Is Michelle Rodriguez Playing A Trans Character A Good Idea?

With the conversation about trans issues entering both pop culture and political spheres alike, it was inevitable that Hollywood would raise its voice. But news that the upcoming film, Tomboy, a Revenger’s Tale would star Michelle Rodriguez as a forcibly gender-reassigned assassin doesn’t seem like the right approach.

Written and set to be directed by Walter Hill, a longtime filmmaker who's largely associated with action movies (including the Alien franchise), the story supposedly follows a male hitman who falls victim to gangsters and an unscrupulous doctor who turn him into a woman. Although production hasn’t yet begun, the film's logline seems to suggest that the surgery is being portrayed as a punishment and that the plot will overlook the intense emotional process around gender reassignment. Set in a story with intrigue, assassinations, and — if Hill and Rodriguez’s credits are anything to go by — a lot of loud cars and guns, is there room to give the gender narrative due attention?

GLAAD’s director of programs for transgender media, Nick Adams, doesn’t think so. He criticized the project, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “We haven't read the script, but it's disappointing to see filmmakers turning what is a life-saving medical procedure for transgender people into a sensationalistic plot device.”

The argument could be made here that a powerful gender-reassigned character in a mainstream film is a good thing. And GLAAD’s most recent Studio Responsibility Index, which tracks LGBT representation in movies states that, “There were no characters GLAAD determined to be identifiably transgender among any films tracked this year.” The problem with Tomboy is that a story about someone who is forcibly operated on is markedly different from one that portrays the life of someone who needs and fights for gender reassigning surgery. Even the title of the movie suggests a misunderstanding of the subject.

In 2012, Chloe Sevigny played a transgender assassin called Mia on DirecTV’s Hit & Miss. The series was well-received, though one of the few criticisms was that the “assassin” part of the plot wasn’t of the same caliber as Mia’s transgender narrative. For some reason, there's a far greater precedent for trans character representation on television shows than in film (although, as GLAAD’s “Where We Are on TV” report showed this week, cable and streamed television programs outstrip broadcast’s by a considerable margin). The movie Transamerica is a high point for trans representation in cinema, not just because it was a well-told story, but also because it was — and remains — a rarity.

As Adams explained,"We are at a crucial moment in the public's understanding of transgender issues, and stories like these have the potential to undermine the progress we've worked so hard to achieve.”

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