2023 movies like Barbie and Across the Spider-Verse give me trans joy

Mainstream movies have a hard time addressing trans characters without making them into symbols. In 2023, it feels like studios are so scared to even acknowledge the existence of trans people, let alone express an opinion about us, that they decided to just not include us, for fear of starting a debate about how woke their projects are. And yet, in 2023, I’m seeing myself in more movies than ever, even if those portrayals are unintentional and sometimes messy.

At best, most mainstream studio movies featuring gender-nonconforming characters sideline them as bit players who are never acknowledged as trans, like Arcee in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, or Brianna Collier in Escape Room: Tournament of Champions. At worst, studio movies slip back into the decades-old habit of casting cis men like Eddie Redmayne or Jared Leto as trans women (in The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyers Club, respectively), taking roles from actual trans actors and continuing to tell our stories without our input. Even that represents a step forward from just a decade ago, when trans people in movies were usually the butt of jokes that were bigoted then and are bigoted now. So it’s a little strange that movies in 2023 have brought me a considerable amount of trans joy.

The recent movies that sparked this happiness aren’t overtly trans. Some of them don’t even feature trans characters. That’s a familiar situation in mainstream movies: In 2022, Billy Eichner’s commercial flop Bros accounted for 80% of the transgender characters shown on screen in the year’s 100 top-grossing movies. In plain numbers, out of 4,169 speaking characters in the biggest movies of the year, five were trans, one was nonbinary — and four of those six were in Bros. Contrary to what weirdos on Facebook might claim, we aren’t exactly infiltrating the media and turning up everywhere now.


Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

There are great trans actors out there. Everyone knows Elliot Page’s bona fides, from Juno all the way to The Umbrella Academy. Indya Moore has been quietly building an IMDB page full of memorable genre-movie roles, like her character in Escape Room, Angel in Pose, and hopefully in the upcoming Aquaman sequel. Hari Nef is brilliant in Barbie, where she brings joy to some of the funniest moments, and was stunning enough to lock Ryan Gosling’s Ken in a daze for hours.

And Morgan Davies has had a meteoric career, thanks to the bloody Evil Dead Rise and the either great or terrible (depending on who you ask) One Piece live-action adaptation. And then there are Laverne Cox, Hunter Schafer, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, and Elliot Fletcher, alongside nonbinary actors like Bella Ramsey, Emma D’Arcy, Janelle Monáe, Emma Corrin, and Misha Osherovich, all putting in great performances.

But while there are more notable trans actors working at the moment than ever, there just aren’t many films, mainstream or otherwise, that depict trans people just living ordinary lives, facing their own unique challenges without their identities being the whole story. We only ever seem to see this approach in TV, where incidentally trans characters have played important roles that remain distinctly true to the trans experience in shows like Billions, The OA, Supergirl, The Queen’s Gambit, and The Umbrella Academy.

Even when we star in movies, filmmakers haven’t really figured out how to portray us as people, rather than obsessing over our gender identities. The entire defining characteristic of a trans character in a movie tends to be “trans.” In reality, trans people do the same things and live the same lives everyone else does. Certain things are different: We have to spend time, money, and energy seeking gender-affirming care, and a lot of us encounter a great deal more daily harassment than the average movie protagonist. Our transness weaves into our daily lives at almost every intersection, but there’s still more to us than that one characteristic.

Nimona, a short girl with red hair, stands on a rainy, deserted street and looks at a circular holographic display showing a variety of “Wanted”  posters accusing the knight Ballister Boldheart of murder in the animated Netflix movie Nimona

Image: Netflix/Everett Collection

The one 2023 film that does overtly depict a trans character who’s much more than just a labeled minority is Nimona, Netflix’s animated film about a shape-changing wannabe villain sidekick. Nimona had a tumultuous road to release, with Disney acquiring the project and abandoning it at 80% completion, allegedly getting cold feet about its central queer romance. I can’t overstate how much Nimona means to me as a movie.

