I'm for the most part not a huge follower of pop culture. I honestly couldn't tell you which Kardashian is which and what movies are vying for an Oscar this year. So I didn't really hear much about bi actress Michelle Rodriguez being cast as a transgender woman in a film called Tomboy, A Revenger's Tale. Sure, another cisgender actor in a transgender role, big deal; I wasn't going to give it a second thought, especially since Fallout 4 was about to come out. Then I heard about the plot and of course the reaction to it, and then I paid a bit more attention.
That plot, according to reports: Rodriguez plays an assassin out to get revenge on a doctor who gave her a sex change, apparently against her will. That's pretty much the plot to Sleepaway Camp. To be fair, that '80s slasher is a pretty decent exploitation flick. Seriously though, the plot of Tomboy sounds pretty terrible on its surface. Forced sex changes aren't some sort of thing to exploit for a buck. In Iran, they give gay men forced sex changes as an alternative to being put to death. That sounds like a Hollywood action blockbuster, doesn't it? Sure, just ask David Reimer.
Back in the 1960s, David was born with a slight birth defect on his penis that his family's doctor recommended be resolved by a circumcision. They tried a new cauterization process to perform the procedure but accidently severely burned his penis. His parents wanted him to try to have a normal life, so they took him to a psychologist who recommended a sex change. Back in those days, some thought that sexual orientation and gender identity could be taught or even chosen (OK, many still do). Since the psychologist thought this would be a great opportunity to test this theory, he pushed for this. Especially since David was a twin, and doctors really love to experiment with twins. Just ask Dr. Mengele.
Well, even at 2 years old, David hated his dresses and would tear them off. He (living as Brenda at the time) was teased mercilessly for his/her masculine behavior and personality. David kept insisting he was in fact a boy, not a girl. The therapist ordered the parents to remain quiet. His mother attempted suicide over the guilt, and the father sank into alcoholism. The therapist conducted all sorts of unethical sessions where he forced David (as Brenda) to take on submissive roles in "sexual role play" with her twin because he insisted that healthy sexual role play as children was important for healthy adult gender identity. Um, no.
When David was taken to a different therapist at 14, he was told about what had happened and began to live life as the boy he was. Of course he was never happy, and he eventually took his own life, just like his twin brother did. The therapist later felt horribly ashamed and would rarely speak about the case. He would later even speak out against his own previous theories.
Sounds like an opportunity for an awesome popcorn action romp, doesn't it?
Michelle Rodriguez filming Tomboy.
Not long ago, I ran into my old Army chaplain, with whom I was close with during my service. He had written a book about his time in Iraq and later at Walter Reed Army Hospital in the amputee ward. We got back in touch and he had me read an article he was submitting to a publication about Caitlyn Jenner. In the article, he spoke of how mocking gender-affirming surgery was particularly cruel in light of his experiences with men who had lost their limbs and genitals in combat. He recalled how many of them would have to be placed on suicide watch, and one night, he found one soldier who had lost both legs as well as his "junk" to an IED weeping in his bed. The soldier said that he wasn't suicidal, but he wondered, "What am I supposed to do?"
He thought of how soldiers would half-seriously tell each other and the medics that if they received such an injury to simply "let them bleed out"; they would rather be dead than live without a penis. During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the incidents of genital mutilation and complete amputation numbered in the hundreds each year. For men who lived lives of masculinity and aggressiveness, the loss of the sexual symbol of that virility and power was almost too much to bear and was an enormous source of depression and suicidal ideation.
He also noted that many of these men benefited from the efforts of surgeons who had for years perfected and improved their skills in reconstructive surgery by performing gender-reassignment surgery on both men and women over the years.
Back to Tomboy. This is an action movie where producers cast a cisgender woman to play a man who is forced to be a transgender woman. I'm not even sure what to really be offended by first here.
Rather than make a lightweight movie with dubious sensitivity like Tomboy, Hollywood could easily make a compelling film out of forced female genital mutilation. Considering that over 130 million girls and women have been subjected to the procedure in 29 countries, it's a subject of much importance. When the "procedure" is performed, only about half the time is anesthetic involved, and anything from a surgical scalpel to fingernails are used. It's not merely the cutting of the tip of the clitoris either -- "doctors" will sometimes remove the labia and even sew or cauterize it shut so the husband can "open her up" on her wedding night. They'll even let you keep the removed parts to wear in a little pouch sometimes.
Gender-reassignment surgery and the issues that face transgender people do make for occasionally interesting films, even in the hands of cisgender people. On the surface, though, Tomboy sounds horribly regressive. I hate to judge a film before it's finished, but I'm not happy with the way this one sounds, especially since I know that a TV series with a very similar "trans hit man" theme was done quite sympathetically in Hit & Miss, starring Chloe Sevigny. I'm fine with cisgender people making sympathetic and uplifting films about trans people, but leave the trans exploitation to the transgender actors, writers, and filmmakers; we know what we're talking about.
AMANDA KERRI is an Oklahoma City-based comedian and a board member for OKC Pride. Follow her on Twitter @EternalKerri.