessity-turned-friendship. Throughout the entire rest of the movie, she’s never again confused for being a boy, despite still wearing a button-up shirt and pants and only rarely removing her hat to reveal her braided hair; though not trans, her casual lack of femininity is pleasant. It’s another instance that should really barely qualify, but I can’t exactly get mad at the 30’s for not understanding gender when it had so little it actually did understand.
Good movie? Yes! Above-average, somewhat slow-starting, but a completely passable use of an hour and a half. Watch for the subtext gay or for a look into the harshness of the Great Depression.
Good trans movie? Falls into the same trappings as “Beggars of Life” and “The Hoodlum”, so no.
7. Girls Will Be Boys (1934) dir. Marcel Varnel
Warnings: Consistent misogyny
Rating: 1.5 / 5
Yeah, that title on this list makes me cringe a bit, too.
I feel that to state that this movie is British is unneeded — the second the first scene starts, you get smacked in the face with accent and almost stereotypical levels of poshness. The head of this obscenely British house is one of the most ridiculous misogynists I’ve ever seen, to the point where he doesn’t allow the house staff to get married, and no women whatsoever are allowed within a mile of the grounds; it’s a cartoon. He receives a letter and photo from who he presumes to be the grandson (Pat) of his deceased, estranged son, but the staff member he sends to fetch him finds that the person in the photo is actually his actress granddaughter (Patrica). Apparently set on ending misogyny in the 30’s, she decides to dress herself as a boy and visit her grandfather to… prove a point?
This movie is really confused. I truly think if it had been a cartoon, this might’ve been easier to pass off (Spongebob could do it!) because the audience is already set in a fantasy world. But because it’s live action and further supposed to be taking place in 1930's-modern day, every plot hole throws itself right at you. There’s no way Patricia’s Betty Boop voice wouldn’t have identified her as a woman to others right away, if her “six year old in her older brother’s clothes” appearance hadn’t done so first. The grandpa hates women to this cartoonish extent, but he’s best friends with a princess and gets upset when she comes to visit only because he doesn’t have a woman of the house to greet her; that’s a self-created fucking problem dude! Somehow through all of the grandfather’s misogyny and general terribleness, Patrica’s whole conflict is “oh but I still love him so much! I can’t hate him!”, which comes from literal, absolute nowhere. So you throw in generally unfunny slapstick, a story idea that worked far better in movies like “Mulan”, characters that are a mix of too undefined to be unlikable and cartoon villain, and you’ve got yourself a miserable hundred minutes of film.
Any and all transness in this movie is for the stupid purposes of the plot as aforementioned and described, and I can’t even decide if this would be better if I watched it as some white British dude in the 30’s; I don’t think it would. At one point in the film, Patricia outs herself, in a manner of speaking, as a girl in order to greet the princess. This makes her grandfather think that she’s still a boy, but disguised as a woman, so a mini subplot forms in this gender confusion and absolutely none of it is amusing enough to get a pass.
Good movie? Yeah, no. It would be one thing if it was stupid but enjoyable (see: “Moulin Rouge”), but it was just stupid and annoying and asked too much of my suspension of disbelief. Nothing in this made any sort of sense and wasn’t even entertainingly nonsense.
Good trans movie? Nope.
8. She Loves Me Not (1934) dir. Elliott Nugent
Rating: 1.5 / 5
Absolutely insane that this was one of the movies that shot Bing Crosby into stardom, because I kind of hated this.
“She Loves Me Not” is not the same 1.5 star rating as “Girls Will Be Boys”, as while the latter was boring, offensive, and overwhelmingly stupid, “She Loves Me Not” was really mostly just boring and stupid. No great misogyny plot line here, just a bunch of hardly-strung together nonsense.
Apparently the first of three movie adaptations of the same book, the movie follows a club dancer named Curly, who bears partial witness to a gang shooting. Because apparently witnesses also get arrested and held in jail in this universe, she immediately skips town, finding her way onto Princeton campus where she finds Bing Crosby. Naturally, the best thing to do in this situation is to dress herself as a male Princeton student, thus shenanigans ensue completely unrelated to the girl-as-boy thing.
Credit where it’s due, it’s the first of these movies with the “girl disguised as boy” subplot that has the main girl as a side character in her own story. The movie decides to focus more on Crosby and his roommate as they try and figure out what to do about the girl in their dorm. The roommate goes to his movie executive father, because putting a girl in hiding in movies is one of the best options to pick from, while Crosby goes to casually romance the dean’s daughter through his sad, perfectly 30’s voice. Curly actually just disappears from the movie for a stretch of about twenty minutes; seeing the plot to this, I expected a movie about her struggles being on campus, but that is never once brought up. Everybody who runs into her is never once fooled by her disguise (probably because she never takes her eye makeup off. Oops).
Genuinely, I tried to put as few of these kinds of movies on this list as possible (hence why “Mulan” and “She’s The Man” are absent), in part because as we get closer to more modern films, these plots are no longer synonymous with cis peoples’ understanding of what transness was, also in part because I know there are better, genuine trans movies out there. As I write this article day by day, it’s incredibly relieving to see I’m only a few more movies away from some actual trans people. There are still a few “women in disguise” entries, but they’re at least dispersed more and I’ll have more to say about modern interpretations of those than I do for the fiftieth kind of these from the pre-WW2 era.
Good movie? If you’re a die hard Bing Crosby fan, I guess you might enjoy seeing an earlier role of his, but even then, I think you can find his songs from this on YouTube, so there’s no real reason to sit through the whole thing.
Good trans movie? Noooooo.
9. Sylvia Scarlett (1935) dir. George Cukor
Warnings: light misogyny and transphobia
Rating: 2.5 / 5
The last two movies on this list were so boring and bad that I think “Sylvia Scarlett” had a very low bar to clear. But for my low expectations, it wasn’t half as bad as it could’ve gotten away with being.
As the title suggests, the movie focuses on a French girl named Sylvia, who’s mother has just died and her father has just revealed to her the debt he’s accumulated as a gambler at film’s open. It takes about five seconds to come to the “Dad’s in debt? Hand me the scissors, it’s boy time!” conclusion, and the two are off and running for England. It’s on the boat ride over that they meet Cary Grant, a conman, and when they run into him again on a train, the three decide to team up for Grant’s various schemes.
The plot takes another sharp turn when they meet up with who I can only describe as one of Cary Grant’s side pieces, and then the four of them decide to run around the English countryside preforming. They make it through exactly one performance before meeting up with this bohemian group, a lot of random nonsense happens, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn don’t end up together and break my little easy-to-please heart.
Firstly, I think we need to look into the idea that Cary Grant is an immortal and still living among us in the form of Jude Law, because he is the spitting image of the latter actor in this. Beyond that, the lightning-fast pace of the plot in the first few minutes actually almost works in this film as it gives us more time to get used to seeing Sylvia in men’s clothes and demeanor. There’s also many brief moments that managed to land as accidentally representative, like Sylvia reflexively entering the women’s restroom and the scene where she gets a mustache drawn onto her, that felt genuine in our modern sense.
Then the movie gets derailed from there, as Sylvia reveals herself to the bohemian guy she has the hots for- who isn’t Cary Grant- and there’s an absolutely awful little descent into him laughing at her and calling her a “freak of nature”, but, you know, it’s all good because he’s joking! A shame “Girls Will Be Boys” didn’t nip this misogyny problem like it thought it would!
This movie works best when Sylvia is Sylvester, and when it runs into being accidentally gay as hell as a result. In my note taking, I double underlined a line spoken by the bohemian- that [Sylvia] gives him a “queer feeling”- and little moments like those and the almost-there maybe-romance between Katharine and Cary Grant worked perfectly regardless of the gender that Katharine’s character was presented to the audience as. It’s the “Mulan” effect of “maybe we didn’t think this all the way through when we made the two love interests boys” — good or bad, it’s a funny thing to keep happening, and the general romantic chemistry was better when it was gay than when it was straight, because when it became straight it became stupid.
Good movie? I certainly can’t say it was bad, not after some of the earlier entries here. There’s a little too much shouting and things that don’t make nearly any sense, but Cary Grant is a fun asshole and Katharine Hepburn has equally as solid screen presence. It did a good job of making me excited to eventually watch “The Philadelphia Story”.
Good trans movie? Is it wrong to say nearly? The film brushes against the same vein that “Mulan” does in almost-there-ness as well as accidental homo-eroticism, and if the last twenty, thirty minutes weren’t so focused on the romance that literally nobody cared about, I could give it a more solid “maybe”, though still leaning heavily on the side of “no”.
10. A Song To Remember (1945) dir. Charles Vidor
Rating: 1.5 / 5
Anybody expect a Chopin biopic to be here? Me neither!
“A Song To Remember” is, as previously stated, a biopic on the life and work of Frederic Chopin, the content of which being heavily effected by the climate of World War II’s near-end that this movie was made in. Specifically, the film focuses on Chopin’s relationship with George Sand, a French novelist, and Jozef Elsner, his music teacher, and Polish patriotism is a major generalized theme throughout. A majority of character relationships and dynamics are heavily fictionalized for the film — I can’t say I did terribly in-depth research, but what reading on historical Chopin and Sand that I did do gave a very different picture than the one this movie did.
There is a very bizarre villainization of George Sand, and borderline martyrdom given to Elsner, both of which bring forth my biggest problem with the film. Historically, George Sand was a woman who defied societal norms, was with Chopin romantically for about ten years, and the end of that relationship was the result of tension between her, Chopin, and her daughter from a previous marriage. The movie, however, opts to present her as “the deviant in pants”, who steals Chopin away from his well-meaning teacher, and I guess her evil plan is to keep him from dying of tuberculosis?
So we’re meant to instead sympathize with Elsner, not Sand, and I literally have not yet hated a character on this list so much as I hated this movie’s interpretation of Elsner. For as much as the movie paints Sand as the selfish monster, I wholeheartedly will argue for that label to be placed on this Elton John-looking bastard, who is so focused on feeling important that he is okay with his prized student literally dying just so he can get away from the evil bitch in trousers; he explicitly calls her a beast, which speaks for itself. He lies to everybody at every opportunity, regardless of if the person’s intentions are negative or wholly positive. At one point, Elsner is having one of his hissy fits and says “You’ve made up your mind! I’m a liar!” and I can’t say I’m ashamed to say I screamed at my laptop yes, motherfucker, that’s what you’ve been doing this whole time, incredibly thankful both my roommates were out.
