Friday, May 26, 2017

Boy Meets Girl: A Transgender Girl's Thoughts

 

Generally speaking, I'm not usually interested in movies or TV shows with transgender themes or characters. Mostly it's because a lot of them, like TransAmerica, Boys Don't Cry, or The Danish Girl were obvious Oscar Bait. And, Oscar Bait films annoy me. So when there are trans characters in a movie, I tend to see it as a cynical and manipulative attempt to commodify a marginalized group (in this case my marginalized group) for the sake of awards and ultimately the increased money that studio executives think those awards will bring. One of my all-time favorite YouTubers Lindsay Ellis did a great video on Oscar Bait.


The other reason I generally don't care to watch trans-related films is because I'm already living my life. I don't really feel the need to be reminded of what life is like for a transgender person or how their transition affects the cis people around them. This is especially true when the movie is written, directed by and most likely staring cis people. 

But, Boy Meets Girl, is a little bit different. In a world where there are Emmy speeches about how trans characters should be played by trans actors, Boy Meets Girl features a transgender character played by Michelle Hendley, an actual transgender actress. Plus I knew of star Michelle Hendley long before this movie came out. For years she had a YouTube channel that I subscribed to and I remember her making videos discussing this movie before production even started. So I figured I would watch Boy Meets Girl, since it isn't Oscar Bait, it is independent and hopefully my Netflix rental will result in at least an extra dime or two ending up in Ms. Hendley's bank account.


Boy Meets Girl tells the story of Ricky, a young transgender girl living in a small town in rural Kentucky. There she works at the coffee shop, makes YouTube videos about her own fashion designs, hangs out with her platonic best friend Robby and dreams of the day when she can move to New York to get a degree in fashion. Things get complicated, however, when she meets Francesca who's engaged to a Marine but unsure if she's comfortable settling down just yet.

As it's a low budget indie, I'm willing to forgive some of the slightly sloppy cinematography, editing and sound mixing. Generally the acting is good for unknown performers and Ms. Hendley brought a natural charm and likability that made her character work. The script is fairly full of cliches and lacks real weight despite touching on some incredibly serious topics like suicide, self-harm and violence against trans women. Where it could have brought some truly wrenching emotional moments to the forefront, it prefers to keep them at arms length, instead focusing on a slightly bouncy, carefree tone. 


As this film was written and directed by cis male Eric Schaeffer, I was interested to see how realistic its portrayal of a transgender woman's life could be. Mr. Schaeffer obviously did his homework. We are shown that Ricky takes hormones and is saving up for surgery. Life and relationships are shown to be difficult for the transgender main character. Like many LGBT people, Ricky longs to get the hell out of her small town so she can head to the big city. Plus Ricky has a YouTube channel, which I think is a requirement for all transgender girls. But the depiction of transgirl life is not entirely accurate. Some things the film portrays realistically and others not so much.

Ricky talks about not enjoying sports growing up but being forced to play anyway. She talks about how growing up she always felt more normal doing feminine things. As a transgirl who grew up in the South I can definitely relate. And I can also relate to the desire to get out of the South and move to New York. Ricky is shown commenting on how shorter Francesca is the "perfect height." Often transgender girls feel jealous of how cis girls look or sound.

Ricky's relationship with her parents is shown to be quite complicated. She fears her mom left (or committed suicide - it's not made clear) because Ricky wanted to transition. Because of this Ricky deals with self-doubt, anxiety and suicide; all things that many transgender women deal with throughout their lives. But, Ricky's father is shown to be loving and supportive and I think many transgender people are often surprised by how accepting people can be. 

During a fight, Ricky's BFF Robby accuses her of not being a boy or a girl. This particularly hurts Ricky. And I think would land hard on most trans people who struggle constantly with doubts about whether our transitions allow us to be seen as real members of our expressed genders. 

There are a few quotes that really struck me with how well they summed up some of my own feelings as a transgender person: 

"Living out loud comes with a pretty big price tag, but not as big a price as the alternative." 


"I know it seems like it doesn't, but it takes so much for me to put a smile on my face and go out in the world every day." 


