A Trans Woman of Color Responds to the Trauma of “Tangerine”

Note from Trans Editor Mey Rude: A few weeks ago I saw the movie Tangerine and wrote about my thoughts on the movie and its stars, Mya Taylor and Kiki Kitana Rodriguez. When I saw it I was extremely pleased overall, but had a few issues with the film. In this essay, Trans Latina writer Morgan Collado talks about her own experiences and issues with the film in greater detail.


Why is it that trans women of color have to experience so much violence to remember that they have each other’s back?

That’s what I got from the movie Tangerine. I enjoyed it. Mya Taylor (who plays Alexandra, one of the two trans leads) and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (who plays Sin-dee, the other) were fucking brilliant. They were not respectable, they were surviving in the best way they knew how and they were supporting each other even though it was difficult. I loved that they didn’t apologize for their lives or their existence.

Despite this, the audience still laughed at really inappropriate parts, showcasing the way that the film itself fails the story it’s trying to portray. And don’t get me wrong, the story is real. But the way it’s set up, how it’s shot, the progression of the plot — it’s clear that it is offering up the story to a mostly white, bougie audience. It was voyeuristic in the worst possible way. And while the two stars did have a lot of input into the making of the script, white men are still the ones who get the credit. The names of white men are on the script and white men directed the movie. The story was only made real by the beautiful performance of the actors.

One of the things that frustrated me was the way Razmik (an Armenian taxi driver who is a frequent customer of Alexandra and Sin-dee, played by Karren Karagulian) is juxtaposed to that terrible john. Razmik is no better then the dude that tried to rip off Alexandra. But the narrative manipulates you into feeling sorry for him. He is just a poor misunderstood dude who lies to his wife and keeps his desire secret. But he was just as awful as all the other non trans women in the film. He reduces trans women to what we can do for him sexually, fetishizes our bodies and refuses to publicly acknowledge that he desires trans women. He is still exploits them — he just pays well. Whats more, I don’t care at all about men and how they’re impacted by transmisogyny. Because the only reason Razmik and men like him get any kind of grief is because of transmisogyny. But it is not men who bear the brunt of that violence, it is us. Trans women are murdered for the same reasons that men are shamed. So for this film to focus almost half of the narrative on this man and how hard he has it, is very frustrating. Because even in films that are ostensibly about us, we still have to deal with men and their feelings. We still try to center male experiences.

The complicated relationship that these two trans women had with the men/love in their life was hard to watch. These were people who really and truly hated Sin-dee and Alexandra but said that they love them. They manipulate, take advantage of and abuse them. Chester was an awful abusive liar, but what choice does Sin-dee have? When validation and love come, even if it’s twisted and fucked up, you take it because otherwise you are just alone and sometimes the illusion of someone supporting you is better than nothing at all. I saw my experiences with men reflected in theirs and it fucking hurt. Trans women of color aren’t valued — again, we exist only to serve and perform for men. What does it mean that the people that are supposed to value us the most end up abusing us? What does it mean that trans women of color are often the victims of domestic violence but there is no narrative about it. We cannot be victims because we cannot be loved.

The final moment of the film comes after Sin-dee realizes that Alexandra slept with her boyfriend. Sin-dee is upset with Alexandra and tries to go off by herself but Sin-dee is assaulted, called a tranny faggot and gets urine splashed all over her. An intimate moment ensues where Alexandra takes care of Sin-dee and Sin-dee forgives Alexandra. That moment of sisterhood is so real. Nobody is going to look out for trans women of color except other trans women of color. We only matter to others when we are performing for them. But why does the film find it necessary to emphasize this sisterhood by subjecting them both to violence? What does it say about the director and the audience that this was the only way to bring them back together, because they have no other choice because the world is trying to kill them. This scene also shows them taking off their wigs which is just another instance of that trope saying that trans women’s femininity is not real. It’s a fabrication that comes off during intimate moments, cause what’s “real” is what’s on the “inside”. What does it mean that all the character development that occurred in that film was through trauma and violence? What does it mean that we can only see their vulnerability, their strength, their resilience through this moment of degendering?

