Negative Reactions to ‘Barbie’ Reveal the Pressure of Representation
Apparently, nothing's ever enough. It has its flaws, but does that warrant the amount of criticism 'Barbie' is subject to?
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In mid-October, a bill was introduced by Republican Representative Mike Johnson, known as the ‘Stop the Sexualization of Children Act’. The bill defines “sexually-oriented material” as “any depiction, description, or simulation of sexual activity, any lewd or lascivious depiction or description of human genitals, or any topic involving gender identity, gender dysphoria, transgenderism, sexual orientation, or related subjects.”. The underlined part of that definition includes topics that are not inherently sexual, as has been pointed out by those who oppose the bill. Heteronormativity and the gender roles it has created affect a child from birth, so this is just a veiled attack on the queer community specifically and not an act to actually give children the protection they deserve.
Instead of being protected from the concepts of gender and sexuality, children need to be introduced to them. Four to five-year-olds are all told fairy tales including and similar to Snow White and Cinderella, the likes of which hinge on central heterosexual relationships and the male-female binary. Those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or asexual, remain so despite only being introduced to cishet stories, and similarly, those who are transgender, non-binary, and genderqueer remain so. It follows then, that queer stories wouldn’t “convert” cishet children. In fact, they could give solace to a queer child who doesn’t find their feelings reflected in the people around them or the stories they’re generally told. So, on this Transgender Day of Remembrance, let us take a look at six films that depict the experiences, coming-out or otherwise, of transgender children grappling with their identity in a heteronormative world that despises their kind and tries its best to invalidate their feelings.
Directed by Alain Berliner, My Life in Pink follows seven-year-old transgender girl Ludovic Fabre (Georges Du Fresne). She is surprisingly aware of her identity and expresses herself by putting on makeup and dressing up, even in public. The film starts with her family recently moving to a new locality. On the day of their housewarming party, when her parents introduce their children, she shows up wearing a dress and heavy makeup. Her parents react by telling the guests that their son is sometimes very whimsy and gets these urges to dress up as a girl and that it’s no big deal. The rest of My Life in Pink tells the story of how the child is invalidated at every step of the way, no matter how many different ways she tries to tell her parents and other adults in her life that she is essentially female despite having a male physiology.
The parents themselves aren’t really accepting, and to make matters worse, the neighbors start ostracizing them for not keeping Ludovic in line. Her only real friend, her father’s boss’ son, turns on her after a while, and there comes a point where Ludovic is without support from anyone. Even then, she persists and keeps trying to explain her situation in her own way. After she learns about X and Y chromosomes from her sister, she tells her parents that God dropped X and Y chromosomes from heaven through their chimney when she was born. With childlike innocence, Ludovic insists that instead of her two X chromosomes coming through to make her a woman, one of the X’s fell in the trash by accident, and a Y made it through instead, trapping her in the body of a boy. My Life in Pink may at times feel like it caters to a cis audience, but given the time period it was made in, it has aged relatively well. Watching a narrative about transgender children that does not feature dysphoria on the part of the child herself is a liberating experience. So whatever its flaws, especially in the way it ends by apparently transforming the parents into fully supportive people out of nowhere, it’s still an empowering watch.
My Life in Pink is available to rent on Google Play Movies, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, and Apple TV.
Often said to be Céline Sciamma’s magnum opus as a writer-director, Tomboy frequently finds itself on lists of best LGBT films ever made. It tells the story of a ten-year-old child, Laure (Zoé Héran), whose family has recently relocated to a new apartment complex. Born with female genitalia and hence always referred to as a girl, Laure is assumed to be a boy by a girl in their locality, maybe because of their short hair and clothes. Laure decides to play along, opting to be called Mickaël. After they’ve spent some days playing with the boys and girls of their locality as Mickaël, Laure’s mother asks them to take their younger sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) to play with them. Jeanne is the sweetest, most supportive sister one could hope for as she is immediately supportive of Laure identifying as Mickaël. The film mostly depicts how Laure comes to terms with the sense of freedom they find in being able to identify as Mickaël. But Tomboy also explores the transphobic nature of society through the various reactions of each character when they discover Laure’s true nature.
