Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Mainstream discussions of transgender representation on screen tend to focus on major awards ceremonies, big budget movies and hit TV series. The excellent, thorough documentary Disclosure (2020), which chronicles Hollywood and American TV’s historic failings in this category, ends on a tentatively positive note, highlighting the progress made by programmes such as Orange Is the New Black and Pose, in which trans characters are fully formed people whose lives extend beyond their gender identities.

MJ Rodriguez in Disclosure (2020)

Progress has undoubtedly been slower on the big screen. The trend of cisgender actors playing trans characters is thankfully on its way out, but it was only five years ago that Eddie Redmayne was deemed worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance as trans woman Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl (2016), and seven years ago that Jared Leto won an Oscar for his portrayal of trans woman Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club (2013). Last year Halle Berry was recruited to play a trans man for a now abandoned project (she swiftly exited following criticism for repeatedly misgendering her character in an interview), and in 2018 Scarlett Johansson did the same.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t great trans characters in films (see A Fantastic Woman, 2017; Tangerine, 2015; and Tomboy, 2011, for recent examples). It’s just that you’re not likely to see them plastered on the walls of your local multiplex, and when trans characters do break through into mainstream popular culture they tend to have been played by a cis person – a phenomenon which has the dangerous potential to exacerbate transphobic assumptions that trans people’s gender identities are false and performative, or costumes that can be worn and discarded at will.

Malonn Lévana and Zoé Héran in Tomboy (2011)

These conversations around representation, and the accompanying pushes for greater sensitivity and nuance in portrayals of gender-diverse characters, are important and necessary. Trans people have as much of a right to see themselves represented in everyday screen media as anyone else. Trans characters in popular films and TV also carry a huge burden, insofar as harmful portrayals can fuel the fires of real-world transphobia. But despite the negative consequences of offensive on-screen stereotypes only affecting people who are transgender, there is no doubt that films like The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyer’s Club are written for the ‘cis gaze’ – a presumed audience of majority cis viewers – with trans viewers at best an afterthought. What transformative power can this representation hold when it appeals to and appeases as wide an audience as possible? A trans viewer may feel ‘seen’ in a literal sense but is unlikely to identify deeply with a trans character that has been written for a cis audience (and likely by a cis writer).

Sanctuary spaces

This is what makes specialist festivals like Flare, the BFI’s LGBTIQ+ festival, such vital spaces for anti-hegemonic cultural engagement – spaces where the gaze isn’t automatically male, straight or cis. The festival celebrates its 35th anniversary this year with its second online edition; in 2020 it was one of the first festivals to go virtual in response to the pandemic with a hastily converted programme of films, and this year it returns to the digital sphere with a richer programme of features, shorts and events.

Flare’s lockdown-enforced shift into the online world mirrors a trend in queer culture often explored in LGBTIQ+ cinema, of physical queer spaces being replaced by online substitutes – bars and clubs making way for chatrooms and Grindr. The festival’s online transformation rhymes interestingly with its own programme, particularly Daniel Sánchez López’s Boy Meets Boy (2021), a queer riff on Before Sunrise (1995) in which two gay men get to know each other over the course of a day in Berlin. Amongst the many topics they discuss (and disagree upon) is the merits of online hookup culture – implicit in their chalk and cheese dynamic is the fact that their chance, in-person encounter would never have happened via the algorithmic matchmaking of an app.

Matthew James Morrison as Harry and Alexandros Koutsoulis as Johannes in Boy Meets Boy (2021)

This is the aspect of in-person festivals most missed by their loyal punters: the unexpected connections with strangers in queues, screening rooms and communal meeting spaces. But it’s an absence perhaps most sorely felt by the marginalised groups represented by festivals like Flare (and its sibling queer festivals across the UK and the world), for whom community hubs are increasingly digital rather than physical.

What Flare’s virtual editions have crucially managed to retain for its community is the opportunity to connect with films that are made specifically for the queer or trans gaze. That is absolutely not to say that these films are unworthy of being seen by as wide an audience as possible. On the contrary, brilliant works of fiction like Cole Meyers’s Rūrangi (2020), or considered documentary portraits like Alexa Bakony’s Colors of Tobi (2021) – both in Flare’s 2021 programme – are the kind of trans representation that are desperately needed for a wider audience, both trans and cis. Films like these, which use trans voices to tell trans stories, provide representation that is deeper and more meaningful than the reassuring tokenism that even the most well-meaning of mainstream trans-inclusive films can employ – as pleasing as it is that a film like Amy Poehler’s Moxie (2021) includes a trans character, there’s only much that an issue-based trans subplot can do.

Raising the gaze

One aspect of the trans gaze that has the potential to be truly transformative for cis and trans audiences alike is the absence of a fixation on the trans body. One of Hollywood’s nastiest tropes is the use of a trans person’s genitals as a punchline or a twist, as in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) and The Crying Game (1992) – Disclosure does a great job of interrogating these moments in detail. Even a film like Lukas Dhont’s Girl (2018), which was widely hailed as progressive and sensitive by (primarily cis) critics, and was an award-winner at Cannes, can fall foul of this dangerous preoccupation. Until mainstream cinema can portray trans characters without obsessing over their genitals, the multiplex won’t be a safe or welcoming place for trans audiences.