And by the end Chopin dies, because fucking Elsner pushes Chopin to do a concert tour despite knowing full well that the man is sick, and had been warned that doing concerts would make his illness worse. And sure enough, it does, and Logan ends another movie frustrated and annoyed.
To briefly not talk about the anger this movie instilled in me, I will say that the portrayal of George Sand in terms of gender is very similar to another entry on this list, “Colette”, from 2018. I’ll talk about it more there, but this character feels like a very early, very different draft of the trans character in that movie. In bare bones comparison, both are from high society and are able to get away with wearing men’s clothing as a result of that status. “Colette” does this much, much better, but George Sand as a character can be seen as a sort of stepping stone to get to that point.
Good movie? Eh. Credit where it’s due, it’s a very pretty movie, with attention paid well to set design and costuming. Of course the music is beautiful. A better biopic than “Bohemian Rhapsody”. But I wouldn’t watch it again and I’m definitely annoyed with myself for spending money on renting it.
Good trans movie? No. On top of just being a woman in pants, the movie heavily villainizes her, and it’s incredibly frustrating to watch.
11. The Magician (1958) dir. Ingmar Bergman
Warnings: mention of child death, a hanging corpse is seen
Rating: 4 / 5
A Swedish-language film, marking one of only three non-English movies to make the list; unfortunately the result of so many other films either being unobtainable or without English subtitles for me to read along with.
I am so relieved to finally have a good movie on this list, of which only has the flaw of being enjoyed by scum of the earth Woody Allen. I watched the Criterion transfer, rented online, and there’s no way to talk about this movie without talking about how beautiful it is. We return to black and white here, and the use of lighting and shadows in each scene but particularly in the attic scene, are overwhelmingly beautiful. The cinematographer for this is Gunnar Fischer, who I’ve never heard of before this, but a look at his list of works promises equally beautiful films (1957’s “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries” among them, also directed by the same man behind “The Magician”), and I feel like I could go on this entire section just talking about the beauty of each shot and the selective, bare bones use of music we rarely see today.
It’s actually hard for me to talk about this movie in terms of plot, legitimately because I don’t want to spoil it. I knew nothing going in, and that’s how it should be for anyone else looking to go into it. There aren’t mind-blowing plot twists to be talked about for centuries to come, but each thing that happens in this movie is so carefully crafted and well thought out that it feels like a crime to spoil it for someone here. So I highly encourage going to Amazon, spending $5 on a rental of this, and coming back to this specific point in the article once you’ve watched it.
“The Magician” follows Max von Sydow as Doctor Albert Emanuel Vogler, for much of the film doing his best Vincent Price cosplay, as he and three other uniquely colorful characters travel into Stockholm to preform magic and sell potions for the town. Before they are able to, however, they stumble across a dying actor in the woods, are met with general hostility by the higher-ups of the town, all culminating in death, illusion, and the unbelievable physical performance from von Sydow.
This was submitted to be in the 31st Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film but was unfortunately denied, which is genuinely painful to hear, as if you told me von Sydow won an Oscar for his performance, I would absolutely believe you. He spends the first hour of this film without a spoken word, relying entirely on physical presence and facial expressions, selling every one of them. And by the time (again, spoilers) he does talk, when the disguises slip away, we’re left with a painfully vulnerable, broken man. I genuinely feel bad for only knowing him from his brief cameo in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, because I was unintentionally admitting ignorance to what an astonishing actor he is.
As for what lands this movie on this list specifically, we turn to Mr. Aman. Kind of an on-the-nose name, as the character is very clearly played by a female actress. About an hour in, her real identity is revealed to be that of Vogler’s wife, in disguise as a man in order to hide from the law — for what crime specifically is unclear, though it’s stated that in several instances, the group has run into legal trouble in the past. Aman is a different kind of trans-type character than we’ve seen so far, introduced to us already as a man and later revealed to us as a woman, rather than something of the inverse. She is only out of disguise in a handful of scenes, disproportionate to the amount of scenes with her existing as a man. Further, her character is less concerned with gender, and more the focus of relationship with her husband and their dynamic. Once again, transness runs directly parallel to necessity, that is, she would not be existing as a man if not for their specific circumstances.
Good movie? Yes! This was the second movie in a row that I had to rent in order to watch, and the first that I genuinely felt my money was well spent on. It’s a great director, great cinematographer, great actors, and a very interesting movie, despite some brief sequences in the middle that drag in comparison to the rest of the film.
Good trans movie? Unfortunately, no.
12. Desperate Living (1977) dir. John Waters
Warnings: animal cruelty for comedic effect (a fake dog corpse is run over in passing), sexual assault by a police officer, various other instances of attempted and successful sexual assault, rape, gang rape (offscreen/implied), various instances of graphic violence, transphobia, lesphobic slurs, graphic genital mutilation
Rating: 2 / 5
As if the four lines of possible triggering content in this weren’t evidence enough, I will flat out state that this movie is not going to be for everyone.
John Waters is pretty well known for fucking around with gender and casting in his movies — I knew this only from seeing the 2007 “Hairspray” remake. So for him to end up somewhere on this list is not inherently surprising, even though my knowledge of non-cis portrayal in his movies extended to trans women and drag queens.
So “Desperate Living” is kind of a fucking mess. It follows a housewife named Peggy, who is absolutely batshit insane, and her nurse Grizelda, as they murder Peggy’s husband and run off, ending up in a town called Mortville. Mortville does not exist in any sort of reality — it’s ruled by a queen, everybody who lives there is “made ugly” through making them just kind of look like drag queens, there’s a random nudist colony in the mix of it all, it’s like someone threw darts at a board covered in types of societies and smashed them all into one town.
Again, this is a movie that only a very specific audience is going to enjoy and engage with. I found a lot of aspects entertaining myself, specifically those of the queen (she and her staff have some funny gags and performances), the general acting style (clearly purposely bad) and even though the quality I watched it in was awful, the set of the film was grimy in a not entirely unappealing way. But there’s a lot of casual sexual assault and rape in this movie that just seems to bring everything to a screeching halt and makes it worse, and that’s before we talk about this movie’s depiction of trans men.
To start, I find it important to point out that the transphobia in this film is not voided by John Waters being gay; cis gay men are transphobic all the time, and being gay does not cancel that out. Coming from one marginalized group does not protect you from being oppressive to other marginalized groups, and that is important for any cishet readers to know in all instances.
That said, here, our trans character is a dude named Mole. Mole McHenry, before coming to Mortville, was a lesbian wrestler (vagina on the costume and everything), and now lives with his girlfriend with a room for rent out back, which is where the two come into the main plot at. Portrayed by a female actress, Mole gets to deliver classic lines like “a man in a woman’s body”, as well as being referred to by both female and male pronouns. He’s angry all the time, yelling at everybody and being infamous for having a temper. He is every trans man stereotype put into one singular character. It’s hard for me to say how much of that stereotype was inherently “new” by the late 70’s, but that isn’t the hardest thing about this character to sit and watch. Regrettably.
See, while Mole and his girlfriend, Muffy, are displayed as lesbians, Muffy spends much of the film talking about how much she loves men, she wants to fuck a guy, Mole isn’t a “real man” where it “matters”. So, when Mole and Muffy win the lottery off a ticket they swipe off the two main girls, several scenes later finds Mole at the hospital to get sex reassignment. When he returns home, gifts in arms, he reveals to his girlfriend the surprise. We the audience are shown a bloody penis grafted onto him as Muffy screams in horror; when Mole tries to force sex to “see if it works”, Muffy continues screaming, demanding that he “cut it off” in between bouts of throwing up. So distressed by her lack of enthusiasm, we get a tight shot of Mole using scissors to slowly cut through the new penis, screaming all the while. Muffy throws it out, where it is “humorously” eaten by a dog wandering by.
There’s a lot to unpack there. The subject of “the surgery” for trans people is particularly tricky, and most of my exposure to it in media has been instances where the cis partner doesn’t want their trans partner to change. Many times, chest surgery is deemed mostly acceptable, whereas any surgery related to genitals is viewed much more harshly. The way that genital surgery is shown in this scene is nothing short of completely fucking horrifying. Once the penis is revealed, there is consistent screaming throughout the rest of the scene, from one or both of the characters. It’s ugly, it’s loud, and it’s meant to be shown as disgusting. Mole is a very hard character to want to sympathize with, but the expression of fear and pain on his face upon rejection is too human and real. That fear of rejection is a painful, constant reality for trans people, and it’s painful to watch no matter the tone of the rest of the movie. There was no chance that I was going to be brought back on this movie’s good side after that scene.
Good movie? If you see yourself as someone who likes films that aim to shock and disgust you, I imagine you’ll enjoy yourself. John Waters is known for films like these, so if you’re more familiar with his work, I can say yes. Unfortunately for me, the moments of humor and creativity didn’t manage to outweigh the unpleasantness.
Good trans movie? I can see half of an argument for an “at the time” sort of defense, but ultimately I can’t recommend this to any trans person in any way shape or form. The entire genital mutilation scene would be reason enough for a firm no.
13. Victor/Victoria (1982) dir. Blake Edwards
Warnings: transphobic rhetoric, homophobic slurs and violence
Rating: 2.5 / 5
From the director of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” comes an 80’s adaptation of a 1933 German film of the same name, an adaptation with seven Oscar nominations under it’s belt. It’s very easily summed up by Julie Andrews’ character herself — about “a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman”.
This was definitely a more mainstream type of weird than some of the more previous brands I’ve looked at. Plot plays out as follows: Julie Andrews is a divorced, struggling soprano named Victoria in 1930’s Paris, forced to choose between paying rent and feeding herself. It’s after being turned down for a club job that she meets Toddy, an openly gay performer who just recently was fired himself. Through some light shenanigans (how I’ve not missed them), Toddy comes up with the idea to pose Victoria as a “female impersonator”, which quickly gets her hired at the club and on her way to stardom. While working there, she attracts the attention of King Marchand, an owner of several nightclubs in Chicago, and thus a strange little relationship blooms, and complications ensue.
