The Tragic Lives of Fantastic Women An Analysis of the Misrepresentation of Transgender Women in Film

by Madison Cumerlato

  1. Introduction

Despite the overwhelming surge in support for LGBTQ+ relations within the last decade, film as a genre is still quite behind in its portrayal of LGBTQ characters. There are few films that portray homosexual characters, and even then, these depictions are not always considered true to life. However, even more uncharted is a serious depiction of a transgender character that does not involve any sort of violent behaviour or crossdressing (both of which are common tropes for transgender characters which turn them into jokes rather than real people). Filmmakers are still trying to understand their LGBTQ+ audience, and it becomes quite obvious when analyzing how the few mainstream roles depict people in this community.

A Fantastic Woman, released in 2017 by Chilean producer Juan de Dios Larraín, is an LGBTQ+ drama that follows main character Marina through her life as a transgender woman. The film begins with Marina having to deal with the death of her partner, Orlando, but quickly spirals into something much worse when Orlando’s family, who had never supported the relationship between the two of them, begin to create even worse challenges for Marina to face in order to survive. The family, namely Orlando’s son and ex-wife, take away her home and her ability to say goodbye to the one man who truly loved her. The film follows Marina as she attempts to get past the challenges that face her due to her gender identity, while also trying to create a life for herself.

This essay will analyze the ways in which A Fantastic Woman, as well as the subgenre of LGBTQ+ films, can push negative stereotypes of the lives of transgender individuals into mainstream society. In order to understand the negative effects created in seemingly passive ways, this essay will first take into account the appearance and nature of the film that creates a borderline tragic narrative for the transgender main character. As well, this essay will unroot the social and political messages ingrained in the plot that create the impression of a dangerous and shameful world for transgender individuals. Finally, this essay will consider how the unconcealed oversexualization of the relationship in A Fantastic Woman, and other LGBTQ+ films, creates a false pretense of the kinds of relationships transgender people establish in real life.

2. The use of film technique and genre to portray an unnecessarily tragic lifestyle

The use of cinematic elements in A Fantastic Woman, as well as the traditional opinions on the genre of the film, create a grim narrative that attempts to mirror the average life of a transgender woman, but ultimately gives off a much more lonely and tragic impression than what is true.

Often, when creating films that revolve around LGBTQ+ individuals, filmmakers lean toward dramas and thrillers instead of lighthearted comedy or romance films. Although this may appear as a harmless personal preference, the way the filmmaker manipulates a transgender character to fit the genre can create a negative impression of the nature of their life. According to Iman Tagudina, “Drama…portrays homosexuals as victims of crime, faint and vulnerable, helpless. Unlike the usual heterosexual characters, queer characters often have another layer of drama under their sleeves: a father that beats him up for being gay, a brother who has traumatized her, and so on” (Tagudina 7). Although their analysis focuses more on homosexuals, the same can be said for the role of transgender people when compared to cisgender people in dramatic films. Dramatic films require a conflict to be solved for the protagonist, which is usually directly caused by the main antagonist. This is very evident in A Fantastic Woman, where Marina’s biggest conflict is getting over the grief of losing her partner while trying to avoid the harsh situations she is placed in by his conservative family, the antagonists. There is never a moment within the film where Marina is truly happy and has overcome her challenges, which creates an idea that people in the LGBTQ+ community simply cannot live without suffering.

The lighting techniques and camera application used in the film also add to the main theme of limitless suffering for transgender individuals. A Fantastic Woman uses lighting cues to create a dark and lonely impression of the world. As stated by Haas, “Filters may be used in conjunction with various sorts of lenses that distort the natural colors in a scene… These effects can enhance the potential political impact of a scene” (Haas 42). The majority of the film is shot in locations and at times that provide very dim lighting, which traditionally creates a depressing and pitiful tone for a scene. This tone, coupled with the consistent use of close-up shots of only Marina’s face, give off the impression that the main character is alone in the world and that her life is one that resides most in darkness.

The classification of LGBTQ+ films, as well as the techniques used when filming, connects life as a transgender individual to being vulnerable and full of suffering, as well as dark and depressing. This impression can have bad impact on transgender people in real life who turn to film depictions as a safe haven, only to be met with a manufactured harsh reality.

3. The oversaturation of violent and shameful situations in the life of a transgender person

While films try to portray a realistic account of the challenges a transgender person could face in their life, many go too far and, collaboratively, fuel the stereotype that transgender individuals must experience violence or shameful situations in order to truly identify with the label.

