When I first heard about the upcoming film About Ray, which tells the story of a family reacting to their son’s transition, I was immediately worried. There was one promising element — Susan Sarandon would be playing a lesbian grandmother, and we rarely get to see lesbian characters in major motion pictures at all, let alone older lesbian characters. But the trans boy at the center of the film was to be played by Elle Fanning, who is neither trans nor a boy.
The movie lost my attention for a while; I just dismissed it as yet another misguided attempt by cis people to make a movie about trans people. After all, the media seems to love us right now. Or at least they love some of us, or maybe just the idea of some of us. When I saw the film’s director, Gaby Dellal, talk about the film, and specifically about her main character, Ray, for the first time, though, my worry turned into overwhelming dread. It seems like Dellal, despite being a person who is making a movie about a transgender boy, doesn’t understand that transgender boys aren’t girls. This is even more confusing when you watch the trailer, which actually seems pretty good:
Do we really have to explain this all again? It seemed like after the disaster that was Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club and then the reaction to Jeffrey Tambor’s casting as Maura in Transparent (which is also a show that has actually done a lot of good for a lot of trans people and also hired a lot of trans people), we were finally getting Hollywood on the same page as us. Trans actors like Laverne Cox and Trace Lysette were getting cast in pilots for major networks, a trans character on ABC Family’s The Fosters was actually being played by Tom Phelan, a trans actor, Sense8 not only starred a trans woman, but was co-created by one too, Tangerine came out starring not one, but two trans women of color. Then along came Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl and of course, Fanning as Ray in this film. It seems like we’re back at square one.
But the most troubling element of the discourse around this film is the way Dellal is talking about the casting. She told Refinery29 that “three and half years ago [the subject of transitioning] was news to me. We all think we’re working in a generation where transgender issues are very normal, but I don’t think they were as little as three years ago. They weren’t as transparent.” She added “I’m not saying they didn’t exist, but I didn’t know about them.” Honestly, I’m not sure if that’s changed. Dellal talks about Ray as if he is a girl, and she talks about transitioning as if it’s a costume or some sort of an on/off switch. She even uses “she/her” pronouns to talk about Ray and repeatedly misgenders him.
It’s also worth mentioning that Dellal approached this film wanting to make a movie about LGBT people — any LGBT people at all, seemingly. She told Refinery29 that she started out making a movie about three generations of women, with two of them being gay, but decided to change her protagonist to a trans boy after “she encountered a man who told her that his child had announced plans to transition.” Treating stories about lesbians and stories about trans boys as artistically interchangeable is alarming enough before we even get into her perspective on trans guys. Rather than treating these stories with the reverence and social responsibility they deserve, she seems to be approaching them like daring artistic challenges, like when she said of Elle Fanning, “I could not have chosen a more blonde, more feminine actress who had a big a mountain to climb. And that’s what I’m interested in.” What??
When describing Ray, Dellal says that “the part is a girl and she is a girl who is presenting in a very ineffectual way as a boy.” However, according to all the film’s promotional materials, the other characters in the movie, and, most importantly, Ray himself, Ray is a boy. The fact that he’s transgender doesn’t change that. He’s not a girl “presenting” as a boy. He’s a boy. Furthermore, it’s extremely inappropriate for a cis person to pass judgement on how well a trans person “passes,” (not to mention how full of problems the entire concept of “passing” is) especially a trans youth — even if it’s a fictional character. Finally, despite Dellal’s opinion on how good Ray is at presenting as his true gender and not that it really has anything to do with the character’s value as a boy, Elle Fanning seems to be pretty effectively “presenting as a boy” in the pictures and footage from the trailer that I’ve seen. I mean, Ray looks like he could be that kid from Love, Actually‘s twin brother.
Dellal went on to explain that Ray is “not pretending to have a deeper voice. She’s just a girl who is being herself and is chasing the opportunity to start hormone treatment. So to actually use a trans boy was not an option because this isn’t what my story is about.” Again, there’s more than one problem here. She seems to be assuming that all trans boys are on hormones and therefore she couldn’t use a trans actor ’cause he would’ve been on hormones and had a deep voice which would’ve ruined the whole thing — and that trans people, at least before they transition and maybe during their transition, are actually the gender they were assigned at birth.
This is baffling partially because “transition” means so many different things to so many different people. There isn’t a universal starting point and there isn’t a moment where you go from being one gender to another. There are huge numbers of trans people who never start Hormone Replacement Therapy and those trans women are still women and those trans men are still men. There are huge numbers of trans people who never get surgery, which is usually cost-prohibitive. There are huge numbers of trans people who never change their voice. None of that means they aren’t the men and women that they are. None of that means that it’s okay to misgender them.
Generally, the director comes off as uninformed and disrespectful. She didn’t slip up and then correct herself or use a term that fell out of favor five months ago, she’s firmly standing by the idea that a trans boy who hasn’t started on hormones yet is a girl, and that’s just plain wrong. Basic research would’ve cleared up these misconceptions immediately. There’s no excuse these days for artists creating art about trans people to be ignorant on trans issues or how to talk about trans people. Somebody making a film with a trans male character and a lesbian character could’ve really benefited from having some LGBTQ people involved in writing and production, too.
The way Dellal talks about Ray in her movie isn’t just confusing and insulting, it’s irresponsible and damaging. Misgendering trans people and talking about trans men as if they’re women and especially trans women as if they’re men contributes to the violence that trans people face so often. (Surely she could’ve at least watched Boys Don’t Cry?) This is damaging for all trans people, and particularly for trans women, who are the subject of so much violence. Dellal’s insistence that because Ray hasn’t transitioned yet he is still a girl also leads to the logical conclusion that therefore trans women who haven’t “completed” their transition are still men. When this idea combines with racism (specifically anti-blackness), poverty and misogyny, it leads to 17 dmab trans people, most of them black and nearly all of them people of color, being murdered in just the first eight months of this year.
It’s a shame that when Dellal decided to make a movie about a trans guy, she didn’t also do the necessary research. Trans men are one of the most invisible groups of people on the LGBTQ spectrum, so there’s very little room for error in their representation. It’s also a shame that it’s usually trans women of color, and again, usually black trans women, who ultimately pay the price for this kind of negative representation. It’s fine that Gaby Dellal wanted to make a movie with a trans protagonist, but once she made that decision, she should have done what was necessary to make sure that she wasn’t perpetuating ideas about trans people that lead to acts of violence against us.