The idea of gender has never come easily to me. Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve always known exactly what I was, even if I’ve never been unable to convey my own complicated, utopian, monstrous mode of being through words. Perhaps that is why film has proved so instrumental to my exploration of my own trans experience. Cinema has that unique ability to bypass conscious thought, while poignantly helping us arrive at a truth. So without further ado, here are a few of the films that proved transformative to me, as I came of age and came out as agender:
The Lure (dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)
Part musical romance, part grisly horror flick, The Lure tells the compelling and sometimes absurd tale of two mermaids who take up work at a nightclub as adult entertainers. While one mermaid, Silver, finds herself falling in love with a bass-playing mortal (think Machine Gun Kelly, if he was Polish and still lived with his parents), her companion, Golden, is more comfortable devouring unsuspecting human men.
The debut of Polish director Agnieszka Smocynska is crowded with transitions, subtle and overt which defy easy categorization. There is something more than visceral, for example, during the scene in which Golden must decide whether or not to have her tail surgically removed, and replaced with a human torso and legs. That she is doing this not to reaffirm some integral aspect of her embodied experience, but rather to become more desirable to a human youth who would otherwise spurn her is potentially troubling. Her potential transition is neither a mutilation or a victory, but something in between: a labor of love.
But even so, what results is a very queer, deliciously unsatisfying homoerotic love triangle that pays no heed to the traditional rules of embodiment. In the figure of the mermaid, one is confronted by various uneasy binaries: neither fish nor human but rather a mythological, alchemical fusion. They are amphibious in addition to being sexually ambiguous. In short, the merperson is an epistemological menace and a symbol for the complex, fluidity of gendered experience. A similar kind of ambiguity ran rampant in me before I came out, dynamic and potentially, treacherous. I existed in the manner of an open secret, not hiding what I was, but not owning it either.
Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland, 2014)
I’ve watched this film a dozen times, and not just because it’s very easy to crush on Alicia Vikander in her role as Ava. It would ultimately take me a few viewings to understand what exactly about the sci-fi thriller felt so vital to me: Ava is programmed to be straight and female without having any say in the matter. Her form is inscribed with a kind of coerced sexuality projected upon her by her male creator.
Watching Ava script her interactions made me realize that for much of my existence I had felt as though I were pretending or acting out a part for the convenience of others. Even so, I assumed that this was what femininity itself consisted of: the hollowing out of the self to make room for the desires of the masculine other. In a way, that is what I had been doing my whole life: attempting to play the part of a woman for the sake of the others around me, in the process negating who or what I really was. It never occurred to me that I might be allowed to identify as agender. Perhaps it is not so surprising then, that I, by some mistake of biology, gender theory, or philosophy, had come to identify as a robot. The cyborg, after all, is not constrained by normative identification—it is allowed to exist in all of its ambiguity because it simply does not have all the baggage of being associated with the human.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (dir. Carl Theodore Dryer, 1928)
Largely considered one of the best silent films to grace the cinema screen, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, is a study in face acting and harrowing emotionality. The piece centers, of course, on the historical Joan of Arc (Renee Jeanne Falconetti) who desperately attempts to maintain her composure and inner-strength as she is tried and executed for heresy. And then there’s Joan’s blatant refusal to dress in the garments commonly allotted to her sex and her unwomanly consorting with male soldiers. Joan’s justification is simple: she exists and moves in the interest of God. Every spar or slander mortal men might attempt to slight her with, is rendered foolish by her immortal creator’s obvious favor. Her unapologetic exaltation in the masculine, without conceding her feminine experience, is more than simply moving—it is divinely inspired.
I found myself crying the first time I watched this film, hopeful and grief-stricken all at once. That religious faith and trans experience could be indelibly intertwined was something I needed to see on screen.
Jennifer’s Body (dir. Karyn Kusama, 2009)
So, this movie is kind of about demonic possession, but also not? Really, it’s a heartbreaking commentary on being precocious, queer, and closeted in a small town in Minnesota, but I digress.
Jennifer oozes sexuality even before she’s transformed into a succubus, but it’s only after her transition that viewers begin to regard her physicality with a kind of policing skepticism. The demonic body, overlaid with heady shots thick with repressed queer desire is a poignant reminder of what it means to occupy a form that is perpetually being “othered”. In high school, I lacked Jennifer’s easy glamor, and her eventual violent streak. But I could understand what it was to be playing a part—to assume the position of the feminine despite my total alienation from it. And I could understand what it meant to be simultaneously natural and unnatural.
Spirited Away (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
The first time I watched Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, or Spirited Away, I was still young enough to be utterly taken in by the plot (in which a young girl’s parents are transformed into pigs and she must save them), but old enough to feel a certain unease with the startling conventions of the spirit realm. At the time, what I knew about myself and my queerness was mostly embodied, unconscious, intuitive. I lacked the language to mark myself with the labels I would later use, just as Chihiro is deprived of the kanji characters that spell her name.
I fell into a kind of terrified obsession with the unsubstantial characters that swarmed the epicenter of the action, Yubaba’s bathhouse, who I could not place amongst my own categorizations of being. My encounters with gender, like the protagonist’s encounters with the spirits, have been all of these things—faceless, unnerving, transcendent, inarticulable. One moment, I might be assured in the performance of my femininity or masculinity, the next, I would receive a revelation of vacuousness– of not belonging. Watching as another, albeit animated, fictional child suddenly found herself thrust into a world so entirely unlike her own, felt at once uncanny and comforting to me. After all, what is life in an agender body if not the constant experience of being in perfect familiarity with oneself, and being completely at odds with the expectation of gendered presentation?
For me, holding together an identity in the absence of gender is naturally uncomfortable. There is an incoherence, a dissonance, and an inarticulable grace that comes with accepting that human existence is all about paradox. Being agender is something like the impossible made possible, as rare and unexpected as accidentally landing in the Spirit Realm, or happening upon mermaids in Poland.