The other night I was invited to a screening of Zoolander 2 to do a very specific kind of review. No, it wasn’t to highlight the laundry list of celeb cameos (everyone and their brother is in this movie) or critique how Ben Stiller’s signature "blue steel" look has held up since the first Zoolander film took the world by storm 15 years ago. My mission was to review this film from my personal perspective, as a member of the transgender community.
The trailer for Zoolander 2, released last year, caused an uproar over All, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who appeared to be a trans* character. Immediately, All was perceived as an offensive portrayal of a non-binary/agender models by the LGBT community. The film’s writer, Justin Theroux, was smacked with a petition of nearly 25,000 signatures to get the movie from being released solely because the representation of this one character was just that bad. Now, I’m not for censoring art but this movie was no Mona Lisa. I decided to take the plunge and share my thoughts about All and what makes this character more problematic than just a petty joke.
It should go without saying that spoilers follow. I’ve chosen to refer to All using they/them/their pronouns as they present as a gender non-conforming character.
After about 40 minutes and some gratifying Bieber slayage, All was introduced to Derek and Hansel as “the most famous supermodel in the world.” Trans* as a trend anyone? All doesn't adhere to either end of the gender spectrum, as made apparent when Owen Wilson’s character asks them if All has a “hot dog or a bun?” An uncomfortable murmur of laughter could be heard throughout the theater as Hansel’s coded baby-language for referring to a person’s genitals was just casually thrown into the dialogue. I winced. If this cisgender majority audience was having a ball with this "joke" in Manhattan, I could only imagine the impact on audiences in Nebraska or Oklahoma, and felt vicariously terrible for the closeted trans* and gender non-conforming population in less progressive (and ultimately more dangerous) areas of the country.
All actually had a pretty succinct and valid answer for the retired male model. They told him that their gender wasn’t “defined by binary constructs.” It seemed like the writers decided to throw some fancy gender language in the script to buffer their (lack of) responsibility in portraying this character, but it was quickly dismissed as an unimportant afterthought, wedged between lackluster lines under Cumberbatch’s breath.
As a person who identifies as trans* feminine where getting asked what’s between her legs is a pretty regular occurrence, I felt uncomfortable watching this scene. In both private and public spheres, trans* people are asked—usually invasively—by cisgender people (individuals whose gender aligns with the one they were assigned at birth) to validate their gender identity by confirming whether they have a penis or a vagina (as if those are the only two available options).
Perhaps if the hot dog/bun euphemism were replaced with more clinical terms, the audience wouldn’t have found much humor in the question. I digress.
All is then asked if they’re uncomfortable after having just been asked about their genitals. What follows is Derek and All sharing an awkward moment of staring intensely into each others eyes while making audible murmurs evoking mutual feelings of disgust and attraction toward one another (think: ooooh’s and bleh’s). This is familiar scenario for trans* people: We are viewed as inherently sexualized objects, yet simultaneously discounted as monsters by people that are attracted to our bodies but aren’t sure how to process their attraction to us.
Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
The mockery continues as the possibility of All getting married someday comes into question. Hansel asks Derek what his father would say if he married All some day, and Hansel asks All if they’ll marry “hermself” in a “monomarriage” in the future. Sigh.
Had they cast an actual trans* or gender non-conforming actor to play All, and not a cisgender actor dressing up as a contrived version of a real transperson, the microagressions thrown at All by the other characters would not be considered morally sound, whatsoever, by anyone with standards of basic respect. How is it okay to not only inaccurately represent a trans* person, not use a trans* actor, but make a joke out of a more than valid identity in the process?
The question here is how can we make a comedy funny without compromising the integrity of a community that loses a member to murder or suicide every 29 hours. Maybe—I don’t know—write something of substance? Equal opportunity oppression of marginalized bodies does not a successful comedy make. Sorry, not ‘bout it. I’m not saying the writers of Zoolander 2 are solely responsible for the discrimination that trans* people face every day, but I do think that it’s something to consider when sitting down to write a role in a multi- million dollar blockbuster.
To say that the movie as a whole isn't transphobic, that we are to blithely accept that characters are simply dumb and their misunderstandings or misjudgments of another character adds to the humor of the film, deters from the social responsibility that producers, directors, and most importantly, writers should uphold when dealing with sensitive matters like gender identity. It's not a matter of where we place blame, it's the validity of questioning why trans* as a "joke" is there in the first place. When asked about his thoughts on the backlash concerning the blatant transphobia from the trailer last year, Justin Theroux said that all the disdain he had received “hurt his feelings” and compared All’s character in Zoolander 2 to Robert Downey Jr.’s blackface-donning character in Tropic Thunder, also written by Theroux, as "[just another] big Hollywood ego.”
While it’s no secret that big egos are about as common as a pair of Louboutins in the fashion industry (Naomi Campbell’s cellphone vs. assistant anyone?), it’s important to realize that Theroux isn’t poking fun at an “ego” here, he’s poking fun at an identity owned by millions of persecuted people around the world, and consequently, perpetuating the violence and mistreatment of transgender and gender non-conforming folks through the extremely accessible (and influential) outlet that is Zoolander 2. Maybe Zoolander 3, if it happens, will do a better job at not resting on the laurels of a blatant-oppression-of-marginalized-persons-as-comedy tactic. Here's to hoping that's the case, but sadly, I doubt it.