Richard Joseph Mienkowski
Since it’s conception, film has been a means of starting social and political conversations. One of the most meaningful ways this has been achieved is through minority representation. Whether it be the inclusion of minority actors, or the portrayal of individuals who don’t conform to the societal norm; these films are inherently political. As the transgender community has become more outspoken and normalized in our modern society, films have been a spotlight on them. However, in spreading their political message, films often reduce the transgender character to a stereotype in an effort to oppress, or neutralize the film by ignoring the community’s struggle. A Fantastic Woman breaks down these stereotypes and commercial ploys to deliver a raw and authentic depiction of a transgender woman.
The film is centered around Marina Vidal, a transgender woman whose older boyfriend, Orlando, has suddenly passed away from an aneurysm. While the viewer has experienced their intimate, and loving relationship, his family refuses to believe that the cis-gendered, previously straight man they knew could have really loved her in away profound way. We follow her fight for the right to grieve for her lost lover against his family, law enforcement, and ultimately society, as a transgender woman in a heteronormative society. This essay will argue that the film makes positive strides to correct the underrepresentation, and otherwise negative perception of the transgender community. This is achieved through the dynamic and raw character of Marina, and subsequently trans actor and activist Daniela Vega’s portray of her.
2. Marina’s Identity
A Fantastic Woman differs from most films featuring transgender characters by not focusing on the physical state of her gender. The camera does not focus on her body as other films often do by lingering lower on her frame than a heterosexual individual, nor does it showcase any steroid treatment, or sign that she is in a transitioning state. In the only scene that showcases Maria naked, there is a mirror covering her genital reflecting her face, showcasing that only she has the power to define what she is.!!! The need to identify a binary gender and label people can be very damaging to those in the transgender community who do not identify within one gender, with their birth gender, or are in a state of transition (Miller 53). In this way the film is educational to the audience, instructing that they do not need to label those non binary individuals they may encounter. Chris Bruce, a renown transgender bodybuilder and spokes person explains, “being transgender is one of my unique characteristics as a person, although it does not define who I am.” In this quote Chris is communicating the same sentiment the film is, that although Marina is transgender, that is not what defines her. Commonly in film, transgender people are depicted with negative stereotypes; they are hyper sexualized, they are depicted as having mental illnesses, living in poverty, etc (Miller 161). Marina is presented as a full person beyond just relationship with Orlando we see observe her beautiful singing talent, her close friends, her job; all of which are focused around her personhood and not gender. There is a relatability to her simple life, and quiet courage, that may reach cis-gendered and transgendered audiences alike, and make strides to normalize non binary people in our society.
3. Marina’s Relationships
Another one of the ways A Fantastic Woman breaks beyond common stereotypes is through her relationship with Orlando. Focusing on their sex far more than their personhood, transgender men and women are often hyper sexualized, and and relationship fetishized (Miller 155). This is extremely damaging to the trans identity because it reduces their self-conception to something conceived for the pleasure of other people. Moreover, it eliminates any depth to the depicted sexual relationship, and subsequently the individual. Traci Abott explains in her article The Trans/Roman Dilemma in Transamerica and other films that “transwomen are seen as unequivocally sexual deviants who display an easily accessible-and easily dismissible-eroticism as their defining characteristic”. (34) In films of this nature, any scenes of relationships would hyper focus on the sexual act between characters far more than in a heterosexual one. These scenes would showcase abnormal and perverted sexual acts, accompanied by a dark and foreboding mise-en-scene to convey that was is being represented is wrong. A Fantastic Woman contrasts this by focusing on the delicacy of her relationship with Orlando, and their emotional connection. A romantic mis-en-scene made up of vibrant colors, soft lighting, intimately close camera angles, subtle acting, and gentle music accompanies scenes of Maria and Orlando. We watch the way they meet eyes across any room, their romantic dinner dates; scenes that reveal the validity of their relationship. When there is intimacy, it is romantic and zealous, and the
camera leaves the same room for imagination as it would with any heterosexual relationship. However, it is important that the film included intimate moments, such as Marina and Orlando kissing (Dodds 2). In many main-stream films, or moreover any film afraid of shocking their audiences, they avoid the reality of any transgender relationship. In such films the transgender character would be portrayed without any sex appeal, and allow the audience to diminish them to a joke (Miller 3). Marina is portrayed with a subtle sensuality and distinct femininity on par with any cis-gendered woman, explaining how the otherwise straight Orlando might have fallen for her. She is an alluring woman without being a deviant. This helps to authenticate her transgender identity by depicting their relationships as no different than a heterosexual one, and proving the focus of their interactions does not have to pertain to their gender orientation.
