When LGBT Film Looked in the Mirror This Year, So Did I
Movies have long been a means of escapism, where one can slink away from the chaos or mediocrity of life into the anonymous oasis of a movie theater, or more often lately, into our streaming-equipped homes. I often think of Pauline Kael’s “Trash, Art, and the Movies” essay, in which she champions less prestigious pictures, the ones that make the most invigorating, lasting impressions on us whether or not they’re regarded as “the best” films. “It’s the human material we react to most and remember longest,” she wrote. As much as movies enable us to escape the daily responsibilities of life, offering a chance to explore another world for a few hours, sometimes they bring us right back to ourselves. It’s when we’re left alone in the darkness to sit with ourselves that something transformative happens. It’s in those moments that a film, or even television, can lodge itself in our brains or hearts, injecting its roots until blossoming into larger revelations long afterward. Escaping through art can be the most cathartic and revealing process, where what’s on screen ends up holding a mirror back at us, perhaps showing us things we don’t see every day outside the theater. I like to think Edward Hopper got it right. In one of my favorite paintings, Hopper’s New York Movie, a lone woman stands on the edges of a movie theater, her head down in deep contemplation as a film plays on screen. This is where the personal and the cinematic intersect.
That happened to me a lot this year, moments when I started to see a piece of myself as I looked up at the screen, pieces rarely depicted in film. This year more than ever films and some television looked right at me and said, “This is about you. This is part of your story.” As much as I went into those theaters expecting to be taken away from myself, to visit other people’s stories, I started to see fragments of my own. One of my most powerful experiences was my third day covering the Toronto International Film Festival. I started my morning off more emotional than expected with a press screening of Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl. Watching Eddie Redmayne depict Lili Elbe and the confusion and struggle of living as a transgender woman in the 1920s nearly paralyzed me. Redmayne’s Lili put on tights and ballet slippers to pose for her painter wife in a scene that was one of the most personal moments of cinema I’d experienced. Few times had I seen a director capture the perspective of someone looking down at their body in another gender’s clothing and feeling right. Einar, the male name Lili was assigned at birth, began to dissipate as Lili looked down in a P.O.V. shot to see her legs in women’s attire. It was palpably clear that here she was freer than she’d ever been, no longer restrained by the high-collared shirts of her era. She found Lili and in that moment I found a bit of myself on screen in a way I hadn’t before.
Though I can’t claim to know the transgender experience, I do know what it’s like to not feel completely right in the body you’ve been given, with the pronouns and gender expectations society’s assigned you at birth. I identify as gender-neutral, an identity I only began to explore 14 months ago, but one I’ve felt for as long as the 25 years I’ve been alive. It’s both a balance between and a defiance of the gender binary, a push and pull that shifts every day. I’d seen this portrayed in some indie and foreign LGBT films, most notably Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy. But the idea of looking at yourself and not feeling quite right in your own skin is something that I saw more of in film and TV this year.
That disconnect of being and perception of being happens again later in The Danish Girl when Lili strips away Einar’s clothes to look at her nude body in the mirror. Looking at one’s bare reflection is a deeply personal experience for many, and a distressing one for some. Everyone has blemishes or imperfections we wish to correct, but looking at your exterior and wondering if it matches your less-definable interior is a struggle I’m all too familiar with. Shortly after watching Redmayne’s mirror scene I watched a similar one in Gaby Dellal’s About Ray later that evening at TIFF. In the family dramedy Elle Fanning plays Ray, a teenage trans boy in transition. At one point, Fanning’s Ray has an intimate mirror scene where he looks at his assigned-female body in the reflection as he binds one morning. That scene paired with Redmayne’s was a lot to absorb in a long festival day that ended with me looking back at my own reflection in my hotel room mirror. It was a scary, tear-filled, yet beautiful moment, looking at myself that night. Those movies didn’t fully depict who I am, but they did speak some truth to the anxieties I live with.
Cinema is one of the things I love most in the world. It’s the thing I’ve made it my profession to write about and the art form of expression I’ve always looked at to better understand people. Just as I was in the midst of exploring who I was, film started to relate fragments of my experience. For once I didn’t feel like an outsider, but more a part of what was happening on screen, even if just slightly. It happened again in the magnificent final scene of Sean Baker’s Tangerine, where Kiki Kitana Rodriguez’s trans woman Sin-Dee Rella has to take off her wig after getting doused in urine by a passing car. Removing the one thing that embalms her identity, Sin-Dee is completely exposed without her wig. But in a final moving gesture, also serving as an unspoken apology for the preceding drama, her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) takes off her own wig and offers it to Sin-Dee. Those final moments should be remembered as some of the most poignant in cinema this year, and ones that showed the feelings isolation and anxiety that can be known by the transgender and gender non-conforming communities.
