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?