(THIS PIECE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR A FANTASTIC WOMAN)
Sebastián Lelio's A Fantastic Woman is a beautifully constructed film that owes much of its success to lead actress Daniela Vega’s complex and loving performance.
In a review for Nashville Scene, however, Willow Maclay argues that the film is primarily focused on the impact of transphobia, rather than creating a compelling lead character in her own right. It raises the issue of the need for more and varied trans narratives, so a film like A Fantastic Woman can be judged for its creative choices and not its capacity to distil all trans stories into one neat narrative.
But it's Maclay’s description of the film's use of mirrors as "designed to perhaps unlock some sort of mystery within the transgender gaze" that stood out to me. I wondered what she meant by this. To me, these mirrors seem intended to reflect society's distortions of our self-image. Perhaps that was Maclay's point, offhand or otherwise. I wondered, then, what this transgender gaze looks like.
The concept is not a new one. In their 2005 book, In a Queer Time and Place, J. Jack Halberstam writes about the 'transgender look' and it's usage in Boys Don't Cry. Halberstam defines the transgender look as "a look divided within itself, a point of view that comes from two places (at least) at the same time". In this regard, the mirror seems the perfect device for presenting the transgender experience, albeit a very literal one.
To understand the transgender gaze, it's necessary to understand the cisgender gaze – a perspective dependent on the separation of 'us' and 'them'. There's always an ingroup and outgroup, clearly divided – a Disney hero and villain, irreconcilable in their differences. It lends itself to fear over understanding, bigotry over tolerance. The cis gaze contends that whoever 'we' are, we're the ones looking at the world. We're the ones who laugh at, fear, pity, or forgive. ‘They’ are the ones to be laughed at, feared, pitied, or forgiven.
At its most dangerous, the cis gaze is straight, white, non-disabled, and male. It's heteronormative, supremacist, inaccessible, and misogynistic. It's the dominant gaze. It asserts an entitlement to look. The dominant gaze gives us tragedy porn, poverty porn, inspiration porn – a means of defining oneself in contrast with the suffering of the 'other', and finding cynical pleasure in doing so.
It's how speculative fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, a notorious racist, gave voice to his fears in the form of body horror. Lovecraft obsessed over stories of the self pervaded by the 'other', where the self is finite, isolated, until it horrifically merges with 'them'. It's how H. G. Wells' science-fiction imagines the horror of an inverted colonialism, in which humans (as a stand in for white people) suffer the very colonisation they've historically wrought. Instead of allowing us to empathise with the stories of marginalised people, we must relate by integrating the dominant group into the narrative. The characters remain comfortably familiar, and the audience carries on without confronting the humanity of people who are different to them. Invariably, the dominant gaze frames the story for a straight, white, non-disabled, cis audience, as in the recent Love, Simon.
The trans gaze, then, is a disposal of 'us' and 'them'. It uses multiple perspectives at once to break away from the singular vision of the cis gaze and ask questions of itself. Here, A Fantastic Woman uses its mirror motif to show us Marina as she sees herself, and Marina as filtered through the lens of society. We see what Marina sees, and only through her eyes do we see how others view her. Even as Marina has her power stripped away time and again, Lelio employs the transgender gaze to give Marina the power of perspective. We see the story as she does, and in doing so we prioritise her perspective, regardless of the power dynamic in any given scene. When the doctor asks Marina to undress – a targeted violation of her privacy – the audience does not see what the doctor sees. In this way, Marina maintains some small power in an otherwise powerless position.
Perhaps the best use of the trans gaze comes when Marina visits the local sauna of her deceased partner, Orlando, to use his locker key. I waited for an all-too-familiar scene in which Marina must pretend to be a man to achieve her goal, treating the transgender experience as a game of dress ups and deception. But as Marina enters the reception, she asks for admission to the women's sauna and proceeds down the stairs to the women's changing room. She enters the women's sauna with her towel wrapped around her chest, and we see other women with their towels wrapped in the same way. By the time Marina ducks through a service corridor, rewraps her towel at her waist, and enters the men's sauna, there is no doubt of her nudity as she stands topless amongst countless naked men. Her vulnerability is visceral, and the failure of the men around her to notice anything is attributed to their own ignorance rather than her 'deceiving' them.
Where A Fantastic Woman unpacks the various readings of the word 'fantastic' when applied to Marina, however, it only offers us glimpses of the fantastic world she could inhabit. In the film’s final scenes, the mirror is once again employed to offer a quiet moment of self-reflection. As Marina sits naked in her home, we see her once more as she sees herself. Vulnerable, beautiful, at ease. In the following scene, we see Marina singing on stage, in control of her instrument, her body. Marina’s soaring vocals expand to fill the concert hall, and her world opens up before her.
Through the use of the transgender gaze, empathy transports me to Marina's side, as I feel her discomfort and disconnect from her environment. It transports me to her side, as I feel her triumph and connection to her body and all it can achieve. And at once the world appears troubling and fantastic.