Trans critics explain the problem with Girl and its Golden Globes nomination
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The 2019 Golden Globe nominees marked a high note for LGBTQ visibility, between The Assassination of Gianni Versace leading the television pack, Pose‘s historic recognitions, and the queer Favourite of awards season. On paper, Netflix’s Girl, a foreign language contender, seems to contribute to these milestones, but the film and now its nomination by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association points to much larger issues amongst LGBTQ critics — especially trans critics.
As Oliver Whitney, a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter, notes, Girl may seem like a worthy awards contender to “the uninformed moviegoer.” With 19 reviews logged so far, the film flaunts a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and it appears within many Oscar prediction articles. However, it seems the majority of those critics identify as cis-gender. As trans and gender nonconforming reviewers begin to watch, the vast majority have slammed the “dangerous” and “traumatizing” work as playing “neatly into transphobes’ hands.”
Girl centers on 15-year-old trans teen Lara, who pursues her dream of becoming a ballerina while struggling with body dysphoria. An awards entry from Belgium, the film is directed by Luke Dhont and stars Victor Polster. Where series like Pose succeeds largely because of the openly trans and LGBTQ talent in front of and behind the camera, both Dhont and Polster identify as cis-gender men, which speaks to a prevalent issue in the industry about cis actors playing trans roles. Whitney, however, writes in THR that is “the least of Girl’s issues.”
GLAAD did not have an official statement on the response, but elevated published critiques with a thread on Twitter that slammed the “harmful” way this trans story is handled.
Netflix did not offer an official statement on the matter, but Dhont thanked HFPA for the Golden Globes nomination.
“Girl was a labor of love for me that was made in close collaboration with my dear friend Nora, whose journey towards becoming a dancer is what inspired the film,” he said. “By honoring this film, you honor Nora and the spirit of anyone who overcomes adversity to achieve their dreams.”
Reps for HFPA did not immediately respond to EW’s request for comment.
“With Girl now being nominated for a Golden Globe, it all but guarantees that it will be nominated for an Oscar,” Out editor Tre’vell Anderson tells EW. “That alone will put its name on the radar of those who weren’t as aware of it. That’s quite unfortunate.”
Nora Monsecour, the openly trans dancer who inspired the film and worked with Dhont throughout the production, praised the filmmaker “for the attention paid to the details in telling Lara’s story,” according to a statement provided in the film’s official press notes. “I was brought into this process very early on and have great respect and appreciation for how carefully this film was made by Lukas and his team.”
Intentions aside, critics and prominent figures of the trans community who’ve watched the film explain the problems run deep. (Plot spoilers ahead.)
“[The film] quite problematically portrays what life is supposed to be like for trans teens coming into themselves and coming into their bodies,” Anderson says. They point specifically to “the vantage point of the camera,” which hones in on “the trans character peeling tape off of her penis” and routinely “hover[s] over her crotch.” Anderson and Whitney, in their published critiques of Girl, note a particularly violent scene of Lara cutting off her own genitalia.
“Whatever merits on craft the film might have are completely undone and erased by the inaccurate and sensational depiction of something so gruesome as a trans person mutilating themselves,” Anderson says.
Whitney mentions a number of “traumatic moments that would be especially damaging for any young trans person to watch” in the film, including that “horrific, violent ending that sends a tremendously dangerous message about self-harm.”
“Girl continually silences Lara with characters who feign support, but disregard her experiences,” they explain. “In multiple scenes, doctors and therapists tell Lara how she’s supposed to feel about her body and shame her for feeling insecure about her appearance. Girl invalidates her dysphoria instead of attempting to understand it. What cisgender people often don’t understand is that sometimes, the most important thing you can do is listen.”
Mathew Rodriguez, a contributor to INTO, fears Girl‘s “cis-centric view” of the trans experience will be “potentially harmful for anyone to watch, but perhaps especially traumatizing for trans people.”
“As I wrote previously,” he says, “I believe the film is trans trauma porn and takes a sick kind of delight in portraying a trans body as a site of suffering… I think this nomination is a sign that one-dimensional portrayals of the complexities of trans existence will continue to get rewarded and, as a result, similar work will be funded, produced and distributed. There is not one trans person I know who has seen the film who believes that others need to see it. That’s really all you need to know.”
So why are all these critics coming out against the film now? Some LGBTQ writers point to the apparent lack of access to Girl.
The film was sent to the main critic circles in New York and Los Angeles for awards voting but has yet to be sent wide to other groups, including GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics. Girl also played at various film festivals, but that just brings up another underlying issue about minority critics lacking access to such press events. (Sundance and TIFF have made moves to advance the diversity of the media present.)
Danielle Solzman, a Chicago-based film and culture critic behind Solzy at the Movies, hasn’t been able to see the film “despite repeated requests for a screener.” She says, in part, “The fact that Netflix is going out of their way to push this film for awards consideration for bigger groups is saddening when you consider how hard they’re making it for transgender film critics to watch the film. Everything I’ve read about the film makes me angry.”
Anderson admits they haven’t had issues viewing Girl, but notes they saw it while as a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, a publication with greater access to industry screenings and screeners than other competitors.
As it was explained to EW, Netflix hoped to use any potential awards recognition to help boost the buzz around Girl, which isn’t streaming on the service until Jan. 18. Foreign language film entries are largely considered to be smaller pickings. It’s a similar strategy to the distributor’s 2018 foreign language film submission, On Body and Soul. EW was also told that critics largely haven’t seen Girl because of the nature of this rollout. A special screening for LGBTQ tastemakers and Dhont is planned in the near future with additional press screenings in the works ahead of the film’s release, which follow its run through the film festival circuit — including the LGBTQ-centric OUTshine in Miami.
EW requested a screener of Girl among its inquiries to Netflix and was told screenings will be available in the coming weeks.
Monsecour hasn’t contributed to the current conversation because she is currently studying to become a ballerina. An earlier statement, the same one from the press notes, continued to praise the director’s efforts, as well as the casting of Polster in the lead role.
“In the end, my wish is for Girl to inspire people,” she said. “I recently have had the immense privilege of starting my professional career with a company in Germany and I continue to see Lara’s journey in the film as similar to my own — an example that everything and anything is possible and that we shouldn’t give up on our dreams no matter our struggles. I hope this film continues to amplify the important conversations about our transgender community and that audiences in the U.S. and around the world will be as moved as the audiences who have embraced Girl in Europe.”
With an official nomination from HFPA, Girl isn’t going away from the awards conversation — and neither is the backlash.
Trans visibility has never been more crucial, given the Trump administration’s efforts to erase the community’s civil rights. As GLAAD put it in its last television report card, “84 percent of Americans say they do not personally know someone who is transgender,” which means “they only learn about trans people through the images they see in the media.”
Writer Cathy Brennan sees Girl‘s nomination as “further proof that cis filmmakers continue to be rewarded by the industry for telling trans stories.”
“This year’s Golden Globes nominees are wonderfully diverse and inclusive, but the nomination for Netflix’s film Girl in the Foreign Language Film category is an unwelcome exception,” Alex Schmider, the Influencer Relations Specialist at Grindr and INTO, says. “Girl is incredibly dangerous, because it’s being sold as an empathetic portrayal of a trans teenager, when in fact it is reductive and superficial. Awarding films like this escalates the danger by encouraging more people to see it, assuming because of its recognition, it is credible. It is not. It is the same tried and inauthentic trans story TV and film have peddled for decades.”