The Adventures of the Boi Wonder: Five Movies/TV Episodes that Don’t Fail on Gender Identity
“People knock on my door, ringing my phone
Telling me the things I gotta get done today
To satisfy them, but what about me?
Lately I’ve been wishing I was brain dead
No responsibilities in my head today
Maybe we’ll see what’s on TV”
–“Nothing With You” by the Descendents
This is not the Summer of Love (unless you’re offering to make it such); this is the Summer of My Netflix Account and DVR. In my adventures in screen-viewing, I have learned one basic tenet: You have to go through a lot of shit to find a gem. This is especially true when trying to find portrayals of trans and intersex characters that aren’t cringe-worthy or hollow two-dimensional characters. We have to sit through Boys Don’t Cry (which will make you want to hide in the closet forever), Quagmire’s Dad episode of Family Guy, The L Word,” and the like.
Here are five episodes or films that didn’t make me want to bang my head against a wall:
Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead
1. Degrassi: The Next Generation, episodes “My Body Is a Cage Part 1 and 2” (2010)
Every time I completely write off Degrassi, it finds some way to pull me back in. Degrassi did an interesting and brilliant thing in not revealing that the character Adam Torres was trans. He was just portrayed as an ordinary underclassman boy who liked comics and hanging out with his best friends. So he already had a fanbase (and quite a few straight teen girls who thought he was cute) before these two episodes aired. He comes out to his best friends and, though they have a few trans 101-type questions, they are perfectly accepting. Adam desperately wants to be a regular kid though, mentioning how annoyed he is that he can’t play contact sports like his older brother, and then gets brutally rejected and outed after the girl he’s flirting with finds out he’s trans, which leads to some horrific bullying. It also shows his family’s path to real acceptance, who still have trouble with pronouns and letting go of their “daughter,” though they love and support Adam. I really hope Degrassi doesn’t fuck this up later (as they tend to do).
2. XXY (2007)
This is a gorgeously shot little film out of Argentina that centers on an intersex teenager. Alex, living in a small coastal town with her parents, is raised female, but is clearly rebelling against that placed identity. When a doctor and his family come to visit, at the suggestion of Alex’s mother, we learn that the intention is to wager on the idea of genital surgery to make Alex “more female.” The parents and the doctor figure out that Alex has been hiding away the estrogen pills rather than taking them, and are very torn about this. Alex’s mother is the one pressuring her to consider surgery, while her father believes in the right to choose on her own how to live, whether it is as his daughter or his son.
Alex also forms a close and sexual bond with the quiet, gay son of the doctor, which in turn causes him to be more accepting of his sexuality and less introverted. Both are teenagers discovering who they are and their path to happiness, like everyone did at that age, queer or not. In the end, Alex chooses not to continue hormone treatments or have surgery and decide for herself (or himself, the film deliberately leaves the final decision ambiguous), and everyone else in the film in altered for the better.
3. Freaks and Geeks, episode “The Little Things” (2000)
This was one of the three episodes that were unaired during the original NBC run, and it was actually one of the first two Freaks and Greeks episodes I ever saw. Also, one of the very few times on a mainstream US broadcast that an intersex character isn’t played for laughs or shock-value. It also deals with gender identity vs. sexual orientation. When Ken’s (played by Seth Rogen) girlfriend Amy tells him in a moment of intense trust that she was actually born intersex (yet asserts that she’s absolutely a girl), Ken doesn’t immediately reject her; he is confused, but initially says that he’s fine with it. After getting some cruel remarks from his closest guy friends who say that he’s gay because she’s “not really a girl,” Ken starts to act more distant towards Amy, who then feels like he’s rejecting her.
After figuring out that he’s not gay in a scene involving experimentation with 80s gay porn magazines and dance music, (which shows the lack of information available about gay people in pre-Internet suburbia) Ken still feels pressured to break up with Amy even though he clearly really likes and cares about her. In a chance encounter in the bathroom hearing about Sam’s girlfriend problems (she treats him badly, is a Republican, and likes none of the same stuff he does), Ken realizes that Amy is a great girlfriend, he loves her, and that none of the other stuff matters. He apologizes to her for being foolish and kisses her in the hallway before her school band concert.
4. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Okay, I admit that I am pretty biased about this film because it is one of my all-time favourites. Basically, Bernadette takes no prisoners. She’s lived an interesting and hard life (the movie starts out with her learning that her lover died). It is refreshing to have a film that doesn’t go through Trans 101, is absolutely hilarious without being cruel, and has a trans character that is self-reliant and unafraid.
Hell, in a scene where she and the other protagonists are refused service in a rough and rural town by a very rude and gruff woman, Bernadette delivers the epic line, “Why don’t you go light your tampon and blow your box apart … Because it is the only bang you’re ever going to get.” Then proceeds to defeat the woman in a drinking contest and win the respect of everyone in the bar. In the end, she even finds love, and we can only help to assume that she and Bob proceed to spend the rest of their twilight years together. Plus, this is one of the few ways I can hear ABBA and not want to kick something.
5. Better Than Chocolate (1999)
The film itself was mediocre, but it is in this list just for this scene. Maybe I should write a song like this called “I’m Not a Butch Lesbian.”
And for being one of the very, very few films I have ever seen that shows a trans character as not a heterosexual. The only other one I can think of would be the Danish film En Soap, currently next on my Netflix queue. Judy eventually ends up with the shy lesbian bookseller, Frances. Personally, I wish the film had been mainly about Judy and Frances rather than the central couple and the family drama between them.
- Honorable mention: Normal (2003)
I was about 12 years old when this film came out, and I saw it on HBO. I was pretty floored by it, though didn’t understand all of it, especially anything to do with sex and love. I watched it again during Spring semester to see if it still had the same effect it did on me when I was a pre-teen. It actually affects me more now than it did back then. It is almost too painful to watch now in many parts, but the fact that love and family transcends intolerance and ignorance is really powerful. Other than Degrassi, this would be what I would show my family in hopes of better understanding, because it is quite straightforward without talking down; these are average people in the American midwest. Not to mention it was extremely well-acted. (Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Lange are pretty much always amazing, duh.)
I’ll disclaim now that these selections are only my personal tastes. Though it is interesting to note that two of these films are not from the US (okay, Degrassi is technically Canadian, but that doesn’t count); XXY, as previously mentioned, is from Argentina, and Priscilla is Australian. In my research (aka surfing Netflix), I have noticed that there are actually quite a few foreign films that have trans characters. Spanish director Pedro Amodovar has had numerous trans characters in his films, like in All About My Mother and Bad Education; there’s also the Spanish musical film called 20 Centimeters, Beautiful Boxer from Thailand, Belgium’s Ma Vie En Rose, and the gender-switching Orlando in the UK film adaptation of the book. All these films are of trans women. Unfortunately I have yet to find any foreign films that feature trans men. Even here in the US, in terms of trans men in non-documentary films, there is pretty much only Boys Don’t Cry and Itty Bitty Titty Committee, both of which I hated. And don’t even get me started on Max from The L Word.
If you have any suggestions or comments, feel free to email me or post below. Once again, I’ll admit that I am certainly no authority on films or trans people, but no one technically is, which makes both more wide-ranging and complex.
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