There is no denying that, in some places around the world, violence against LGBTQ+ people is common. However, filmmakers appear to have taken that fact and overused it greatly to the point where it seems to be a characteristic of the community to be physically or verbally abused. “According to the [study] done by GLAAD [the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation], that in 40% of the catalogued episodes trans women were the victims of extreme violence, with police procedural shows being the worst offenders” (Reitz 3). This concept is also used A Fantastic Woman, when Marina is kidnapped by three men who wrap her face in tape and leave her in a dark alley far from home. Since hate crimes are depicted so often in films targeted at LGBTQ+ audiences, this sends a message that this kind of situation is what you should expect when living as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

Another big trope within the plots of these films is the need for the protagonist to feel publicly ashamed of their body in order to create inner conflict. According to Miller, “Much of the attention directed toward transgender women in particular is devoted to their ability or inability to live up to traditional notions of femininity… to accomplish this, a transgender person must sacrifice a significant portion of his or her personal life history” (Miller 27). This can be seen in A Fantastic Woman when Marina is told to strip naked in front of people to show off the fact that she is not injured. Body dysmorphia is a very real, long-lasting, and serious issue in the life of a transgender person. However, its depiction in films as a one-time motivator for the protagonist to get over their conflict is treating the subject so much lighter than it should be. It appears to say that you need to feel ashamed as a transgender individual for you to progress as a person, and this approach is not one that characterizes the real transgender community at all.

4. The invalidation of relationships through dependency on sexual relations

LGBTQ+ relationships, just like all other relationships, are most often characterized by both a romantic and sexual connection. However, in the few LGBTQ+ relationships shown in film, the focus is entirely on the sexual aspect which seems to erase the importance of the romantic aspect and ostracizes LGBTQ+ relationships from “traditional” ones.

This oversexualization of LGBTQ+ individuals and couples is not something seen only in fictional worlds, but also in our own reality. According to a survey by Tiffany Chang, “A common perspective that participants shared was the objectification and exotification of transgender persons which promoted sex work… individuals transitioning from may experience lewd and sexualized comments and even be sexually harassed that is consistent with exoticization microaggressions” (Chang, 227-228). This truth becomes very apparent in films that depict a relationship involving one or more LGBTQ+ individual, just like A Fantastic Woman.

 In the film, the relationship between Marina and Orlando is one that appears very important to Marina but is never truly depicted romantically throughout the entire film. The only time the audience sees the two partners interact as anything closer than two friends is during a scene earlier in the movie where the pair engage in sexual relations. This would not be a problem if this sort of depiction was common with heterosexual and cisgender relationships in film as well. However, in most films containing the traditional relationship, the romantic side of the relationship seem to take a precedent. The choice to focus on the sexual aspect of Marina and Orlando’s relationship in the short time they had to do so further pushes the stereotype that, as stated by van Esch, “Individuals within the LGBTQ community are sexualized in specifics ways and in a visual culture” (van Esch 928).

5. Conclusion

Although A Fantastic Woman is one of the few films to feature a transgender main character, it does so in a way that creates a one-dimensional and falsely manufactured representation of life as a transgender person. The cinematic techniques and genre of the film creates the appearance of an unnecessarily grim reality for the protagonist. At the same time, the social and political messages throughout the film subtly validate the harmful stereotype that being a transgender person is synonymous with being shameful victims of hate crimes, as well as the stereotype that their relationships are only valid when used for sexual purposes.

Filmmaker can be criticized for their false depictions of LGBTQ+ characters, but when truly considering their intentions when making a film, this false representation is never the result of malicious intent toward the community. It is simply a byproduct of the general public’s lack of knowledge toward the issues that LGBTQ+, and specifically, transgender people face every day. When people begin to understand the real uncensored struggles of this community, while also ignoring the false stereotypes developed over hundreds of years, only then can there be real progress toward proper representation of the LGBTQ+ community in film.

6. Works Cited

Chang, Tiffany K., and Y. Barry Chung. “Transgender microaggressions: Complexity of the heterogeneity of transgender identities.” Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling 9.3 (2015): 217-234.

Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics Political Messages in American Films. Taylor and Francis, 2015.

Miller, Jeremy R. Crossdressing Cinema: An Analysis of Transgender Representation in Film, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2012.

Reitz, Nikki. “The Representation of Trans Women in Film and Television.” Cinesthesia 7.1 (2017): 2.

Tagudina, Iman. “Media representations of the LGBT community and stereotypes’ homophobic reinforcement.” Unpublished Research, Manila, Philippines, 2012.

van Esch, Patrick, et al. “The Role of Women, Sexualization and Objectification in LGBTQ Advertising.” ACR North American Advances, 2017.