Nimona tells the story of a shape-shifter who’s lived for a long time, but still feels stuck as a child, never getting an opportunity to grow up. She’s an outcast who’s been vilified as a monster for so long that she wants to play the part. Then she befriends Ballister Boldheart, a knight framed for regicide. Over the course of the movie, he learns that some of the things he’s been told to fear aren’t as scary as they appear, while Nimona sees she can live her life her own way.

It’s easy to see why this story of a monster living among us would connect with people who have lived closeted lives for fear of retribution. It also resonates with elder trans community members who have seen the media slowly turn away from depicting trans people as a novelty to laugh at, and toward portraying us as existential threats to the traditional way of life.

Nimona has one of my favorite contemporary descriptions of gender fluidity for young people. At one point, after turning into an elephant and a dancing shark, Nimona shape-shifts into a male child to confront a target. Ballister sighs and says, “Now you’re a boy.” Nimona responds, “Today I am.” It’s a little moment, and it reads like a casual prompt, akin to one I’d give someone if they messed up my pronouns. But Boldheart takes Nimona’s changes aboard as the two of them go forward.

Nimona depicts a character who can easily be identified as trans, and it shows how vibrant and beautiful we can be as people, even in the face of a society that would shun us out of sheer ignorance. What’s more, it shows how the world can grow and come to see that beauty too. Still, I’ve recently also found myself finding optimistic trans readings of several less overtly trans movies in 2023, in a way that makes me feel hopeful about how the media and society are coming to view trans people.

Sōta with his long flowing hair looking over his shoulder in Suzume.

Image: CoMix Wave Films/Crunchyroll

Makoto Shinkai’s anime movie Suzume is a love story between a young woman and a man who’s trapped in the wrong body. To be fair, that body is a three-legged chair, but this wooden jail that limits his ability to interact and communicate with those around him hit home for me. Maybe it’s because I learned that an original version of the script focused on a lesbian relationship before studio interference demanded the queer aspect be removed in favor of a male lead. Or maybe it’s because that male lead, Souta, has long hair and a quiet, contemplative demeanor that still echoes a more traditional femme-presenting character.

Whichever it was, seeing someone have to live in a body they know is not their own, while still fighting every day to uphold their duties as the protector of reality — that really struck a chord with me. Seeing a character laden with the responsibility of preventing nation-destroying natural disasters, and having to do it trapped in the wrong form, reminded me of the times I felt all the more helpless in a stressful situation because my body was all wrong.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is undoubtedly one of 2023’s best movies so far, but amid its financial and critical success, the question of whether Gwen Stacy is trans turned into a sideshow in the fandom. Endless theories, Easter eggs, tweet threads, and Reddit posts were trotted out, all in the name of proving or debunking her possible status. But the secret is, the overt explanation in the movie hardly matters.

A close-up of Gwen Stacy’s face, rendered mostly in blue tones, against a vivid pink background, in a poster detail from Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Image: Sony Pictures/Everett Collection

Leaving aside the “Protect Trans Kids” poster that appears in her bedroom in one trailer, or what looks like a trans flag pin on her father’s police uniform, Gwen’s story is heartbreakingly relatable for lots of trans people. She’s a young kid who loves her extremely pro-establishment father, but cannot bring herself to open up about who she truly is. Even without all the trans-flag-colored lighting in the emotional confrontation between Gwen and her father, this story still resonates with the trans experience. Like many young trans folks, Gwen doesn’t even know how to articulate who she truly is without pushing those she loves further away.

And then there’s Greta Gerwig’s box-office-conquering hit Barbie. Gerwig’s movie tackles everything from explaining the dangers of The Patriarchy to young children to highlighting the ineffectualness of corporate feminism. It even takes a swing at making fans of the Zack Snyder DC movies angry. It does all this, relatively successfully, in under two hours. For trans viewers, though, it’s been divisive. It’s a movie about bodily autonomy and self-determinism that ends with a woman who earlier told a group of men “I do not have a vagina” proudly taking a big first step into her new life as a “real woman” by visiting a gynecologist.

