“How do you define a woman?”
This question has become an attempted gotcha among the fascist set of polite society. The hope, I suppose, is the recipient of the question will stumble — unable to think of an answer beyond a pair of tits and a pussy or the uterine ability to produce life.
When people push back against this, they often bring up cis women who have had hysterectomies and mastectomies. A gotcha to answer the gotcha. They reply on the fascists’ terms and, therefore, the fascists have won.
Amanda Kramer’s new film, Please, Baby, Please, is an exploration of gender entirely on its own terms, entirely on our terms. It’s a relief to be spoken to with such complexity and humor, it’s a relief to watch intelligent art with this level of queer creativity.
It’s about an ostensibly straight couple named Suze (Andrea Riseborough) and Arthur (Harry Melling) living in a bizarro version of the 1950s. One night outside their apartment building, they witness a man getting murdered by a very queer-looking greaser gang named The Gents. Arthur is struck with lust. Suze is struck with gender envy.
Suze’s journey deepens when she’s later led upstairs by her rich and fabulous neighbor Maureen (Demi Moore — yes THE Demi Moore). Suze steals sniffs of Maureen’s clothes and listens in awe as Maureen monologues like our greatest of divas.
Thus begins a gender and sexuality odyssey for both halves of the couple. This leads Suze to a porn theatre and to many encounters with a genderqueer sprite named Billy (Cole Escola). And it leads Arthur into a burgeoning romance with Teddy (Karl Glusman), the leader of the murderous gang.
Gender is a performance and this is quite a show. This is a movie with fantasy sequences and musical numbers, all brightly lit in bisexual lighting. It also has a lot of interconnected subplots — including an ill-fated romance between one of the gang members, Dickie (Ryan Simpkins in drag), and an innocent woman drawn toward danger, named Joanne (Jaz Sinclair). When Dickie asks why Joanne likes him she says: “That’s what a girl does, Dickie. She makes a pretty poodle out of a salty dog.”
Much of the dialogue is this kind of broad and stylized. It could be viewed as reductive in its gender commentary if the actual words were the point. But when Cole Escola gives a monologue about Arthur’s manhood, it’s not the words that are of importance — it’s the way they perform them. It’s drag. Even for the actors not technically in drag.
The movie manages to be sexy and funny and deep while not actually saying anything directly. The depth is in the sexy and the funny. The most we can hope from gender is sexy and funny and a good feeling inside. The rest is just talk.
The conclusion of Joanne’s story provides the movie its one misstep. Kramer utilizes a degree of violence largely absent from the more cartoonish nature of the rest of the movie. She doesn’t seem to consider the implications of this shocking violence happening to the one Black woman character.
A lot of white queer filmmakers are so eager to explore their view of gender and sexuality that they don’t consider how race factors into their story. Jaz Sinclair was likely cast simply because she was the best person for the part, but there is a difference between showing violence against a white woman in a film about a white couple’s gender discovery and showing violence against a Black woman. I wish more thought went into how this moment played out and how it was shown — especially if “colorblind castingwp_postsonly led to one Black woman being in the film.
But the fact is Jaz Sinclair is very good and before this scene it’s a blast to watch her play in this world with Ryan Simpkins. The whole cast is great — Cole Escola, especially, proving they can do anything and should get more chances to do everything. And leading the cast is Andrea Riseborough, once again playing a queer character and once again stealing my heart. A movie with this much style and ambition can’t work without a truly great performance at its center. Riseborough gives a truly great — and truly hot — performance.
There’s a popular meme that’s floated around trans circles for as long as I’ve been out. It’s an image of Greek scholars next to an image of a woman playing with a baby. It reads: Talking about gender with trans people vs. Talking about gender with cis people. It’s a funny meme, but Kramer understands that it would be far more accurate to swap out the image of Greek scholars with an image of a drag queen fucking a drag king.
Gender is so much more fun when we disregard the usual conversations of cis people and of trans people. Gender is so much more fun when it’s allowed to be visceral. Don’t you want to have fun?