I’m glad I went to see it. Seeing some of my experiences reflected in that film were really important and some of the ways they handle sex work and relationships is real. I appreciated the nuance in the way that they displayed men and their relationships to trans women. Trans women of color are almost always seen as objects to be controlled, held and exploited. The movie was clear about this. Clear that the ways men relate to trans women is toxic and fraught with dynamics of power that are abusive. Chester (Sin-dee’s boyfriend and pimp, played by James Ransone) was terrible to Sin-dee and he manipulated his way back into her good graces. Razmik was only interested in how these women could serve his pleasure. Both models — both through intimate relationship and client — capture the way that men are terrible to trans women time and again.

I also liked the way that Sin-dee was in control of her interaction with Dinah (the white, cis woman and sex worker who Chester cheats on Sin-dee with, played by Mickey O’Hagan). So often, cis white women will invalidate our womanhood. They will exclude us from women’s spaces and be generally awful to us. Transmisogyny is pervasive and cis white women are not exempt from perpetuating that. It was satisfying to see another trans woman of color in control of her interaction with someone who was actively denying her womanhood, who mocks Sin-dee’s desire to be valued and seen by her partner. It was satisfying to see her take what she needed from her when so often trans women of color are denied. White feminists might be inclined to read what Sin-dee does as violence against women but Sin-dee is not in a position of power over Dinah. And it was satisfying to watch. And while I do not trust the intentions of the white male director who shot that scene (because he would be perpetrating that violence), I do appreciate the moment for the satisfaction it gave me.

Even with these positive experiences, the voyeurism and almost lurid lens that the film was shot in makes it so that it only serves the consumption of cis white people. I cannot separate or ignore the fact that this was a film made by white men. And how these white men’s careers are going to profit from this film while the actress’s careers will most likely languish.

And why is it that so few TWOC (aside from Laverne Cox and Janet Mock) get any kind of airtime when it doesn’t involve trauma? Why are cis folks only interested in seeing us hurt, traumatized and alone? Those select few trans women who do get the spotlight, not just when they are murdered, are the exception and often tokenized by the spaces that they are in. You only ever hear about TWOC after we have been murdered. And in many ways this film is no different. It relies on the difficulty of our lives, it’s fetishizes the way our existence is marked by this world in order to titillate, to entice. The exotic other enchanting the “normal” cis white audience. And they leave the theater thinking that they know something, that they are more familiar with the lives of trans women. But our lives are not like in the movies.

After the last shot and the credits started rolling, I just broke down and cried. All that trauma and pain laid out like that so that people who don’t give a fuck about us, who just want to eat us alive — it was too much. It was so much to be in that audience, hearing their laughter and knowing we are just some fucking joke to them. That the things we face are a fantasy playground they can hang out in and then leave. That our lives only have meaning through the trauma experience. And don’t get me wrong, our trauma is real. But trauma isn’t the only thing about my existence that is real. But it’s the only thing cis folks care to see. Because a trans woman happy and loved is just so fucking weird to be real. Because seeing the full breadth of our lives is too much for people to handle. And because white people cannot help but exploit our lives.

In many ways, this film is similar to Paris is Burning. Brilliant and important and life saving while at the same time exploitative to the actors/subjects. The reviews of this film go on and on about Sean Baker and how he shot this film on a iPhone but where are the interviews asking how Mya Taylor felt shooting this film? Where are all the accolades for Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and her beautiful nuanced performance? Jennie Livingston made out like a bandit from that film and so will Sean Baker from this one. And the system is set up that only a white person could even get the funding for this project. TWOC doing this for ourselves doesn’t get the same level of attention or money. When will we get our coins? When will the work we do, the art we make, the lives we lead be for us, by us? When will white cis people stop exploiting our bodies for their profit?

