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Trans in the Mainstream: Xavier Dolan’s ‘Laurence Anyways’

Trans in the Mainstream: Xavier Dolan's 'Laurence Anyways'

“Laurence Anyways” comes down somewhere between “Transamerica” and “Dallas
Buyers Club” in terms of representation of trans characters. Xavier Dolan is
a young gay male who, at 25, has an output as astounding as his artistic
vision. The G and T in the alphabet soup of the LGBTQ community continue to
make uneasy bedfellows for some. Overall the film is wonderful but even queer
filmmakers don’t always get the trans experience right. 

READ MORE: Trans In The Mainstream: 5 Takes On The Representation of Trans Men and Women In Film

At nearly three hours long, this
film spans roughly ten years of the main characters lives. There are a couple
of brave and interesting things about the story Dolan chooses to tell in this
film but I question his casting choice to tell the story. Dolan is gay and while
the general public tends to lump the trans community in with the gay community
it is an uneasy fit for both groups. So while it makes sense that perhaps a
queer person would have more of a sense of this story, we can’t give Dolan a
pass considering what he gets wrong.  First,
let’s start with some of the more positive aspects.  

First, even by placing the
film in the 1980s when trans issues and transitioning was much less common and
there wasn’t nearly as much of a community as there is now, the fact that Dolan
chooses to tell the story of someone older (which makes sense given that the
film takes place during a time when the majority of people transitioning were
in their 20s and older) and that of their trajectory from coming out through
transitioning is wonderful. Perhaps the fact that it wasn’t as common and the
community didn’t exist led Dolan to focus in on the two main characters rather
than the transition aspect of the story. In “Transamerica”
Bree was already through the tougher parts of her journey and she had seemingly
done all of it alone and on her own. With the character of Laurence, we see
someone choosing to come out to their girlfriend on their 30th
birthday. The actual start of a transition tends to be when you verbalize your
identity to somebody else for the first time and this is rarely something we
see in film. While transition itself does not make someone transgender, it is
valuable to see them hand in hand in a film.

Second, by placing Laurence
in a stable relationship we get to see the effect his coming out has on his
girlfriend and their relationship. Partners who are blindsided by the news of a
previously unknown trans identity react in many different ways. Some are
supportive and remain coupled, some are supportive but are not able to remain
together, and some are completely unsupportive and that can take on many
degrees of expression, from break-ups to court cases when there are assets
and/or children involved. Laurence’s partner, Fred (Frédérique), reacts with
shock and an initial lack of understanding only to come back and be with her
through her transition. The relationship goes through many ups and downs over
the span of the film and ultimately they don’t end up together. It feels very
authentic and true to human nature.

Stephen Dalton, writing in The Hollywood Reporter, focuses in on
the usual topic for cisgender people when it comes to transgender people –
genitals. He writes, “While the script initially seems intent on exploring the
emotional and social costs of transsexuality, it remains oddly vague about
Laurence’s surgical transformation and subsequent sex life. Instead, Dolan
digresses into a more familiar story about two volatile people who can never
quite live either together or apart.” However, it’s precisely the fact that
it’s a humanizing story about two people in a universal sort of relationship
struggle that makes it so notable, compelling, and good. It’s extremely
frustrating for those in the trans community to have their identities reduced
to genitalia but it happens very often in films and film reviews. Many trans
people cannot afford gender confirming surgeries. Genitalia does not equal
gender just as what surgeries a person may or may not have had also does not
equal their gender. To miss the point that the story of Laurence Anyways is about the two lead characters is to miss the
point of the movie.

Kevin Jagernauth, writing for
Indiewire, thankfully grasps the film
and writes,


“And while the story is
centered around transsexuality, it’s Dolan’s remarkably astute and
observational eye on how a relationship between two people can evolve,
deteriorate, rebuild and implode over time, that makes “Laurence Anyways” relatable and universal. While Fred generously
makes herself available to Laurence after his life-changing decision, she
hardly knows what’s in store. How could she? And while Laurence knows what
gender he wants to be, he’s yet to discover the person he will become as a
result. These are two people, whose love for each other is undeniable, thrust
into a situation that will irrevocably change them both. And with these
adjustments will come situations they couldn’t have prepared for, drama they
could not have expected and a ten-year journey that tests their understanding
of themselves and each other. And you gotta hand it to Dolan, he throws
everything he can at the movie to transmit those feelings, and while not all of
it works, when it does it’s a deeply felt and honest accomplishment.”


However, as impressive as the
plot is, it is important to draw attention to the fact that there really is no
proof of any sort of medical transition taking place with the character of
Laurence. She starts wearing women’s clothing and make-up and a wig but just
looks like a man in bad drag. There’s no attempt at feminine vocalization or no
mention of hormones, no electrolysis, no physical proof of hormone therapy
(such as small breasts that come from estrogen), nothing really that makes me
believe that this character is seriously choosing to transition. I think that
if Dolan were making a statement about the gender binary (or someone choosing
to be genderqueer), he would have needed to address that. However, in the film
we are told over and over that Laurence is a woman. I would have liked more
visual proof of that. If you’re making a film about trans people and choose to
cast cis male actors to play trans women or to play males who are transitioning
to female, you need to cast the role more carefully if you want it to be
believable. Putting a dress on a man makes him a crossdresser, which is why cis
men playing trans women doesn’t really work. I think that if you choose to not
cast a trans woman that you would be better off casting a cis woman (as we saw
in “Transamerica”) and using hair and
make-up to convey masculinity rather than having a not at all believable cis
man in the role.

READ MORE: Trans In The Mainstream: 5 Takes On The Representation of Trans Men and Women In Film

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