Watching those scenes, as well as so many triumphant displays of LGBTQ people on TV this year was a milestone for me as much as it was for American pop culture. Orange Is the New Black, Empire and Faking It continued to showcase diverse queer characters, the latter introducing an intersex character. The Wachowski’s Netflix series Sense8 also featured trans actress Jamie Clayton playing a trans woman. But most significantly, Amazon’s Transparent continued to break the most ground for queer identities, a series that brought me closer to exploring myself.
Had it not been for the debut of Jill Soloway’s Transparent last year I may never have started to embrace my non-binary identity, researched genderqueer and trans stories, written a blog about my Halloween-fueled gender frustrations or come to write this piece. The most inspiring thing about Soloway’s series is how it doesn’t preach or claim to know a singular way or a right way to be queer. With its many queer characters, writers and crew members, the series has begun to drift into a grey area of exploration in its second season. “What is being queer if not questioning everything?” Gaby Hoffmann’s Ali Pfefferman says in one episode, a character whose bold self-exploration inspired much of my own.
The thing I’ve struggled most with on this journey is not completely knowing, remaining suspended in a haze of uncertainty. Though Lili Elbe didn’t have the vast vocabulary to understand herself that LGBTQ people have today, the surplus of terms almost makes identifying even more challenging. Beyond gender-neutral, gender fluid and gender non-conforming, there’s an extensive array of terms to define one’s gender identity with. From agender to androgyne, from Two Spirit to neutrois, from demiguy or demigirl to transmasculine or transfeminine, there are so many non-binary words outside of umbrella terms “cis” and “trans.” New York magazine's Sex on Campus cover story from this year just began to break the seal on the many words college students are using today to describe themselves. But in such a vast sea of terminology, I’ve found it even harder to figure out who I am. I can hardly decide which cereal or Pomme Frites (RIP) dipping sauce I want as the most indecisive, afraid-to-make-a-concrete-decision person I know. How am I supposed to choose which words represent my already nebulous gender identity?
As much as 2015 has been a groundbreaking year for trans representation, film and television have yet to represent the nuances of non-binary identities. Through research I’ve only found two mainstream or indie film characters that can be clearly distinguished as gender-neutral or non-binary. One is Biaggio in 2013’s The Kings of Summer, who says in one scene, “I don’t really see myself as having a gender.” The other is a small and nearly non-existent reference to an unseen superhero in The Incredibles named MACROBEAM, who’s only shown through a personnel file flashed on screen for a couple seconds. MACROBEAM is described as “oddly androgynous” (let’s try to ignore the use of “oddly” here, for now) with both male and female pronouns. Hey Pixar, this would be a great area of exploration for The Incredibles 2.
The only non-binary individual I witnessed this year on TV (I couldn't find any in film) was Ruby Rose’s Stella Carlin in Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black. Though Stella’s gender is only referenced in one brief line, it’s mostly Rose’s real-life identity as gender fluid that informed the character and introduced mainstream audiences to the identity. As funny as it is, Rose was one of the first people outside of my friend group who I came out to as gender-neutral before an interview with her (the other was Tom Hooper, also before an interview). One other milestone this year came from MTV, always a few steps ahead in giving voices to marginalized identities. The network debuted True Life: I’m Genderqueer this year, followed by a great editorial blog by genderqueer star Jacob Tobia. It's also worth noting that Showtime's House of Lies has broken some ground with gender fluid identities.
While this has been a powerful and influential year for me as a film lover, a critic and a gender-neutral person, there’s still so much further to go, both for myself and the industry. I can only hope that in a few years from now we’re praising the nuances of gender identity shown in film and TV as much as we’re praising the subtle displays of sexuality in Todd Haynes' Carol this year, notably one of the best love stories between two women. Next year's Doctor Strange looks to challenge expectations as well with Tilda Swinton's androgynous The Ancient One. And Tangerine has already opened up major doors now that supporting star Taylor is getting acclaim and Oscar support from Caitlyn Jenner. But as much as I love Rose, she isn't the only gender fluid actor out there. We need more cinema and television that defy traditional identities, that introduce us to characters and actors who reveal what it’s like to live as a non-binary person and the many things that can mean.
Until then, I’m at least grateful for the moments I had in front of screens this year that shared a sliver of my experience. They may not have come in “the best” films of the year and they may not have depicted something universally relatable, but they got at something true. Sometimes art gets it more than the real life around us. I’ll forever be that introspective theater dweller in Hopper’s painting, just a little more gender-less.