Tomboy is light on dialogue, as is often the case with Sciamma’s screenplays. It’s got a short runtime of just 72 minutes and makes beautiful use of the space afforded by the lack of dialogue. Laure’s actions make the film feel like an authentic exploration of how gender dysphoria manifests in children. These actions include making traditionally masculine poses in front of the mirror, playing with their cut hair and making mustaches out of it, and even creating a fake penis out of modeling clay and stuffing it in their swimming trunks. These moments of liberating expression on Laure/Mickaël’s part make the moments of oppression that much more heartbreaking. A sense of doom is linked with the possibility of discovery, and that is why Tomboy feels like it understands the closet very well. Not only that, the film is told entirely through Laure/Mickaël’s perspective and it doesn’t seem that interested in translating the experience for cis viewers. This is why it should be essential viewing for children too, along with adults and parents. Transgender children could maybe find themselves and their experiences reflected in the protagonist. In fact, Sciamma’s direction is so fluid and the screenplay so carefully created from the protagonist’s point of view, that there’s no moment of confirmation of their identity. They could be transgender, genderqueer, or non-binary or have any possible gender identity really. So Tomboy also makes the point that children grapple with their own sense of gender, unlike what some adults may believe.
Tomboy is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.
Designed like a Western, director Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys tells the story of how an eleven-year-old transgender boy Joe (Sasha Knight) runs away from home with his supportive father Troy (Steve Zahn). Troy is separated from Joe’s mother Sally (Jillian Bell) and one of the major reasons for their separation was Troy’s insistence on letting Joe behave like a boy instead of a girl as Sally wanted. She blames Troy’s obsession with cowboys and masculine heroes for Joe’s wish to behave like a boy. Disturbingly transphobic, Sally refuses to even buy Joe books on cowboys because she’s afraid that will change her daughter. Cowboys feels strongly rooted in reality because while Troy is the most supportive father one could ask for, he has his own flaws. It is also not easy to watch because Joe is at the receiving end of a lot of transphobia. His gender dysphoria is however not that prominent. He comes out to his father after having figured things out for himself. The story is more focused on the consequences of coming out. But because of that, there’s a lot of dialogue about being transgender which could feel like it’s written for the cisgender members of the audience.
Despite the apparent catering to cis viewers, Cowboys has moments that feel like an inside joke for the queer viewers. There’s a scene set in a bowling alley where the camera alternates between a frame of Joe sitting and frames of the men around him, specifically focused on their beards and biceps. You can see him appreciating the male physique but in a completely un-sexual manner. He wishes his body was like the ones he is intently staring at. In fact, this is why it makes so much sense that his queer awakening happens through stories about cowboys. Cowboys represent the peak of masculine machismo in American culture. It’s no wonder he wishes to emulate them. Cowboys being structured as a Western is also a very appreciable choice because this makes it feel like we’re living the story through Joe. The story is more focused on how his father and mother react to him and how his father tries to do right by him. But transgender children deserve to be the protagonists of their own stories. So the Western aesthetic at least implies that it’s his perspective that’s eventually most important.
Cowboys is available to stream on Hulu and to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play Movies, and YouTube.
Girls Lost is a fantasy film. In the film, directed and written by Alexandra-Therese Keining, there is a special plant discovered by the three central characters Kim (Tuva Jagell), Bella (Wilma Holmén), and Momo (Louise Nyvall), which allows them to switch genders. Now, this premise of course seems to reinforce the flawed binary concept of gender. While that is an inexcusable mindset in general, it allows for a conversation-starting narrative. The three characters initially introduced as female, are students at a high school where misogynist boys bully them at every possible moment. They wish to turn into boys for one day so they can go to school without fear. And this mysterious plant seems to grant them their wish. While Momo and Bella have fun, they aren’t really interested in repeating the experience. Kim on the other hand seems to have become hooked after just one taste. He goes through the transformation and makes friends as a boy. These friends are however very toxic and Kim begins to exhibit signs of toxic masculinity. He mistreats Momo and Bella as well and keeps using the plant to change into a boy. Girls Lost is about how Kim grapples with the changes caused when he transforms and how the ability to transform helps him connect with himself like he’s never been able to do before.
