The visibility of trans actors, from Barbie to Talk to Me, has reached a critical turning point – and it is long overdue. | Caspar Salmon


In recent weeks, there has been a notable increase in the visibility of transgender individuals on screen, which has largely gone unnoticed. This could indicate that cinema is reaching a turning point in terms of trans representation. Three films currently being shown globally – Barbie, Talk to Me, and Red, White and Royal Blue – offer vastly different portrayals of trans characters, coinciding with the global regression of trans rights. Despite the range of depictions, from big-budget blockbusters to indie favorites, there has been little backlash from viewers, suggesting that cinema may have the power to influence public perception of trans individuals.

It is important to have hope. Recently, it was announced that the A24 horror movie Talk to Me, featuring a significant supporting role played by transmasculine actor Zoe Terakes, was banned in Kuwait due to Terakes’ gender identity. In response, Terakes expressed their disappointment on Instagram, stating that their transness and queerness were not even mentioned in the film and that they were not just a token representation but a real person.

While this statement holds true, it may not fully capture the clever and thrilling ways in which Talk to Me challenges gender norms through the character of Hayley, portrayed by Terakes. In the movie, Hayley is portrayed as a troublesome and intimidating figure, provoking the main character, teenage Mia (played by Sophie Wilde), to undergo a dangerous supernatural experience. What makes this character intriguing is that they fit the typical stereotype of a male character in horror films, such as Matthew Lillard’s obnoxious and aggressive character in Scream. However, in Talk to Me, Hayley’s gender identity is not explicitly discussed by other characters and may not be immediately apparent, subverting expectations and redefining the conventions of this horror movie. In a film centered on the trauma of young women, Hayley brings a complex element to the story as a free agent whose actions and motives are often associated with males, but who refuses to conform to societal expectations.

Interestingly, Kuwait has also banned Barbie, citing its promotion of ideas and beliefs that go against their society and public order. However, the head of the country’s cinematic censorship committee did not mention the presence of trans actor Hari Nef in the ban. In the largest film ever directed by a woman, Nef portrays a doctor Barbie without any emphasis on gender presentation. Nef’s character is simply one of many Barbies, including Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie and Issa Rae’s President Barbie.

Hari Nef at Barbie’s European premiere in London in July.

In a movie with outdated views on gender and sexuality, where being a Barbie is seen as equivalent to being a woman, in contrast to the Kens who represent men, the addition of Nef as a female character, especially in a montage where she supports other women, could be the most rebellious aspect of Barbie. Despite the fact that Barbie dolls are known for their lack of sexual characteristics, the movie could have delved deeper into the concept of womanhood and identity – but ultimately, it falls back on traditional beliefs and portrays femaleness as solely based on biology. Nef’s role in all of this is intriguing; it could be seen as a victory for transgender individuals that a trans actor is given the opportunity to act poorly, just like any other cisgender actor.

Aneesh Sheth, a transgender actor, has a small role as Amy, a bodyguard to the president’s son in the Amazon film Red, White and Royal Blue. The movie, which is a light and crowd-pleasing romantic comedy, appears to be doing well. In the original novel by Casey McQuiston, Amy’s character is written as transgender. However, in the movie, this fact is not mentioned and it is unlikely that anyone would notice or discover it. Red, White and Royal Blue is a typically fluffy and basic romantic comedy, but it breaks norms by featuring a homosexual couple and also includes a refreshing approach to sex and representation of bisexuality. Sheth’s minor role aligns with the movie’s normalization of these themes.

The UK has recently released a new film, Kokomo City, which stands as the fourth pillar of trans representation. This groundbreaking documentary, created by D Smith, challenges societal norms by highlighting the experiences of Black trans sex workers in Atlanta and New York. In a similar tone to Paris Is Burning, but without the issues of appropriation, Smith’s film is incredibly sensitive in its portrayal of these individuals in their own homes, in their natural state. It also gives a voice to the rebellious and angry women who are navigating life in a country with high levels of violence against their community. Tragically, one of the film’s main subjects, Koko Da Doll, was murdered just two months after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Kokomo City is a powerful and provocative piece of queer art that aims to challenge societal norms – an essential aspect of the LGBTQ+ community.

Liyah Mitchell in Kokomo City.

Among the plethora of other movies that help to normalize various gender identities, it is noteworthy that these performances are viewed as commonplace by most audiences. This rebellious punk attitude displayed in these films serves as a source of motivation to keep fighting for acceptance.


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