'Tomboy' Movie With Michelle Rodriguez & Sigourney Weaver Might Set Trans Rights Back Years
It doesn't seem like that long ago that Time informed us we'd reached the "transgender tipping point," via an iconic cover featuring Laverne Cox's legs. Now, a film project titled Tomboy, being pitched as a "gender reassignment thriller," would seem to suggest just the opposite, indicating that Hollywood still has a very poor understanding of transgender identities. The movie's barely coherent plot revolves around a hitman who endures forced feminization surgery — implying, for viewers who aren't well-versed in trans issues, that he has been "turned into a woman" — and his desire to get revenge on the surgeon who violated his body. The framing suggests that transgender people who elect to undergo feminization surgeries and related medical therapies are real-life horror stories who mutilate their bodies, rather than human beings, and underscores the popular attitude that transgender women in particular are really just men dressed as women. The terrible representation in Tomboy, as the project is currently titled, might set the dialogue on trans issues back years — and disappointingly, reports indicate that the film has been cast with two strong Hollywood women, Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver, who are known for their progressiveness.
Do the producers even understand how much work is involved in feminization surgeries and transitioning? Did they or did they not follow the incredibly high-profile case of Caitlyn Jenner, who has been plastered all over the media for the last five months and who spent years being scorned for her appearance as she slowly transitioned? Gender dysphoria is much more complicated than feeling at an utter mismatch with the body you live in. Pitching the film as being about "gender reassignment" implies that gender is based solely on physical appearance, and viewers are very much invited to view Rodriguez's character as a trans woman. It's what makes the horror of the film so compelling — a man turned into a woman against his will. A hitman, someone in a highly masculinized profession, is reduced to the worst imaginable horror: Being a woman, a character literally emasculated in this case. The very thing that makes the film so horrific for audiences is the thing that makes it so offensive, as the film entertains considerable gender essentialism with the statement that having breasts and a vagina makes someone a woman just as having a penis makes someone a man.
Trans viewers and those familiar with trans issues understand the important nuances of gender identity and expression, but cis audiences can't be expected to, especially with gender theory and discussions about gender identity evolving so rapidly. Moreover, it's unlikely that cis producers and actors will be able to consider these issues. The sales pitches for the film clearly illustrate that the creative team views this as a film about gender reassignment, not what it is: Torture, and a violation of bodily autonomy.
"We haven't read the script, but it's disappointing to see filmmakers turning what is a life-saving medical procedure for transgender people into a sensationalistic plot device. We are at a crucial moment in the public's understanding of transgender issues, and stories like these have the potential to undermine the progress we've worked so hard to achieve."
The organization isn't wrong; medical transition in the film has been turned from a lifesaving and lifechanging event to a torture instrument. The studio and actors haven't responded yet, perhaps because GLAAD's criticism only went public at the end of last week — though one can only hope that frantic meetings are taking place behind the scenes this morning.
This is a film whose premise is literally turning a family of critical medical treatments into the stuff of horror films, putting procedures like vaginal construction in the same genre as the torture seen in Saw or Hannibal. It reinforces the notion that gender confirmation surgeries are monstrous, and that the bodies of transgender people are also monstrous. It's telling that feminization, rather than masculinization, surgeries were used to imply that the character had undergone "gender reassignment," because trans women are considered far more threatening than trans men. We live in an era when noted feminist theorists like Germaine Greer say things like: "Just because you lop off your d*ck and then wear a dress doesn't make you a f*cking woman," an utter devaluation of trans women's experiences that similarly sensationalizes feminizing surgeries by turning them into something lurid and tawdry. There's a term for this: Transmisogyny, describing the specific form of misogyny directed at transgender women.
Hollywood either hates the trans community so intensely, or is so clueless, that it thinks a thriller based on the notion of forcible transition is an excellent idea.
This isn't just about a single film, or single producers, or even the actresses involved: It's a systemic Hollywood and social issue. Many cis people already believe that transgender women are really just men and dehumanize trans women by suggesting that "men" can't just "turn themselves into women," as is apparently the case in Tomboy. Trans women are accused of everything from deceiving their intimate partners to threatening the welfare of innocent children in bathrooms to being simply deluded men. When they do show up in pop culture, which isn't very often, it usually goes badly.
To see a man subjected to a series of surgeries and therapies so extensive that he somehow manages to turn into an incredibly attractive Latina — reinforcing the notion that trans women must "pass" by looking conventionally attractive and ignoring the considerable privilege involved in being able to pay for a slew of transition therapies — drives the knife in, given the state of transgender health care in America. Some women are forced to resort to crowdfunding to pay for surgeries and other transgender care that aren't covered by their insurance — even after Obamacare, many plans don't cover transgender services — and others suffer with gender dysphoria in silence.
Yes, there's been progress, but make no mistake: people still have a fundamental lack of understanding about what it means to be trans, erroneously believing that transness is about before and after states, moving from one gender to another — the fact that trans people have always been the same gender and have chosen in some cases to pursue medical transition to address dysphoria is beyond the grasp of society. Misgendering trans women like Jenner is still rampantly common, and things like this are part of the reason why, illustrating the depth of society's hatred for transgender women and their fight for equal rights. In this instance, a major Hollywood film is suggesting that a man can magically be turned into a woman through a series of surgeries alone, rather than being what he always was and will remain: A man, no matter what his body looks like.
Hollywood either hates the trans community so intensely, or is so clueless, that it thinks a thriller based on the notion of forcible transition is an excellent idea. Perhaps it shouldn't be blamed, as it doesn't have a great working model, Orange is the New Black aside.
There is something perhaps particularly disappointing in this situation given that Rodriguez is very open about her bisexuality — a stark reminder that being under the LGBQT umbrella doesn't mean that people are necessarily working in solidarity with their fellow gender and sexual minorities. Weaver, meanwhile, is an outspoken proponent of queer rights and delights in being a queer icon — but evidently doesn't feel the same way about her trans sisters, or realize the implications of this particular role. It's possible that the film is still in development and that those involved are open to discussion on the issue, or willing to consider dropping the project altogether, as it's hard to imagine how Tomboy could possibly be salvaged. At the very least, its female costars might want to rethink their involvement in a film that could be hugely damaging for transgender women.