Fantasy as a genre has a history of having elements that reflect the queer experience. One of the most noteworthy examples from Hollywood can be found in The Wizard of Oz, which is iconic to the point that being a “friend of Dorothy” is synonymous with being gay. So the premise of the film isn’t surprising, but it deserves praise despite relying on the cis narrative of the gender dichotomy. The body one is born into is often the source and also recipient of hate due to gender dysphoria. So having a way of moving into a body that the mind seems to belong to would be a dream come true. What Girls Lost gets right about transgender children is the way they perceive being transgender. There’s a moment where Kim describes his body as having a zipper, which if he pulled it open, would reveal his true body. So while it relies on the binary concept of gender, Girls Lost is told exclusively through a transgender lens. It is also a very sympathetic one because the film goes so far as to acknowledge the fact that toxic masculinity could take over because of the usual way masculinity is perceived in a predominantly patriarchal society.
Girls Lost is available to stream on Tubi TV.
Not just in the USA, the transgender community is also under attack in another major country in the world and that is the UK. Set in a small town in the UK, Rebekah Fortune’s sophomore directorial feature film Just Charlie follows a fourteen-year-old transgender girl Charlie (Harry Gilby), who is forced to come out when her parents catch her cross-dressing. She’s a very talented soccer player who has been contacted by the eminent English Premier League club Manchester City to be drafted into their squad. Her gender dysphoria is making it difficult for her to focus on the sport though. Her father keeps pressurizing her about that, and after he catches Charlie crossdressing, their relationship becomes strained, seemingly beyond repair. He is unwilling to accept Charlie’s identity and this leads to estrangement from the rest of the family as well. Charlie’s mother and her football coach are allies and support her choice to play women’s football for a different club. But the most supportive person in the family is Charlie’s sister. She researches about the issue, fights with her father about his ill-treatment of Charlie, and even cuts off friends who are unwilling to see her sister for who she is. The town ostracizes Charlie, be it her classmates, be it the adults around her who get into arguments with her father, and the film takes a very extensive look at how the transphobic society makes it impossible for a transgender person to live their truth.
As sensitive as Just Charlie is, the film is quite heavy-handed. There are moments where it goes too far with transphobia or gender dysphoria. The narrative feels designed with the goal of making the experience accessible to cis viewers. Compared to Cowboys, this has a lot more conversation about the transgender experience. But just like Cowboys, Just Charlie has its moments of catering specifically to transgender children. Charlie hiding in the forest while she crossdresses, or asserting that she wants to dress as she wants even in public, are little moments of triumph. And while it happens too many times to feel authentic, the film has a lot of moments where Charlie’s sister and mother correct other people misgendering her. Pronouns are meant to be respected and while it may be tiring, it’s important to assert them every time someone uses the wrong ones. Just Charlie also has an admirable design for Charlie’s father. His transphobia is born of a fear for Charlie instead of an unwillingness to accept that transgender people can be real. This is often the common case of transphobic parents because they’re afraid of how people will treat someone who is transgender. The enemy really is the transphobic nature of society, and it’s admirable that Just Charlie decides to portray that. It would have been better without the overly dramatic climax, which deserves to come with a trigger warning for violence.
Just Charlie is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and to rent on Google Play Movies, YouTube, and Apple TV.
Meet Alice (Anne Celestino). She is seventeen. She is out and proud. She is a transgender winner of a famous beauty pageant and uses her fame as an influencer to spread awareness. But, she is about to go live in a new town because her father must leave for work. Directed by Gil Baroni, Alice Júnior recounts the misadventures of Alice as she tries to fit into a conventionalist town that is quite openly transphobic. From being mocked by her peers, to being kicked out of the girl’s bathroom, Alice is victimized for her identity much more than she could have fathomed. But, with her loving father by her side, who is unendingly supportive of her, and her own iron resolve, Alice perseveres. She slowly makes a few friends. She begins taking up space even though no one gives her any. And by the end, her vastly transphobic peers are held accountable by her classmates. The school principal’s transphobia is also no longer tolerated. By the time she has to leave, everyone flocks around her saying how they will all miss her.
