While Golden Globe winning TV like Transparent and the prominence of Orange Is The New Black’s trans actor and activist Laverne Cox may have convinced you that trans issues have been integrated into the mainstream, cinema still has a way to go before it catches up with television’s evolving attitudes to the world beyond cis-gendered perspectives.
The history of trans characters in cinema isn’t a particularly happy one. Prior to the 1960s, audiences who wanted to seek out non-cis characters would be forced to fall back on men in drag like in Some Like It Hot. Still, while SLIH was offensive, it wasn’t as malevolent as something like Psycho, whose killer was famously troubled by his gender and who dressed in his dead mother’s clothes.
Thankfully, the past few decades have ushered in a more progressive exploration of trans identity. While many of the films below aren’t perfect (often starring high-profile straight, cis actors in trans roles in lieu of trans actors), they do function as a good jumping off point for getting into modern transgender movies.
The Danish Girl (2015)
Director: Tom Hooper
This fictitious love story was loosely inspired by actual people: Danish artist and transgender pioneer Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Elbe was born Einar Wegener, a landscape painter who was married to artist Gerda Wegener and who in his own words “could withstand storms.” However, he felt he was two people in the same body and his other self, Lili Elbe, was, as she herself recorded in notes for an autobiography, a “thoughtless, flighty, very superficially-minded woman.” Still, Lili grew stronger every day and by February 1930, Wegener felt he could no longer resist: “I am finished,” he wrote. “Lili has known this for a long time. That’s how matters stand. And consequently she rebels more vigorously everyday.”
While it’s a beautiful film, it does have some notable weaknesses. As Vulture journalist Kyle Buchanan has noted, the film centers more on Elbe’s wife Gerda than it does Elbe. Eddie Redmayne did in-depth research into the experiences of trans women, telling Out Magazine “I felt like, I’m being given this extraordinary experience of being able to play this woman, but with that comes this responsibility of not only educating myself but hopefully using that to educate [an audience]. Gosh, it’s delicate. And complicated.” However, his cloying, vague performance as Lili suggests the LGBTQ complaints that an actual transgender woman should have played the role are justified. Still, it’s a moving, visually striking account of someone’s attempt to be themselves in an era when transgender surgery was at its very infancy.
Director: Duncan Tucker
This 2005 film earned 30 awards including a Golden Globe for actress Felicity Huffman and was nominated for 19 further awards, including a Best Actress Oscar. Bree (Felicity Huffman) is less than two weeks away from the final operation that will complete her transition from a male to female body when she learns she has a teenage son, Toby, as she receives a call from him from a New York city jail hoping that his dad, Stanley (her dead name) will bail him out. Bree is unwilling to do so but when her therapist refuses to sign a consent form for the sex-change operation until Bree reaches closure, she’s forced to fly to New York to collect Toby. She poses as a church do-gooder who is mysteriously willing to drive him to LA to fulfil his dream of becoming a porn actor. It’s a parent-son road trip movie with one key twist: Toby has no idea that he’s sharing a car with his biological father.
While there’s inaccuracies in the way the transition and surgery-approval process is portrayed, overall it’s a warm, sensitive drama about the difficulties of parenthood and gender.
All About My Mother (1999)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Trans issues lie at the center of this smart, nuanced drama from legendary Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. The film opens on Manuela’s attempt to locate her late son Esteban’s father – she never revealed to Esteban that his father, like her best friend, is a transsexual woman, Lola.
The film treats trans issues with dignity but never accords them the sentimentality you see in so much cinema on the same topic, with Agrado’s monologue on authenticity exciting our admiration over our pity. This wasn’t the only time that one of Almodóvar’s films starred trans actors and characters — The Law Of Desire (1987), High Heels (1991), Bad Education (2004) and The Skin I Live In (2011) all structure their narrative around transsexual and transvestite characters and actors. But perhaps Almodóvar’s focus on all types of femininity, cis or trans, wasn’t for LGBTQ progress, so much as expedience: in a 1981 interview, he said "I write better for women than for men, who are dramatically boring for me.”
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Director: Kimberly Peirce
*Spoilers ahead* Hilary Swank earned herself an Oscar for starring in this moving drama about a budding romance between a trans boy and a cis girl (played by Chloë Sevigny) in not-so-LGBT-friendly '90s Nebraska. Based on the true story of Brandon Teena, a young transgender man who was sexually abused and murdered in Humboldt, Nebraska, the film has been criticized for its stereotypical painful trans person death – but let’s face it, the ending not only reflects Teena’s life but those of so many trans people today. As do the film’s other unhappy themes: transgender homelessness (one in five trans individuals will experience homelessness at some point in their lifetimes) and mistreatment at the hands of the police (transgender people are seven times as likely to experience police violence as cis people) are all sadly still par for the course over twenty years after Teena’s death.
