Cinema’s past is not rich with memorable or heartfelt depictions of trans people. Despite being a film junkie who voraciously consumed cinema all my life, it took me until I was nearly 20 years old to see a movie on the big screen (Tangerine) with vibrant trans characters portrayed by trans performers. Though titles like Paris is Burning and Funeral Parade of Roses existed, they were anomalies in a cinematic canon that largely saw trans people as only useful when it came time for harmful jokes in comedies.
It’s a tormented and rocky history so ingrained into the history of filmmaking that, even into 2022, we’re still not seeing trans lead actors in movies. This all comes at a time when, in the real world, the very existence of trans people continues to be the target of harmful legislation and dehumanizing rhetoric. The erasure of trans people in cinematic narrative isn’t because of trans people “not existing back then” or “not being talented enough to be actors” but rather a byproduct of larger systemic inequality.
In the middle of all this chaos and turmoil, there was the trans representation in 2022 cinema, which was…not terrible. That may sound like a backhanded compliment but given the dearth of any trans performers in most modern years of mainstream cinema, the increase to a handful of major movies making room for trans performers does feel like a major shift up. Unfortunately, it’s not all good news and sunshine. Even with better trans representation across 2022 movies, we can still see how the past norms for trans representation in cinema continue to reverberate into the present. However, we can also see some encouraging signs that suggest a path is being built for even greater trans representation going forward.
2022 Saw More Varied Trans Representation Than Ever Before
The most exciting part of 2022 cinema’s handling of trans characters is that there were even multiple notable appearances of trans characters and performers to talk about! While years past mostly took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to trans artists, 2022 cinema at least made some steps towards making space for this community. Even better, that space manifested in a welcome variety of features. Trans performers appeared in anything from romantic comedies (Patti Harrison in The Lost City) to romantic dramas (Eva Reign in Anything’s Possible) to darker dramas (Joyland and Women Talking) to the genre-shattering story of Neptune Frost. Trans people weren’t in all movies in 2022, but they were showing up in way more varied narratives than in recent years.
Even better, many of these stories tactfully avoided harmful tropes of traditional trans narratives (namely fixating on the bodies of trans people and mawkishly fixating on the gruesome deaths of trans people) in favor of more interesting routes. The fascinating character of Melvin (August Winter) in Women Talking is utilized as one of the indicators that there is a wider world full of possibilities beyond the restrictive world the film’s lead characters have been forced to inhabit. Making the validation of Melvin’s name and identity a key story detail (rather than making repetitive jokes about their gender) is an extraordinary sight to see. In lighter terms, Harrison got to deliver some of the funniest moments of The Lost City as Allison a social media manager who keeps squeezing in the name “Shawn Mendes” into every conversation she can.
There are really no overlapping traits between Melvin and Allison beyond the fact that they’re portrayed by trans performers and that’s what is so exciting. Trans characters in mainstream American cinema are no longer just fitting into pastiches of Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, but rather becoming more idiosyncratic characters that captivate the imagination. The eschewing of past norms was especially apparent in Neptune Frost, a film centering on an intersex protagonist, Neptune (portrayed by both Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo). The character’s journey revolving around their gender and identity is partially so exciting because it’s always subverting expectations and the default visual language movies have for dealing with characters who exist beyond the gender binary. In other words, there isn’t a precedent for a character like Neptune and that’s a glorious thing for trans representation.
Trans Representation in 2022 Documentaries
Documentaries were also a safe haven for trans voices in 2022, which isn’t shocking given that the medium has always been a good home for trans experiences (see: Seahorse, Be Like Others, Paris is Burning, just to name a few). In 2022, doc’s like Framing Agnes and The Dreamlife of George Stone put trans perspectives front and center in cinematic narratives. Most poignantly of all, though, was the presence of trans lives in the documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Artist Nan Goldin’s recollections of growing up as a queer woman in the 1970s and 80s are peppered with offhand mentions and photographic representations of trans lives. Trans people aren’t presented in a sensationalized manner, but rather nonchalantly presented as just another long-standing tapestry of the queer community. It’s a subtle but moving detail that uses the form of documentary cinema to reaffirm the truth of just how long the vibrant souls of the trans community have existed.