While Marina’s gender does not define or limit who she is, it does influence many of her interactions that are based on the other people’s prejudices. She is immediately considered a suspect in Orlando’s death because of her gender identity; the investigator on the case dubious to believe the relationship wasn’t just ‘sexual’ (Dodds 1). Moreover, Orlando’s family call her a ‘perversion’ and ‘chimera’, and refuse to allow her to attend his funeral, or grieve him properly. This representation is key in highlighting societal prejudices the audience may see within themselves, and shifts the blame to those who refuse to understand Marina. In his dissertation, Jeremiah Miller explains
“If the representation focuses on the transgender individual’s presence in a gender segregated space, such as a restroom or a changing room, it is supporting the attack by arguing that the transgender individual is at fault for deviating from heteronormative standards for gendered behavior. If, instead, the representation focuses on the transgender individual’s attempt to eat dinner or purchase clothing in peace before suddenly being attacked, it is supporting the individual by arguing that she or he should be free to express her or his gender without the threat of violence.” (Miller 7,8).
The film is taking a definitive stance to represent Marina through her lens, through her struggle, and to call out society to be better. In the following section this essay will examine the importance of showcasing Marina as a whole person, and the importance of her casting.
4. Transgender Representation in Film, through Daniel Verga
Representation in media is key in developing strong role models for those who can relate to the character, and in creating an image of those individuals for people who have not encountered them. Studies show that audiences will assume stereotypes they see in media are true for a minority group if they have not encountered hem before (Lovelock 85). Furthermore, it is proven that media has a profound effect on one’s self perception, and a prolonged exposure to television will increase white boy self esteem while decreasing female, and African American people’s self conception. As the journalist Richard Dyer argues that “how social groups are treated in cultural representations is part and parcel of how they are treated in life” (Lovelock 22). The portrayal of Maria as a strong, confident and talented protagonist serves to promote the self confidence of those transgender viewers who may identify with her, while helping to break stereotypes that the audience may hold. It is not every filmmaker’s responsibility to work for social and political acceptance, but every film has that potential, and this was does a tremendous job in being an advocate for the acceptance of trans people.
In Hollywood today when cis-gendered actors portray transgender actors, the films receive critical praise, and the actors become Oscar winners for ‘pushing the boundaries’. The year Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar pretending to be a transgender woman in The Danish Girl, the actors in the highly acclaimed Tangerine, were forgotten. The roles offered to transgender actors are frequently for sex-workers, sick with aids, or used for comedic purposes (Miller 269). Furthermore, transgender characters are almost always written and directed by cis-gendered people guessing at the trans experience. Creating films advocating for the rights of transgender people does little to integrate those same individuals into mainstream society without actually integrating them in the film. It is no different than when men would dress in drag to fulfill female roles. A Fantastic Woman breaks through this barrier by casting Daniela Vega, a transgender woman, and working with her as a consultant in the development of the script. The experience of Marina draws from Daniela’s to give the most accurate account of what her life would be like. However, the representation goes beyond Marina’s character. The Oscars brought stardom to Vega, who has been able to utilize that to advocate for transgender rights in Chile. She has met with former president Michelle Bachelet to discuss trans rights, and is responsible for pushing for the passing of a bill that will allow transgender citizens to legally change their name (Dodds 2). Cinema has a power to give voice to those who otherwise feel powerless (Abbott 33). Vega is an inspiration to all non-binary viewers who have not seen themselves represented authentically in the media, and her strong performance stands as a marker in the narrative of transgender representation in film. This film is so historic because it marks a shift towards transgender actors taking on transgender roles in movies as far too often their identities are put on by cis genders.
A Fantastic Woman stands with the transgender community. It breaks common film stereotypes featuring trans characters, and shifts the audience’s focus from her gender to her life
and struggle as a woman in a bigoted society. It is exemplary of how films can start a social conversation, and bring minority people to the forefront of the media through Vega’s tremendous advocacy work. As our diverse society grows it is important to represent minority groups through film, for the advocacy of acceptance, and for the inspiration of audiences.
6. Works Cited
Abbott, Traci B. “The Trans/Romance Dilemma in Transamerica and Other Films.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 36, no. 1, 2013, pp. 32–41.
Dodds, Tomás. “Una Mujer Fantástica.” Journal of Homosexuality, pp. 1–3.
Lelio, Sebastián, director. A Fantastic Women. Participant Media, 2017.
Lovelock, Michael. Reality TV and Queer Identities: Sexuality, Authenticity, Celebrity. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Stanley, Eric A., Tsang, Wu., Vargas, Chris., “Queer Love Economies: Making Trans/Feminist Film in Precarious Times.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, vol. 23, no. 1, 2013, pp. 66–82.