What’s my age again?
“I do not mean to complain.
They say it is my fault.
Nobody tells me anything.
Tell me how old I am.
The deepest demarcation
can slowly spread and sink
like any blurred tattoo.
I do not know my age.”
- Elizabeth Bishop, “The Mountain” (excerpt)
Despite being a pretty straightforwardly boring butch on the exterior, I’ve consistently, if privately, throughout my adult life grappled with whether I am in fact a cis male.
At first it was more scholarly, the light clicking on when I took a class about masculinity in American film and realizing academics were working out all these things about gender I had a vague sense about but didn’t know how to verbalize. My history degree ended up focusing on American culture in the 80s, in particular representations of gender in 80s American action films. My thesis was called “Waking Up Without My Penis is My Worst Nightmare: Masculinity in the Post-Reagan Parody Film.” Questions about masculinity and masculine performance overwhelmed my brain in college.
Lately this more media-focused approach has shifted out of theory into a more personal form. Which is, uh, still heavily media-informed. Because that’s just the kind of person I am, apparently.
I feel like everybody should question how they were assigned at birth at least a little bit. It comes from what I feel is the very productive task of breaking down the assumptions we hold about ourselves. Like, just mapping the questions typically reserved for trans narratives onto people who assume they are cis. I ask things like: Do I personally like my masculinity, or do I just like how it allows me to move through the world more easily? (A little of both.) If there were no societal expectations of how I’m supposed to present my gender, would I present differently? (Almost certainly.)
At the end of the day, I am probably a cis guy who just thinks about his gender a lot. (I mean, watch this space though.) But this fixation on gender deviancy — meant in the best way — has led me to be really drawn to media about it.
Unfortunately, like most other queer media, a lot of it sucks. Part of this is much of the mainstream material wasn’t made by or for queers. Popular and widely accessible media in which gender is a central concern can often be preachy and moralizing, intended for a cis normie audience rather than the people they’re ostensibly depicting. At least we’re losing the tendency to make tragic PSAs like Boys Don’t Cry, but lately at the top of the pile queer media is still boring and shockingly unambitious. For example I wrote an essay a few years ago about the movie 3 Generations, a semi-recent but already nearly forgotten disappointment in the annals of trans masc media. The new kind of popular media is all about putting Representation upfront but not knowing how to negotiate what that means, tiptoeing around its complexities.
Then on the other side, you have queer media that is made for queer audiences but… also sucks. That might be unfair, but it’s high time we faced it. A lot of popular mainstream queer media by and for queers is garbage. Because it is so focused on being Good Representation — or so concerned with resisting being Good Representation — that it doesn’t pay attention to anything else. It just wants you to feel Valid and to know that Love is Love, but doesn’t want to trouble you with anything external that might be more nuanced than Queers Good versus Queers Bad. Or it is so concerned with subverting those expectations that it becomes a tedious exercise in messy amorality. (There’s more merit to the latter, I’d say, but they’re both arguably reactionary camps with unambitious artistic goals.)
Sorry, a bigger issue that deserves its own discussion. Suffice it to say, I am not happy with the offerings most queer modern media brings to the table.
All this brings me to what I believe is a fascinating depiction of queerness and nonbinary identity on film: Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s They.
What strikes me most about They is that it’s a story about a nonbinary kid dealing with nonbinary kid issues that isn’t about Representing the Nonbinary Adolescent Experience. I think that threw a lot of critics off. It’s a gentle movie ostensibly about a 13-year-old kid named J (Rhys Fehrenbacher) and their feelings about transitioning. It is actually mostly about them memorizing poetry, gardening and playing with the neighbor’s cat.
Although now that I think of it memorizing poetry, gardening, and playing with the neighbor’s cat is itself a gender so those are kind of the same thing.
They also have to be awkward at a party where they don’t know anyone.
I love it.
I love this movie’s graceful simplicity. It manages to have intellectual and emotional depth without needing to directly address the Big Issues. Like, J whispers a poem throughout the movie: Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Mountain.” The poem is brilliant and I highly suggest searching for it — it’s pretty easy to find online. In the poem, the lines “I do not know my age” and “Tell me how old I am” are interchanged at the end of each stanza. Its a microcosm for the movie itself, dealing with issues of indeterminacy, childhood, agency, and loneliness. It illustrates what J is thinking and feeling in this lovely, subtle way.