The point of contention for some trans viewers is that Barbie claiming her personhood by acquiring a vagina can be interpreted as tying womanhood to female genitalia, which leaves anyone who doesn’t pursue that form of gender-affirming care as a lesser woman.

Margot Robbie as a giant barbie doll in the Barbie movie

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

As someone who only recently decided to embark on the arduous process of receiving HRT treatment, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of kinship with Margot Robbie’s Barbie. For me, the story reflected the moment I decided I was not going to spend any more time denying who I am deep down, and I would fight to be my true self. Barbie decides she wants to be human, taking on all the pain, suffering, and joy that might entail, in order to become more than whatever she was originally made for. Just like her, I finally decided to be more than I was told I was — I took control of my life, of my body, my future. Vagina jokes aside, I see Barbie’s choice to take control of her body as a mirror of my own choice.

Ultimately, the reasons these movies all sparked a bit of joy in me — and the reason I love highlighting them to cisgender people — is because they aren’t just stories about a trans person’s issues, or yet another coming-out story that ends just as the person’s life begins. Boys Don’t Cry was an important milestone in telling the story of someone realising their true gender identity back in 1999, but there’s more to trans people than just that moment of revelation. These 2023 movies are human stories, ones I can point to and say, “Hey, here’s what it means for you, here’s what it means for me. Look how similar our struggles and life experiences are.”

Maybe I’m giving these movies too much credit. Am I a young, naive trans woman giving unearned credit to Hollywood, purely because I need some positive media to latch onto in these trying times? Maybe. But that’s what the trans community has always had to do.

Like the broader queer community before us, trans people have a history of finding ourselves wherever we can in mainstream media, claiming whatever pieces of art we can call our own. We have spent decades reinterpreting art with predetermined meanings, and reclaiming them as touchstones of our community. Mecha and cyberpunk anime, like Gundam and Ghost in the Shell, and modifiable toys, like Bionicles, have taken on meaning as symbols of body modification and self-determination.

Games like Fallout: New Vegas and Bloodborne allow us to live as our true selves, whether it’s someone who hasn’t come out yet playing as a character that better represents how they’ve always felt on the inside, or an out person exploring new personalities they finally find within themselves, all while often fighting in stories about having control over our future. The Matrix was a crucial piece of media to the trans community before either of the Wachowskis came out as trans, thanks to characters like Switch and the themes of self-determinism and changing your own body through will alone.

Vera Drew as a version of Todd Phillips’ Joker in The People’s Joker

Image: TIFF

Maybe that’s the lesson here for me and other trans people. It took decades for gay people to start seeing real depictions of themselves as three-dimensional movie characters, people who were consistently more than caricatures. Until trans people get more than a handful of projects from the largest studios or game publishers telling our stories, we’ll instead do what we’ve done for decades: We’ll reclaim what we can from uncaring megacorps that currently don’t seek to cater to us in any meaningful way. On top of that, we’ll make our own art.

Movies like The People’s Joker and Tangerine, or upcoming movies like Again Again and The Girls, are still being created outside of the studio system, telling our stories and counteracting growing political narratives that seek to demonise and dehumanise us. And indie games like Celeste, If Found, and 2064: Read Only Memories will put mechanics to our lives and allow others to live in our shoes.

These indie projects are telling our stories in real and authentic ways, backed by creatives expressing their own lived experiences. And while mainstream films may not be representing us directly, we can still take ownership of them. Everyone finds their own meaning in art. For trans people, mainstream movies can be a useful way to demonstrate our struggles to anyone who still doesn’t understand what we face every day. 2023’s movies still aren’t representing us enough, and when the film industry does include us, it rarely does it well. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find nuggets of meaning and hope in these pieces of art, even as we’re creating our own, providing a foundation for the next generation of creators to build on.

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