Pro tip — don’t make the homophobe the love interest, because there’s no way you can spin him back into being this sympathetic character of any sort. There’s nothing amusing about watching a straight man get called the f-slur and get beaten up because people think he’s gay. Nothing is funny about it, and rather than feeling bad for him, I just was annoyed that the film was so focused on showing insecure straight men have fits over being viewed as a queer. This is how King is introduced, and it never even really attempts to improve him. He breaks into Victoria’s hotel room in order to catch her bathing, to know her “true gender”, after previously having a breakdown of sorts over the mere possibility that he found a man attractive when he was dressed like a woman. He’s not a good person, but it never seems to matter because he’s hot to Julie Andrews and to actively nobody else.
Julie Andrews, meanwhile, I think is really trying her best here. I didn’t actively dislike her, which isn’t something I can say for every ‘trans’ character on this list, but I was never interested in her romance, which ends up taking over the story. I would’ve much rather enjoyed a stupid shenanigans movie where Victoria and Toddy try to make it in the industry without being found out, so to say. Toddy himself was just a far more engaging character, and I wish his romance with King’s bodyguard wasn’t reduced to just a couple of one-liners. You could’ve made something that looked into heterosexual fragility and how harmful it is to themselves and to actual gay people, but that second shoe never drops.
Good movie? It’s not entirely unappealing, with fun music, sets, and Toddy’s character, despite being relegated to gay-best-friend for the latter half of the film, is overwhelmingly likable and sweet. The romance doesn’t work for me, however, mainly because of the tiny fact that the romantic lead is a homophobic prick who never learns to maybe not hate gay people.
Good trans movie? No; on top of once again having “woman disguised as man”, there’s general transphobic rhetoric sprinkled throughout. It was the 80’s, there’s far less excuse for it than there was in the 30's.
14. Yentl (1983) dir. Barbra Streisand
Warnings: brief instances of religious misogyny and themes of religious intolerance
Rating: 4.5 / 5
Back to back, two movies which won an Oscar for Best Original Score. While I was nervous that I just wasn’t in the mood for a movie like “Victor/Victoria”, and that I was being too harsh on it, in stepped “Yentl” to show me how its done.
The titular character Yentl, played by director Barbra Streisand, is a Jewish woman in a small Polish town in the early 20th century. In private she is taught by her father (the man behind the voice of Fievel’s father in “An American Tail”) to know all the various religious texts he owns up until his unfortunate death. Still determined to learn all she can, she disguises herself as a boy, further taking the name of her dead brother; she meets Avigdor (played by Inigo Montoya himself, no less!), enrolls herself in a Yeshiva (Jewish religious school), and entangles herself into an awkward little love triangle between Avigdor and his fiancé, Hadass.
I adored this movie in every aspect. Having never once knowingly listened to Streisand, I was blown away by the power her voice has. She’s amazing as Yentl, curious and desperate for more than what her little town can give her. And she has amazing chemistry with both characters in the love triangle, which had me routing for her to get with any of them by the end. When she ends up marrying Hadass in order to appease Avigdor, who is no longer allowed to marry her himself, the two women have a real genuine friendship and chemistry together. Through this relationship we see Yentl (as Anshel) give her new wife agency in herself as a woman, pushes her to become independent and a ghost of the meek and personality-less pretty face she was in her first scene.
Yentl’s relationship with Avigdor from start to finish is beautiful, and while I know Yentl needed to end the movie her own independent self and a relationship with Avigdor would have left both of them unhappy, a little part of me still wishes they could’ve had more than a half-second kiss. Even before she reveals herself to him as a woman, the movie gives continued hints to the fact that Avigdor is falling just as much in love with Yentl as Anshel as she is with him. When the reveal happens, after a few moments of screaming and crying, when Yentl admits that she loves him, Avigdor looks at her for a moment before nodding and agreeing, “I loved you too”. He loved her as Anshel and I honestly could’ve cried with how tender and beautiful the scene is. It puts “Victor/Victoria” to shame, as well as that movie’s weak insistence that the main couple loved each other “beyond gender” — “Yentl” knocked that idea home and did a few laps around the bases just for fun.
I also think “Mulan” lifted some ideas from this movie. Between the first number of this movie being Reflection 1.0 and there basically being the “bathing naked in the lake” scene verbatim, it was kind of hard to miss, though neither in a negative or positive sort of way.
Onto the transness of the film, there’s not all that much new to say or add. It’s “Sylvia Scarlett” again, where disguise is out of necessity. With the film being more recent though, there are some updates to the idea. We see Yentl binds her breasts down with bandaging (pro tip, trans or cis — do not ever do this, it’s death to the ribs and while binders are no permanent solution, never use whatever bandages you can find laying around in a first aid kit), and as the film progresses, we see her have to adopt more masculinity than just dress and public appearance. When she marries Hadass, she must now become a husband and assume a role very similar to her father. Her existence as a man is to give her the eventual strength to leave Poland by the end of the film, holding stronger than ever that she can exist as a woman and embrace her religion to the fullest extent simultaneously.
Good movie? In every way, yes!
Good trans movie? Unfortunately, no, though this in no way voids my appreciation for the film as a whole
15. A Man Like Eva (1984) dir. Radu Gabrea
Rating: 2 / 5
Our first entry from Germany, this was… definitely one of the weirder ones to end up here.
Not weird in the “Desperate Living” sense, but in its own way. This biopic is a fictionalized account of a West German filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died of a coke and barbiturate overdose only two years before this film’s release. Fassbinder now is regarded as one of the more prominent figures of new German cinema, as well as for portrayal of gay and lesbian themes (he himself was likely bisexual, sleeping with both men and women, though at the time being described as “a gay man who needed women”).
My notes for this film are exceptionally short in comparison to the other films I’ve watched and logged so far. Concurrent to that, I feel like I don’t have a lot to say here. The film focuses on a fictionalized Fassbinder called E.V.A.- portrayed by Eva Mattes, an actress who had previously been in several of Fassbinder’s real life films- as he attempts to finish shooting a movie, all while dealing with typical 80’s coked-out drama that comes with a low budget production. And I say I have little to say because I feel as if not all that much happens in the film itself. If I hadn’t had a flight on which to read up on the director this film was based on, I would’ve gotten even less out of the experience.
For whatever reason, the film casts Eva Mattes in the titular role, for reasons why I can’t explain or find reasoning for anywhere online, except for someone mentioning that she was “in several Fassbinder films, yes, but…was far enough away from the center of his notorious clique that she maintains some objectivity”. The “trans people are just cross-dressers” misconception was probably the reason this was included on the informational zine I got a lot of these movies from, as this E.V.A. character is exclusively just a woman with an (albeit well done) fake beard slapped on. The movie never indicates that you’re supposed to view E.V.A. as a woman in disguise though, and I think the intent behind the casting decision was to give the character more physically-obvious vulnerability. I definitely believed that the character I saw on screen was going to O.D later on and seemed pretty miserable to work with.
Good movie? I almost don’t feel like I have enough knowledge of German cinema as a general category to decide this — it’s free on YouTube, subtitles and all, should you find yourself curious. It’s a slow film, but I don’t think it was necessarily bad or even ill-intentioned in any way. People who enjoy Fassbinder’s films seem to enjoy it.
Good trans movie? No.
16. You Don’t Know Dick (1997) dir. Candace Schermerhorn & Bestor Cram
Warnings: deadnaming, lesphobic slurs, discussion of suicidal thoughts and transphobia
Rating: 3.5 / 5
“I know all this is hard on you. I do love you, and I don’t want to hurt you. But I have to live as Ted. I just can’t be Judy anymore.”
Our first of several documentaries, “You Don’t Know Dick” chronicles the experiences and conversations of six transgender men — Ted, Michael, James, Max, Stephen, and Loren. They all discuss a wide variety of topics, ranging from surgeries, starting hormones, their various relationships, and their mental state pre- and post-transition.
Considering this documentary is over 20 years old by now, there is surprisingly little in outdated terminology and attitudes. Although ‘transgender’ has largely overtaken ‘transsexual’ as the general term, everything else discussed here is relatively timeless and still relevant. One particular section has some of the men talking about their fears post surgery, specifically using the terminology “who’s gonna love me?”, and — yeah, that hits home.
This documentary is a beautiful humanization of a community so long and often misunderstood and hyper-visible when violence is committed against it. And the film doesn’t shy away from some of the less pleasant aspects, but it also doesn’t make it the whole focus. More time is given to the men talking about their upped sex drives than is given to one of the men’s transphobic daughter, and that’s incredibly relieving.
One of the men in the documentary, Loren, is seen photographing himself at multiple times throughout the film; upon a quick Google search, I find that he’s continued to be an extremely successful photographer, and that makes my heart soar. To be able to see a naked trans man without any hint of sexualization or implied wrongness very nearly brought me to tears. There was never any moment in the film where they talked about how hard it was to live as trans, where they talked about the institution of transphobia, it was just a small little celebration of transness and how we live normal, simple lives. We are human, and more than that we are happy.
Good movie? Yes!
Good trans movie? It’s a documentary about trans men, so yes!
17. Boys Don’t Cry (1999) dir. Kimberly Peirce
Warnings: intense transphobic violence, themes of intense transphobia throughout, homophobic and lesphobic slurs, sexual assault, onscreen graphic rape, graphic discussion of and ultimate murder of a trans person
Rating: 1 / 5
Out of all the movies on this list, this was the one I was looking forward to the least.
I ended up thinking about why the idea of this movie made me so uncomfortable compared to another movie I eventually moved off the list, “Strange Circus”, a film that contained intense scenes of incest and rape, of which the idea of the film itself didn’t inherently make my skin crawl. I think the initial cringe factor between this and the lesser-so of the 2005 Japanese film comes from “Boys Don’t Cry” having grotesque violence and rape occur to the trans character himself, comes from knowing that a real man suffered and died in real, actual life. “Strange Circus” is a movie about fictional characters, “Boys Don’t Cry” is, at it’s core, a snapshot of a life. Brandon Teena was real, as was his rape and murder, and he is someone I’ve known of for years now; I knew this story by heart already, and I was not looking forward to seeing it portrayed in brutal, glorious HD.
The movie follows the last few months of Brandon’s life, his entry into Falls City, Nebraska, and his interactions with a multitude of people, many of whom factor into his death by the film’s end. Mostly void of an intensive plot, the film focuses on character relationships and the eventual spiral of circumstances to Brandon’s rape and murder. It’s nice that there’s very little to talk about here in regards to a plot summary, because I want to tear into this thing so badly, and this helps me get right to it.