To explain They’s director and the stylistic choices she makes, you have to explain her mentor, Abbas Kiarostami.
Kiarostami is an Iranian director known for slow minimalist films, often starring child protagonists, with ambiguous narratives. He is at his most experimental and trying in movies like Five Dedicated to Ozu — which is taken up by 5 shots, about 16 minutes each in length, of images intended to bring to mind the work of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu — and Shirin — which is about the faces of women as they watch a movie inspired by the Persian epic the Shahnameh.
But more typical are films like Taste of Cherry, about a man driving in search of someone who can bury him after he commits suicide, or Certified Copy (which I would recommend as a starting point for English-speaking audiences), about an art critic and a fan who undergo an inexplicable transformation in their relationship over the course of a day.
The key continuities between Kiarostami and Ghazvinizadeh are minimalism, ambiguity, poetry and child protagonists. Ghazvinizadeh studied in one of Kiarostami’s workshops in Iran, and leading up to They she directed a series of short films that all starred non-professional child actors much like Kiarostami did.
“I was very inspired by [Kiarostami’s] films,” Ghazvinizadeh said in an interview for Cannes, “the way he directs children and non-professional actors, his casting methods, the way he looks for actors all around the world … When I was making films about childhood with non-professional actors, I felt I had to explore these therapeutic treatments for young people who question their gender identity.”
They is about ambiguity in its many forms. This thread is woven through three narratives, if they can be called that: The question of J’s hormone path, their older sister Lauren’s (Nicole Coffineau) career and her Iranian immigrant boyfriend Araz’s (Koohyar Hosseini) struggle with stuck between two countries and cultures.
“Lauren is some sort of experimental artist whose work focuses on ‘displacement and instability,’” Nick Schager writes in a mostly negative review for Variety. “And Azaz [sic], longing to see his parents — who can’t visit from Iran, and don’t want their son returning home lest he never get back to the States — is a man trapped between two cultures and countries […].’”
Lauren is struggling with whether or not to keep chasing after art residencies, moving around depending on where she can be funded. She has a tense relationship with her mother, but her relationship with J is close despite neither having seen each other in a long time. Lauren and Araz visit J while their parents are away taking care of their aunt who has dementia (a plotpoint that goes unnoticed by many critics, despite being crucial for the conclusion).
They dubs itself an “intimate story about arriving home,” and what that means is different for each character: Arriving home in one’s body, home as a literal location, home as being with one’s family.
They begins with J’s plot then slides somewhat towards Araz, with Lauren as something of an intermediary, before concluding back with J. A good portion of the film is taken up by an evening with Araz’s family, with J somewhat sinking into the background. Critics felt like this was more of a deviation than a continuation of the theme of ambiguity. I would argue that’s the furthest thing from the case.
To me, the way They shifts from J to the Iranian-American family subplot shows that someone’s Gender Journey™ doesn’t completely absorb their life the way a film audience might want it to. The time spent with Araz’s family shows J as just another kid — a bit more quiet and more responsible than most kids, the way a lot of queers tend to be, but still a kid.
“They is, perhaps not surprisingly, a very open and indeterminate film in its structure,” Michael Sicinski observed on Letterboxed. “Whereas most films with a trans character at their center tend to make their experience of gender into the primary focal point of the plot, They places J’s self-inquiry into a broader context.”
For me, They’s indeterminacy is less about any inner emotional struggle and more about the external forces pulling its protagonists. Lauren struggles not because she doesn’t know what she wants to do but because she can only do it in a transitory state. Araz is trapped between connections within the United States and Iran only due to contentious foreign policy between those countries. J has to choose which hormone path to take only because their bone density is decreasing on hormone blockers, not because they feel they need to.
And even the indeterminacy is indeterminate. Maybe J is more ready for which path to take than the film itself leads on. Although earlier on in the movie J says they kind of just want to be a kid forever, one of J’s final lines is to their doctor when they say regarding how to transition that “I’m ready for it.” But Fehrenbacher delivers it like he (Fehrenbacher is a he/him trans masc) delivers the rest of his lines — reserved, distant, slightly mumbled, typical for a lonely young teen — so the ambiguity is kept in place.
