This Film May Be The Most Authentic Depiction of Transgender Women Yet


The first scene of the film Tangerine shows its protagonists, transgender sex workers and best friends Sin-Dee and Alexandra, in a donut shop. A single donut sits on the table before them. 

"Are we supposed to share it?" Alexandra asks. 

"Yes, bitch, I'm broke," Sin-Dee — who was recently released from prison — responds. 

The two discuss the effects of estrogen on Alexandra's body, the fact that she sacrificed her cell phone service to pay Sin-Dee's rent while she was in jail, and the crux of the film — the "real fish" (vagina-possessing woman) with whom Sin-Dee's boyfriend/pimp is cheating. Alexandra doesn't know this is the first Sin-Dee has heard of his philandering, but Sin-Dee doesn't waste a moment deciding what to do: She spends the rest of the movie looking to exact revenge.

"Out here it is all about our hustle," Alexandra reminds Sin-Dee before she leaves the shop. "And that's it." 

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New trans narratives: Neither Sin-Dee nor Alexandra is Caitlyn Jenner. They're not Maura from Transparent, Bree from Transamerica or Sophia from Orange is the New Black. Their experience is not the one usually reflected by the relatively recent proliferation of trans media darlings we all adore, but it is one that, even with cinematic plot devices, seems to reflect the daily lives of many trans individuals in the United States — whether most Americans are aware of it or not. 

The increased media visibility afforded to trans individuals — especially the largely positive responses to women like Jenner and Cox — has surely changed the widespread perception of trans experiences. For decades, trans people were all but invisible in the mainstream media, and when present were denigrated and marginalized. A recent GLAAD study showed, for example, that between 2002-2012 every major broadcast network and seven cable networks depicted "offensive representations and storylines" of transgender characters, largely casting transgender individuals in "victim" roles or as killers, villains or sex workers. 

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Considering that media depictions impact viewers' self-esteem, the media's recently fairly compassionate embrace of trans public figures has raised awareness about their lives and provided role models for countless young trans individuals. The impact should in no way be minimized. 

However, the reality is often less than glamourous. A 2011 National Center for Transgender Equality report found that the transgender jobless rate was double the national rate and that survey respondents were nearly four times more likely to have an annual household income of less than $10,000, CNN reported in 2013. This is likely exacerbated by the fact that 31 states have no protections for transgender workers, meaning they can be fired or not even hired based solely on their gender identity or gender expression. 

This dire financial reality led 16% of respondents of NCTE's survey to report that they had resorted to sex work or drug dealing — a figure that was nearly doubled for unemployed respondents and true for more than half of black respondents. While Diane Sawyer's interview with Jenner, broadcast from the living room of her multi-million dollar Malibu home, may have changed hearts and minds, it did little to illuminate the other reality for trans Americans, the one where they're systematically disadvantaged in ways that can be crippling. 

Tangerine does not shy away from this truth. The film highlights a trans community in which sex work, drug use and imprisonment are part and parcel of its members' daily experiences. It's less than ideal, and the community hardly revels in it, but it's their reality all the same. It's also an imperfect reality, reflected through the eyes of characters who are imperfect themselves. Sin-Dee spends the entire film searching for the woman with whom her boyfriend cheated — harassing mutual acquaintances along the way, engaging in violent acts and drug use — while Alexandra practices prostitution.

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But there's humanity and love here: Not only is this honest portrayal of their world and the actions they must take to survive in it crucial, but the warm depiction of their relationship is also important. Alexandra pays Sin-Dee's rent while she's in jail. Sin-Dee derails her own revenge plot to make it to Alexandra's performance at a local bar. Alexandra helps Sin-Dee clean up after a car full of men douse Sin-Dee with a cup full of their own urine, shouting hateful words. During this ordeal in a touching, symbolic act, Alex offers her wig to her friend — going without it (and with it, the presentation of her gender identity) so that Sin-Dee can feel at peace.

In a landscape of singular transgender icons noted for their lonely bravery, this display of a beautiful friendship formed in the context of an isolating society is hugely impactful. That these characters love each other only augments the love the audience feels for them and models how we can replicate that compassion in our own lives.

Importantly, Sin-Dee and Alexandra are portrayed by transgender actors. A major criticism waged against media featuring transgender protagonists — shows and movies like TransparentDallas Buyers Club and the upcoming film The Danish Girl — is the choice to cast cisgender, usually white, male actors in these roles. The phenomenon, known as "transface," is presumably employed to make these films more palatable (Read: more marketable). But the additional layer of distance between art and reality also creates a gap in authenticity — one that becomes even more apparent juxtaposed with Tangerine

It also helps that this film was firmly made without the backing of a major studio, and was all shot on several iPhones. The film's director not only cast transgender actors Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in the lead roles, but, as Taylor told Mic previously, even permitted them to "translate" the original script to augment its authenticity.

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Much like the thousands of trans individuals across the country, Tangerine's protagonists are not beautiful ideals. They're complex, relatable humans. Perhaps that is the true key to fully normalizing trans experiences in American culture. Rather than allowing the media to polarize trans representation — to either fetishize trans deaths or laud trans figures as brave heroes — we should strive to depict them as they are. This depiction of trans individuals as flawed, complicated humans, just like anybody else, is true equality.Tangerine understands this. Maybe mainstream media will follow suit.