The following article contains several spoilers for the Netflix film Girl, directed by Lukas Dhont. A trigger warning for bodily mutilation.
I’ve never seen the Academy Award-winning film The Danish Girl, but I recently tweeted what I guessed would be a summary of its plot: Eddie Redmayne, who plays Lili Elbe, stares in the mirror a lot, emphasizing the chasm between his body as it is and his body as it could be. How did I know that? Because when cisgender people, like me, make a film about the transgender experience, it’s often made from the same cis viewpoint: that transition is wholly and solely a physical one, one that is grueling, tragic, medical and lamentable.
That same spirit permeates Girl, except ratcheted up to 11. Very little about Girl could be called subtle. Girl tells the story of a young transgender girl, Lara (Victor Polster), studying ballet at a prestigious Belgian dance academy while also starting hormone replacement therapy and preparing for gender confirmation surgery. Unfortunately, the film, which already won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for best first feature film, does little to explore the inner psychology of a trans adolescent and focuses much more on the physical. The film takes its cues from Black Swan and often feels like a horror film that conflates two journeys: the journey of becoming a ballerina — an unrealistic, idealized form of feminine beauty — with the journey of being transgender.
Put simply: the film is bloody and obsessed with trans bodies in a way that reminds us that a cisgender person wrote and directed it. It’s trans trauma porn and, as a cisgender person, I’m warning trans people not to watch it and cis people not to fall for it.
The film includes, as mentioned previously, several shots of the film’s cisgender main actor, Victor Polster, staring at a mirror, with Victor’s genitalia on full display. These scenes convey a creepy, voyeuristic obsession with Lara’s body that never loses its ick factor. Rather than focusing at all on the psychology of Lara, the film presents scene after scene of her physicality: she dances and dances, removes bloody tap shoes, uses tape on her genitals over and over (there are about five shots of her taping down her penis), she gets hormone shots. Rather than uplifting Lara, the film almost seems to want to humiliate her and lament her struggle.
To reflect the filmmaker’s own psyche, everyone in the film seems to be obsessed with Lara’s body. Her dance instructor makes a comment about how big her feet are, telling her that she “can’t just cut bits off” to change how she was born. Doctors talk to her about vaginoplasty when Lara first comes in to start getting hormone treatment, focusing once again on surgery and bodily change rather than focusing on her as a whole person.
Frustrated by doctors denying her confirmation surgery, Lara ultimately chooses to take her transition into her own hands, which makes very little sense since we saw her get an explanation of how a vaginoplasty works earlier in the film. But, unfortunately, in a film wholly born from a cis person’s mind, Lara can only further her transition — once again, a process that is not solely physical — through self-mutilation. I’ll be frank, but be warned: Lara calls an ambulance, takes a pair of scissors and cuts her dick off.
As much as the film is focused on Lara’s body, the film still chooses to present a cisgender boy as a young trans girl, even though the film asserts that the character has been on hormone blockers allowing her to avoid a male puberty. The film tries to pass Polster, a feminine boy, as a trans girl. But young trans girls on blockers don’t look like feminine or androgynous boys — they look like girls. Lara has started taking estrogen, and she is frustrated because her breasts haven’t developed. Hormones affect more than breasts, yet the film focuses on breasts and the vagina as the sole things that make a trans girl a girl.
The director spoke to INTO previously about his “gender blind” casting process, but the fact that the film cast a cis boy to play a trans girl is not its sole problem. The film is birthed wholly from the mind of a cis person and employs only cis fascination with trans bodies to tell its story.
Moments of the film do resonate and feel well-wrought. Though the film fails to give Lara a deep psychology, it does hit some resonant notes, especially when it comes to other people’s reactions to Lara’s transness. Lara’s relationship with her father (Arieh Worthalter) is well-rendered and strikes the right chord for any teen-father relationship, especially one where both are going through transitions — her father is grieving his wife and is re-entering the dating world.
Lara also faces several microaggressions, both from strangers and from those she loves. Lara confronts her birth name when her six-year-old brother says it during a tantrum, causing her both to freeze up and also remind him that that’s not appropriate. In another scene, a school sleepover goes awry when classmates force Lara to reveal her penis to them.
There’s no doubt that Girl is an ultimately harmful film. Watching it could not only traumatize and retraumatize trans folks, but also perhaps send the wrong message about transition to trans youth. And, as always, there’s no reason for a film to focus so much on watching a trans person bloody themselves, even if it’s in pursuit of becoming a ballerina.
Just as dangerous as the film’s contents is its context. The film has already won two awards at Cannes and will gain a wider platform this fall, as Belgium has submitted it to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences as its official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Netflix purchased the film as well, making it easily clickable at any time to anyone who uses the streaming platform. When the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the almost entirely cisgender audience was horrified by some of the explicit gore on screen but seemed ultimately won over by its depiction of transness, as it conformed to the same flat, one-dimensional storytelling about trans people that cisgender people are accustomed to creating, consuming, and praising.
This cisgender acclaim could unwittingly lead more cis people to mistake the kind of transition the film shows as a universal experience and further ingrain the misbegotten notion that transition is only about a trans person’s body. And, even worse, could lead trans people to watch the film and experience its trauma firsthand.
Girl could have ultimately been a very interesting film about the unnatural processes women go through to achieve an elusive, imagined feminine ideal — the ballerina — via an adolescent transgender girl. But the movie offers little insight into the psychology of adolescence and instead focuses solely on bloodied feet and genitals. Trans people deserve a narrative that dares to treat them as psychologically complex and not one that continues to view their bodies as burdens to be overcome.
Image via Netflix