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Why Adam Is a Dangerous Film for Trans People

Rhys Ernst

If you haven’t heard about the discourse surrounding Adam, here’s the logline, which is enough to make any queer person cringe: A cisgender straight boy pretends to be a transgender guy so he can sleep with a lesbian, who’s pursuing him as a test drive in her journey to identify as bisexual. Yikes. After watching the film, I was left with a lot of questions. So let’s unpack it all.

There’s a lot of pressure for art to be politically correct. Equally important is that art shouldn’t be filtered, monitored, or censored. However, there’s a line to be drawn between sparking thought and discussion, and being problematic for the sake of being edgy.

Director Rhys Ernst spoke at Outfest about the supposed “war on nuance,” saying, “I kind of am pushing back on that— that trans filmmakers or queer filmmakers have to do safe work. That we shouldn’t push boundaries, and we shouldn’t make people question things or be uncomfortable." That’s not an answer or an explanation — it’s an excuse used by artists who are unwilling to do the hard, necessary work of representing a complex topic.

I understand it’s not fair to hold one member of the community accountable for all representation, but when the community has next to nothing, it’s your responsibility — as the first person to make it through — to lift others up, not tear them down. Adam is so painful for trans audiences — specifically because of the visibility we lack, especially for trans masculine folks.

It’s harder to criticize art that is directed at a minority group, particularly when it’s made by someone who’s also part of that group. In many cases, it works as a pass from criticism; after all, why would someone who’s trans make a transphobic film? In reality, it becomes harder to build an argument, especially as a member of a community, because you’re criticizing one of your own.

I’ve spoken to many cis people who say Adam isn’t problematic because the director is trans. This doesn’t excuse the harmful content, and it makes the film’s arrogant flaws all the more disappointing for those of us in the trans and queer community. 

As I watched, I kept asking myself, “What’s the point of this film?” Is it that we need to allow cis hets into our precious few spaces for them to learn? Adam isn’t interested in learning about gender and sexuality to improve himself; he just wants a girlfriend. Is this “fish out of water” story a metaphor for cis het audiences trying to understand queer culture? Masquerading as a trans guy, Adam never experiences what it’s like to be trans. Not to mention that what we do see of queer culture is toxic and immature. Of course, it’s important to show that the community is messy, imperfect, and complicated, but when that’s the only side of the community that’s shown, it becomes a problem. 

Art is supposed to make the comfortable uncomfortable, not target marginalized groups. In a world where trans people (particularly trans women of color) are often killed for just existing, let alone having sex with a cis person and “tricking” them, this film’s premise isn’t just problematic. It’s dangerous. Adam truly does lie to the person he’s sleeping with and never faces any real consequences for his actions. Nor does he seem to have grown or learned anything by the end of the film, except for generally understanding that what he did was wrong. Even then, he’s excused for his behavior by his new trans friend, Ethan, in an odd last-minute move purely to absolve the precious protagonist of guilt: “He’s just a kid, he didn’t know any better.”

Interesting, because he knows enough to manipulate the lesbian who pursues him, Gillian, into believing he’s trans so he can be with her. He watched trans guys on YouTube, pretended to bind his chest with Ace bandages, and memorized various testosterone doses. Even in 2006, when the film is set, this deception is clearly not OK. In making a period piece, we have to understand that it’s not a matter of just knowing better, but of holding ourselves more accountable than before.

Adam lets Gillian continue to think he’s trans as they have sex multiple times. It’s weird, to say the least, but it’s much worse since, as far as we know, Gillian’s a lesbian. She says she’s only ever had girlfriends early on, and yet still pursues Adam because she believes he was assigned female at birth. Later, we find out this is because she was discovering her bisexual identity, and in her own words, “needed [Adam] to be a trans guy for me.”

And that’s the problem — Adam consistently views trans men as Male Lite, or a transphobic way of avoiding the scary toxic masculinity of cis boys. Throughout the film, Adam is always trailing his sister and her gaggle of queer women, which for some reason automatically includes several trans guys. It’s certainly true that many trans masc people have queer women as close friends, particularly if they transitioned later in the exploration of their gender identity. It’s a process, and oftentimes you’re part of one community before you find your place in another. But instead of exploring the misplacement many trans people feel, leaving one community they’ve grown into for another, the film says it’s OK for trans men to be in spaces exclusively for women; after all, they’re not real men. When Gillian raises concerns about Adam being let into a women’s bar, her lesbian friends respond, “Trans guys are cool, the club just doesn’t want nasty bio straight men hitting on lesbians.” If the intention was to communicate that they didn't want people coming in who aren't from a marginalized community, that's understandable. But instead, it feels aggressive in marking the territory — Male Lite allowed, but not Real Men.

Yet when asked by The Telegraph whether the film plays into negative stereotypes about trans people, actress Dana Aliya Levinson, who plays Hazel, responded, “The film centers a cis het male who desperately wants to be a part of the trans community to find a sense of belonging. If that's not a comment on the beautiful power of queer family, I don't know what is.”

How is a cis het man wearing our identities for fun something to celebrate? Adam is a privileged boy lying to make room for himself in a world where he doesn’t belong, the one safe place queer people have made for themselves specifically because they don’t belong anywhere else. Adam doesn’t need a community. The world is his safe space.