Not since “Bohemian Rhapsody” have I been so frustrated with the portrayal of a dead man. Where that film blamed a gay man for contracting the illness that contributed to his death, “Boys Don’t Cry” blames a transgender man for getting raped, shot, and stabbed to death — it’s disgusting.
The entire film frames Brandon as incredibly reckless and incredibly dishonest. Throughout, he’s someone who is constantly lying about who he is and where he comes from, someone very easily swayed by those around him and unaware of any and all danger. By the time his ‘friends’ find out about his transness, it is easy as a cis person to see the violence they react with as the logical end to the road Brandon had been going down. One of the quick lines that probably meant nothing in the grand scheme of the movie but meant everything to me hearing it was one of Brandon’s rapists shouting out “you brought this on yourself”. That is the entire attitude of this movie toward Brandon, that he brought his rape and murder onto himself, and that this was always going to be a “cautionary tale”, as I’ve read it described as over and over again.
Cautionary tale to who? Trans people? Is this our warning not to love, not to make cis friends, lest we be framed as liars and criminals for our existence, lest we ‘let ourselves’ be raped, beaten, and murdered?
When you frame the trans person responsible for their own death, suddenly the blame is gone from the transphobe, the perpetrator. Suddenly it’s no longer the fault of the cis person who beats, murders, hates us, because we are the ones who aren’t living correctly, who are lying to our loved ones and ourselves about who we are. We are wrong, and therefore are at fault for what happens to us. It’s a despicable message to send out, even more so to validate with an Oscar win.
It’s fascinating that the director, Kimberly Peirce, claims to have spent years studying Brandon’s case, because it seems like she didn’t understand him at all. She never once considered casting a trans man for the part (the movie makes it clear that the view of trans men as really women is what gets us killed, so naturally you cast a woman for the role?), all too consumed with the “romance” of the story more than the actual crime itself, the violent loss of life.
Further, she completely removed the life of another man, Philip DeVine, a disabled black man who was murdered alongside Brandon and the woman Brandon was living with at the time, Lisa Lambert. While Lisa is portrayed and murdered in the film, albeit under another name, Philip never exists. His absence from this movie is glaring oversight, underlining the point that this was just simply the wrong white woman to bring this story to a wide audience.
Brandon Teena deserved better than what this film packaged him as. Once again, the presence of a gay director does this film no favors, and Peirce’s being a lesbian does not void the transphobia on display here. I do not doubt that the success of this movie has helped contribute to decades more of transphobia specifically directed at trans men, and that its fundamental misunderstanding of what trans men are has far outlasted any good this film did for trans men. We are not lesbians, we are not girls with dildos shoved into our pants; we are men, and this movie fails at the most basic task of understanding this.
Good movie? When it’s not boring, it’s offensive. No.
Good trans movie? No.
18. By Hook or by Crook (2001) dir. Harry Dodge & Silas Howard
Rating: 3 / 5
The only fictional movie on this list to be made by trans men! “By Hook or by Crook” is the directorial debut from the lead himself, Silas Howard, and another trans person Harry Dodge (I write ‘person’ and not ‘man’ because I’ve found a multitude of conflicting reports on if Harry is a trans man or non-binary. All sources use masculine pronouns, however, so those will be used for the sake of this article). It’s a “be gay, do crimes!” movie if ever I’ve seen one.
Discussion of plot is going to be kind of weird, because I’m not sure I exactly understood everything as I was seeing it. It is very obvious this was a first-time-directing project, and as a result all the passion that clearly went into it sometimes makes following the story a little harder.
Bare bones, the film is about Shy, who’s father has recently died, as he leaves his rural home and enters the city where he meets Valentine, who is looking for his birth mother. Valentine spends the movie dancing the line of quirky and what seems like serious mental illness, at one point being institutionalized. Together, the two of them, alongside Val’s girlfriend, commit a few petty crimes, hang out, and form a bond in spite of the hardships that come with the area. Again, plot here was really strange to follow, and I don’t think the decision to pause it for a nap helped with my understanding in any way.
The heart of the film comes from the relationship between Shy and Val. The two actors portraying them were either very early on in their transition or possibly weren’t even out yet when making this, which leads to several instances of the film jumping around pronouns and expressions. There’s discussion of Val being born a woman, but at no point does the film give any wink to the audience about, in lack of a better term, what he is. It’s none of our business. Compare it to “Boys Don’t Cry”, which made sure to bash us over the head every other scene with the ““true”” gender of the character (showing him bind and pack, being misgendered, having other characters point out his transness, etc.), Silas and Harry made it very clear that Shy and Val’s gender is not meant to be at the forefront of the film.
There’s max one scene where a child asks Shy if he’s a boy or a girl, and that’s it. Everything else focuses on the trouble that Shy and Val get into, the bond they form as a result, and it’s really refreshing to just watch trans people fuck around and be people first and foremost.
An aspect I particularly liked is Val’s search for his mother, which unfortunately kind of goes away until the final twenty minutes of the movie. The subject of family is always complicated for anyone LGBT, and every trans person I know is no exception; I’m one of the lucky few to have a mostly positive relationship with my immediate household. This film’s decision to not only tackle biological, but self-made families, is incredibly empathetic for any trans person, and the film further does a good job of displaying the issue without typical romanticism.
The loss of Shy’s father at the beginning of the film is important to his character because he makes a point to state that he gets close to very few people, and so there is immediate value in his new relationship with Val. The two aren’t immediate friends, but by the end it’s evident that they truly rely on each other for support and as a form of family. At the end, when Shy takes Val to go meet his birth mother, there of course is the apprehension of that relationship, but there’s an underlying safety net that no matter how the interaction goes, Shy and Val have foundation with each other. They are not alone in their struggles and bond through that knowledge and perseverance.
Good movie? It’s definitely not going to be for everyone, but it was a nice little slice of life to sit down for.
Good trans movie? Definitely strange in terms of its characters and their relationship with gender, but I think it’s worth checking out nonetheless. It’s available in it’s entirety on Vimeo, so why not give support to some trans art!
19. Southern Comfort (2001) dir. Kate Davis
Warnings: deadnaming and misgendering, some outdated terminology
Rating: 3.5 / 5
“It’s kind of a cruel joke — that last, only part of me that was really female, is killing me”
2001’s “Southern Comfort” is a pleasant little punch in the gut, a beautiful film about found family that turns around and presses your rage button about medical transphobia. The subject of this documentary is Robert Eads, a trans man who lived in the American South and later died as a result of ovarian cancer; the film follows the last year of Robert’s life, alongside a multitude of other trans friends and their various relationships.
First, I want to again focus on this movie’s theme of found family. This one more than others before really hits some emotional hot spots, emphasizing the value that comes with any familial unit. Robert was the surrogate dad for many of the younger trans people he befriended, and it becomes increasingly clear as the film progresses how many of them do not have supportive birth families to fall back on otherwise.
Robert himself is continually referred to as “mom” by his grown son, and his own father refuses to be photographed as he talks about the reasons why he tells people his ‘daughter’ is estranged from them and just never comes around. Another man receives a voicemail from his mother, and after listening to it, the first thing he notes is that she finally called him his name, Max, and that he’ll hold onto that message forever.
To a cis viewer, it seems something so small, and yet small instances like these can mean the world and beyond to us. Robert at one point says “family is the core”, and I need offer no commentary on that point.
The second point this documentary only briefly directly mentions is the medical transphobia that was directly responsible for Robert’s death. Robert’s cancer diagnosis came with denial after denial of treatment from a multitude of doctors in the region; some of which were forward enough to flatly state their reason for denying him to be transphobia, fear of losing business if they were to treat him. One doctor is cited as saying he would be an “embarrassment” to the other clients.
Because it took a year to find a doctor that would treat him, the cancer had by then metastasized, and he was dead by 1999. Robert’s death was completely preventable, were it not for the social stigma around transgender people, especially in the American South. While the film only briefly discusses this explicitly, the entire film in its existence is a portrait of a man left to die. Found family can only do so much, and when Robert needed help and understanding from those in power, he was left to slowly waste away, to suffer. The film ought stand as a reminder that medical transphobia is incredibly dangerous and needs to be better addressed, even still today. If our doctors will not treat us, we will die.
Good movie? Yes! Another free on YouTube entry, and well worth the search.
Good trans movie? A heart-in-the-right-place embrace of the family we create for ourselves, absolutely yes.
20. Itty Bitty Titty Committee (2007) dir. Jamie Babbit
Warnings: consistent transphobic rhetoric, homophobic and lesphobic slurs, light Islamophobia and racism
Rating: 0.5 / 5
I think I knew I was in trouble when I was researching movies to add to the list and saw the “TERF” phrase being thrown around in describing this movie.
For those who don’t know, TERF’s are “radical” feminists who are massive, terrifying transphobes; transphobes in general but especially in regards to trans women. To them, a vagina is the ultimate determination of if you are a woman or not. They’re awful. This movie is basically eighty minutes of that.
You know you’re in for a good time when the “heroes” of the film show up at a protest for gay marriage in order to be against gay marriage (they’re against marriage as a whole, but still, pick your fucking battles, girls). The film follows a bunch of young lesbians in a radical feminist group, Clits in Action (yeah, ew, I know), and their political activism and internal relationships. A lot of the plot is just relationship bullshit, so I’m going to gloss all over that and jump right into ripping this thing to shreds.
This movie was disgusting from beginning to end, and that’s including the fact that I started skipping through scenes at random to get it over with faster. Every character in this is the “bitchy, unlikable, completely radical feminist” stereotype that comes with just the idea of modern feminism. It’s a TERF movie in every way I could’ve feared, absolutely nothing but performative, white feminism. Their big publicity stunt is protesting the Washington Monument because it looks I guess vaguely phallic. The goal of these girls is to get across their message across that men are awful for objectifying women, while being portrayed as the most vapid, self-obsessed women, who do nothing but graffiti ‘female’ genitalia on public buildings and ignore any and all other responsibilities that don’t pertain to being awful, awful people. The only character that isn’t a terror every second of screentime is the trans character, and that’s only because he isn’t enough of a character to ever have the chance to become annoying.
