Transkids. Directed by Hilla Medalia. Tel Aviv: Docs for Education, 2019. 70 minutes.
Girl Inside. Directed by Maya Gallus. New York: Women Make Movies, 2007. 70 minutes.
The feminist classroom should be trans-inclusive. The two films reviewed here might assist in those endeavors, albeit with some limitations.
Transkids is a documentary that follows four Israeli teenagers, including three transgender boys (Noam, Ofri, and Liron) and one transgender girl (Romy). The film is in Hebrew with English subtitles. For resources on LGBTQ+ issues outside the US context, it could be a useful tool. For students not familiar with Israeli society, however, additional information should be provided, as the film offers little background on the families it focuses on or the wider cultural context in which they are embedded. Research into Jewish settlements, for example, the Israeli military (IDF), and/or LGBT-related laws in Israel could be an important activity for students before viewing.
The film’s key strength is the eloquent, unapologetic testimonials from the kids themselves about how they came to understand their gender identities. While many trans advocates argue the focus should be on trans youth’s voices alone—this is their journey to articulate, no one else’s—the parents prove key agents of these transitions, too, and are an important perspective to hear, however intolerant or misinformed. Indeed, much of the film entails complicated, and at times cringe-worthy, conversations between the teens and their parents and other adult caregivers. Instructors would be wise to warn students that these scenes can be challenging to watch. For example, on several occasions, Ofri’s grandmother interrogates his identity and medical decisions, at one point insinuating that his suicidal thoughts while living as an assigned female were not “courageous” of him. His mother, meanwhile, does little to intervene, even when the grandmother tries to derail a meeting with Ofri’s surgeon. In other moments, however, the parents are instrumental, such as meeting with the kids’ physicians and arranging medical care, handling name-change documents, and more. As such, the film offers a frank portrayal of the affirming but sometimes problematic role that adults can play in these processes.
The latter half of the film is dominated by the youths’ deliberations about joining the Israeli army, an inevitable reference in this context. This raises the “pinkwashing” issue for instructors, a term that refers to states or other entities who promote LGBTQ+ rights to seem progressive and “gay-friendly” while obscuring other aspects of their operations that are violent or undemocratic (Schulman 2011). Here, this would refer to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and related racial, religious, and geopolitical tensions in the Middle East. Hints of these tensions surface in the film. In one scene, for example, a feature story on Romy in a local newspaper describes her estranged father’s side of the family as “backwards Moroccans” (83:17). Later, Romy’s mother asserts it would be wrong if Romy did not serve the Zionist mission of Israel and join the IDF. Instructors might consider assigning Sarah Schulman’s 2011 op-ed on the issue for class discussion, along with counterpoints (e.g., Kirchik 2011).
Girl Inside offers a similarly candid portrait of transgender identification and transitioning, this time about 26-year-old Madison, a transgender woman in Canada. Like Transkids, the film includes family members and their intermittent problematic commentary. Madison’s 80-year-old grandmother, Vivien, is seen as Madison’s primary supporter, but she often voices conservative views on gender and sexuality, especially during her efforts to socialize Madison to stereotypical womanhood and its trappings: at one point she argues that Madison’s walk is too manly. Here, the film would be decent fodder for students to review classic feminist concepts, such as the social construction of gender (Lorber 1994), “doing gender” (West and Zimmerman 1987), or gender performativity (Butler 1988). As Madison says, even though she knows herself to be female, she still feels she needs to learn how to be normatively feminine, like everyone else.
Nevertheless, many college students today would likely find the film dated and a risky choice for raising transgender awareness. Much of Madison’s experience, including her relationship with her boyfriend, seems to hinge on “the surgery.” While honoring every trans person’s story is important, the film risks perpetuating an outmoded focus on genitalia. Trans people often lead satisfying, healthy sexual lives without “bottom surgery,” and their partners are equally comfortable with their natal anatomy (Tobin 2019). This is not to shame Madison’s sense of embodiment, but instructors should consider more varied portraits of trans experience, including nonbinary and genderqueer perspectives, as well as those less focused on physical transition. Indeed, the film raises questions about the voyeurism trans persons often suffer by cis onlookers, who are permitted undue access to private medical concerns. This manifests in one scene depicting graphic footage of Madison’s tracheal shaving (similar surgical shots appear in Transkids). Should instructors choose this film, I recommend they discuss this aspect with students. Austin Johnson’s 2016 article on “transnormativity,” a concept referring to the limited, binary, and medicalizing profile of trans people perpetuated in documentary filmmaking, would be an especially important pairing. Instructors might additionally include interview clips with prominent nonbinary figures, such as Jacob Tobia or Alok Vaid-Menon (“Alok Vaid-Menon” 2015).
Overall, both films showcase trans people narrating their own lives and stories, which is important for students to witness. However, they offer a relatively limited view of the proliferating prism of trans and nonbinary experiences, which today’s college students are keen to explore.
“Alok Vaid-Menon Exists Outside of Your Heteronormative Gender Binary.” 2015. YouTube video, 14:48. Posted by StyleLikeU, June 22.
Butler, Judith. 1988. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (December): 519-31.
Johnson, Austin H. 2016. “Transnormativity: A New Concept and Its Validation through Documentary Film about Transgender Men.” Sociological Inquiry 86, no. 4 (November): 46-91.
Kirchick, James. 2011. "Pink Eye." Tablet, November 29.
Lorber, Judith. 1994. “‘Night to His Day’: The Social Construction of Gender.” In Paradoxes of Gender, 13-36. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Schulman, Sarah. 2011. “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing.’” New York Times, November 22.
Tobin, Harper Jean. 2019. “The Perils and Pleasures of Sex for Trans People.” In Sex Matters: The Sexuality and Society Reader, 4th ed., edited by Mindy Stombler, Dawn M. Bunach, Wendy Simonds, Elroi J. Windsor, and Elisabeth O. Burgess, 25-31. New York: Norton.
West, Candace, and Don H. Zimmerman. 1987. “Doing Gender.” Gender & Society 1, no. 2 (June): 125-51.