Belgium's Foreign-Language Oscar Submission, 'Girl,' Is a Danger to the Transgender Community (Guest Column)

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
'Girl'

"It's the most dangerous movie about a trans character in years," argues critic Oliver Whitney.

To the uninformed moviegoer, Netflix’s Girl may look like a timely and worthy Oscar contender. Belgian’s best foreign-language submission about a transgender girl debuted to a standing ovation at Cannes, where it scooped up multiple awards. It also has a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Yet the near-unanimous praise for the film has been exclusively generated by critics who are not transgender. Some have pointed out the backlash against the pic’s casting, which finds a cisgender (non-transgender) actor in trans role. As problematic as that is, it’s the least of Girl’s issues. The film isn’t just another case of irresponsible casting or harmful stereotypes, like much of Hollywood's long, ugly treatment of the trans community; it’s the most dangerous movie about a trans character in years. If Girl takes home an Oscar, it would be a drastic step backwards for trans representation in Hollywood.

Directed by Lukas Dhont and co-written by him and Angelo Tigssens — both cisgender men — Girl stars Victor Polster as Lara, a 15-year-old trans girl with dreams of becoming a ballerina. The film has a disturbing fascination with trans bodies, from the leering opening shots of Lara stretching to a horrific, bloody finale. Cinematographer Frank van den Eeden uncomfortably lingers over Lara’s lower body with a persistent focus on her crotch. Even when Lara’s gaze is actively turned away from her body while showering and changing, the camera invasively presses in on her groin. Dhont’s voyeuristic eye can’t wait to learn what’s between Lara’s legs, and he wastes no time revealing it.

Lara’s genitals, shown in multiple full-frontal nude shots of Polster’s penis, have a bigger presence throughout Girl and are central to more plot points than the character herself. Lara painfully studies her naked body in the mirror in five scenes — was one not enough? — and in four unnecessarily gory moments, she rips tape from her genitals after tucking her genitals during ballet. While showing tucking onscreen, a reality for many trans women, can be important to represent, Dhont turns it into a bloody horror show. What could have been a thoughtful exploration of a difficult part of a trans girl’s daily life instead uses her body as a site of trauma, inviting the audience to react with disgust. Much like the cisgender characters who continually silence Lara and tell her how to feel, the director shows no interest in understanding her internal struggles. Lara is merely a physical specimen to gawk at, and the more her body is pitted against her — both with gender and ballet — the more the film relishes in capturing her torment.

Girl succeeds at one thing: showcasing the cruel ways trans people are continually reduced to and defined by their bodies, though without a stitch of self-awareness. While it’s unfortunate a cisgender male actor was cast to play a girl — which makes little sense given that a teenage trans girl on puberty blockers (as Lara is supposed to be) would look nothing like Polster — in a film this callous, it’s a blessing a trans actress didn’t have to undergo such gross treatment.

The biggest issue with Girl is the harmful message it sends about HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) and self-harm. Lara is introduced as a happy young woman excitedly counting the days until she begins HRT and has gender-affirming surgery. Yet soon after her first dose of estrogen, her life starts to crumble. Her pointe work, though previously improving, begins to falter for no reason; the other ballerinas who never questioned her in the locker room suddenly harass her at a traumatizing sleepover; and as Lara’s health deteriorates (with little explanation), her surgeon refuses to perform the procedure. Lara is even blamed for it, chastised for taping her genitals and “undermining her body.”

As Lara’s physical and mental health decline, Girl sends the inaccurate message that HRT will cause a trans person more agony. Dhont doesn’t understand how puberty blockers and HRT bring tremendous psychological relief to a trans person struggling with dysphoria. Instead, he eschews nuance to savagely exploit medically transitioning for heightened melodrama. Poor writing, yes, but also outrageously irresponsible filmmaking.

With her surgery indefinitely on hold, the film ends with Lara — spoiler alert and content warning for self-harm — cutting off her genitals with a pair of scissors. That twist makes no logical sense — it’s hard to imagine a trans person who wants surgery cutting off a body part that’s literally necessary for the procedure — and once again turns a trans body into a subject of grisly violence. Most shockingly, Dhont doesn’t frame the act as a criticism of the healthcare system or even a regrettable tragedy, but depicts Lara castrating herself as an inevitable means of survival. The film randomly jumps to the future to show a smiling Lara happily walking down a sun-dappled street: Ah, now she’s a woman!

Girl isn’t a “deeply humane” or “arrestingly empathetic” drama about the trans experience as the non-trans critics have described it. It’s sadistic exploitation made for uneducated cisgender audiences to feel like they get it. Dhont has done something far worse than make another clichéd and superficial portrait — he’s disguised trans trauma porn as a triumphant survival story.

It’s unfortunate and dangerous that Girl will exist on Netflix where young trans people can easily stream it, but should it get the Academy’s seal of approval, such awards attention would only further spread the film’s misinformation about, and damaging treatment of, the trans community.

Dhont’s movie is a primary example of what happens when non-minority critics are the only ones discussing a film portraying an underrepresented community, and the consequences of allowing non-trans creators to tell trans stories. That Girl has been celebrated without commentary from trans critics until now should be a wake-up call to allies in the industry. If trans people and informed allies had been working on festival staffs and at distribution companies and writing for major publications, Girl wouldn’t have made it this far into the awards conversation. If you care about boosting authentic visibility and helping reduce discrimination and violence against transgender people, then change starts by refusing to blindly award damaging art. Then, in seeking out and hiring trans voices in media and the industry.

Oliver Whitney is a New York-based film critic and culture writer. He has written for The A.V. Club, ScreenCrush.com, and HuffPost. He is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a voting member of BFCA and GALECA critics groups. He has appeared on Good Morning America, NowThis and across mainstream media to discuss transgender images in the media.