Aggie is the character that puts “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” on this list, the singular man in the group of radical feminists. The girls’ justification for this is that he “was born with a clit”, and so right off the goddamn bat is Aggie apparently forever marked female because of his ‘birth gender’. His response to the comment is somehow worse, as when the lead girl tries to apologize for questioning Aggie’s place in the group, he responds with “I’m used to it”. It’s a heartbreaking response to transphobia; and the phenomena of trans people parroting transphobic rhetoric in order to come off as “one of the good ones” to transphobes or cis people in general is a real thing and awful, but this movie never so much as considers looking at this angle. According to this movie, this guy just stays with these girls for the fun (?) of it, and he’s fine with putting up with being constantly belittled if it means he gets to help spray paint a clit onto the side of a building. It’s bewildering, to be honest.
The character sleeps with the lead (Anna) a while later, a lesbian, because once again Aggie’s vagina is all that matters in the case of determining him a man or woman. It follows the logic that even though he ‘identifies’ as a man, his genitals are what is important in Anna’s decision to sleep with him. He’s not viewed as a man enough to give this lesbian any pause. Even though Aggie isn’t in the movie enough to get more than two overwhelmingly insulting moments, it’s a good enough indicator of the mentality coursing throughout the entire film and all its characters. It’s easily the worst film on this list, something I am almost too easily confident in saying with eleven more movies to get through at this point.
Good movie? No.
Good trans movie? Nooo.
21. Tomboy (2011) dir. Céline Sciamma
Warnings: scenes of transphobia, brief transphobic violence, brief homophobia
Rating: 2.5 / 5
“Tomboy” chronicles the oldest child of a family who moves into a new home just outside of Paris. Though Laure to the family, he introduces himself as Mickäel to one of the girls also living in the complex, and he exists as Mickäel henceforth.
For the most part, this movie is just a slice of life, kids during summer movie. Outside of the last third, most of the conflict or threat thereof comes when Mickäel has to improvise in order to keep his, for lack of a better term, “true” gender secret. He fashions a clay bulge in order to go swimming in shorts, works to keep his home and his friends as far away from each other as possible, etc. It’s only once he starts bringing along his little sister (suspiciously looking like a baby Ariana Grande) does he end up in a fight, and does his mom find out about the identity her child had adopted. But that’s its whole other thing, so we’ll get to that.
Again, this movie was mostly just watching children enjoy themselves over summer. None of the child acting was particularly bad, and the relationships between everybody were sweet, even if only two of the older children get any sort of actual character and solo scenes. As a trans character, Mickäel is one of the first on this list that isn’t a poorly done caricature or offensive from the word go. He’s only 10, and so any prejudice, let alone understanding, of gender and expectations are infantile at best; it’s a perspective that needs to be told. His response to his mom attempting to force a dress onto him is inherently pretty relatable (at least to me).
One of the most heartfelt moments is when his little sister finds out, and there’s only barely a moment of confusion before she switches gears and joins up with Mickäel’s friend group and refers to him as her older brother. It made me think about when I officially came out — while my parents had to go through the five stages of grief for a while, my sister (who already knew) went right to “cool, can I give you Logan-based nicknames now?”, and it was an instant acceptance that almost overwhelmed me. The solidarity of siblings in this movie is beautifully expressed.
Initially I gave this movie 3 out of 5 stars, but after some time to reflect on it and discuss it some, I knocked it down a peg; we really need to talk about that ending and its complete lack of catharsis. Mickäel’s mother is told about her child (son, specifically) getting into a fight with another boy, realizes what’s been happening, and proceeds to then expose her child to emotional trauma and violence. Good job, mom!
In full seriousness, in context, I can see several defenses of Mickäel’s mother coming up; she’s heavily pregnant, she at one point flat out says she isn’t doing what she’s doing to hurt him, she very clearly does love her child. However, as someone who was closeted for a long while in my parents’ home, I can say that intention really does not matter when what you’re putting across is transphobia, especially in regards to a young child. As part of Mickäel’s punishment for getting into the fight, his mother forces him to wear a dress to prove his femininity, and then walks him to his friends’ residences in order to- again, lack of a better term- ‘out’ him to them one by one. Even though they only get through two friends before Mickäel runs away, the idea of this is absolutely traumatic. It’s equivalent to being deadnamed at the doctors, in any public space whatsoever, and it’s a traumatic event. To force a child to go through that is absolutely beyond me.
Further still, when Mickäel runs off into the woods and sheds the dress (luckily wearing a tank top and shorts underneath), he ends up running into his friend group, who by now has been told about him “really being a girl”. And, listen, I know children are products of their environment. Homophobic and transphobic children are the products of homophobic and transphobic parents, and the children need to be slowly made independent of their parents’ ideologies. All that said, I can’t say that I wouldn’t punch a child if said child took part in ganging up on another boy, beating him up and forcibly undressing him to confirm his gender. Mickäel is crying and bruised throughout most of the end of this movie and it’s heartbreaking. It’s not fun to watch, and by the time the credits roll, it feels like nothing has been learned. The mother never so much as apologizes for striking her child and for traumatizing him, and none of the children face any form of repercussions whatsoever.
“Tomboy” starts out as such a pleasant journey into childhood innocence and so quickly rips you out of it, and it leaves you sitting there wondering what the fuck just happened. It made me wonder what the point of the movie even was, outside of being depressed at the thought of a grown Mickäel being severely emotionally repressed and scarred as a result of what happened to him and as a result of his mother completely and utterly rejecting him the way she did.
Good movie? I don’t think it’s bad? I guess if you’re a fan of French films that dangle happiness in front of you before yanking it away, go wild; the ending just really killed this for me.
Good trans movie? Not particularly before the last third, and especially not once the final twenty minutes hit.
22. Romeos (2011) dir. Sabine Bernardi
Warnings: deadnaming, misgendering, institutional and individual transphobia, instance of physical child abuse, transphobic slurs, brief attempted rape, mention of transphobic violence
Rating: 1 / 5
Coming in again from Germany, “Romeos” is the first film on the list to have the trans character not portrayed by a female actress. Having a cis man is not the equivalent of having an actual trans person in the role, but after the last 20-some movies I’ve sat through with women in the roles, I’ll take this as a passable middle ground.
Okay, so, we’ll talk about what I liked first because that’s a shorter paragraph. Again, I think that casting a cis man in this role is not inherently a deal breaker. It gets across the point that trans men are men, it doesn’t do the same damage that casting a cis women does for the same part, and I liked the quiet vulnerability that Lukas’ actor gives the role.
I don’t know a lot about Germany and how it is for trans people, so I can’t give any opinion on it’s portrayal on institutional transphobia, but it never exactly plays off as cartoonish or terribly over-exaggerated. The first third of the film is mostly pleasant outside of these brief instances, as Lukas explores his friendship with Ine, a lesbian he’d known before transitioning, and Fabio, a cis gay man he meets upon arriving in Cologne, Germany.
Once it’s past the first half hour, the film starts the shit show. Ine, who is mostly likable up until then, very suddenly reveals herself to be transphobic garbage. Among many microaggressions, she randomly fluctuates between correctly naming and deadnaming Lukas, outs him to people at her convenience, and at one point even says “if you love boys anyway, then stay a girl”. She accuses Lukas of being selfish and only ever talking about his transness (which, he doesn’t. Nothing shown to the audience validates this), but by the end, they’re friends again despite Ine never once apologizing for being a complete bitch. We’re going to leave that there, because that’s shitty and awful, but we’re going to need more time to talk about Fabio and this movie’s fucking weird lesson it tries to teach by the end.
So about 40 minutes in, Lukas is outed to Fabio by his family in an incredibly tense and uncomfortable scene that ends in Lukas violently striking his kid sister (fun!), and what was previously a slow-burn style romance very quickly shifts gears. When Lukas and Fabio next see each other, the very first thing that Fabio says to him is “let me make this clear, I don’t like trannies”. And for whatever reason, he remains the love interest after saying this.
And further still, let me be clear — Fabio never apologizes for any remarks that he makes towards Lukas. He is extremely transphobic from here on out, and not unreasonable to theorize that he is part of why the men in the building begin harassing Lukas as well. He is awful to Lukas, but, for some bizarre reason, the final scene of the movie is them kissing, ultimately fucking. This makes no sense for about five different reasons, including the one that remembers that Lukas had previously almost been raped by a cis gay man not that long ago, and him deciding now to have sex with someone he knows is violently transphobic comes the fuck out of nowhere.
To end on that scene almost implies that transphobia is a light quirk that can be worked out in a relationship. But transphobia isn’t being a cat or a dog person, it’s fucking transphobia, and for this movie to imply that sleeping with a trans person will cure one’s transphobia is grossly fetishistic and irresponsible. I’ve been on the receiving end of cis men being transphobic and flirtatious in the same breath- this movie contains a line that goes “[I’ve] never fucked a tranny before”, which I swear is almost verbatim a text I’ve received- so this is one aspect that I know I’m not overthinking.
Fetishization of trans people is a violent reality, and this movie plays around with it like it’s nothing and it’s disgustingly frustrating. I came into this movie far too optimistic because of it’s casting choices, and as a result the horrifying transphobic choices it makes hit me all the harder. We are not sex dolls for cis people to work out their issues on.
Good movie? Sadly no. The first third is almost passably average, but it descends into awful insanity once the first half hour is over. Another movie where I was sighing so much that my roommate was looking over to check in on me.
Good trans movie? Noooooo.
23. Albert Nobbs (2011) dir. Rodrigo García
Warnings: description of gang rape, brief physical abuse, post-mortem misgendering
Rating: 1.5 / 5
I don’t have any sort of clever introduction to this one, outside of simply stating that I’m glad we’ve backed away from disgustingly offensive at all times to just brain-rottingly boring.
“Albert Nobbs” is about that titular character, woman-disguised-as-man as he works as a butler at a hotel in Dublin, attempting to romance Mia Wasikowska (Helen) while she and her boyfriend Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Joe) work to scam him in order to immigrate to America. I can’t say I know what the general public view of Glenn Close is, but she was bad in this. I couldn’t find anything much to like about her character, or her acting, and her having to deliver exposition through talking to herself reflected poorly on her and whatever poor screenwriter shucked this out. Although who knows, I might have benefited from some subtitles considering half of the cast thinks Irish people sound like how Scottish Twitter reads.
