From Barbie to Talk to Me, trans actors’ visibility is at a tipping point – and about time too | Movies [wafact]

The last few weeks have quietly seen a significant and mostly unremarked flowering of on-screen trans visibility, to the extent we might consider cinema is at a tipping point for trans acting. In Barbie, Talk to Me and Red, White and Royal Blue, three films on worldwide release at the same time offer vastly different declensions of trans representation at a time when trans rights are being rolled back around the world. This variety of depictions, from billion-banking blockbusters to breakout hits and cult concerns, has raised few eyebrows from audiences, giving a few clues as to cinema’s ability to provide hope as to public views on trans people.

That hope is needed. Just last week it was reported that the A24 horror film Talk to Me, in which a crucial supporting role is taken – and brilliantly performed – by transmasculine actor Zoe Terakes, had been banned in Kuwait because of Terakes’ gender identity. In an Instagram post, the actor hit out at the decision, saying: “Our film doesn’t actually ever mention my transness, or my queerness. I am a trans actor who happened to get the role. I’m not a theme. I am a person.”

This is true, although it possibly undersells the canny and exciting ways in which Talk to Me plays with gender through Terakes’ character Hayley. In the film, Hayley is a brat and a bully, inciting the main character (a teenage girl, Mia, played by Sophie Wilde) to undergo a dangerous supernatural experience. What’s fascinating is that this character is a stock horror film character, typically played by a young man – for instance, Matthew Lillard’s loud and boorish character in Scream. In Talk to Me, Hayley’s gender identity is not commented on by other characters and is not immediately obvious, leading to a pleasing displacement of expectations and a subtle rewiring of this horror movie’s configuration. In a film about young female trauma, Hayley is a complicating factor, a free agent whose motives and behaviour are coded as male but who refuses to be so easily categorised.

Interestingly, although Barbie has also been banned in Kuwait, apparently for its promotion of “ideas and beliefs that are alien to the Kuwaiti society and public order”, the country’s head of the committee for cinematic censorship did not single out the presence of a trans actor, Hari Nef. In what is now the biggest film ever directed by a woman, Nef plays a Barbie who is a doctor; unlike in Talk to Me, the film employs no distancing effect, does not play on gender presentation at all. Nef’s character is simply a Barbie in the same way as all the other Barbies on display, from Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie to Issa Rae’s President Barbie.

Hari Nef at Barbie’s European premiere in London in July.
Hari Nef at Barbie’s European premiere in London in July. Photograph: Karwai Tang/WireImage

Indeed, in a film with a somewhat retrograde sexual politics, where being a Barbie is essentially allowed to stand in for being a woman, in opposition to the Kens, who represent men, the inclusion of Nef as a female character, particularly in a montage sequence where she assists the sisterhood, could be Barbie’s most subversive touch. Considering that Barbie dolls are famously unsexed, the film could in fact have allowed itself to go much further in its examination of what constitutes womanhood or personhood – but ultimately the film reverts to type, viewing femaleness as biological in its final reel. Nef’s role amid all of this is fascinating; it may be a further win for trans people that a trans actor is allowed to be bad at acting by the same token as other cis performers.

In the Amazon film Red, White and Royal Blue, trans actor Aneesh Sheth has a small part as Amy, a bodyguard to the president’s son in a light and crowdpleasing romcom that appears to be performing well. In Casey McQuiston’s original novel, the character is written as trans, but this is not mentioned at all in the movie, and it seems doubtful that anybody would notice or find out. Fundamentally fluffy and basic, Red, White and Royal Blue grafts a homosexual couple on to a typically straight romcom format, but in some respects it is surprisingly advanced, featuring a briskly horny attitude to sex and a bit of welcome bisexual representation; Sheth’s minor role is of a piece with this normalising worldview.

Meanwhile, the UK has seen the release of a fourth pillar of trans representation: D Smith’s startling documentary Kokomo City, a transgressive, joyous, thought-provoking film that takes an alternative tack by consciously centring Black trans sex workers in Atlanta and New York. Smith’s film, which sometimes recalls Paris Is Burning in tone while not being lumbered with that film’s problems of appropriation, is tremendously sensitive in its depiction of these people in their own homes, au naturel, and in giving a voice to these rebellious, angry women who are getting by in a country with alarming rates of violence against their community. Indeed, Koko Da Doll, one of the film’s central figures, to whom Kokomo City is dedicated, was murdered two months after the film’s premiere at the Sundance film festival. Kokomo City is bold and alive, and it exists to provoke polite society – an aspect of queer art that is essential.

Liyah Mitchell in Kokomo City.
Liyah Mitchell in Kokomo City. Photograph: Photo courtesy of Magnolia Picture

Amid so many other films that contribute to a much-needed normalising of different gender identities, and that fact that these performances are for most audiences seen as unremarkable, these films represent a punk spirit of defiance that keeps the fight going.

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