Looking at the success of this year’s (well deserved!) Oscar-winning foreign language film A Fantastic Woman, it’s easy for the industry to champion narratives that center trans characters. But as film academy members begin to cast their votes this week for next year’s best of the best, I caution them: A vote for Netflix’s Girl is a vote for a dangerous, traumatizing, small-minded, and one-dimensional representation of the trans experience.
The debut feature of Lukas Dhont, who co-wrote it with Angelo Tijssens (who are both cis), follows Lara, a 15-year-old trans girl (played by a cis actor) who dreams of becoming a ballerina. With a supportive father by her side, she grapples with the trials of attending a new school, training her late-to-dance feet and living in a body she’d rather not, all while starting hormone replacement therapy and preparing for gender confirmation surgery.
The film, Belgium’s official submission for Oscars consideration that won the most awards of any film at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, is inspired by the real life story of Nora Monsecour who at 16 was the subject of an article in one of the country’s newspapers. Dhont read that article, contacted her and got her permission to make this film.
The director has discussed with the press at length the process of bringing Girl to screen. It involved extensive consultation with doctors at Ghent University Hospital to ensure the picture’s conversation around Lara’s physical transition were accurate. He also wanted to make sure the narrative was uplifting, one of “love,” he said.
But to quote an ancient proverb, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What is clear is that Girl is yet another example of what happens when the cis imagination gets ahold of trans stories.
While Dhont has been lauded for a “gender blind” casting process, he and his team settled on Victor Polster, who had great dance abilities. Thanks to Scarlett Johansson, the problem with this is well documented. What’s doubly disturbing, however, is how this decision supports the erosion of the character’s humanity as manifested through the camera’s vantage point.
Perhaps as expected, a film about a dancer focuses a lot on Lara’s body. What’s not necessary however are the countless scenes centered on her crotch. She’s shown over and over, in painstaking detail, peeling tape off of her penis — diluting any artistic merit the film might warrant.
But the most offensive and violent part of the picture comes near its end. (Trigger Warning) After setting the stage about how impatient Lara is for her body to change, she takes it upon herself to hurry her transition via self mutilation. She calls an ambulance, attempts to numb her penis with ice, takes a pair of scissors, and cuts her penis off.
It’s a scene that draws shock from audiences, used to convey how desperate Lara is to have her outside match her inside. It’s supposed to, I’m sure, elicit sympathy and support for the experiences of trans people. But all I can think about is the message this sends to the little trans and gender nonconforming kids that might stumble upon this film in their Netflix queue at the top of the year and do what kids do: follow suit.
What’s wrong with Girl is what’s wrong with most projects that claim to represent the experiences of trans people with no substantive participation of trans voices. It’s a missed opportunity to properly contextualize the experiences of trans folks coming into ourselves as more than purely physical and medical.
There is a high level of responsibility that exists when industry creators choose to tell trans stories. Considering we are still at a point where trans storytelling, just like trans survival, is a political act, we can’t afford for people to not shoulder the burden of representation. Whatever merits the film garners on craft or cinematography have a cost. Lives are at stake.