Earlier this month, a Vulture feature put screenwriters under a microscope, compiling their introductions for memorable female characters. The descriptions were sometimes worthy of the characters they ushered into the story, as with Carrie Fisher’s extensive and evocative description of Doris Mann in Postcards from the Edge. More often, they revealed a reliance on tired tropes and a fixation on physique—Double Indemnity‘s femme fatale is distinguished by her “very appetizing torso.”
Depictions of trans characters have fallen into similar traps over the years. Screenwriters constantly come back to anatomy, with names and pronouns changing on the basis of what audiences see or know at that moment in the plot. This means that unlike their cisgender counterparts, many trans characters will, in effect, get two separate introductions: one that aligns with their identity and presentation, and one that either comes before they transition or after the sex they were assigned at birth is revealed against their will. The contrast between the two, and the ways in which screenwriters refer to characters outside of these “revelatory” moments, can be telling in their own right. The language used can also reveal individuals’ biases or beliefs about those whose stories they’re telling—and to a certain extent, act as an indicator for how attitudes have (and haven’t) changed.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Perhaps the first high-profile film—and certainly the first Oscar winner—to feature a trans character, this Sidney Lumet drama, written by Frank Pierson, doesn’t seem to buy into Lana’s identity despite the fact that her gender confirmation surgery is a major plot point. The screenplay regularly refers to her as “he” and “Leon,” as does her partner, Sonny, who commits the robbery to fund her transition, and everyone else in the story. Sonny also describes her as a man in the same breath as calling her “my darling wife” and discussing her impending “sex change operation.” This is in some ways reflective of the thinking and language of the era (and specifically of John Wojtowicz, the basis for Sonny’s character). It’s symptomatic of a before-and-after mentality that many writers have failed to shake even decades later.
Unlike the trans characters who would come after her, Lana doesn’t get an introductory description of her own. This first line of dialogue about her encapsulates her contradictory depiction throughout:
We went to the hospital, where he told us - and asked for his wife.
He… (indicates Leon) …says they got married in a church.
Leon, coming to, starts to look around him. He sees Sonny.
Ultimately, Lana is misgendered in the screenplay to the very end. The “where are they now” update in the film’s final moments feels particularly ironic, undermining her stated identity by prefacing it with a name she has long since abandoned:
AS LEON IS SEEN: LEON IS NOW A WOMAN NAMED LANA.
The Crying Game (1992)
For better or for worse, this thriller—written and directed by Neil Jordan—was another landmark that earned Jaye Davidson, the gay male actor who plays a trans woman named Dil, an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The first time Dil is really described in the screenplay, she’s clearly seen as an object of desire:
Fergus emerges from the shop. He takes one last look through the window where Dil is taking off her smock, touching up her hair, etc. It is as if she has forgotten all about him. He walks off through the crowds and then ducks into a doorway.
The doorway of the shop. Dil comes out, dressed in a pair of high heels, a very short skirt, different, more raunchy clothes on her than we saw inside.
After the reveal that is still, troublingly, considered one of the greatest plot twists of all time, that initial appeal turns to horror and disgust:
CLOSE ON HIS HANDS, traveling down her neck, in the darkness. Then the hands stop. The kimono falls to the floor gently, with a whisper. The camera travels with it, and we see, in a close-up, that she is a man.
Fergus, played by Stephen Rea, vomits at the sight of Dil’s genitalia. Rea said in 2014 that they joked on set about how this was a distinctly Irish reaction: “If it were De Niro, he would’ve smashed her across the face and said, ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!’ ” He and others have been relatively free with both male and female pronouns in interviews. After this scene, Dil is still largely called “she” in the script (though Fergus repeatedly tells her and others that she’s not a girl), but there are references to “her male torso” whenever her body is described.
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
The fear of trans people “deceiving” prospective partners was also widespread the year after The Crying Game came out when Brandon Teena, a trans man, was tragically murdered following the revelation of the sex he was assigned at birth. In the film adaptation of his story, his introduction seems promising:
BRANDON, 20, boyish, handsome in a CHICAGO WHITE SOX JACKET, races forward. His eyes scan the approaching road - yellow lines and glistening asphalt.
But we soon find out that was a daydream, and he’s “really” a girl:
Steam. Brandon’s eyes. RESTAURANT SOUNDS. Brandon pulls from the reverie. Reveal he is TEENA, an androgynous teen, washing pans in scalding hot water at an enormous sink. She looks at the clock - second hand’s barely moving. As she leans back for a breather, a bus boy drops a load of dishes.
To their credit, screenwriters Kimberly Peirce and Andy Bienen are relatively consistent in their gendering of Brandon as male after a certain point. Where other writers might have reverted to female pronouns after his anatomy was forcibly revealed—as coverage of the real crime in 1993 often did—their script largely affirms his identity. But it does occasionally switch between “Brandon” and “Teena,” particularly in flashbacks to his childhood (“Teena hesitates, pulls away, fidgets in her dress, then starts to tug at it”), and it repeatedly describes his body as that of a girl (“Brandon jolts awake, checks to see if the boy body is his, but when he looks down, he’s a girl”).