So while most of this movie just taunted me with the idea that I could literally be doing anything else besides watching it, it did throw in some random chunks of awful to keep me on my toes. Probably halfway through the movie, Nobbs reveals to another woman-disguised-as-man (because weren’t there so many in 19th century Ireland?) that the reason he lives as a man is because when he was fourteen, he was raped by five men. Ever since then, he’s lived as a man.
Though unarguably awful, this isn’t even the first time I’ve heard the “he’s trans by means of self defense from ‘real’ men” argument. Brandon Teena’s mother used that very same line of logic, stating that her child dressed as a man as the result of childhood sexual trauma. It’s not new to me, but it’s gross and it leads to depiction of transness as the result of trauma and illness. It leads to the thought that if women are raped and abused, they will simply become men; I shouldn’t have to go into detail why this makes no logical sense.
In the last few minutes, Albert Nobbs is accidentally killed as a result of putting himself between the feuding Helen and Joe; he (very awkwardly) hits his head against the wall, and by morning he’s found dead in his bed. Already confusing, the movie here decides to mirror a real trans man in it’s actions. Brendon Gleeson (God bless him, trying his best to do something with his cameo of a role) enters the room, for whatever reason decides to unbutton Albert’s shirt, and discovers the gender secret. In a later scene, Albert’s ‘trans’ friend is told by one of the women working the hotel about how this secret made headlines everywhere in Ireland.
For those not aware, James Barry was a military surgeon in the British Army, though originally born in Ireland, in 1789. He’s noted for many things, including preforming the first cesarean section in Africa in which both mother and child survived. Upon his death in 1865, it was discovered that Barry had been born a woman; the charwoman who discovered this ultimately went to the press and made the story public. Well over one hundred years later, he continues to be transphobically misidentified through upcoming films (source) and novels (source) written about him, starring a woman and writing about him as a woman, respectively.
This movie’s bizarre choice to mirror this awful reality gave me a pit in my stomach. Incorrectly gendering us after death is the reason why its so hard to know how many trans people exist and die in the world, and it’s not something to portray without thinking about it’s implications. The movie never seems to care about those implications on gender and what causes us to identify in the way that we do; according to this movie, trans men are just violently abused women, and the “truth” about us will always be found out by the end, and that’s horrifyingly ignorant and dangerous.
Good movie? No.
Good trans movie? No again.
24. 52 Tuesdays (2013) dir. Sophie Hyde
Warnings: lesphobic slurs, deadnaming, misgendering, general transphobia, brief transphobic violence
Rating: 0.5 / 5
I genuinely don’t know how the movies on this list keep getting worse.
“52 Tuesdays” chronicles a daughter, Billie, as her mother transitions into being her father, going from seeing the parent every day to once a week, on Tuesdays. The film only films Tuesdays over the course of a year and follows the family’s trials and tribulations. It’s an interesting concept but dear God does it fall flat beyond that.
I tried not to judge this movie on what I wanted it to be and rather on what it was, but I am seriously so, so sick of movies like these focusing on everybody but the trans man. A movie about a trans man going through his transition while helping his family along is a good concept, and one I’d like to see done with some competency. But instead, the movie decides to focus on the father’s (James) teenage daughter as she, on paper, copes with the change. In actuality, it’s about 20% her dealing with the transition, 80% her filming herself and another couple fucking in an empty building supplied to her by her uncle, who himself is strangely creepy and transphobic.
Frankly, this movie unintentionally really highlights why people go back into the closet, detransition, because of a total lack of support that results in it being easier to live closeted. Very early on in his HRT, James finds out his liver is overproducing enzymes, and he will die if he continues to take testosterone. It is extremely upsetting for him and induces a depression that lasts many weeks.
Does Billie even remotely seem to care about this? Not at all! Her concern goes right back to her fuck buddies, and later on in an argument with her father, she throws it at him that he’s not even really transitioning anymore, that he doesn’t look ‘any different’, that he’s not transitioning to be a man like he’d said. You know, all extremely horrible things to say to a trans person, especially one who’s been seriously depressed over things like this in the past.
And that little friend group actually turns into a much larger plot point when the video of Billie and her friends fucking ends up in the hands of the school and her parents, because that constitutes child pornography. But of course she doesn’t give a shit about it and continues to hang out with the two, disregarding both parents in order to do so. Eventually, when James confronts her with the sim card containing the footage, she compares the contents of it to his filming of his trip to San Francisco to expose himself to a larger trans community. Because child pornography is remotely fucking comparable to a man’s chronicle of his transition.
And then when James rightfully destroys the tape, Billie responds by punching him in the chest, where he is still healing from chest surgery. If my roommates hadn’t been sleeping while I watched this, I would’ve started rage screaming.
It also makes the unique choice to rag on James for transitioning so late in his life, and a multitude of jokes are made about it by other characters (notably, James doesn’t ever join in). I was only seventeen when I came to my realization, and even then I thought I was too old to come to such a conclusion. The idea that trans people have to know since childhood of their trans status is grossly misinformed and genuinely debilitating to the transition process. This movie’s decision to make light of such a situation highlights its complete lack of knowledge on anything its talking about.
Later in the movie, her father (the cis one) ends up in the hospital, but before you know that as the viewer, I genuinely thought that James had tried to kill himself. It was something I’d been dreadfully waiting for the entire film; for two hours he’s deadnamed, misgendered, and treated awfully by every character we ever come across. His daughter, brother, ex-husband, all of them seem to blame James for every trouble spike that occurs. No one seems to genuinely care about him outside of their own selfish needs and desires. I’m extremely surprised this didn’t end with James trying to kill himself, because so seldom does he ever get any real support from anybody in his life.
I’m fucking sick of movies treating the trans character like this, because it equates their mere existence to trouble. They cannot exist without causing chaos and turmoil. This movie didn’t come close to earning the ending where Billie decides to move back in with James because not once did I ever believe that she ever felt any remorse for how she treated her father. I never once believed she loved him.
Good movie? No — Billie is one of the most frustrating characters with negative growth I’ve ever seen and if I never see this movie again it’s too soon. Not as bad as “Itty Bitty Titty Committee”, but still awful.
Good trans movie? No.
25. Pierrot Lunaire (2014) dir. Bruce LaBruce
Warnings: transphobic rhetoric, transphobic terminology, body mutilation, genital mutilation, attempted genital mutilation, possible attempted rape, body horror
Rating: 2 / 5
I’ll be honest, I have no idea how the fuck to talk about this one.
This short film (clocking in at barely 50 minutes) is based upon a German melodrama from 1912, consisting of 21 poems. The director behind this adaptation is apparently well known for tackling subjects of “sexual and interpersonal transgressions against cultural norms”; that mini biography gave me a good indicator of what I was in for. Further still, he’d actually adapted “Pierrot Lunaire” three years earlier, initially as a stage production. I think some of that footage is used within this film itself, although I’m not going to lie and say I’m completely confident in that statement.
“Pierrot Lunaire” is in the style of a silent film, black and white and delivering its dialogue through black screens and text boxes. It’s a return to form, considering where this list started and stayed for quite some time. Rather than total silence, however, the film’s score is the 21 poems being read, albeit in German so there wasn’t any chance of me understanding it. Luckily, they seemed more vital to providing a mood than it was for actual story purposes.
In terms of plot, it follows a man named Pierrot and his girlfriend Columbine (likely named after one of the poems), forcibly separated after Columbine’s father discovers that Pierrot is biologically a woman and has no penis. The rest of the film is dedicated to Pierrot trying to find a penis in order to appease Columbine’s father.
So, okay. I would like to go into whether or not the film worked for me as a film, but I genuinely have no idea what I thought of it. It was definitely weird, but it was an exceptionally successful venture in visual storytelling. All the acting is hammed up to 11, the cinematography is beautiful, and it clearly cares more about creating an experience than it does telling a proper story. I don’t know if I liked it, but I don’t think I disliked it either.
But we’ve got to talk about the trans stuff. This film had a very low bar to hurdle after “Albert Nobbs” and “52 Tuesdays”, so it would’ve had to be absolutely atrocious to invoke any genuine wrath out of me. As is, it’s not good, but it treads over a lot of the same cis misunderstandings that we’ve seen in this list before. Pierrot is played by a cis woman, and the hyper focus on the character wanting a penis is… strange.
I know trans men who want bottom surgery and trans men who don’t, but in short, it’s not the end-all be-all of transness. Here, it very much came across as cis fixation, which, hell, that might’ve been the point all along. It’s hard to tell if this film means to come across genuinely or as a parody, and I haven’t seen any of the director’s other works to have an idea of what he’s normally like.
All that said, this does give me the opportunity to touch upon a theme I’ve been noticing, but haven’t yet had the chance to bring up since “Desperate Living”. There seems to be an interesting theme of the trans characters transitioning as a result of wanting to please their cis partners, which is frankly not how reality works in the slightest. Yes, spousal support or lack thereof can certainly influence when and how transition happens, but we do not decide these things strictly because a girlfriend suddenly requires a cisgender penis.
In this movie, it comes across that Pierrot is just sort of stuck in a ‘woman’ body until the conflict kicks in, and suddenly there’s that drive to go out and get a dick. I think surgery is the easiest way to go about this, but I guess you could just do what he did and cut one off the first cabbie you come across, too; I don’t think that’s viable in the long run, though. This movie really likes body horror, so please don’t take those warnings lightly if you’re squeamish to many, many dicks being cut off and otherwise mutilated.
Good movie? …eh? If you like super artsy films or like Bruce LaBruce’s other films, I can suggest it on weirdness factor alone. But I don’t think this has any sort of mainstream appeal.
Good trans movie? Not particularly, no.
26. Predestination (2014) dir. Michael & Peter Spierig
Warnings: homophobic slur, forced medical procedures, general transphobia/transphobic terminology
Rating: 3 / 5
Not going to lie, I had some warning before going into this.
This was a well-intentioned recommendation from my mom, who I told over the phone that I was doing this article, and she subsequently told me to check out the “trans Ethan Hawke” movie. Within five minutes, my trans friends were telling me absolutely do not do that, and while I wasn’t going to, this list has shifted a lot from it’s original form, and I needed more movies to fill up spots. Hence, “Predestination”.
