When I wrote my recent article on Tangerine for The Dissolve, I spent some time researching the history of how movies about trans characters have been received. I’m not talking about reviews by cis critics, mind you. I already knew that those involved a lot of misgendering and lexical stumbling, even from the best-intentioned of writers. (Or fucking wordplay. The late Richard Corliss was a wonderful writer, but I’ve long loathed the coy “SHE IS A HE” bullshit acrostic in his much-loved Crying Game review.) Instead, I was curious to see what trans writers and activists have had to say over the years about seeing themselves portrayed onscreen. Those writers, however, have rarely been able to write on anything but tiniest of platforms. The farther back through the decades you go, the harder this (oft-buried) writing becomes to excavate. Maybe two trans women saw Chris Sarandon playing one of their own in Dog Day Afternoon on an autumn evening in 1975; maybe they had a rich post-screening discussion about it. Well, if they did, it sure wasn’t printed in Time.
Here’s what I did find, though. In early 2003, the trans activist and filmmaker Andrea James—whose status in trans circles I’ll charitably describe as “complicated”—reviewed the movie Normal on her website and vocalized a discontent that was also central to my Tangerine-spurred op-ed:
Yet another male actor playing a male-to-female transsexual left me feeling pretty apprehensive, too. Out transsexual actors are rarely allowed to play others in our community, let alone non-transsexual roles. I doubt I’ll live to see the day an out transsexual actor plays a lead role in a movie put out by a major Hollywood studio. We’ll see what we can do, though!
Going back another decade to 1993, I found a pair of writers whose work excites me far more than James’: the Toronto-based Xanthra Phillipa and Jeanne B. (the latter a nom de plume for Mirha-Soleil Ross), who together created the zine Gendertrash. The zine’s first issue, hosted online at the invaluable Queer Zine Archive Project, is the only one I’ve been able to find so far, and it’s a 40-page grenade hurled at LGBT complacency. It’s a snapshot of a particular time and place, boiling over with the anger that comes from real suffering. The whole issue is essential reading, but since the subject at hand is film criticism, here’s an excerpt from page 14.
Since its release, The Crying Game has born something of a checkered reputation; two decades later, I suspect that what’s most remembered about it are (1) the indie phenomenon it became thanks to a Miramax release and (2) Fergus throwing up when he sees Dil’s penis. When untethered from the film itself and spread via years of pop-cultural osmosis, that scene becomes terrifying shorthand for the way trans women are seen by a hateful world. But here in this clipping, with the film fresh in the air, are two trans women explicitly claiming The Crying Game as their own, saying that Neil Jordan probably has “first hand” experience with its subject matter, all while using language that looks totally alien only a generation later.
This polemic/review provides so much to unpack, but right now I’m primarily fascinated by it as an example of how cultural history works. Nothing, it says to me, is static. How you look at or talk about something right now may not be consistent with how it’s approached only a few years into the past or future. All you can do is try your damnedest to situate yourself in space and time. For me, that means tracking down the words of trans and queer artists who have come before me. Now to pick up my shovel and keep digging.