New stills from the upcoming thriller (Re) Assignment starring Michelle Rodriguez were released in August, offering audiences a first look at the movie — a look that many find troubling.
The Fast and the Furious star is set to play a transgender hitwoman named Frank Kitchen in the film. It follows an assassin who is turned into a woman by a "rogue surgeon" called The Doctor, according to IMDb. After undergoing forced sex-reassignment surgery, the "hitman, now a hitwoman, sets out for revenge."
In a time when transgender issues are finally receiving national attention, it's unfortunate that (Re) Assignment would choose to sensationalize sex reassignment surgery, which is a life-saving procedure for some transgender people. Those who decide to have gender-confirming surgeries aren't tricked into doing so, and we certainly do not view the surgeries as punitive. In fact, due to lack of access to trans-affirming health care, transgender individuals often have to jump through hoops to undergo such procedures in the first place.
By tapping into society's fixation with trans bodies, the film furthers the misconception that gender is defined by genitalia. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, surgery isn't even undergone by most trans people due to personal reasons or financial constraints.
Instead of acknowledging that being transgender isn't all about anatomy, the film industry seems more interested in manufacturing trans stories in a way that's digestible and entertaining for mass audiences. In doing so, it reduces the experiences of a community that it actively chooses not to cast in its films.
With (Re) Assignment, Hollywood continues its poor portrayal of transgender identities. As seen in The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyer's Club, cisgender actors are frequently awarded for playing transgender characters. Because cisgender individuals do not actually experience the oppression and pervasive acts of violence faced by trans people, their "performances" are sometimes perceived as inauthentic by transgender viewers.
Just because cisgender actors are capable of respectfully or realistically portraying trans people doesn't mean that they should. Transgender actors are systemically denied opportunities to represent their own lives all the while experiencing unemployment at twice the level of the general population, just for being trans. There are plenty of talented trans actors who would greatly benefit from being cast in these roles.
There are also plenty of actors who are not Michelle Rodriguez. When asked by a TMZ reporter if she felt like (Re) Assignment's depiction of transgender issues could potentially set back progress, Rodriguez further illustrated why she is not a suitable choice to play a trans character.
"If anything, it's freakin' promoting it," she said. "Thank Kris Jenner for becoming who he became. And now you have a popular subject matter that nobody wanted to make a movie about, and now everybody's on it."
By nonchalantly misgendering Caitlyn Jenner and mistaking her for Kris, Rodriguez demonstrated her clear lack of respect for how transgender people identify. Rodriguez also seems to be overlooking that the entire premise of (Re) Assignment perpetuates dehumanizing tropes about who trans people are.
According to data collected by GLAAD, which has been cataloging the appearance of transgender characters in the mainstream media since 2002, transgender people are commonly portrayed as either victims or villains.
In 2006, Sofia Vergara played a transgender seductress with ties to the mob in Grilled. In 2011, Pedro Almodovar directed The Skin I Live In, which depicts another forced sex-reassignment surgery. In 2014, Jared Leto even won an Academy Award for his performance of a drug-addicted trans woman in Dallas Buyer's Club. And most recently, it was announced that Matt Bomer would be playing a transgender sex worker in his upcoming film.
Instead of attempting to accurately represent transgender identities, these films used trans characters as punchlines intended to illicit laughs and shock from viewers. So often, in real life and in movies, transgender people are stripped of their humanity and reduced to spectacle. And (Re) Assignment's notion of a transgender hitwoman hellbent on revenge for a forced sex-reassignment surgery only furthers the belief that transgender people are dangerous.
Once stills from (Re) Assignment began circulating on social media, many transgender people voiced their outrage.
For those who may downplay why (Re) Assignment is a huge problem, media representation frequently informs policies that affect actual communities — and are often the only exposure some people have to the trans community. The stereotype of "the predatory trans person" has often been used as an argument to prevent transgender people from using bathrooms that correspond with our gender identities.
Yet (Re) Assignment proves that the film industry is clearly not ready to share authentic transgender narratives which serve to dispel these misconceptions. Hollywood decision makers certainly have the power and resources to elevate transgender voices, but continually choose not to.
The time has come for transgender people to tell our own stories and on our own terms. We are repeatedly asked to sit down and watch from the sidelines as cisgender actors turn our lives into performance. Even though these actors have not had to experience the historical or contemporary realities of transness, they are later praised for supporting the LGBTQ community.
But a greater act of allyship would be for cisgender individuals to stand back and make space for transgender actors, who are often relegated to the margins, to take on more roles in Hollywood. Then, nuanced, diverse and accurate portrayals of transgender lives can finally shine on the big screen.