Morgan is a working class femme trans woman of color of Colombian and Puerto Rican descent. She works in Austin as a poet, performance artist, community organizer and family builder, focusing on the uses of poetry, performance and brunch to create better spaces for marginalized people. She has been organizing for 8 years in various areas including environmental justice, racial justice, anti-violence and trans justice. Her work as an artist and performer is heavily influenced by her own political experience and the experience of her community. She believes the revolution is not some distant day in the future but is right now by living, loving and thriving.

Morgan has written 3 articles for us.

28 Comments

  1. yes to all of this!!! i am white and cis and while i really did enjoy the film, mostly because of mya and kitana’s AMAZING performances, but still felt perturbed by the heavy focus on violence and on razmik’s storyline.

  2. “White feminists might be inclined to read what Sin-dee does as violence against women but Sin-dee is not in a position of power over Dinah.”

    She beats her up, throws her around and then drags her by her hair all over town. That’s not empowerment, that’s (a white male director) perpetuating white paranoia about brown and black people, cis paranoia about trans women who are ‘as strong as men’ assaulting white women and that trans women are really just men underneath a little surface femminess and will act like men when it comes down to it.

    As you said, the audience for this film is overwhelmingly white, bougie art film goers… not trans people and not persons of color. It’s images are targeted at those filmgoers (the Sundance crowd), not at the people who inhabit the cultures the film supposedly depicts.

    I thought Tangerine was a mixed bag… yes, some good casting and performances (although I thought a lot of Kitana Kiki Rodriguez’s performance reminded me of something which would appear on 2003 Law and Order episode or other cop show), but also some very awkward, manipulated and objectified interweaving of multiple stories by an outsider to both cultures.

  3. A very nuanced review Morgan, thank you! I saw Tangerine in the theater here in DC during it’s limited run and certain scenes you mentioned above were so painful to watch play out in the film. Until trans people are behind the camera / writing the narrative this is unfortunately probably the closest approximation to an authentic trans experience we will get on screen. In 2015 there really is no excuse for there not being more funding to give more voices in the trans community a platform.

    • I haven’t seen the movie yet so I can’t comment on that specific scene.

      That said, experiencing some form of satisfaction about violence in a movie doesn’t necessarily translate to being in favor of violence in real life. For example, part of me tends to feel triumphant when a woman (say, Xena, or Buffy) beats up a guy (Like, HA! Take that!). Would I go around beating up men if that was a thing I was physically able to do? No, of course not. But when surrounded by messages of female weakness and male strength, it feels really good to have representation of female strength.

      There’s a lot of violence in the world, and it tends to go downwards through the various tangled hierarchies of oppression. It can be very emotionally satisfying to see depictions of it going in the other direction. It’s not about celebrating violence, it’s about those who are so often victims of violence for once NOT being the victims. It’s about seeing them win instead of lose. It’s about not being helpless.

      Of course the specific context/story/characters/scene of a specific movie matter, a lot, in how this plays out. My point is simply that sometimes violence in movies does feel satisfying, and it should be ok to admit it and think about it and talk about it.

      • Nicely put. I hear what you’re saying and agree with you that onscreen violence can be cathartic, like Buffy or Kill Bill.

        My dismay is that after the reviewer complains about violence against transwomen by men, she taps into that element of trans rhetoric that is violent toward ciswomen and finds the beating in the film satisfying. The aggression transwomen feel toward ciswomen is confounding and somewhat frightening.

        • The idea that trans women, as a group, feel aggression towards cis women is a harmful stereotype. The whole trope of women fighting over a man (rather than holding him accountable for his own actions) is also stereotypical and tiresome. I haven’t seen this film, so I can’t accurately judge this particular scene, but it doesn’t sound like an example of positive representation.

          Of course, all complex, nuanced characters are flawed. It would just be nice if those flaws didn’t always seem to play into negative stereotypes.

          • “The idea that trans women, as a group, feel aggression towards cis women is a harmful stereotype. The whole trope of women fighting over a man (rather than holding him accountable for his own actions) is also stereotypical”

            ~You might not have seen the film, but you’re dead on about this observation.

