It’s winning awards, but Girl is no victory for trans representation

Lukas Dhont’s sex-reassignment drama Girl has wowed many critics, but it plays directly into transphobes’ hands, argues Cathy Brennan, part of our LFF Critics Mentorship Programme.

30 October 2018

By Cathy Brennan

Girl (2018)
  • Spoiler warning: This article gives away plot details

Watching Girl I came to the horrifying realisation that my body as a trans woman is not my own. A sickening sense of alienation swept through me in that screening as I watched cis men distort the intimate facets of my life in order to flex their artistic muscles.

For his debut feature as a director, Lukas Dhont plunges into the delicate topic of trans girlhood. We follow trans teenager Lara (played by cis actor Victor Polster) who has recently enrolled at a new school in order to fulfil her dream of becoming a ballerina. Supported by her single father and little brother, Lara is also starting hormone therapy, and is looking to have sexual reassignment surgery.

The most egregious fault in Girl is its perverse hypocrisy in the way Lara’s body is shot. The opening of the film sees Lara perform stretches in her room. The trickle of morning sunlight through half-closed curtains gives the scene a nauseatingly erotic tinge. At first I thought I was reading too much into it, but Dhont’s camera dwells on the teenage Lara’s crotch with a troubling fascination throughout the entire runtime. It forces us to endure repeated scenes of Lara staring longingly into a mirror, often naked. Swimming pool and changing room sequences offer up Lara’s body to the audience for comparison with her cis peers. Footage of teenage girls in various states of undress are shot to eerily serene music. It feels wrong.

The relationship between Lara and her classmates reaches its conclusion with the most explicit scene of transphobia in the film. During a sleepover, Lara is pressured by the other girls into showing her penis. It’s an uncomfortable scene that recalls the schoolyard homophobia of Blue Is the Warmest Colour, another ethically dubious film-festival darling.

The queasiness of the exchange is only exacerbated by its pubescent cruelty. Again it goes back to that curious feeling as a trans woman that your body does not belong to you, but to the cis people who scrutinise it. Dhont conveys this moment as the dramatic pinnacle of the transphobia that Lara must endure. Yet for so much of the film his camera has subjected Lara’s body to that same humiliating scrutiny. The film refuses to recognise the misogynist double-standard it has set up. The camera may gawk at the tranny’s cock with impunity, while the teenage girls are villains for doing the same.

Girl (2018)

Throughout the screening I wondered how such a film that ogles at a young trans girl’s crotch could be praised as “[[embed type­link nid=49148 title=”sensitive”]]”. Upon reflection, however, it makes perfect sense. I think back to the countless men and women who stare at the lower half of my body as I walk down the street; the middle-aged drunks who yell “What is that?”; and the schoolboys who scream in my face. The camera’s gaze in Girl belongs to that of a cis person. It fits comfortably into the way cis audiences see people like me. They may smile to my face while wondering what’s between my legs.

The only thing more staggering than the ineptitude of Girl as a transgender tale is the way the film has been garlanded by the industry. Earlier this year it won the Queer Palm at Cannes, and recently the Sutherland Trophy for Best First Feature at the London Film Festival.

One of the focal points about the so-called debate on trans rights is the area of trans youth. Teens and pre-teens who come out as trans often want to start transitioning before the effects of puberty take their toll. Transphobes have capitalised on social fears about children in order to frame the act of transitioning as a perversion of adolescence pushed forward by a sinister trans lobby.

Mainstream publications have lent legitimacy to such bigotry. Earlier this year, anti-trans journalist Jesse Singal was given the cover story on The Atlantic about detransitioning, where a person realises they are not trans. Such cases are extraordinarily rare, but Singal, and others like him, frame it as a potential epidemic if we support trans children.

Girl (2018)

Girl plays neatly into transphobes’ hands, as Lara’s eagerness to medically transition leads her to self-harm and mutilation. She tucks her penis between her legs with tape during strenuous ballet rehearsals, resulting in an infection. The climax of the film elevates the horror in a single long take, where Lara attempts to cut off her own penis, moments after her family have left the house.

It’s a scene of severe trauma that the film has not earned the right to depict. Dhont’s portrayal of gender dysphoria is so focused on the genitals that he offers no insight into the psychological facets of trans girl’s psychology. To reduce it down to this one act of self-mutilation is cinematic barbarism.

As of writing, the New York Times has published an article with the headline: “Trump Administration Eyes Defining Transgender Out of Existence”. Girl may not have caused this, but it certainly isn’t helping. Any attempt by a cis critic to pass this film off as a victory for trans representation is a patronising attempt to placate wary trans audiences.

To any trans person who has managed to read this far, let me say this: we deserve far better films than the ones we have been offered. We will be the ones who hold the camera.

About the London Film Festival Critics’ Mentorship Programme

Six up-and-coming writers from diverse backgrounds were selected out of hundreds who applied for the week-long London Film Festival mentorship scheme. Most of the critics had already blogged and were obsessive cinephiles, but had not been properly paid as journalists. Hoping to kickstart more mainstream careers and contacts, the students were each mentored by a media partner, including Time Out, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, ScreenDaily and The Evening Standard.

The critics attended the early morning press screenings every day, including Wild Rose, Suspiria, The Favourite and If Beale Street Could Talk, and met afterwards with chief mentor Kate Muir to workshop reviews in various styles – for a broadsheet newspaper, a tabloid, Sight & Sound magazine, and some even did a ‘first night’ review, with copy filed within 30 minutes of the screening.

They also wrote comment pieces for their media partners, worked on video and written reviews for the BFI website, and attended the festival’s filmmakers afternoon teas, as well as panels on the lack of diverse critics and breaking the class ceiling in UK film. After work, they networked at a few filmmakers’ parties.

The Guardian’s critic Peter Bradshaw came in for coffee to reveal the professional secrets on covering festivals like Cannes, and Leigh Singer discussed online video reviewing and his work programming the comedy strand at the festival. Three of the critics also appeared on Jason Solomons’ BBC London Film Podcast.

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