6 of the Most Important Transgender Roles in Film

The conversation of transgender characters on screen gained traction not long ago through roles by Jeffrey Tambor (Transparent) and Laverne Cox (Orange Is The New Black) but it’s a conversation that will be everlasting. Obviously TV shows and film have their target audience, but it’s imperative to consider the wider and more impressionable audience of the younger generation who catch glimpses of these stories and which will form their ideas of the trans community. Whether we’re casting or just watching, the authenticity of the role is paramount. Would we meet someone like this character within our community? Does the trans role or experience play off preconceived ideals set by decades of cisgender written scripts?

Below are a few films to consider when watching transgender lead stories on screen.

Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Based on a true story, the film follows Brandon (Hilary Swank) as he flees home for his own safety and treads carefully amongst new friends who wouldn’t accept him if they knew the truth. Finding short-lived solace with his lover Lana (Chloë Sevigny) however Brandon’s story eventually ends in tragedy. The movie received media attention when Swank won Best Actress at both the Golden Globe and the Oscar that year for portraying the story with such integrity. A range of important subjects is broached in the film – whether he is attacked out of transphobia or instead homophobia as his relationship with Lana is realised, and also the high rates of homelessness within the LGBT community.

Wandering Son (2002-2013)

Japanese Manga series by Takako Shimura. The first of its kind to depict a young student named Shuichi Nitori, a transgender girl, and Shuichi’s friend Yoshino Takatsuki, a transgender boy. In the same year Wandering Son started a law was passed in Japan allowing transgender people who have had sex reassignment surgery to officially change their legal gender. Throughout it’s 11 year run it was applauded for its use of gender reversal and how it gave a platform for the trans youth to connect with.

Tomboy (2011)

A critically acclaimed French drama that highlights the importance of allowing children to experiment with their gender identity. Given the chance of a new life in a new Paris neighbourhood, 10-year-old tomboy Laure meets new friends and introduces herself as Mikäel. Identify as a boy he discovers a different world and feels at times at peace – although this transition doesn’t sustain itself until the end, the writer of the film Céline Sciamma gives a voice to those who explore the ambiguity of gender.

Paris Is Burning (1990)

A truly iconic piece of art, this film beautifully balances the glamour and indulgence of the New York Voguing Balls with hard-hitting conversations about race, class, gender and sexuality within the trans community. Paris is Burning offers lessons in confidence, the craft of drag and language – with Dorian Corey outlining the definitions of ‘Reading’, ‘Executive Realness’ and ‘Shade’. Although the notion of competition between queens and at the balls is tangible throughout, the film strives to encourage uniqueness and begs the question of who are you competing against if you’re in your own lane?

Normal (2003)

The film shows Ruth Applewood (Tom Wilkinson) who on the night of her 25th wedding anniversary to Irma (Jessica Lange) shocks the family by telling them she wishes to fully transition to become the woman she’s always felt herself to be. Normal deals with the subject in an authentic and non-overly sensationalised way, as it pushes the message of acceptance and love conquering gender and social constructs. Not at all to cheapen the story but there are modern parallels to be drawn like the family dynamic Bruce built before she transitioned to Caitlyn.

Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives (2010)

A contentious film as it plays more on entertainment value than a real trans experience but worthy as it’s unique in utilising transgender actors as well as drag queens in a way that hadn’t been done before. It follows a trio of trans women, who are viciously attacked and left for dead, as they exact revenge upon the group of men who crossed them. The writer and director of the film, Israel Luna, didn’t want another male gay bashing story and decided instead to put drag queens at the forefront. Inspired by Tarantino revenge sagas, Luna tapped Drag Race alumni Willam as a lead role amongst other drag and trans performers. Upon the films release it received a torrent of complaints and even protests at its Tribeca Film Festival debut; but many esteemed film journalists praised its “transgressive edginess” showing that revenge is very much a human and universal feeling, and not to be portrayed exclusively by macho male leads.

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