  4. “These were people who really and truly hated Sin-dee and Alexandra but said that they love them. They manipulate, take advantage of and abuse them. Chester was an awful abusive liar, but what choice does Sin-dee have? When validation and love come, even if it’s twisted and fucked up, you take it because otherwise you are just alone and sometimes the illusion of someone supporting you is better than nothing at all.”

    THIS

    Honestly, that’s how I felt when I heard about Tangerine, but I felt as a cis person that my opinion wasn’t valid or I felt guilty for not appreciating a movie that starred trans women.

    I was listening to NPR and there was a book about a light skinned mother who had dark skinned baby and it was about how much the mother was horrified and embarrassed about having a baby that dark and I understand the greater system of oppression, but at some point you get tired of seeing/reading such depressing depictions of yourself, especially as the only serious works being put out. It’s not the same thing, but it was so triggering I had to shut it off. I spent my entire childhood hating my skin color and I was over hearing about it.

  5. Interesting article, but I really resent the wig comment. Correct me of I’m wrong, but the author is not black and does not have textured hair? Sounds like she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

    Many black women (trans and cis alike) wear wigs. Taking your wig off in front of someone can be a big deal and it’s not an act often seen onscreen outside of a ‘humorous’ reveal. It conveys a level of emotional intimacy and desire to be seen sans the influence of Eurocentric beauty standards.

    I’m just as black and just as trans as just as feminine when I take mine off and I sincerely hope I get to see more do the same in the future.

  6. I agree that I was disappointed by the extent to which trauma was centered in the film. However, from what I’ve seen in interviews with the director and lead actors, it was originally supposed to be a portrait of the street and originally just included the twoc characters as part of the community. However, the actresses – who are community members – insisted that the film show viscerally disturbing transphobia because they wanted the audience to understand what their lives are really like. I agree that it still seems like a film that is gratuitously dwelling on trauma to satisfy an audience who can only imagine twoc as victims, which probably says more about how the director responded to that feedback from the actresses than anything else.

  7. “He reduces trans women to what we can do for him sexually, fetishizes our bodies and refuses to publicly acknowledge that he desires trans women. He is still exploits them — he just pays well.”
    I mean, that was part of the point. I know it’s an inconvenient truth for a lot of trans women, but some of us are sex workers. It’s not exploitation, it’s our survival.
    Stop w the respectability politics.

    • Molly, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s no “respectability politics”. There’s nothing wrong with sex work, but there is often plenty wrong with the cishet male attitudes regarding sex work, sex workers, and their own desires.

      Sex is a healthy thing, but some people can be unhealthy about it. There’s nothing wrong with sex work, but customers can have very wrong ideas and desires.

      There is nothing in this article for you to take personal offence from.

      • I’m guessing you’ve never done sex work, (and no, I’m not talking about phone sex or camming)
        Trust me, we’re well aware of our customers’ attitudes. We don’t need someone telling us how fucked up men’s attitudes are. And please don’t tell me not to be offended, because that’s silencing as hell.

  8. Also, by all but glossing over the fact that the two leads are sex workers, you’re erasing a really important part of the story. It’s as if that part of the narrative doesn’t fit your agenda, so it’s not important?
    This movie was groundbreaking for a lot of us who are trans women, POC, and ESPECIALLY sex workers.

  9. How dare you be thrilled seeing a man (in a dress, whatever, he is a biological male) assault a woman. So creepy and disgusting. I hate this website and I hate the misogyny I see from trans activists. Biological men have power. Assault is assault. You have serious issues if you think this is okay.

    • Absolutely! Transition changes gender, but not sex. Sex changes are impossible. A natal male beats up a natal female and the reviewer finds it”satisfying”? That’s revolting.

      Likewise Sin-dee definitely is in a position of power over Dinah, both because of Sin-Dee’s relative physical strength and because women, as a sex class, are oppressed by men, as a class and regardless of how they identify. Trans people aren’t immune – or excused – from misogyny.

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