So explaining this plot is going to be weird. First off, its a time travel movie, so there’s already a preexisting layer of probably-not-going-to-make-sense; the second part of why this is such a fucking strange movie to talk about is more spoiler-heavy, so I’ll generalize some until later on. Basically, Ethan Hawke is an unnamed future kind-of cop, who time travels in order to stop crimes before they happen. On one particular assignment, he goes back to 1970, meets a fiction writer named John, learns about his colorful past, and offers him a job to also be a time traveling almost-cop.
It’s total bonkers the second you start to talk the details, so I’ll focus on John for now, who’s the character (technically) who got this movie a spot here.
John, actually, is intersex. Born and raised as a woman, it’s not until after giving birth to a child that he’s told he had internal male organs; and because it’s the 60’s, the doctor just up and removed his female organs post-birth without any sort of consolation or any warning to John that this was going to happen. Despite that obviously being horrible, John just kind of goes with the flow from there and starts living as a man. It’s only twenty minutes of the movie dedicated to this transitional period of his life, maybe less. And the intersex aspect of the character kind of puts me in a pickle.
There’s a lot of debate on whether intersex people are inherently LGBT, and that’s not my debate to step into. I’m not intersex, I have no idea what that is personally like and know nobody who is intersex either; all I can do is hope Google steers me in the right direction. I think- heavy emphasis on think- that because the character in the film was raised as a woman and later in life had to transition, it technically qualifies him as intersex and trans.
So, to briefly go back to that bonkers thing you typically call a plot, the whole twist of the movie is that Ethan Hawke and the John character are the same person. They are trapped in a time loop where John ends up having sex with himself (before he knew he was intersex), the baby he has is himself (which Ethan Hawke drops off at the orphanage for him), and later, when John is a time travel dude and trying to stop this bomber, he gets his face burned off, and then it turns out that his new face is Ethan Hawke! And Ethan Hawke is actually the bomber they’ve been trying to catch all along, and the whole thing is this never-ending loop of fuckery.
I really hope that makes sense to the average reader because I have no idea how else to explain all that. It’s been nearly an hour since the credits rolled and my brain is still hurting from trying to understand it all, within context of the movie and in the context of why the screenwriters chose this.
In terms of plot, it seems that the reason John is intersex is so he can eventually get himself pregnant and give birth to.. himself. I don’t know why he has to do this, but that’s Ethan Hawke’s job and he doesn’t question it very hard. But, okay, John as a trans character is one of a lack of choice, which seems to be a theme throughout the whole movie. He has no choice in his identity once the doctor decides to do whatever he wants post-birth, and he makes it very clear that living as a man is miserable for him. I don’t know why the removal of his uterus had to immediately be followed by “well, we’ll fix the junk so this person can pee standing up for the hell of it, might as well go all the way and go full man”, but it’s stupid no matter what justification you can give it.
On top of the already heavy “genitals=gender” angle this movie decides to take, it further enforces that those like John have no agency in how they choose to identify. In the context of a world where real intersex children often have incredibly traumatic surgeries forced upon them, this is a dangerous message to settle on. Genitals are not indicative of gender, regardless if a person cis or trans.
This article talks about this movie’s choices much better than I ever could, so I highly encourage giving that a read if you’re curious.
Good movie? I’ll give this a very cautious yes. This was definitely better than many of the other movies I’d watched previously, seldom outright offensive, so it gets a wave-through.
Good trans movie? The intersex angle sort of makes this part of the rating system odd. As someone who isn’t intersex, I don’t feel comfortable deciding whether or not this is an appropriate movie for that, (see here for why being intersex does not inherently equate to transness), but looking at the trans angle separate of all that, it’s not the worst thing I’ve seen doing this list, but it’s not good either.
27. Three Generations (2015) dir. Gaby Dellal
Warnings: consistent misgendering and transphobia, transphobic violence
Rating: 2 / 5
This was another movie I knew in infamy and avoided at all costs before deciding to do this article.
I first heard about “Three Generations” under it’s original title, “About Ray”, when it started doing rounds online for being another movie where a cis female actress took on the role of a trans guy and the director was doing, well, we’ll say less than a good job of defending that choice. At that point I had no idea of my own personal stake in the discourse and kind of forgot about it once the talk died down. A friend later recommended it to me once it hit Netflix a year or two ago; well intentioned, but by that point I was closeted trans and in no way interested in watching something I’d only ever heard horrible things about. But now, this list, so I held my nose and hoped it wouldn’t be as bad as I’d built it up in my head to be.
“Three Generations” is kind of a self-explanatory title, as Ray (Elle Fanning) decides to transition, his mother and grandmother must also come to terms with the change as well as track down Ray’s father so he can give legal consent to Ray’s transition, as Ray is 16. Most of the movie is about Ray’s mother, played by Naomi Watts, as she tries to get Ray’s father to sign the papers and as she herself attempts to cope with Ray’s transition.
Right off the bat, I will say that this movie is not as bad as I feared it would be. It’s not worse than “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” or “Romeos”, and despite not being a good movie, it’s not an on-fire garbage can, either. It’s the first film on the list to show the trans character use a proper binder, which was so, so welcome; but don’t exercise in them and don’t let anyone exercise in them, good grief.
A lot of the problems with the lightly transphobic dialogue really would be fixed just by simply casting a pre-t trans guy in this role. Elle Fanning, bless her, is doing her best, but she’s just not right for this part. Her delivering the line “I’m a dude with tits” comes off as strangely dismissive, and because it’s a woman saying it, it’s transphobic in a way that it isn’t when actual trans men are being jokingly dismissive of themselves. It matters who is saying what, and who is cast as who, because casting and word choice is impactful.
The major problem with the movie is evidenced in the title change. It’s not a movie “about Ray”, it’s about the family around him. I came to the realization about twenty-five minutes in that my mom would probably love this movie, and the longer it went, the more that thought was reaffirmed. This movie is not about Ray, which sucks, because I would love to see a teen’s transition play out with this family and setting (New York looks beautiful in this, though I can’t say I’ve ever seen it look ugly, either); this movie is for the Naomi Watts of the world, the parents who have trans kids but who don’t really know how to deal with it.
Ray’s existence is less character and more catalyst, an object to get conflict going. He’s really the only character without an arc in the movie; his mom has to deal with her past relationship drama, his grandmother must deal with updating her views of gender and sexuality, and Ray has… really nothing. He gets into a physical fight with another boy as a result of transphobia, and that should in some way impact him, but he treats it as if its nothing and five minutes later its never mentioned again. It’s great that he finally gets to start hormone therapy by the end, but he doesn’t learn anything more about himself and his relationships with those around him like his mother and grandmother get the chance to do.
In the last scene of the movie, Ray tells his mother he’s proud of her, a callback to earlier in the movie when his mother would tell him the same thing when discussing his transition; if this movie were truly about Ray, it would’ve ended with his mother once again saying this to him, and him truly hearing her and their relationship being closer and more understanding than it had been before.
But it’s not about him, so this ending insinuates that his mom was the character we were supposed to be rooting for all along, and not the trans man facing transphobia and adversity from his own family. It’s not about him, so we never see the effects of long lasting misgendering and deadnaming. His character doesn’t seem to mind major transgressions against him because the writers of this are two cis women who in no way can understand the trans struggle and the way trans people react to subtle and overt transphobia.
They wrote this for the moms of trans kids, if anybody, and true understanding of transness takes a backseat to reassuring moms that they’re good parents and all that spiel. And I guess I’m glad that the moms are going to feel better about themselves after this, but I was hoping for something more for the Ray’s of the world like me.
Good movie? It’s a bit of a melodrama, and maybe I’m burned out on all the bad movies coming before, but I can’t call it bad. Good intentioned but misinformed.
Good trans movie? Not for trans kids; it feels like a movie you put on a list to show a cis parent or family member who’s struggling with accepting you.
28. Paternity Leave (2015) dir. Matt Riddlehoover
Warnings: vomiting, brief overt transphobia
Rating: 0.5 / 5
This is the first movie on this list where trans guys play no role in the story, and we’re going to go into why that is and why I still kept this movie on the list.
“Paternity Leave” is a romantic comedy about what happens when a “genetic mutation” allows for cisgender men to become pregnant. It follows Greg and Ken as they deal with Greg becoming pregnant, subverting the expectations, I guess.
So if you’re wondering how the fuck a cis man is supposed to give birth, your first or second guess is exactly right. They literally shit out their child. There’s no mention of if there’s any form of umbilical cord, they note that these guys don’t have any form of uterus so there’s no logical way that a child should be able to be born to these men, but hey, how else are we supposed to get shots of men literally shitting out their newborns?
And the filmmakers cannot plead ignorance to trans pregnancies because they make a point to direct specific attention to it at one point. When Greg is having a meltdown about being the “first man to give birth” (he’s not), one of his friends mentions Thomas Beatie, still not the first man to give birth, but certainly a trans man who carried three children to term successfully. Ken’s word for word response is “except, you know, Greg was actually born a man”. Nothing says inter-community solidarity like making a movie designed to shit on and erase trans men, asshole.
Outside of having horrible views and morals behind it, it’s just not a good movie either. It’s not porn-levels of bad, but it’s not far from that. Everything is shot like a YouTube short series and the characters themselves are unlikable and annoying to watch. Every character is a white dude with a beard and I don’t think there’s a single nonwhite person in the entire movie; at least not one with a memorable role of any sort.
There’s no reason this concept couldn’t have been tweaked and just focused on a trans pregnancy — those get plenty of media attention in certain cases, and you could have a genuine and important discussion on what pregnancy does to trans men in terms of mental and emotional effects. But you didn’t do that, Matt Riddlehoover, and instead you’ve gifted us with this movie that barely hit 90 minutes with overlong, useless padding and shallow characters. Though this is a half star, I was never shaking with rage like I have with some other movies on the list, but there is still nothing of value here.
Good movie? Noo.
Good trans movie? No no no.
29. Passing (2015) dir. J. Mitchel Reed & Lucah Rosenberg-Lee
Warnings: discussion of transphobia
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Finally some black people on this list! Unfortunately, “ZouZou” (1934) got cut from this list for being a French film that I had no access to in subtitled form, and it should be surprising to no one that even within the LGBT community, black people more often than not get the shaft.
“Passing” is perhaps one of the most important movies on this list, which is why its so upsetting that it clocks in at under a half hour of running time. This short film interviews three trans men of color- Victor, Lucah, and Sasha Alexander- and simply chronicles what it means to be trans and the importance of visibility within your own community. As I cannot talk for being anything other than incredibly white, I just want to boost this as much as I can.
