Tristan Taormino heralded ‘The New Wave of Trans Cinema’ in a 2008 column, highlighting the emergence of ‘docu-porn’ created by, for, and about trans men, and categorising them as films that ‘break down seemingly finite categories, create new iconography, and redefine sexual images and stories’.1 In the years since, the ‘Trans New Wave’ has come to be defined and expanded by filmmakers, trans film festivals, and the newly emergent field of trans cinema studies. Eliza Steinbock describes the ‘Trans New Wave’ or ‘New Trans Cinema’ as ‘build[ing] on feminist, postcolonial, and queer film criticism to assert significant groupings of films, contemporary directors, and types of spectatorship.’2 This canonizing works to ‘reclaim territory’3 and ‘stake out new territory’4 for trans cinema, generating conversation about what trans cinema is and what it might become. Over the past decade, in the swash of the Trans New Wave’s breaking, key developments in trans cinema have included the increased ‘transliteracy’5 of audiences; canonizing efforts by film programmers, scholars, and audiences; an expanded definition of ‘trans cinema’ beyond trans narratives; and regular vocal critiques of mainstream representations and cisgender actors cast in trans* roles.

The launch of the first transgender film festivals in large cities like San Francisco, London, and Toronto may now be over 20 years ago (1997), but the global proliferation of trans film festivals is more recent, with cities including Amsterdam, Berlin, Sydney, Melbourne, Detroit, Bologna, and Madurai all establishing their own in the past decade. The existence of these festivals is indicative of the boom in independent trans filmmaking since the 2000s when ‘trans films begin to arrive in earnest’.6 The submissions to – and programming of – these festivals are barometers of trans filmmaking (including aesthetics, genres, themes, and politics). For instance, as a festival programmer at Transcreen, Steinbock found that ‘By 2013 I saw much more interesting fiction films and story-telling that included a trans* character, but that wasn’t used as a device of either the deceptive person or somebody who has to be revealed: their trans*ness was not the plot problem to be solved. Whereas before, even in Transamerica, which was our opening film in 2007, that [device] is integral.’7 These festivals offer one forum for the abundance and diversity of trans films, and some queer film festivals have also programmed more trans content in the past decade (after previously marginalised it in favour of a focus on gay and lesbian films and audiences).

Tangerine, Sean Baker, 2015

The canon-forming and community-building functions of film festivals find another forum in the emergence of ‘trans cinema studies’. The growing canon of trans films, and the rich conversations these films generate, has warranted its own subfield (one which is closely connected to, but distinct from, queer and feminist approaches to cinema studies). Transgender studies ‘has coalesced as a discipline’ in the past 20 years,8 and in the past decade, a new generation of screen and media scholars – including Helen Hok-Sze Leung, Cáel M. Keegan, Eliza Steinbock, and Akkadia Ford – have joined pioneers such as Susan Stryker and Jack Halberstam. In a filmmaker roundtable conducted by Jules Rosskam, Chase Joynt spoke of having long been inspired by the call made by Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore to move beyond discussions of ‘trans-’ centered exclusively on gender (2008). I don’t interpret their proposal to move beyond to mean move away from, but rather to move with trans – toward new analytic, interpretive and intersectional possibilities.9

Many scholars share this effort to move with trans as they explore areas such as history and media archeology,10 reception,11 aesthetics and affect,12 and temporality.13 The cinematic and critical upswell has also resulted in trans cinema’s popularity as a topic for postgraduate theses and conference panels, and the current development of the Transgender Media Portal (led by Laura Horak).

These developments are indicative of the focus changing from critiquing representation to expanding the definitions and territories of trans cinema. As Steinbock argues, Trans New Wave discourses ‘constructively move on from critiquing the inadequate stereotyping of trans characters largely written by, directed by, and played by cisgender (non-transgender) people.’14 This was important work in the prior decade, when taxonomies of stereotyped transgender characters such as those by Calpernia Addams (Prostitute, Punchline, Psycho, Poor thing!)15 and Joelle Ruby Ryan (deceiver, mammy, monster, and revolutionary)16 raised awareness of representational issues and common negative tropes. Many mainstream films have long displayed a cisgender gaze upon transgender bodies and lives, a gaze often focused on the body or physical transition in a mode of voyeuristic spectacle, and marked by curiosity, wariness, pity, or tragedy. More recently, greater awareness, or ‘transliteracy’, has improved the overall state of media representation, but television has been succeeding over cinema in these stakes lately (with series such as Sense8 and Pose), and failures continue to occur in mainstream cinema, such as the eliding of transactivists in Stonewall (Roland Emmerich, 2015) and the spectacle of ‘trans trauma porn’17 that is Girl (Lukas Dhont, 2018). These blunders can perhaps be thought of as the ‘backwash’ of the Trans New Wave, thrown into sharp relief against the stronger currents of the ‘politically potent’18 wave of trans cinema that deals with social justice and human rights. As filmmaker Felix Endara reminds us: ‘Trans cinema is intersectional, so it’s never just about being ‘trans.’ In fact, trans is a lens and not a narrative or plot device’.19 Trans cinema scholarship reflects this perspective in work such as Keegan’s theorisation of a trans* aesthetic in Lana and Lilly Wachowski: Sensing Transgender (2019).

