‘Adam’ Applies a Trans Lens to a Cis Gaze. Is That Too Complex for Cancel Culture?

Rhys Ernst's queer coming-of-age comedy is facing backlash from people who haven't even seen the movie. Here's why they're wrong.
Adam Applies a Trans Lens to a Cis Gaze, and Cancel Culture Can't Deal
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Adam, named for the first “man,” is a virgin. Awkward, shy, and socially ostracized in his small town, the 17-year-old strikes gold when he’s invited to spend the summer living with his queer older sister in Bushwick, Brooklyn. (Circa 2006, when it was still cool.) Finding himself the outsider in an eclectic group of people who run the gamut of the LGBTQ+ alphabet, Adam unwittingly stumbles into a misguided deception when a pretty girl assumes he is trans — and he doesn’t correct her.

Just your typical coming of age story, right?

That’s the premise of “Adam,” the feature filmmaking debut of Rhys Ernst, a queer transgender man whose credits include producing “Transparent” and creating the docu-series “We’ve Been Around.” Backed by powerhouse indie producers James Schamus (“Brokeback Mountain”) and Howard Gertler (“How to Survive a Plague”), the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year to warm reviews and is set to hit theaters on August 14.

But the rollout hit a snag when the hashtag #BoycottAdam began trending, and petitions began circulating online calling the movie “extremely homophobic [and] transphobic.” Adding fuel to the fire, one background actor claims they were misgendered on set and believed they were intentionally left in the dark about the film’s content. Those claims have been disputed by other background actors, and detailed at great length by Buzzfeed and Vulture. (Full disclosure: I spent a day on set as a background actor while researching the film. I neither saw nor experienced any such incidents.)

“In my experience working on this project, trans voices were the voices that were centered and uplifted,” said Bobbi Salvör Menuez, who plays Adam’s love interest in the film and identifies as non-binary. “In my experience, the cis people on set knew their place was to listen and to serve the vision of the trans people most in charge of this project, and did their best to do that. That alone felt like a rare gift to be a part of.”

As the film has yet to be released, though it has been embraced by festival audiences at the Provincetown Film Festival, Inside Out, and Outfest, it seems fair to assume that most of its dissenters have not seen the film. Their outrage is based on knowledge of the 2014 novel of the same name, written by lesbian graphic novelist Ariel Schrag, who also penned the screenplay. The book received its share of criticism as well, and Schrag incorporated the community feedback into her rewrites of the film. Those changes include the removal of a controversial sex scene that was deemed ambiguous on questions of consent, and the enhancement of a friendship between Adam (Nicholas Alexander) and a trans-masculine character named Ethan (Leo Sheng).

As a trans-masculine identified person, I devoured the book of “Adam” when it first came out. Schrag is an incredibly engaging and accessible writer, and the book is hilarious, extremely queer, and ripe with some pretty hot sex scenes. At that point in my own embracing of my trans identity, it felt revelatory to be inside the mind of a cis boy character who actively desired to pass as trans. In imagining what it might be like to medically transition (I present as non-binary), I spent my childhood yearning to be cis, aided and abetted by the proliferation of cis narratives in movies and on TV. In Adam, I had found a character to imprint upon who looked like all the cis characters to whom I related, but he was hanging out with all the cool queer kids in Bushwick.

“He’s emulating a version of the trans experience that some people have had in which, I can just speak for myself, but growing up a trans person, I tried for in the past in my much younger life, to emulate a cis existence,” Ernst told me over the phone. “And I think that’s not terribly uncommon, because we live in a completely cis-dominant culture and so much of the trans experience is growing up without examples of trans-ness and then being taught to emulate cis-ness. The movie flips those rules upside down and makes trans-ness an identity that this insecure boy actually finds appealing, in a misguided way of course.”

Rhys ErnstWynne Neilley

Rather than viewing this flip as a radically subversive queering of the canon, the film’s detractors argue that “Adam” is just another example of the trans deception trope. Ernst can rattle off such examples in his sleep, noting narratives from “Tootsie” to “Just One of the Guys” to “Twelfth Night” to “Victor/Victoria,” even “Mrs. Doubtire.”

“There’s so many examples, but they all are predicated on the power dynamic of cisgender straight people being the majority. Then somebody crosses to the other side, and there’s a little bit of a prurient gaze that as the majority we’re all watching this gender flip. It also reinforces this idea that trans people who transgress gender lines are deceiving people. That’s the danger of how the trans deception trope has functioned throughout history.”

“Making the cisgender straight guy the outsider in this story felt very radical to me,” he added. “While functioning on one hand as a crossover comedy that can appeal to a broad audience, because it’s playing with this familiar structure, the story is at the same time quite radical and transgressive in how it’s flipping the power dynamic and questioning how we look at the trans deception trope.”

Ernst noted a favorite scene in which Adam, early in his budding bromance with Ethan, stares sidelong at Ethan’s chest when he takes his shirt off, trying to figure out if Ethan is trans.

“We’re looking at Adam doing that, so if I’m getting very meta, there’s like a trans lens looking at a cis person’s gaze on a trans person,” he said. “There’s a very critical lens on the cis gaze and the cis gaze is being performed for the audience in a very self aware way.”

Of course, the entire movie is quite literally a trans lens on a cis gaze. From his place behind the camera’s lens — a place very few trans people have historically sat — Ernst is guiding the audience’s perspective the entire time. His sensitive and singular perspective, and the immense care with which he shaped his debut film, seems to have been entirely discounted by the film’s critics. It’s still extremely rare for any trans filmmaker to get a feature made in Hollywood, and Ernst’s work deserves support. Not to mention the trans and queer talent — both on camera and below the line — that got their first major credits in “Adam.”

What’s more, the idea that a film is an endorsement of the behavior onscreen is not only naive — but an extremely boring way to interpret art.

“There’s an expectation that if a queer or trans filmmaker makes something that therefore it’s an endorsement of behavior or it’s a morality tale,” Ernst said. “I look at everything else I watch from any direction, everything from ‘Game of Thrones’ to even ‘Batman’ or ‘Big Little Lies’ — these are not endorsements of ways of behaving, so I’m not sure why that expectation is put on queer and trans filmmakers, or this particular movie. Storytelling is so much about putting characters in compromising situations, and letting them walk into morally ambiguous moments, and letting the audience wrestle with that.”

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