The History and Future of Trans Women in Action Movies

When you leave an action movie, some topics immediately arise for post-screen conversation. Perhaps there was an especially sick bit of fight choreography nobody can get over. Or maybe a witty one-liner to be repeated ad nauseam between you and your friends. But one thing that’s not likely to emerge in the glow of immediate post-action movie discourse? Praise about the feature’s trans representation. If there was any mention of trans folks in the action movie, it likely results in a hesitant, “Boy, that was uncomfortable, huh?”

Action movies haven’t been a domain where trans women have fared especially well. That’s what makes Dev Patel’s directorial debut Monkey Man such a welcome outlier. Unfortunately, the general history of representation (both in front of and behind the camera) in the action movie realm can be incredibly frustrating. But does that mean all trans-based hope for the future of the genre is lost?

Cinema has often reflected mainstream capitalist values of a gender binary and reaffirmed the notion that there are specific ways each gender “behaves.” Because of this phenomenon, action movies, like R-rated comedies, have often reinforced conventional portraits of masculinity. That’s not because fight scenes and other staples of the action movie are inherently “for men.” Instead, it reflects this genre’s usage to (either consciously or subconsciously) reinforce standard gender roles. Just look at iconic Hong Kong director Chang Cheh basing his action features around “yanggang” or staunch masculinity. Then, of course, there were Reagan-era American action movies that starred buff dudes reinforcing classical masculine prowess and “the American way.”

Exceptions have existed throughout the years, from the leads of the Alien and Terminator movies to features headlined by Michelle Yeoh and Veronica Ngo. However, such movies are often thought of as anomalous in the genre. The very presence of women in an action movie protagonist role is seen as “subversive” of the genre’s norms. The women leads of this genre tend to remind us how rarely such figures get to step into the spotlight of this domain.

Action films have primarily reinforced the status quo. That’s why there’s an influx of heroic cops, soldiers, and similar figures being protagonists in the domain. This means that trans women have been basically non-existence in the genre for many years. One exception to this erasure? Trans women do make occasional appearances as the punchline to jokes. The 1984 movie Toxic Avenger, for instance, found time for transphobic jokes as part of its “transgressive” style of comedy. 15 years later, Wild Wild West squeezed in transphobic gags as part of recurring gay panic jokes. (Readers will be shocked to be reminded that Wild Wild West was a poorly written movie.)

Such demeaning jokes were part of the action movie as a reminder to moviegoers about what constitutes “normalcy.” Trans people (and, specifically, trans women) are “freaks” and anomalies in society. It’s okay to be grossed out by them! Just look at action/comedy The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult. This wacky sequel featured a quasi-homage to The Crying Game. Said tribute hinged on Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) horrifyingly discovering that supporting character Tanya Peters (Anna Nicole Smith) is a trans woman. Idiotic and tired jokes lifted from Ace Ventura movies were even making their way into the realm of action/comedies.

Thankfully, not all trans representation in 1990s action cinema was made equal. One complicated trans element of 1990s action cinema came in the 1996 feature Escape from L.A. This John Carpenter directorial effort featured trans woman Hershe Las Palmas (Pam Grier), a former associate of protagonist Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Escape from L.A. has garnered a cult following in recent years, in part due to the complicated, yet fond, relationship many viewers (including trans audiences) have with Las Palmas.

Carpenter’s film trades in unfortunate staples of “trans panic” gags. These include brief fixations on the character’s genitals and Plissken repeatedly dead-naming Palmas. However, Las Palmas does get to participate in action scenes. She’s decidedly not the main villain of the film. And she’s also portrayed by a cis woman (rather than a cis man in a wig). Compared to other 1990s action movies, Escape from L.A. was practically Lingua Franca!

Thankfully, trans women did leave a massive mark on action cinema in the final months of the 20th century. Enter Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s masterpiece The Matrix.