Albert Nobbs (2011)
Even more than a decade on from Boys Don’t Cry, screenwriters continued to confuse or conflate presentation, anatomy, and identity. Albert Nobbs was a source of some contention—viewers were uncertain as to whether the protagonist should be read as a trans man or a butch lesbian in disguise—but GLAAD describes the film as following “a 19th-century Irish butler named Albert who’s hiding the fact that he is transgender.” Taken in that light, the protagonist’s introduction is innocuous, and even complimentary:
A face turned upward, shadowed. As the arms of the chandelier are ignited one by one, ALBERT’s face is finally revealed. Handsome and deferential, concentrated and expressionless, one would place him in his mid-forties.
The “reveal” is decidedly less so:
We see he is wearing a man’s corset around his midriff, above which he is tightly bandaged. As he struggles to find the flea, the bandages come loose to the point that it becomes evident that “he” is a “she”. Suddenly HUBERT sits bolt upright, wide awake and staring.
Jesus, you’re a woman!
ALBERT whirls around at the sound of HUBERT’s voice. There is a moment of stunned silence. Then ALBERT lets out a choked wail and begins to cry.
You won’t tell on me, a poor man, will you Mr. Page! I’m on my knees, I’m begging you!
She falls to her knees, weeping…
Later in the scene, a fearful Albert is described as “pathetic.” He is called “she” in the screenplay for the rest of the film.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Unlike the more ambiguous Albert, Dallas Buyers Club’s Rayon is clearly supposed to be a trans woman. (“It wasn’t a choice,” she tells her bigoted father during a painful confrontation. Later, Ron crudely acknowledges her desire for medical transition, warning her that “if you call me Roanie again, I’ma use this gun to give you the sex change you been hopin’ for.”) Yet the screenplay—like co-writer Melisa Wallack in interviews following the film’s release—refuses to validate Rayon’s identity as a woman. Her introduction sets the tone for how she’s talked about throughout:
Sitting on an examining table, meet RAYON, a cross-dresser in his early 30s, in long eyelashes, earrings, painted nails with a pink scarf tied around a full brown curly wig.
Dallas Buyers Club seems to make the mistake of treating cross-dressing and trans identities as interchangeable, much like Chris Sarandon, who played Lana in Dog Day Afternoon, did decades earlier. This may be in part a product of the film’s tortuous path to production—the first draft of the script was finished in 1992—but 20 years of rewrites failed to improve that wrongheaded attitude toward Rayon. In one particularly egregious moment, Ron is “startled when suddenly a WOMAN gets in the passenger seat” as he’s counting cash. After he pulls a gun and swears up a storm, he discovers—per the screenplay—that “She’s not a woman, it’s… RAYON.”
The Danish Girl (2015)
The script for The Danish Girl also languished in development hell, going through 20 drafts between 2004, when the writing process began, and 2015, when the film was finally shot and released. In that time, trans rights and the wider societal understanding of trans identities progressed significantly—but the way the story of The Danish Girl was told still feels regressive. Lucinda Coxon’s script jumps between referring to its protagonist as “Einar” and “Lili” (including extended periods where the character is literally referred to as “Einar/Lili”), and there are moments very late in the plot where Lili is still counted as “Einar,” “he,” and one of “the men.”
Lili’s pre-transition introduction as Einar suggests glamour, popularity, and success:
Gerda’s gaze travels across the well-dressed gathering. Far off in a corner, there’s an inner circle where her handsome husband EINAR WEGENER is being showered with praise.
But the moment that might be considered her “re-introduction” as Lili, after which her name and pronouns no longer change, is a far cry from the handsome, happy Einar we saw at the start:
Gerda is stunned to see Lili held down by ropes weighted with sandbags. She looks terrible, grey-green, exhausted. A nurse administers morphine, another soothes.
A Fantastic Woman (2017)
This Chilean drama is a notable exception to many of the trends that have emerged over the past four decades of trans stories, and its screenplay reflects that. The title character’s introduction alerts us to her skill as a singer first and foremost:
Orlando walks in as an attractive and electric young woman, MARINA (27), sings a salsa song with grace and talent.
There’s something strong and magnetic about her, A SLIGHTLY ROUGH FEMININITY… Is she a transsexual woman?
This is the only mention of her gender identity within the script. She’s never called a man or “he.” Mention is made of “her flat, hairless chest” when she’s examined at a detective’s insistence, but her body is still hers. And unlike Dil, a woman with a “male torso,” or Brandon, a boy with a “girl body,” her anatomy isn’t dwelt on unnecessarily: Screenwriters Sebastián Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, who developed the story in collaboration with transgender star Daniela Vega, decline to specify anything about her “sex area,” just as Marina herself does in the film’s dialogue. And when Marina goes home with her partner, Orlando, it’s not played for shock as in The Crying Game. Lelio and Maza tell us all we need to know: “Orlando and Marina make love in the dim light. They are pure connection.”
Unlike older films centered on these types of reveals or transformations, A Fantastic Woman is perhaps notable for how similar its first and final moments are. After all that’s happened to her, Marina is still electric, still self-assured, and still singing:
Marina is riding in the taxi, looking fantastic.
She enters in an elegant theater. She walks downstairs.
Marina is backstage in this sophisticated theater, waiting for her turn, she looks at the mirror.
It’s now Marina’s turn. She begins to sing with intensity and conviction. Her moving voice fills the space…