Ultimately, the film shows a transgender woman who has self-doubts, often feels out of place, struggles to find real connections, longs for a better life, and whose transition has taken years but still hasn't gotten her to the point where she feels like it's complete. On the whole it's a fairly accurate portrayal of life as a transgender person.


But, there are some inaccuracies too that, I think, show that a cis person did create this character. For one Ricky randomly outs herself to people she doesn't know. In one exchange she makes a remark about men being unable to commit because they're "afraid of dicks," and in another she mentions how hard high school was because she "was a boy." In both cases she's talking to complete strangers she's never met. Not only that, but they are odd comments to make in the scene, and seem to have been written simply so they can be shown in the trailer. Most trans people don't like putting the spotlight on themselves especially by making odd comments to strangers. Trans people tend to want to fit in as best they can and generally don't out themselves at the drop of a hat.

There are some other inaccuracies that come up when Ricky and Francesca share a kiss and allow their mutual attraction to grow into a sexual relationship. Before engaging in sex with a cis girl, Ricky attempts to gather data from her best friend Robby, asking him detailed and graphic questions about how vaginas work. This stood out as an odd scene because this is information that Ricky should already know simply by living in society or having visited the internet. Seriously, what trans girl has never researched vaginas online or learned about them from schoolyard banter, media, or simple cultural osmosis? Additionally, Ricky has been on HRT for seven years, but when she finally beds down with Francesca she seems fully functional and there's no discussion about how HRT might have affected her body. 

There are some other inaccuracies that have been seen in many other films and are practically cliches. Transgender people in movies and TV always pass 100% of the time no matter what they look or sound like. This trope is most problematic when it's used in comedy with cis men in drag. But it's also seen in more serious works as well. I'm sure Ms. Hendley can pass in real life, but in Boy Meets Girl, its assumed she can pass. We never see Ricky struggle with this or experience anxiety about it.


Another issue with anxiety in particular involves the plot device of a video made by Ricky when she was younger (maybe 12 or 13 years old - it's not made clear). In the video she admits to cutting, drug use and suicidal ideation. These are all indications of a serious struggle with depression or other mental illness. But, when we see adult Ricky, seven years later, she seems to have gotten over her mental illness and never seems to be affected by it at all. Sadly, this is far too often seen in media, especially episodic television, but in movies as well. Characters, often with a single dramatic breakthrough moment, are able to instantly overcome serious mental illnesses. In real life these issues can stay with a person throughout their life and are never so easily overcome.

Boy Meets Girl missed a serious opportunity to honestly address these issues. As these issues weren't addressed, they really didn't need to be included at all. In the end, the video functions simply as a plot device (any time a movie character puts a video online it will go viral without fail). Ultimately, the movie cheapens real issues transgender people face by using them in a plot device and then simply hand-waiving them away.


Another serious issue that is not dealt with well is violence against transgender women. In Boy Meets Girl, it is shown, but also depicted as something that is easily stoppable and not really all that dangerous. There is a transphobic character who seems almost cartoonishly over-the-top. He even considers transgender people to be terrorists and enemies of the Untied States. But of course, it turns out that he isn't really hateful. He's just attracted to transgender women like Ricky. In Boy Meets Girl, the transphobe is really a good person deep down. Once he gets over his own issues, he turns into a smiling, happy fellow who is able to wish Ricky well.

Transgender people, especially transgender women, really do face serious issues of violence. In providing the violent transphobic character a complete redemption without his so much as apologizing to Ricky for attacking her, the movie makes light of a serious issue facing the LGBT community. What's worse is that transphobe's violent attack on Ricky is never something Ricky has to deal with. She's able to shrug it off without much bother. So while trying to address violence against transgender people, this movie ultimately stumbles.

How other characters react to Ricky is a major part of what makes the film unrealistic. She seems to be the most popular girl in her small Kentucky town. Everyone in the town (of what seems like no more than 8 people) either wants to sleep with Ricky or praise her. Sadly, Ricky seems to have creative a new type of trope; the Magic Transgender Woman. Everyone loves her and she's the catalyst that improves their lives. She heals Francesca and the transphobic fiance's relationship and gives Francesca the inspiration to live her life as she pleases. In the end, everyone comes together to help her out in a bit of a deus-ex-machina It's a Wonderful Life moment.