This 1999 Keanu Reeves vehicle didn’t feature any explicit on-screen trans representation. However, the entire premise of the movie has become famous for its allegorically trans material. A feature all about subverting societal norms that hinges on embracing your true self on taking just the “right” pill. If that’s not trans lady cinema, then what is? Heck, key crowdpleaser climactic moments in The Matrix and The Matrix Resurrections orient around protagonist characters reaffirming their names to someone “deadnaming” them! Lilly and Lana Wachowski weren’t out as trans women at the time of The Matrix’s release, so at the time audiences couldn’t quite appreciate this important piece of personal subtext. However, it was always there changing the default thematic norms of this genre.

The Matrix blew open the doors for what action movies could accomplish. One would have hoped that would have resulted in a deluge of trans-focused action cinema. Alas, trans women are still a rarity in the action genre. Hollywood sort of retired transphobic jokes, even if such gags still appeared in motion pictures as late as 2016’s Deadpool. Unfortunately, the approach to trans women in modern action cinema is a microcosm of how Hollywood has handled lots of marginalized populations in recent years. Off-color and cruel jokes are out. However, they haven’t been replaced with physical tangible representations that could potentially “alienate” intolerant viewers and their dollars. The response to the ubiquity of transphobic material was to just erase the idea of trans people altogether.

If modern action films even begin to approach something “kind of” trans-related, it’s usually for vomit-inducing gimmicks. The tedious 2016 Michelle Rodriguez vehicle The Assignment, for instance, focused on male assassin Frank Kitchen. (He was presumably named by the same screenwriter responsible for the 2010s action hero names Cade Yeager and Cypher Raige.) Kitchen wakes up to find himself surgically turned into a woman by his enemy. Needless to say, it’s an abhorrent piece of cinema exceeded only in its inaccuracy of trans experiences (not to mention its emphasis on trans stuff only through “medical” procedures) by its tediousness. To its credit, there is an adorable moment where a dog places its paw on top of two human hands. Save for that cute canine behavior, The Assignment has nothing to offer but retrograde approaches to gender.

Even the fleeting appearances of actual trans actors in action films are lacking. Why is Laverne Cox in the long-forgotten Amazon action movie Jolt if she’s only around to play a forgettable detective character with no memorable fight scenes? It wasn’t until Monkey Man that moviegoers received a welcome departure from these trends with Vipin Sharma’s Alpha, a member of the local hijra community that rescues the film’s protagonist.

Alpha and other trans characters in the movie are not depicted as eerie “others.” Their bodies are not framed as something repulsive, nor are they “freaks” worthy of jeers. The isolated world they inhabit is a kind of oasis in a movie full of corruption and darkness. Meanwhile, their oppression at the hands of the government reflects the rampant inequality Monkey Man‘s lead is fighting against. But even this exciting exception still casts a cis performer in the role.

At least Sharma’s performance is devoid of obnoxious over-the-top ticks other cis actors bring to trans characters. And, best of all, Monkey Man gives Alpha and the film’s other trans characters a big climactic action scene! This gaggle of societal outsiders gets to be Monkey Man’s equivalent to Han Solo/M’Baku/Middle-Earth Eagles by suddenly showing up to save the day just when all hope seems lost. Alpha and company even get nifty-looking scythes to use in viciously enacting violent revenge. Even just this one Monkey Man sequence makes one realize what this genre’s been missing. Trans women have been this domain’s source of go-to mockery, when what they need to become is the new default stars of the genre.

I mean, really, trans women and trans folks of any gender make for perfect action movie protagonists simply by nature of being underdogs. The action movie is often about “one person against an army of baddies.” Typically, American titles like Taken and Silent Night have used this dynamic to instill martyr complexes in privileged viewers. In these films, middle-aged white dads are the ultimate victims in society. Their enemy? Foreign “invaders,” particularly nasty people of color covered in tattoos. Trans-centric action movies could take the bare bones of this underdog story structure and ground it in some reality.

After all, trans people are being attacked in legislation regularly. This is an actually oppressed group of human beings, particularly when those trans folks intersect with other marginalized identities. Monkey Man proved you can pull from real-world woes and still deliver gnarly cheer-worthy action moments. This balance shows narrative hallmarks of action movies can evolve in exciting new directions.