For as short as it is, this movie does touch on issues that have yet to be brought up anywhere in the previous 28 films I’ve covered here. They discuss the difference between life as a woman and as a man of color, the importance of passing (hence the title), and discuss how media representation impacted them. “Everything in the media, everything that we’ve been taught by our culture — you didn’t want to be one of those people”. Trans depiction by the media is vital to not only cis understanding, but also to our own self acceptance.
I’ve already discussed that portrayal of transness in a certain way held me back for several years in figuring out who I was, and more and more I’m seeing that as a more universal experience than I could’ve realized. I wish so badly this was a full length documentary in the vein of “Southern Comfort” or “You Don’t Know Dick”, something that I could spend so much longer thinking about and analyzing. We owe it to our communities of color and all their intersections to understand and protect them, and positive depictions through film like this absolutely help that cause.
Good movie? Yes!
Good trans movie? Yes! I hope that a longer documentary about trans men of color is coming soon.
30. Real Boy (2016) dir. Shaleece Haas
Warnings: deadnaming, parental transphobia, discussion of self harm and addiction
Rating: 4 / 5
My mom might read this article. In that event — hi, mom.
Lucky enough to have a good relationship with both parents, it was always my mom that I felt closest to, the parent that I valued highly and all the time we spent together bonding over stupid daytime television and horror movies. And going into this whole thing- the realization, the decision to be closeted as well as the decision to come out and transition- all held a very large mirror up to my relationship with my mom. Even separate my gender, I’ve always tried to avoid movies and shows and everything about mothers and their children, just because they’re almost always rough on me and I’m not usually in the mood to cry my eyes out. My relationship with my mom is absolutely, 100% vital to me, and thinking about losing that or in some way damaging it is one of the easiest ways to get me upset.
So coming out to my mom was the scariest thing about coming out at all. I was closeted for a year beforehand, and that whole mental state really, really fucks with your head. Being closeted turns you into this paranoid, self-destructive, emotionally immature shadow, and by the time I left home to go to college, I had completely convinced myself that when I came out, I would never be able to go home again, my parents were going to hate me forever; no part of that had anything to do with what family life was actually like, it was almost entirely because that’s what being closeted does to your brain. The fear is a survival mechanism, and it’s a fear that makes you have nightmares, that forces you to emotionally detach from your most important relationships because you’re convinced you’re going to lose them. It took a long while before I was able to get my brain close to back to where it was before, before it jumped to the nowhere-grounded-in-reality conclusion that my family was going to forever disown me.
So going into this movie, a documentary about a trans man’s relationship with his mother, I already had the tissues beside my laptop before the first scene rolled. “Real Boy” follows several years of a young trans man named Bennett (Ben for short) as he goes through his transition. Along the way, he attempts to deal with his family- a sister and a dad who no longer talk to him, and a mom unsuccessfully trying to understand the whole situation- and we further see the growth of his friendships with Dylan, a trans man he moves in with and gets top surgery with, and Joe Stevens, a trans musician who I very much intend to listen to further.
As expected, I cried at several points, mostly towards the beginning when Bennett is struggling more with his mom. One of the first lines of the movie is “all I really want is to be loved by my family”; it’s simple but it packs such a strong punch.
Once again, documentaries are the only way that we see real life transness depicted in any way properly on this list. I got little bursts of excitement every time they mentioned something so simple like the back acne, anxiety over passing, and relevance that internet culture has on feeling seen in your own community. I never got into heavy drugs or drinking as a kid, but like Bennett, I still engaged in other forms of self harm at a young age. Looking back now, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I stopped on my own around the time I realized I no longer could identify as a girl. And in this film, they don’t pretend that it’s all uphill from day one — addiction is a very serious thing, and they depict that. But rather than focus on it, the vision is on the happiness in just getting to be alive as your authentic self, surrounded by those like you and who care about you.
It was smart of this movie to make Bennett’s mom’s gradual acceptance more of a subplot than the actual focus of the movie. Much like “Three Generations”, we don’t want a movie about a trans person to be upstaged by cisgender turmoil and ignorance, and “Real Boy” actually knows that too and keeps the focus on Bennett growing into himself with time and care and love. He’s the heart of the film and we never forget that.
And while his mother never eclipses him, her journey from complete nonacceptance to finally being there with her child after his top surgery speaks volumes, and it’s an image that really struck something in me. Even while he’s facing transphobia and hostility from his sister and father by the end, it isn’t milked to be tragedy porn and Bennett doesn’t let it distract from his friendships and his successes. It made me happy, and after writing this I’ll probably check out one of those “real boy” shirts and text my mom.
Good movie? Yes; heartfelt, realistic, and gave me so much hope and excitement for my own ability to reach where Bennett is.
Good trans movie? Outside of a very brief conversation that goes into “born in the wrong body” rhetoric, yes!
31. Colette (2018) dir. Wash Westmoreland
Warnings: emotional abuse, brief transphobia
Rating: 3.5 / 5
To end it off, the only movie on this list I had seen before this month. On the surface, “Colette” is another Keira Knightley period piece; I’m at the point where I think if I’ve seen this many, I don’t need to exactly see the rest. I watched this for the first time as part of the free showings my college campus does, and was mostly bored but somewhat entertained when the story started to move away from the “Dominic West is Just Literally The Worst Husband Ever” aspect.
In terms of basic plot, this biopic of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette plays out as a slice of life — she meets her husband, marries him, begins to ghostwrite for him and have consensual extra-marital affairs with women, conflict ensues.
Coming back to it now, several months later, there are two angles with which to look at this movie as it captures trans-ness. The first is small, something you would have to be told beforehand and wouldn’t be able to tell from a glance. I knew about it going in and still missed it. In a scene about 40 minutes in, Colette gets her palm read by a husband and wife; these two characters are portrayed by trans actors. It’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but the simple act of casting trans people as people to just exist within the universe is something seen all too rarely and therefore all the more appreciated. I’m all through subversion of expectations like this — cis people play us all the time, so why can’t we play them?
The second point is a point of contention. By the second act, we’re introduced to Colette’s new love interest, Mathilde de Morny (“Missy”). Though portrayed by a cis actress, the character himself is introduced as “a woman who dares to wear men’s clothing”, much like what we’ve seen time again earlier in the list; after a few scenes of the two together, after Colette and Missy begin a continuous relationship, we get a scene where it is told to us that Missy goes by “he”.
On a rewatch, now that the shock of seeing that was no longer there, I was able to really appreciate how effective that bluntness was. No big coming out scene was required, there was no violent, jealous husband, nobody died; Missy is allowed to exist as himself, and Colette makes no big deal about it. And by the end, that is still the case! Dominic West finally gets served the divorce he should’ve had twenty minutes in, Colette tells Missy she loves him, and the movie ends on a positive note that doesn’t have a last-minute backspin to it like the rest of the film had had.
My only point of concern is whether to classify Missy as a trans man or as a butch, he/him lesbian. I think the distinction comes in where the director had previously shown awareness of trans actors, literally within the same movie, and I think it’s more likely that if he had wanted film-Missy to be seen as a trans man, he would’ve cast a trans man in the role.
The historical Missy’s identity isn’t an open-and-shut case, and from the research I’ve done, I can’t say trying to make it that is exactly easy; I don’t blame the choice to lean on the side of caution and deem him a lesbian. That doesn’t void seeing him as trans, either.
In terms of Missy’s character, he doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but he’s never made an offensive caricature either. He comes into Colette’s life in order to inspire her to further rebel against her husband, and the two are consistently respectful of each other. Missy’s identity is more a point of conflict for the general public than it is for Colette, and the lack of conflict there is pleasantly refreshing.
Good movie? Yes! I think the second half is far better than the first, and I’m a simple man, I can’t get mad at Keira Knightley period pieces, not really.
Good trans movie? It depends on how you want to view Missy’s character. If you view him as trans, then he’s played by a female actress, so no. If you view him as a butch lesbian and focus in on the two characters played by trans actors, then more so yes. I’m more inclined to give this a “yes” rating; it’s not perfect, but it’s one of the more respectful almost-portrayals on this list.
I knew I wasn’t going to like a lot of the movies on this list, mostly through second-hand exposure to people who had seen them already, but I was rather unprepared for how pessimistic this whole venture turned out.
Undoubtedly, there were some good movies on this list. “Yentl” was easily my favorite of the list, and I was pleasantly surprised by each of the documentaries and enjoyed all of them. On the flip side, movies I expected to like such as “Romeos” and “52 Tuesdays” were awful in ways I couldn’t have foreseen or imagined. Though most movies stuck to unremarkable, some light sprinklings of good or awful movies at least kept things interesting as I went.
Ultimately, by list’s end, I thought about why I did this list and subjected myself to some of the worst movies trying to push a message I’ve ever seen. Thinking about the list as a whole, I couldn’t come up with an answer that satisfied me. So instead I focused on the movies I liked, and why I liked them; primarily, these were the documentaries. And I think in the end, I wanted to find something I could identify myself with and find understanding in. I didn’t realize I was a trans man until I was 17, and now, coming up on 19, I still feel like the community is this underground whisper, something I can only theorize about and hope to someday find. I want to see and know more men like me, to be able to relate with them and know my community. A lot of my personality revolves around film, it’s something I connect with very easily and feel very passionate about, and I know it’s impact on marginalized communities can be very bad if mishandled.
As a whole, this list is a depressing example of that. Movies like “Boys Don’t Cry” can be used as little mile markers for why cis people understand us the way they do. So many of these movies put women and suits and call them men- which we are not- and then they use us for tragedy porn (“Boys Don’t Cry”, “52 Tuesdays”, “Romeos”) because it is inconceivable to them that we can live happy or even just normal lives. It’s only the documentaries that give insight into these situations of normality, that talk about the issues we experience without romanticizing them or turning us into sob stories for cis people to feel slightly guilty about. The amount of tragedy porn on this list was unsurprising but still disappointing, a genuine realization as to why so many ignorant people exist. I hope this list is evidence to the vitality of media representation of marginalized groups, and that when it’s done wrong it can have ripple effects that last decades.
Happy International Day of Trans Visibility, remember to be kind to us and donate where you can. Trans people and trans people of color especially are always in need of help and we always notice. Thank you.