While real transgender people struggle to be accepted at work, or family, or even with peers or strangers, Ricky is universally beloved, even by the transphobe who attacks her. Needless to say, most transpeople do not experience this overabundance of love and acceptance from everyone in their lives. Sure, audiences like happy endings, but in this case, the happy ending seems a tad false.

There is one other major issue I had with this movie and that is the nude scene. In the third act, Ricky is shown exiting the water after skinny dipping and the camera lingers on her fully nude form. This felt completely and utterly unnecessary. The nudity seemed gratuitous and even exploitative. It served no function in the plot and scene would have worked just as well, if not better, with a fully clothed Ricky. I've heard that the director insisted that nudity was a deal breaker for any actress he signed. Because of this I suspect it was there simply so the director could "prove" that he cast a real life transgender girl in the part. This decision, I think, majorly detracted from the story as well as from the elements of the story that had, up to this point, been rather respectful of transgender women. 

 

Michelle Hendley's performance was ultimately what made this movie work. Firstly, let's get it out there; she looks great - especially in the black dress she wears for the party scene. This was a great debut performance and she infused every scene with a casual likability and charm. Even in the more emotionally complex scenes, she sold it well. The script wasn't perfect, but she worked with it and her performance makes the movie worth watching.

Boy Meets Girl did at least endeavor to create a realistic and respectful portrayal of a transgender character. Plus it actually cast a transgender actor. Except for the aforementioned nude scene, the movie didn't feel too gimmicky in a "see the real transgender girl," kind of way. There were a number of flaws, but it was clear that Eric Schaeffer was attempting to create an accurate depiction of a transgender character and her life.


Ricky is three dimensional and has more character traits than simply being trans. We see her self-doubts, worries and anxieties. She has hopes and dreams and is well-rounded person. It's a nearly spot-on portrayal of a transwoman and one that is much more authentic that what's usually seen in media.

Boy Meets Girl also tries to be respectful to the transgender experience. Characters defend Ricky, stick up for her and it's made clear that she is a woman.  The film points out that it's right to call her by her preferred pronouns. Trans people are seen as real people who deserve to be treated as such.

The flaws I think, are from, Ricky and her experience being shown from a cis point of view. Robby and Francesca function as audience surrogates. We experience the transgender Ricky through their eyes. They ask the questions the general audience wants to ask and the story shows Ricky's reaction to their choices.

As a trans girl, I am not the intended audience. But maybe a trans kid and their family might be. I could see Boy Meets Girl as a potential useful tool one could show cis family members so they can understand that trans people are normal, that they really are real members of their expressed gender, and that they deserve to be treated as such. The nude scene unfortunately ruins this. What we're left with is a decently accurate movie that tries to be respectful, has a good performance from its lead, but fundamentally misses the mark.

6 comments:

  1. Hi Faith, I rather liked this movie and saw it when it came out a couple years ago. Sorry to say I didn't think too much about some of the issues in your really good, deep review. I'll have to watch it again. I suppose I did notice how the "over the top" way they played the transphobe. But I don't want to give too much away. Thanks!

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    1. Hi Erica- I think it's worth watching for Michelle Hendley's performance. But maybe one day we'll see her in a better written film.

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  2. I agree with Erica. I do not tend to watch a movie through a critical eye. I either enjoy it or I don't. I never really understand why. I actually got a little choked up at certain parts of this one. Michelle was absolutely wonderful. Kind enough with a little edge. I loved the relationship between her and her little brother.

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    1. Yeah, I do think Michelle Handley did a fantastic job. I do like over-thinking things though. :)

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  3. hi Faith
    have you seen Norang meori 2? for starters, it's not American so Mr Oscar is not involved. also the trans character played by Harisu is part of a bigger plot, so she is not the only plot interest. a few asian themed trans issues come up... i would skip all the online trailers... they look pretty bad. if you ever see it, i'll be interested to see what you think. also though not a feature film, i think Red without Blue was very helpful.

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  4. I haven't seen it. I'll have to check it out.

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