I see critics decrying They’s perceived lack of focus on J’s transition as a narrative arc, as if someone’s gender identity is something with a delineated beginning, middle and end that can be neatly wrapped up in a story told over the course of 80 minutes.
It’s like audiences want J to be on screen, giving tragic, contemplative looks into the mirror, either tucking in their dick between their legs or wrapping gauze around their chest like every boring prestige trans drama. Critics are mad that not much happens, or that there isn’t enough of a message, or that the representation is somehow not enough. The movie doesn’t answer whether Lauren takes another artist residency or if Araz goes back to Iran either, but you don’t see critics complaining about that.
I get that it’s artsy and slow and maybe not entirely successful (it owes perhaps too much to Kiarostami, for sure), but from the way these critics write it feels like they just want everything spelled out to them.
Like, why do you watch movies then?
People also didn’t like that J and Araz don’t experience the bigotry that they are “supposed” to experience.
These reviews often point to a scene in which J visits a neighbor’s house to pick up some seeds while wearing a dress — note, J was assigned male at birth but Fehrenbacher assigned female, which I just think is a neat choice — and then they run into some neighborhood kids on the way home.
First off the neighbor says J looks pretty today, and the kids barely comment on their dress as J helps one of the kids with his bike chain. How unrealistic for the neighborhood garden lady to be nice! Or for members of a statistically overwhelmingly gender nonconforming generation to not care that J is not gender conforming!
The movie includes subtle indignities, not overt ones. J isn’t discriminated against medically or socially in big Hollywood ways. But they do experience whispers of confusion from Araz’s family during the dinner sequence (a continuity between J’s plot and Araz’s that goes unnoted by most critics). And their transition appears as something of a burden on the rest of the family, even if it’s never overt.
Araz, too, isn’t given the side-eye at stores and does not have racial epithets tossed at him. But he’s still oppressed by the greater structures that uphold a racial hierarchy within the U.S. We don’t see this oppression outright (remember the devil convincing the world he doesn’t exist?), but we get that impression through snippets of dialogue and what we know of Araz.
Sicinski calls the criticisms of how kind the world appears in They as “churlish.” I can’t think of a better word for it. These criticisms reflects the critic’s worldview and assumptions more than they do anything about the movie itself. These critics don’t like They because it isn’t the movie they thought it was going to be, not for the movie that it is.
Critics also weren’t happy with Ghazvinizadeh’s decision to record all the dialogue in post-production. I agree it isn’t the most graceful way to go about it, but neither me or my partner noticed when we first watched it. And I see critics praise other directors for doing what they can with technical shortcomings all the time. I just watched Jean-Luc Godard’s Le petite soldat for example. The essay included in the Criterion DVD goes out of its way to wax poetic on the innovative and stylish way Godard took advantage of not being able to record dialogue in real time to give the film a more enclosed, personal feel. Which just goes to show you can spin any shortcoming into praise if the director is sufficiently canonized.
Anyway, maybe that’s too much aggression for a newsletter called “Calm.” But I just really appreciate this movie and it saddens me that others only highlight perceived flaws.
I love that They is explicitly about the indeterminacy of trans identity. Like I said at the beginning, don’t go in expecting anyone to straight-up tell you anything. Don’t expect moralizing. It’s not that kind of movie. Some may call it too slight, but I like how it presents itself. It offers no answers, doesn’t spoon-feed representation. Rather it depicts the lives of its protagonists with great gentleness and sensitivity. And, true to life, nothing is set in stone. And it doesn’t need to be either.
I read something pertinent to this the other day from Kelly Reichardt, a phenomenal director whose work I will certainly cover one day. She describes her films as “just glimpses of people passing through.”
“A movie is a series of reveals, essentially, and then you’re supposed to sit in a room and tell someone what it all means,” Reichardt explained in another interview. “That goes against everything that I just worked for, so I have no interest in summing it all up. It’s all out there.”
They is available for free on Kanopy through most U.S. public library systems.
Bryan tweets at @BryanOnion.