Regardless of its good intentions, Lukas Dhont’s Belgian drama does real harm for trans issues by centering the trans experience around genitalia a
nd casting a cis actor as the lead.
(Content warning: this review contains discussions of transphobia and body dysphoria.)
How do I explain Girl?
How do I, as a trans person, convey to you the utter exhaustion I felt upon watching it? How do I put words to the exhaustion trans people feel every time we are forced to speak out against cis filmmakers who abuse our stories in the name of “art?” If you’re cis, reading this, how do I make you understand why stories like this are so dangerous? What can I – what can we, trans people everywhere – say to cis filmmakers to get them to please stop making films like this?
I don’t know anymore. I don’t think I’ll ever know.
But let’s start with the facts.
Girl, a Belgian film directed by Lukas Dhont, centers around Lara (Victor Polster, who gives a solid performance despite being miscast), a fifteen-year-old trans girl who begins attending a prestigious ballet academy. While retraining her body to perform as a female dancer, Lara is also starting hormone replacement therapy in anticipation of her upcoming vaginoplasty. When Lara’s health starts to deteriorate, both her dancing career and her medical transition are put in jeopardy.
On the face of it, this film contains the promise of a compelling narrative about a young trans person. Ballerinas are the ultimate feminine stereotype, and that world can provide an interesting backdrop for an interrogation about the expectations placed on a transfeminine person.
But Girl is not about a trans person. It’s about a trans body.
Cis-made media about trans people has always on some level been about physical transition and the “reveal” of trans genitals. Dhont takes this trope to an infuriating extreme: at least one-third of Girl’s scenes feature Lara in some state of undress, with the camera eager to show us the state of her penis: whether she’s tucking it back with tape, or taking the tape off to reveal the bloody, irritated skin underneath, or simply standing naked in front of a mirror, staring at herself with an expression of vague dysphoric ennui.
This isn’t just a matter of showing us Lara’s dysphoria. As other reviewers have noted, this is an obsession – specifically a cis obsession with an imagined version of trans suffering. Lara’s genitals are the focus of the film because cis people love gawking at the distinctly visible trauma that is physical dysphoria. Fuck the lived experience of actual dysphoric trans people, many of whom go out of our way to avoid looking at the parts of our bodies that cause our dysphoria. Lara is a cis construction who exists for cis consumption.
Halfway through the film, when Lara’s classmates bully her into pulling down her pants to reveal her genitals to them, the camera demurely stays above-the-waist, choosing instead to show us Lara’s discomfort in front of these cis girls who have reduced her to a body part. In another film, this scene might be humanizing, even poignant. But in Girl, it just seems out of place, sandwiched as it is between so many scenes that have no problem doing exactly the same thing Lara’s classmates are doing. Girl teaches its audiences that it is okay to look unabashedly at trans bodies, any trans bodies. It teaches cis people that bodies in transition exist to be displayed and mutilated in the name of “education,” that empathy lies in the same sphere with voyeurism.
Adding insult to injury, Girl’s dehumanizing focus on Lara’s body isn’t limited to what we physically see. Almost every scene in Girl is in some way about Lara’s body, whether it features her struggle to dance in female roles or a conversation with the adults who are helping to facilitate her transition. We as an audience come to learn almost nothing about Lara outside of her physical and medical transition. Does she get along with her classmates? What’s her dream role? Does she like boys, girls, both, neither? We don’t get an answer to any of these questions, because Girl is far more concerned with parading Lara’s penis before us like she’s a carnival sideshow.
The worst part about watching all of this unfold is seeing all of the things that could have humanized Lara, and which were cast aside in favor of the visceral. It’s not inherently wrong for a cis person to tell a trans story, or for a trans story to be about transition. But Girl excises everything that might be nuanced or even accurate, replacing it with cis fantasies and assumptions about how trans people should relate to our own bodies.