Director: Sean S. Baker
It’s Christmas Eve and transgender sex worker Sin-Dee Rella has just gotten out of jail and discovered from her BFF Alexandra that her pimp-boyfriend Chester has been cheating on her with a cis-woman. She decides to take matters into her own hands by avenging herself on her love-rival; and so begins this chaotic, salty comedy.
Sure, the technology used to record the film is exciting: Tangerine was shot mostly on iPhones augmented with other devices and the film suffuses with an orange glow that evokes the title. But it’s really the film’s treatment of its two trans protagonists that’s genuinely innovative. There’s no pity and no sentimentality here, though the film recognizes how hard these two women have it — how many smart, irreverent trans-led comedies do you get to watch?
Paris Is Burning (1990)
Director: Jennie Livingston
Jennie Livingston’s debut documentary transports us back to 1980s New York’s queer culture, following African-American and Hispanic gay men, transgender women and drag queens as they compete in vogue-dancing battles while sporting different costumes (think: "Town and Country", "Luscious Body").
Livingston has been accused by critics like feminist scholar bell hooks of voyeurism and encouraging cultural appropriation (given the popularity of phrases the documentary launched, like “shady” or “fierce,” she makes a good point). Whether or not you agree with these accusations, they pushed trans issues into the mainstream, with Madonna taking inspiration, and directly pulling cast members from the documentary, for her “Vogue” video and it winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival. While trans characters dying in fictional films is something of a cliche, real-life trans woman Venus Xtravaganza's murder during filming is completely heartbreaking and confronts cis audiences with the horrific reality of the high murder statistics that trans women account for.
Laurence Anyways (2012)
Director: Xavier Dolan
Laurence Anyways took the Queer Palm Award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival while actress Suzanne Clement took home Best Actress in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard category and it’s easy to see why — the film isn’t just touching, but visually compelling, with writer/director Xavier Dolan’s movie focusing on the love between cis woman Fred (short for Frederique) and a transgender woman Laurence being compared to Stanley Kubrick’s late-career work.
The film is smart and observant about the difficulties of a relationship where one partner wants to restart their life in a different gender — while Fred is initially supportive of Laurence’s struggle, as their community turns against them, she finds their life harder to deal with.
In A Year With 13 Moons (1978)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Arguably, this is New German Cinema pioneer and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most personal film; he shot it shortly after the suicide of his lover Armin Meier (who appeared in many of his movies). Fassbinder himself ranked it second on his list of “The Top 10 Of My Own Films” (found in the book The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes by Rainer Werner Fassbinder).
This is unsurprising, since this unflinching, closeup portrayal of the last few days of transgender woman Elvira’s life contains multitudes: a Goethe recitation, a musical comedy number staged by gangsters, autobiography – whether of Fassbinder or Meier remains unclear, history (it focuses on the first post-World War II generation and this is relevant to the plot, with Elvira transitioning in response to a throwaway “If only you were a woman” from a Holocaust survivor she’s in love with). Given the relentlessly bleak tone the film establishes, with Elvira effectively being rejected by everyone she comes into contact with and 13 Moons’ negative portrayal of surgery, this is difficult viewing for trans audiences. However the film remains invaluable as a screenshot of a earlier, much harder time for people who didn’t identify as cis.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Director: Stephan Elliott
Centering on three travellers: a drag queen, a transvestite and transsexual woman Bernadette, the musical extravaganza Priscilla follows the trio as they trek across the Australian desert to perform in a drag queen residency show. Priscilla was a landmark movie in Australia, where its seductive combination of sequins and even glitzier showtunes pushed LGBT issues into the mainstream, while its irreverent but intimate treatment of queer and trans issues means it’s a lighthearted romp of a film for viewers across the sexual and gender spectrum. Sure, the performances are incredible, but it’s really the film’s handling of the group’s everyday life and witty responses to the prejudice they experience that makes it so special.
The Crying Game (1992)
Director: Neil Jordan
This high stakes 1992 British-Irish psychological thriller is set to the backdrop of the Irish Troubles and centers on Fergus, an IRA guard who makes a promise to a prisoner. When he fulfils his promise by seeking out the prisoner’s girlfriend, he falls for her and is about to make love to her when he discovers that she is transgender. Fergus’ initial reaction is one of revulsion but a few days later he discovers he can’t get her out of his head and continues to woo her. While the cis-trans romance isn’t the main focus of the thriller, it’s a key plot point and despite Fergus’ problematic reaction it is still worth watching.
It’s not far-fetched to suggest that films like Tangerine are the future: technology such as iPhones have democratized filmmaking, meaning that more diverse perspectives and casts can be the new norm. And thank goodness for that. In an age in which there’s even more violence against transgendered people than ever before (last year was “the deadliest on record for transgender Americans”), putting more trans characters and actors on screen isn’t just about diversity quotas, but potentially a matter of life and death. The world’s suffering from a distinct lack of empathy at the moment and fantastic, non-patronizing cinema which puts cis viewers in the shoes of the trans community is exactly what we need.
Now check out these 20 Feminist Films to further your mind-opening education.