The Films That Helped Me Feel At Home In My Agender Experience

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.


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Katie Alafdal

Katie Alafdal is a writer and visual artist based in the glitter and haze of Los Angeles. Their work has previously been published in "The Maine Review", "Autostraddle", "The Belladonna", and "Hooligan Magazine". They spend most of their days staring aimlessly into churning bodies of water, rereading Sophocles, and talking to flowers. You can find them on Insta @leromanovs or on twitter @lavacakezz.

Katie has written 3 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Thank you…thank you…for this. As someone who has always struggled with gender identity…I have tried to find visual media that expresses it viscerally for me.

    The only one on your list that I have seen is Spirited Away and I love that movie but at a subconscious level that I still can’t put into words.

    The first movie that really “spoke to me” was the original french version of La Cage Aux Folle. The Georges character was me in so many ways down to the mascara we both wore when I first saw the movie…..the end of the first act anthem in “I am what I am” of the 1983 broadway musical version…is still my personal anthem….

    By the way, I am an avid gardener so I can relate to “talking to flowers”..

    You made my day!

  2. Thanks so much for this! I’ve seen these all of these except for Jennifer’s Body. Have you seen Border? It’s a Swedish film from 2018. If you appreciate The Lure I would think that you would find this film fascinating and inspiring as well.

  3. This article claims that Joan of Arc refused “to dress in the garments commonly allotted to her sex”, which is misleading because historians have pointed out that several eyewitnesses quoted her as saying that she clung to a soldier’s outfit in prison because this type of clothing could be securely laced together into one piece to make it more difficult for her English guards to pull her clothing off when they periodically tried to rape her. She had worn a dress during the first 16 years of her life before being given a soldier’s riding outfit by the troops who escorted her through enemy territory to see Charles VII (in fact one of these soldiers said he brought up the idea, for practical reasons), and she was said to have gone back to a dress whenever possible. She couldn’t do so in prison for the reason I mentioned above. She also never identified as anything other than female since she constantly called herself “the maiden” (“la pucelle”) which is definitely feminine. Wearing a soldier’s outfit for practical reasons has nothing to do with transgender issues, unless every female soldier is transgender.

    • “Wearing a soldier’s outfit for practical reasons has nothing to do with transgender issues, unless every female soldier is transgender.”

      Dressing like and taking up the role of a soldier in a time when all soldiers were male has a lot to do with (trans) gender issues, even if Joan of Arc wasn’t trans herself.

    • The real actual Joan of Arc probably wasn’t trans – although let’s also not forget that public figures from the distant past were also capable of being concerned with their reputations, especially if they were in any way treated as representative of the causes they championed. Maybe she was downplaying a more complicated internal relationship to gender, maybe not. It’s likely she hadn’t been exposed to the concept of trans or nonbinary people, and maybe if she had, something would’ve resonated. Or maybe not! We just don’t know, because she can’t speak for herself anymore and would have a very different perspective than modern people anyway.

      However, nobody is talking about the relationship the real actual Joan of Arc had to her own real actual sense of gender or hypothetical lack thereof. The author is writing about their own experience of watching a history movie containing a fictional representation of Joan of Arc. Which doesn’t mean that the character is or the real person was similar to the author in terms of relationship to gender, just that there was something relatable there.

      I’m agender and way before I knew anything about that kind of thing, I related really strongly to stories about soldiers who disguised themselves as men, because it did feel like an act of divorcing themselves from gender. I don’t think most of those fictionalized historical figures and fictional characters were meant to feel the way I do, or that most of the real actual people who had those experiences were even capable of thinking of them in these terms. But I still relate a lot because guess what, someone who wants to separate from womanhood as a social role to be able to do something women in her society aren’t allowed to do and someone who wants to separate from womanhood as an identity to be more true to their self are both both experiencing some kind of desire for separation, regardless of the different reasons why. Not everything that feels like a representation of one’s feelings has to be literally representative, and sometimes the things people are doing and feeling matter less than their reasons for doing or feeling these things.

  4. I was revisiting this article to write down the names of the movies for future viewing and was struck again by the opening sentences:

    “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.”

    THIS IS THE CLOSEST I THINK I HAVE EVER READ THAT DESCRIBES MY FEELINGS EXACTLY ABOUT MY OWN GENDER IDENTITY…..KATIE THANKS FOR PUTTING INTO WORDS WHAT I COULDN’T!!

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