Even more exciting, though, is the idea of actual trans artists molding the form. Save for the Wachowskis, trans artists have had minimal opportunities to contribute to the creative direction of the genre. It’s thrilling to imagine the new visual elements filmmakers like Sydney Freeland and Vera Drew could bring to this domain of guns, bullets, and taken offspring. (Freeland directed episodes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and Echo and Drew literally already made a superhero movie.) Trans filmmakers have employed unique visual flourishes in their indie works; imagine if they received the money to execute visually bold action movies. Just look at what Lilly and Lana Wachowski did with the camerawork and editing in The Matrix films and Speed Racer.

But even the recent The Matrix Resurrections still relied largely on subtext with trans performers only populating minor supporting roles. Alongside the casting of Monkey Man’s lead trans character, it feels like trans performers are even more absent than trans filmmakers. Hari Nef, MJ Rodriguez, Patti Harrison, Trace Lysette, and so many others are prominent in pop culture. Any one of them could become a new action movie star! In the past, the stars of Kinsey, Good Will Hunting, and Moonlighting became cisgendered action legends. Why can’t rising trans stars get their own Die Hard or The Bourne Identity?

The future for trans artists in action movies, even after something reassuring like Monkey Man, is fuzzy. On the one hand, the very existence of the acclaimed intersex-led Sundance 2024 thriller Ponyboi should give hope. But the River Gallo-starring feature is an indie in a genre that often requires a larger budget. (Ponyboi is more action-adjacent than action after all.) There’s also M.J. Bassett’s upcoming Red Sonja film. What a welcome sign seeing a trans woman helming a comic book adaptation full of punching! But the predominantly cis cast and cis screenwriter, implies a trans person would only get this opportunity by folding into the cis establishment, creating a movie whose connection to transness would be unknown by anyone unfamiliar with the director’s identity.

Trans action filmmakers and trans action stars should be included more in the work that’s already getting made. But true change will come when trans filmmakers are allowed to push the genre to exciting new territory like the Wachowskis did a quarter of a century ago — this time out of the closet with trans actors on-screen.

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Lisa Laman

Lisa Laman is a life-long movie fan, writer, and Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic located both on the autism spectrum and in Texas. Given that her first word was "Disney", Lisa Laman was "doomed" from the start to be a film geek! In addition to writing feature columns and reviews for Collider, her byline has been seen in outlets like Polygon, The Mary Sue, Fangoria, The Spool, and ScarleTeen. She has also presented original essays related to the world of cinema at multiple academic conferences, been a featured guest on a BBC podcast, and interviewed artists ranging from Anna Kerrigan to Mark Wahlberg. When she isn’t writing, Lisa loves karaoke, chips & queso, and rambling about Carly Rae Jepsen with friends.

Lisa has written 6 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. I don’t think The Assignment is meant to be taken seriously. “Frank Kitchen” (a hilarious name repeated often in the film, funnier every time) was named by Walter Hill, who has referred to the movie as a “king-size Tales From the Crypt” episode; it’s a very silly and pulpy story about a mad scientist and her victim’s quest for revenge. Frank is clearly not trans.

    • Obviously Frank isn’t trans, but the film is clearly trafficking in trans imagery and using trans surgeries for shock value, so Lisa was correct to mention it.

  2. I’m MJ Bassett – director of Red Sonja here. Just want to correct something. Sonja was developed at an early stage by Joey Soloway, the creator of Transparent, before I came on board. Going from nonbinary film maker to transwoman film maker is no small thing. There IS a transwoman in the cast but she’s not played as such and is not relevant to story, and I offered a bigger name trans actress a role but she turned me down. So, to be clear, the studio was very open to this and there is trans representation both on screen and off but that’s not what the movie is about. It’s just going to be a good action film and that’s how I think things should be.

    • As the editor of this piece, I’m happy to hear there’s a trans woman in your cast and have changed that sentence accordingly! Looking forward to seeing your film.

      • As someone who actually loves Wild Wild West, i want to remind you that the late 80s and earlier 90s where teeming with female led action cinema and genderqueer characters, in Hongkong cinema. See for example Tsui Hark films like Peking Opera Blues or The Butterfly Lovers with trans male main characters, or the East is Red trilogy with a trans female lesbian main character.
        Great article btw, welcome here!

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