The latter half of the film focuses on Lara’s physical deterioration, for which her tucking is blamed and due to which her surgery is postponed – this coming at a time when her dysphoria is already heightened due to her impatience with HRT. Amid all the chaos and blood, it’s easy to miss the brief references to the fact that Lara hasn’t been eating properly.
Ballet dancers are up to ten times more likely to develop an eating disorder than non-dancers, as ballet dancers are held to often impossible standards to present a certain physical ideal. This holds particular significance when you consider that Lara is already under a great deal of pressure to be just as good as the cis girls who have been dancing in female roles for longer. In another version of this film, Lara’s disordered eating could have been forefronted and used to illustrate the unique intersectional pressures of being a transfeminine dancer. But as it stands, all concerns about Lara’s eating habits are tossed aside in favor of a world where her penis is the source of every conflict in her life.
Of course, even people who are trying their best to help relieve Lara’s genital dysphoria are ultimately cast in a negative light. Just look at the film’s only likable character: Lara’s dad, Mathias (Arieh Worthalter), who is wholeheartedly supportive of his daughter’s transition and worries about the damage she’s doing to her body by tucking with tape. During one conversation, Mathias mentions that he bought Lara tucking underwear so that she wouldn’t have to tape anymore. Tucking is a reality for many dysphoric transfemmes, and it’s important to know how to tuck safely. Mathias offers Lara a way to relieve her dysphoria without hurting herself in the long-term. He represents something that might have been genuinely educational to audiences.
But Girl is not interested in education. Girl is not interested in a trans experience that is not bloody and painful. And so Mathias and the tucking underwear are cast aside, implied to not be good enough for Lara. No, this film tells cis audiences, trans people would rather destroy their bodies than participate in second-rate dysphoria relief.
There are so many other bizarre moments and choices, so many places where Girl trips over itself in its rush to pretend it’s about a person instead of a body. There’s the tonally incoherent scene where a teacher asks the girls in class if they’re okay with Lara changing in the same locker room. There’s the scene explaining how vaginoplasty works, which was left in the final cut even when that explanation undermines the film’s resolution. There’s the doctor who tells Lara, early on, that she shouldn’t be eager to be on hormones because she’s “a woman already,” despite the rest of the film’s thoughts to the contrary.
In her chapbook On the Outside Looking In, trans activist and writer Julia Serano identifies two types of trans women in cis-made media: the “deceptive” and the “pathetic.” Lara falls into the latter category, the “pathetic” trans woman who fails to “pass” and is obsessed with her penis (or lack thereof). Lara’s transness stems not from the inner workings of what makes her identify as a girl, but instead from external signifiers that continually separate her from “true” girlhood. Films like Girl reinforce the idea that trans women are objects to be evaluated against cis expectations, and which are ultimately deemed unworthy and incomplete until they have had X or Y medical procedure. In other words, films like Girl teach that trans women aren’t real women until they’ve jumped through all the right hoops.
For the love of God, don’t watch Girl. Its ideas are dangerous and its content isn’t worth the Netflix views. If you want to see a difficult, dramatic film about trans experience, watch A Fantastic Woman instead. Though it, too, was directed by a cis man (Sebastián Lelio), it actually stars a trans woman in the lead role, and it shows a respect for her character as a person and not just a body. Though Marina (Daniela Vega) faces all the tropes of living in a transphobic society, A Fantastic Woman makes little mention of her transition details, and it is ultimately a film about navigating grief for a loved one. Most importantly
Let’s end with some music.
The Against Me! album Transgender Dysphoria Blues was released two years after singer-songwriter Laura Jane Grace publicly transitioned. Its tracks paint the picture of a woman who is painfully aware of her body, yes, but it also acknowledges the mental and social aspects of transition as equally important:
You should’ve been a mother
You should’ve been a wife
You should’ve been gone from here years ago
You should be living a different life.
No more troubled sleep
There’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me.
There’s more to Laura Jane Grace than the genitals she was born with. She has hopes and aspirations and expectations of what womanhood means outside of what’s between her legs. There should have been more to Lara, too.