The story’s many problems aside, the film just isn’t well-made. The editing is slow and drags the film out. The cinematography is pointedly artsy in a way that takes you out of the action, just to see sporadically placed interesting shots. The acting, save for Leo Sheng’s supporting role and Mj Rodriguez’s blessed two minutes on-screen (finally, someone with eloquence and energy!) forgoes depth or compelling interactions in favor of bland, boring, awkward talk between cringe-inducing, unrelatable characters. The characters don’t feel three-dimensional and complicated — they’re stupid and self-centered. They’re problematic for the sake of the film’s central conflict, nothing more. From a purely technical standpoint, the story and characters aren’t built well. There’s no narrative arc or development. It’s just a boy, keeping up with one bad lie after the next, occasionally stammering out a few painfully awkward words.

Who is this film for? Perhaps the highbrow art cinema community will appreciate Adam, relying on the old adage “It’s art. If you don’t understand it, that’s on you.” But the fact remains that many members of the young queer community find the film alarming. On Twitter, one user named Glitter (@EpicGlitterYay) tweeted, "If a filmmaker calls his own work subversive, complex, and important (a needed response to the 'war on nuance' in LGBTQ film, as he put it) does that mean everyone who has concerns is wrong/boring/reactionary/pro-censorship/etc?" Another user, Mason (@crashtwitty) tweeted, "One of the most insulting things about the #boycottadam controversy is that the filmmakers seem to genuinely believe a cisgender heterosexual protagonist is necessary for gaining mass media queer visibility." 

Who are we supposed to empathize with? It’s certainly difficult to care about Adam, as his entire plotline is driven by his pursuit of a girl. At times, it seems like the film wants us to feel sorry for him, as if he’s the victim, trapped in a lie due to Gillian's assumption. How are we supposed to pity him, let alone root for him, after he repeatedly makes this choice? He lies to everyone, and when faced with disapproval from his friend back home, agrees with him that a murdered trans woman on the news wasn’t blameless. After all, she did trick a guy into thinking she was a “real” woman. It’s disgusting, after what Adam himself has done. If this is supposed to be clever or ironic in some way, it doesn’t work. Satire must clearly target those who are privileged and “untouchable”; otherwise it contributes to the very problem it intends to criticize. While the trans women referred to in the news was murdered, Adam is alive and thriving. It’s not dangerous to be cis the way it is to be trans, and yet even in pretending to be trans, Adam never faces the threat of violence or death the trans community lives with every day. 

Of course, after this pivotal scene, some may claim a double standard. If you shouldn’t have to disclose that you’re trans, why should you have to clarify you’re cis? Unfortunately, cis is the assumption, the standard. Few people will assume you’re trans and ask you outright, the way Gillian did, giving an opportunity for what trans people refer to as "the conversation." If it’s not brought up earlier, but a trans person is about to have sex with a cis person, generally they’ll come out to their partner.

Sometimes, it’s irrelevant. After all, trans women are real women, and trans men are real men. “Wait,” I hear you arguing, “if you’re equating trans men and cis men, then Adam’s fine!” No. Gillian is a woman who has thus far only identified as a lesbian and is only pursuing him under the impression that he’s trans; i.e. assigned female at birth; i.e. doesn’t have a penis. To say this is messy is an understatement, but it’s deception nonetheless in a newly toxic way.

Ernst would probably refer to this all as nuance, but as a Real Life Trans Man, I have to argue the opposite. It’s muddying identity politics in a very dangerous way. This narrative of lying to sleep with someone is harmful and misguided, and feels like a genuine attempt to trap trans people in the toxic belief that they are inherently lying all the time about their gender. Not a great feeling for those of us in the audience who are trans.

The potentially redeeming meaning of Adam is lost in the melodrama of young adult angst, poor communication, and self-centered decisions. When asked if we’re supposed to empathize with Adam, Ernst responded, “One of the things the film is dealing with contextually is when cis allies in queer and trans spaces kind of overstep and take up a little bit too much space.” Except Adam isn’t an ally — his intentions are purely self-serving, rather than about advocating for a marginalized community. Not to mention that he never faces consequences for “overstepping” (understatement) or experiences the real fears and struggles that trans people go through every day.

I cannot make this any clearer: Adam never faces consequences. He doesn’t change or grow. He just moves on, dropping his fun little tryst as a trans guy to return to a privileged life. It’s almost voyeuristic — a cis het boy participating in queer culture and benefiting from a queer identity that isn’t real to him, one he can remove. We, as the audience, see everything dramatized and made weird from Adam’s ignorant perspective. The queer community is made into this clownish mockery of ourselves, which is one thing when you’re in on the joke but another when you’re the butt of it for the sake of a cis het boy.

I was deeply surprised a trans man was in charge of this project, and I’ve almost never seen something that works so acutely to trigger dysphoria. Fellow trans folks: Watch at your own risk. Better yet, go watch Sense8, Pose, or literally any other trans story by trans creators that centers on real trans people instead of horny teen cis boys looking to lose their virginity. Although that, at least, was one part of the story that was accurate to real life. The only thing this movie adds to the larger conversation about trans rights is simply the repetition of harmful transphobic rhetoric through a cis lens. Worse, Adam doesn’t challenge these beliefs.

If you’re going to include harmful ideologies, you must point out that they’re bad, not just excuse them away in the ending, particularly if you’re positioning this specific film as a lesson for cis hets. That’s not just bad filmmaking: It’s dangerous rhetoric.

Leo Allanach is an intern at The Advocate and a film student at the University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter at @LeoAllanach.

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