In Defense of Girl, the Trans Film Called 'Trauma Porn' by Critics

Ann Thomas

Spoilers ahead:

Is it really fair to comment on a movie without seeing it?

Girl is a controversial movie, co-written and directed by Lukas Dhont. I have waited to comment until I had seen the movie and met in person with Lukas.

Recently there was an op-ed by Nora Monsecour, published in The Hollywood Reporter. The movie Girl is based on her true story of working to become a professional dancer, while struggling with being transgender. Lukas first saw the possibility of telling her story in 2009, and approached Nora, suggesting doing a documentary about her life. They eventually agreed to do the docu-drama, Girl, which is typically much better when dealing with a very sensitive topic. Docu-dramas don’t require life rights, and events can be moved around and modified to make the story more compelling.

This production was entirely done in Belgium, with no connection to Hollywood.  The end credits of the film answered some of my questions about the financing, in that is was paid for through government grants and qualified for tax incentives.  With that type of funding comes restrictions – the biggest one being confirmed by Lukas when I asked him about this. The entire cast and crew had to be hired from within Belgium. I brought up that the total population was about 11 million, and he said, not really, that Belgium is divided, and he had access to only about 5 million of the population.

I asked Lukas: When was the role of Lara, the lead trans woman character based on Nora, cast? That occurred in February of 2015, after an exhaustive search (they did about 500 auditions, far more than Hollywood typically does for any role). The breakdown (character description) was 13 to 17, any gender or gender expression, and most importantly, 15-year ballet level.

To put the timing in perspective, that was close to the time the historic Glee scene with 197 trans people in it was aired (late February 2015), and long before Jackson Millarker appeared on Modern Family (September 2016). I helped find Jackson for Modern Family – the first out trans child actor on a major network show in history — and the breakdown we used for that was vaguely similar, with an even wider age range, and without the dancing requirement.  I could count the number of out trans child actors on one hand.

Parents tend to be reluctant to let their trans children who are actors perform in a major project. The reason they hesitate is because once the child performs in it, they are outed for life. In early 2015, here in the U.S., respect of trans rights by the general population was uncertain, becoming more and more positive in outlook, until November of 2016, with the presidential election. At that point, all parents of trans child actors that I knew at the time withdrew their children from availability for their protection.

Girl is very much centered around dancing, with lots of scenes of practices, coaching, and choreography work, and the pain it takes to get there. It’s very accurate. I was a small part of the ballet world for over 12 years, and helped with several ballet recitals doing technical work. Fifteen-year and above ballet students really stand out from the rest. They have to go through testing for each level, so it’s not just the number of years they’ve been dancing that determines this.

I helped with the casting of a German production earlier this year, and I learned there are few out trans actors in all of Europe. So to my knowledge, at the time of casting, there were no out trans actors who fit the role of Lara, especially who were 15-year ballet dancers, so no role was stolen from a trans actor. Lots of roles, both trans and cis, are already being filled with trans actors in both major and minor projects. We just can’t talk about them all yet.

Nude and partial nude scenes in the film were done extremely tastefully, and only two shots briefly showed Lara’s genitals, each shot done for a very specific purpose. There are one or two other scenes showing topless cisgender females – classmates of Lara. But one must realize that European views of nudity are for the most part significantly different than in the U.S.  In many parts of Europe, nudity is not sexualized, whereas for the most part in the U.S., it is.

Lara is shown taping her genitals down, but also the painful process of removing the tape is depicted. This was done as a subplot, where she was confronted by her father about it, and later her doctor, as she had gotten an infection from doing it. Lara’s father had bought her special underwear to accomplish this instead. To me, it comes across more as a teaching moment for young people struggling with gender dysphoria.

The most disturbing part of the movie is the self-harm scene towards the end. Self-harm is a widespread problem in the trans community, so to deny it as a part of our stories is inauthentic. It was extremely upsetting to watch, and I would think it would cause trans people not to self-harm. After the screening, some of the questions that the cisgender people asked were along the lines of, “Are the feelings really that strong?” That’s exactly what we want them to ask.

There are many of us in the trans community who do not agree with the outspoken trans critics attacking this film without ever seeing it. Plenty of us trans people who are industry professionals, from new all the way to 20+ year veterans, are willing to work with non-transgender people to get our stories heard by a wide variety of audiences.

Lukas did lots of research over many years working with Nora, other trans people, and medical professionals to get her story told accurately. He did so brilliantly. Thank you, Lukas, and thank you Netflix for distributing this! I encourage everyone to see Girl!

ANN THOMAS is the founder of Transgender Talent, a listing service for transgender performers and artists.

From our Sponsors

READER COMMENTS ()