A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio, 2017

Representational critiques continue to be important in light of mainstream failures, but key issues that have become more prominent in the past decade include the casting of cisgender actors in trans roles, and the lack of representation behind the camera in commercial film/television production. Activism on these issues has been amplified through social media and a greater degree of mainstream media coverage in the past decade, and has played a role in the shifting emphasis from trans people as objects of representation, to the agential opportunities and enterprise trans people have – and want to create – as actors and filmmakers. Finally, ‘Mainstream institutions are also starting to recognize trans-made work… and some trans filmmakers are getting jobs in the industry,’20 for example, directors Silas Howard (A Kid Called Jake, 2018) and Rhys Ernst (Adam, 2019), who both also worked on the television series, Transparent. Similar shifts are occurring in front of the camera, with a greater attention on opportunities for trans actors. The swift backlash in response to Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Dante ‘Tex’ Gill in the biopic Rub & Tug was a key moment in the growing resistance to cisgender actors playing trans characters, particularly as Johannsson consequently withdrew from the film. This intervention at pre-production stage followed a gradual swell of critique over casting in Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005), Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013), and then The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, 2015), perhaps bringing to an end the trend in casting cis actors to attract awards attention. A new trend foregrounds and celebrates performances by trans actors such as Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor in Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015), Daniela Vega in the Oscar-nominated A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, 2017), and Leyna Bloom in Port Authority (Danielle Lessovitz, 2019), while these films also lean on their casting to enhance credibility and exposure.

As Julia Serano notes in her preface to the second edition of Whipping Girl, ‘While a decade is not a huge amount of time in the grand scheme of things, it certainly feels like a lifetime ago when it comes to public understandings and discussions about transgender people.’21): p. x.] Recalling Taormino’s exuberance and B. Ruby Rich’s noting of the ‘energy’ of New Trans Cinema, it is worthwhile celebrating developments since the breaking of the Trans New Wave, while also keeping an eye on mainstream representation in front of and behind the camera, as well as supporting diverse and independent filmmakers and film festivals in the coming years.

Endnotes:

  1. Tristan Taormino, “The New Wave of Trans Cinema,” LA Weekly, 14 April 2008. https://www.laweekly.com/the-new-wave-of-trans-cinema/
  2. Eliza Steinbock, “Towards Trans Cinema” in The Routledge Companion to Cinema & Gender, Kristin Lené Hole, Dijana Jelača, E. Ann Kaplan and Patrice Petro, eds. (Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2017), p. 396.
  3. Steinbock, “Towards Trans Cinema,” p. 396.
  4. B. Ruby Rich, New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut (Durham; London: Duke University Press), p. 271.
  5. Akkadia Ford, “Transliteracy and the Trans New Wave: Developing a New Canon of Cinematic Representations of Gender Diversity and Sexuality,” Journal of Communication and Media Studies 1, no. 2.
  6. Rich, New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut, p. 271.
  7. Steinbock in Skadi Loist, and Marijke de Valck, “Trans* film festivals: An interview with Eliza Steinbock,” NECSUS (Autumn 2013), https://necsus-ejms.org/trans-film-festivals-an-interview-with-eliza-steinbock/
  8. Laura Horak, “Trans Studies”, Feminist Media Histories 4, no. 2 (Spring 2018): p. 201.
  9. Jules Rosskam, “Making Trans Cinema: A Roundtable Discussion with Felix Endara, Reina Gossett, Chase Joynt, Jess Mac and Madsen Minax,” Somatechnics 8, no. 1 (March 2018), p. 18.
  10. Laura Horak, “Tracing the History of Trans and Gender Variant Filmmakers,” Spectator: The University of Southern California Journal of Film and Television Criticism 37, no. 2 (Fall 2017), pp. 9-20.
  11. Jonathan R. Williams, ‘‘Trans Cinema, Trans Viewers.’’ PhD diss., University of Melbourne, 2011; Cáel M. Keegan, “Revisitation: A trans phenomenology of the media image,” MedieKultur: Journal of Media and Communication Research 32, no. 61 (2016).
  12. Eliza Steinbock, Shimmering Images: Trans Cinema, Embodiment, and the Aesthetics of Change (Duke University Press, 2019).
  13. Cáel M. Keegan, Lana and Lilly Wachowski (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2018); Akkadia Ford, “Duration, Compression, Extension and Distortion of Time in Contemporary Transgender Cinema,” Somatechnics 9, no. 1 (2019): pp. 58-83.
  14. Steinbock, “Towards trans cinema,” p. 396.
  15. Calpernia Addams, “Transsexual Clichés and Stereotypes in Film, Television and Print Media,” Calpernia.com 31 August 2009, http://www.calpernia.com/2009/08/transsexual-cliches-and-stereotypes-in-media/
  16. Joelle Ruby Ryan, “Reel Gender: Examining the Politics of Trans Images in Film and Media,” PhD diss., Bowling Green State University, 2009.
  17. Oliver Whitney, “Belgium’s Foreign-Language Oscar Submission, Girl, is a Danger to the Transgender Community,” The Hollywood Reporter, 21 April 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/belgiums-oscar-submission-girl-is-a-danger-transgender-community-1166505
  18. Akkadia Ford, “Transliteracy and the New Wave of Gender-diverse Cinema,” fusion 5 (2014), p. 7, http://www.fusion-journal.com/issue/005-fusion-changing-patterns-and-critical-dialogues-new-uses-of- literacy/transliteracy-and-the-new-wave-of-gender-diverse-cinema/
  19. Rosskam, “Making Trans Cinema,” p. 25.
  20. Horak, “Tracing the History of Trans and Gender Variant Filmmakers,” p. 16.
  21. Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: a transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity, 2nd edn (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2016 [2007