How Michelle Rodriguez’s ‘The Assignment’ Exploits the Transgender Experience
In The Assignment, Michelle Rodriguez plays a male hitman who’s forced to undergo surgery to live as a woman. If you’ve heard about the film, it’s likely due to the controversy that’s followed the project since 2015.
Initially known as Tomboy then retitled (Re)Assignment before its premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the revenge thriller from filmmaker Walter Hill was deemed transphobic by the transgender community, and from the synopsis and trailer alone it’s easy to understand why. In the movie, a medical procedure that’s life-saving for many trans people is sensationalized as a shocking plot device. Hill and screenwriter Denis Hamill, who came up with the premise 40 years ago, have defended their work, claiming it’s not transphobic, not about a trans character (which, to their credit, is true) and couldn’t be offensive as it wasn’t conceived with ill intentions. But artistic intention can only be considered so far when evaluating a piece of art – and The Assignment hardly orbits in the same dimension as art. Hill and Hamill can defend the film all they want, and some can say the movie is too brainless and boring (also true) to be offensive. That doesn’t change the fact that The Assignment appropriates a minority’s very real-life experience and claims it for its own amusement and horror.
Rodriguez, in male drag, plays Frank Kitchen, a macho hitman living in San Francisco. After killing a man with drug debts, the dead man’s sister, Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), kidnaps Frank so she can exact revenge: Giving him an anatomically feminine body through gender confirmation surgery (GCS), also known as gender reassignment surgery. The operation isn’t just to punish Frank, but an experiment to rid him of his toxic masculinity. The rest of the movie follows Frank hunting down the surgeon to fulfill his own revenge mission.
Rodriguez, adopting a deep throaty accent, dons a shoddy faux beard, prosthetic pecs covered in body hair, and a prosthetic penis. The movie suggests that the mere image of Rodriguez as a man begs you to recoil with shock and laughter. That’s the first of many strikes against The Assignment. The shock of a hyper-masculine character transformed into a hyper-feminine character is the conceit of the film – ha ha, a macho man now has to live with a vagina, how cruel! Though Rodriguez has often embodied butch characteristics in her roles, she’s a cisgender woman, and seeing her dressed up as a man is intended to be shocking – the way the camera lingers from the shoulders up during an early shower scene primes the viewer for Rodriguez’s masculine reveal.
First we’re invited to revel in the absurdity of a woman visualized as a man, prowling about with an obviously phony penis, then having virile, heterosexual sex with a pretty femme. The second layer of the gimmick comes later when that same faux-male body is forced into a feminine physique, which reinforces the gender binary and the assumption that men are defined by a penis and testosterone-producing organs, and women are defined by reproductive, estrogen-producing organs. That makes every body outside of those medical definitions a part of the joke and the horror – intersex bodies, trans bodies, and non-binary bodies. To make things even more convoluted, the film’s world views Rodriguez’s fake masculine physique as authentically male while the actress' anatomically feminine one is supposed to be the human-made result of surgery. The film’s messy presentation of gender and Hill’s focus on nudity is enough to make a gender theorist’s head explode.
Then we get to the operation, which is shot like a schlocky horror sequence, suggesting that GCS is something repugnant and monstrous; the movie seems to shout “How dare you deform the male body this way!” After Frank wakes up, perfectly healed sans scars (where can I find this surgeon?), he reacts in horror realizing he now has breasts and a vagina. The thing is, Frank isn’t a transgender character; he’s a cis man who has, against his will, been physically feminized. In the context of the character, that reaction makes emotional and logical sense. But that experience isn’t Frank’s to have.
What Frank is feeling in these moments is gender dysphoria, the severe distress and discomfort of being in a body that does not align with the way one identifies internally. Hill has said his film is “consistent with transgender theory,” and the idea that a person’s gender identity is internal, and he isn’t wrong. I know that feeling. As a non-binary trans masculine person, I know what Frank is experiencing, and I live with it every day; the shame that can come with being a masculine-identified person with feminine chest, the anxiety of being perceived by others as a woman when you’re not one, and the distress of existing in a body that society insists belongs to only one gender. The most egregious offense of Hill’s film is that it asks its audience to sympathize with that experience, yet completely erases trans people from the picture. That’s worse than films that depict a trans narrative with a cis actor; at the very least those attempt to honor an explicitly trans experience. The Assignment co-opts those narratives and tries to disguise it by feigning sympathy with the trans community in two brief scenes.
It’s worth noting that not all trans and non-binary people experience gender dysphoria nor do they all wish to undergo GCS and/or hormone replacement therapy. But watching Rodriguez’s character undergo a medical procedure against his will – a life-affirming and costly procedure that is often excluded by insurance and difficult for many trans people to access – feels like an affront. Watching Rodriguez’s character reluctantly take feminine hormones when in the real world there’s a nationwide shortage of estrogen, a life-saving prescription for many trans feminine folks, feels like an affront. Watching what resembles the experience of a trans Latina woman utilized as a violent form of punishment after eight trans women of color have been murdered in the U.S. this year feels like an affront. Intentional or not, this movie discounts the very real anxieties, dangers, life-threatening trials that can come with living as a trans person undergoing a medical transition today. Hill may have conceived this thriller at a time when gender identity and trans rights weren’t relevant to, much less tolerated by, our culture. But that’s no excuse for ignorant filmmaking today.
Perhaps a viewer who is unassociated with the struggles of the trans experience can watch The Assignment and brush it off as a forgettable, garbage movie. Sure, it’s bad, and sure, the filmmakers admit they never considered the possible offense it could cause. But the resulting message arrives at a time when trans people need protection, accurate representation, and their personal stories told rather than poached for entertainment. Surely there are better ideas for revenge thrillers than co-opting someone else’s struggle.