It was also incredible to see a passion project from a trans artist be one of the buzziest movies on the fall film festival circuit. Vera Drew’s The People’s Joker drew critical acclaim from the few who were allowed to see it before legal issues from an unnamed conglomerate preventing it from either screening at further festivals or being released at all.. While the film is locked in legal Hell right now, the very existence of The People’s Joker in the cinematic landscape of 2022 reinforced how trans rep can look like anything. Within this year’s movies, trans lives can manifest as a darkly comical skewering of the Batman mythos, Patti Harrison relentlessly saying Shawn Mendes, or Melvin standing in silent defiance until their identity is recognized. It can look like anything. Just like trans people.
Cinema’s Work Toward Better Trans Representation Is Far From Over
While there were some exciting strides for trans representation in mainstream cinema in 2022, the work is far from over in terms of proper film representation for this population. The gains of 2022 should be looked at as steps towards a larger goal, rather than the culmination of all strides towards greater visibility of trans people. Among the things that still need to be improved is something as simple as the annual amount of movies featuring trans faces. While there were more theatrical releases in 2022 with trans characters than usual, features that contained any trans performers and characters were still the exception, not the rule in the 2022 cinematic landscape.
There also needs to be an even greater acknowledgment of trans people of color. This is a community that wasn’t entirely absent from this year’s movies, but you could count the amount of non-white trans characters in major 2022 movies across two hands (if even that). Trans people of color also deserve to be rampantly present in features across a variety of genres rather than an anomaly in on-screen representation. The same can be said for the presence of trans people existing outside of the gender binary, like non-binary individuals.
These artists also deserve to be seen on-screen while trans people of all genders deserve to be seen in the capacity of protagonists in cinematic narratives. The entirety of trans representation in 2022 cinema (save for titles like Joyland or Framing Agnes) had trans people in supporting roles, a route that was sometimes understandable on a case-by-case basis depending on what stories were being told (such as with Women Talking, which occupied a setting that couldn’t feature multiple trans people). However, the glaring absence of any major cinematic features anchored by trans people is egregious and needs to be correct.
Returning to The People’s Joker, that film, unfortunately, demonstrates the problems that trans artists have in getting their voices heard. Even with some lovely trans rep in 2022 cinema, all of it (to my knowledge) still came from cis-gendered creators. Stifling the existence of The People’s Joker has suffocated a tragically still-too-rare instance of a trans artist being in control of the camera and the story being told. Whether intentional or not, the prevention of The People’s Joker getting released by that unnamed conglomerate doesn’t “protect” franchise IP but rather just reaffirms a harmful status quo modern cinema is still trapped in.
Where Does Trans Representation Go From Here?
Cinema’s past is mostly vacant of vibrant and reaffirming trans representation. But as writer/director Sarah Polley ingeniously communicated throughout Women Talking, the norms of everyday life don’t have to be the norms of the future.
Seeing trans faces several times on the big screen this year, inhabiting a variety of roles that could do everything from be hysterical to move you to tears, was an utter joy and certainly something much different than the norm from recent years past. These steps forward were great, but they cannot be seen as the end. There’s still so much work to do, including giving trans people leading roles in Hollywood and creating space for art like The People’s Joker. However, a film like Women Talking making the room it did for trans perspectives (not to mention a non-binary performer) is not something I would’ve expected even five years ago. If a character like Melvin or the nonchalant depictions of elder trans people in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed are possible, well, maybe further sweeping improvements to cinematic trans representation are feasible.
It took me almost 20 years to see trans lives on the big screen. With the exciting high points of trans representation throughout 2022 cinema and the ways they point to greater change in the future, hopefully, future generations won’t have to wait as long to see trans perspectives reflected in the glorious medium of cinematic storytelling.