Elz Carrad as Caz and Arlo Green as Gem in Rūrangi (2020)
Until mainstream cinema can portray trans characters without obsessing over their genitals, the multiplex won’t be a safe or welcoming place for trans audiences.

Enter Rūrangi, then, to show audiences what real trans representation looks like. Originally a five-part web series, edited slickly together into a feature film, it follows transmasculine New Zealander Caz Davis (an astonishing debut by Elz Carrad) as he returns back to his small town, the titular Rūrangi, for the first time in a decade. Since leaving Caz has transitioned, and even his closest family and friends don’t recognise him until prompted. These reunifications structure the film, as Caz meets with best friend Anahera (Āwhina Rose Henare Ashby), former boyfriend Jem (Arlo Green) and his father Gerald (Kirk Torrance).

Despite others’ reactions to Caz’s transition being significant moments in the film, we never leave Caz’s perspective. His friends’ and father’s reactions are distinct moments in his life, as much as his transition has elicited reflection in theirs. Jem, who was Caz’s high school boyfriend pre-transition, is particularly overwhelmed by Caz’s reappearance (and changed appearance); he finds his continued attraction to Caz bewildering, his awkwardness manifesting in delightful moments of slapstick clumsiness.

Crucially, the camera never lingers on Caz’s body in a voyeuristic way. Even references to his transition are muted – Anahera tells Caz that “this makes sense”, and no further mention is needed. Caz’s conflict isn’t one with his own body, but rather it is the potential violence of transphobia that torments him. When Caz is asked why he left his hometown for so long he repeatedly replies, “If I stayed I’d be dead”. In a hostile environment like the UK, whose media incessantly frames trans people as threatening force, this message is brutal but essential, highlighting transphobia’s inherent violence. Rūrangi, therefore, is not only transformative cinema for trans viewers but for cis audiences too, a chance for trans voices to not ‘join the debate’, with the false legitimisation of transphobic rhetoric that this brings, but speak on their own terms.

Tóbiás and Éva in Colors of Tobi (2021)

Colors of Tobi, a documentary about Hungarian gender non-conforming teen Tóbiás Benjámin Tuza, splits its viewpoint more pointedly, lingering equally on Tobi’s mother Éva’s reactions to Tobi’s journey of gender identity discovery. Like 2020’s Little Girl, Sébastien Lifshitz’s stunning, emotionally potent portrait of Sasha, an eight-year-old girl whose gender was assigned as male at birth, Colors of Tobi recognises the importance of supportive parents for children whose genders exist outside the binary of traditional gender roles. When Tobi comes out as transmasculine, it is their parents who have to submit paperwork on their behalf, and take them to doctor’s appointments; without parental approval, their transition would not be possible.

Director Alexa Bakony treats both Tobi and the loving but occasionally heavy-handed Éva with compassion, neither judging Tobi as their gender identity shifts from transmasculine to non-binary (much to the bafflement of their parents), nor judging Éva as she unintentionally deadnames her child and uses language that belies a full understanding of Tobi’s gender. When Bakony employs the cis gaze and aligns with Tobi’s mother’s perspective, it gives cis viewers not familiar with trans and gender non-conforming people an ‘in’ into an unfamiliar world, much in the same way that the writer of Pride (2014), the true story of an activist alliance between queer people and striking miners, invented a closeted protagonist, Joe Cooper, as a conduit through which straight viewers could also be introduced to queer counterculture and activism. By doing this Bakony primes cis viewers to better empathise with Tobi when they speak directly about their gender identity. It’s okay to not understand them perfectly at once, the film says, as long as you are watching and listening compassionately.

It’s okay to not understand them perfectly at once, the film says, as long as you are watching and listening compassionately.

Whereas Rūrangi is a film made by trans people for trans people – with all of the transformative power that that entails – Colors of Tobi is a film about a non-binary person that intentionally addresses a dual audience, both cis and trans, acknowledging the influence that (usually cis) parents and guardians have on their gender non-conforming children at that age. Colors of Tobi is therefore able to sensitively engage with an audience of parents to trans and non-binary children that might feel alienated otherwise.

BFI Flare and similar festivals offer communal spaces for marginalised groups, but that doesn’t mean that the programme of films deserve to stay equally on the fringes. If representation for transgender people is something that the film industry at large truly wishes to achieve, the solution is simple. The films are here, and trans and gender non-conforming audiences are already watching and loving them. It’s time for cis audiences to start watching too.

Further reading

Disclosure review: the progress and missteps of trans representation on screen

By Juliet Jacques

Disclosure review: the progress and missteps of trans representation on screen

Little Girl review: a cinematic act of kindness to trans children

By Juliet Jacques

Little Girl review: a cinematic act of kindness to trans children