Alice Júnior is not just a fun film full of jokes, it is often edited like a vlog, and has a lot of Gen Z energy about it. More than anything else though, the film is a liberating experience because of Alice’s ability to stand up for herself and her peer’s eventual acceptance of her. It happens in one sudden moment, but that doesn’t mean the change feels like a throwaway happy ending to placate viewers. The moment is born of female solidarity. Her mistreatment by a particularly problematic male peer causes a flocking together of all her female classmates who stand up for her. So it feels authentic as well. Plus, there’s Alice’s father. His intolerance for intolerance is a cathartic screen presence. All transgender children deserve guardians like him. Despite being more focused on the positives of Alice’s experiences, the film doesn’t make light of transphobia and is very aware of reality. The moments where she is disrespected or harassed are not easy to watch, and that adds weight to the lighter moments in Alice Júnior. Since it takes time to get there, the catharsis at the end is momentous and empowering in its own way.
Alice Júnior is available to stream on Netflix and to rent on Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV.
Anything’s Possible is different from the other films on the list in that it is more of a romance than a drama. Not just any romance, it’s a high school romance! Imagine a John Hughes film that is not chock full of toxic masculinity and told through a transgender point of view, and you will have some idea of what Billy Porter’s feature directorial debut is like. Following transgender girl Kelsa (Eva Reign) during her final year in high school, Anything’s Possible tells the story of how she falls in love with classmate Khalid (Abubakr Ali). Kelsa is out and also in the process of transitioning. She uses her voice to spread awareness through videos she posts on her YouTube channel. However, she is obsessed with not letting her gender identity define her, and this drives her to be less vocal in real life. She still takes up any space she wants to and believes she should be able to, but she vehemently opposes external support. She doesn’t want her friends to stand up for her and is even annoyed with her mother wanting to protect her. The character’s journey is about reconciling her internalized issues and eventually understanding that her gender identity is a major part of her identity as a person and that it isn’t a sign of weakness or obsession to let it play a big role in how she is perceived by the world.
Despite the heavy premise of growth for Kelsa, Anything’s Possible is still a light-hearted watch because the story is primarily focused on the central romance, instead of transgender issues. It doesn’t however, neglect possible problems that may arise and confronts transphobia head-on through the supporting characters. Kelsa’s story doesn’t revolve around that though. Through her, the film looks at the common trauma response of queer people not wanting to let their queerness define them. She grows as a character due to some negative experiences she has, all of which are put into motion unintentionally by Khalid. So Anything’s Possible is essentially about the transformative power of love. Khalid and Kelsa’s camaraderie is sweet, humorous, and quirky in its own way due to Abubakr and Eva’s praiseworthy and intentionally awkward chemistry. Theirs is a relationship that viewers will root for. Transgender children have experiences that aren’t triggered by their gender identity and it’s heartwarming to know films are being made that focus on those experiences too. Anything’s Possible stands out for not just doing that, but still acknowledging the effect that being transgender has on Kelsa’s life. On top of that, the film features emotionally fulfilling healthy mother-child relationships as well.
Anything’s Possible is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
As sad as it sounds, the truth is that this list could have been made literally exhaustive with maybe ten more films at the most. There’s not enough transgender representation in media, but stories of transgender children are particularly rare and difficult to find. Maybe that is because of people’s flawed perception that children are too young to be introduced to the concepts of gender fluidity. Whatever the reason, this situation needs to change as soon as possible. Watching someone live your truth on screen has an empowering effect and every queer child who doesn’t have a support system in real life deserves to experience that. In fact, awakenings often happen because of exposure to stories about others similar to them. Every cis person should be an ally and every trans person should be able to live their lives as who they feel like they are. No one is answerable for identifying however they want to. Invalidating someone else’s feelings based on personal definitions of how things should be is inexcusable. It’s high time that practice stopped. Happy Transgender Day of Remembrance to everyone who celebrates it! And yes, that should be everyone.
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The May Incluvie Movie Highlights features 3 fantastic coming-of-age films. We explore butterfly-inducing Sneakerella and Crush, and the sadly timely feature - The Fallout, about the after-effects of a school shooting.