Girl (2018) – A battleground of representation

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   1 Girl (2018)  –   A battleground of representation   2 Abstract In this article I am going to analyze the critical reception of the recent Belgian movie Girl.  I am going to present some of the articles written by critics who were voicing their opinions either in defense of the film or against it. I am trying to examine the debate within theoretical frameworks of media representation and contemporary art theory, using the works of authors such as Niklas Luhmann, Margaret Olin and Miwon Kwon. Ultimately, I am arguing that there is a conflict to be found here where artistic freedom is pitted against the self-image of an identity group, and this raises theoretical and critical dilemmas that are hard to dissolve. Keywords: visual representation, transgender representation, legitimacy, media theory, gaze   3 1 Firestorm over depiction In the following article I am going to analyze the Belgian film Girl (2018), a movie telling the story of an adolescent transgender girl going through her transition process while attempting to  become a successful ballerina. Lukas Dhont, the young director coining the movie also attempts to capture some of the hardships her main character Lara experiences, such as the strongly  physical nature of gender dysphoria ( the feeling of having a body not representing one’s internal image of self, often leading to severe mental health issues) ,  and the sometimes curious or supportive, sometimes outright hostile reactions her peers have upon her condition. Lara moves into a new city at the beginning of the story alongside her young brother and quite supportive, taxi-driver father to start her journey towards becoming a dancer. In the meantime, she also starts hormone replacement therapy, a therapy that helps transgender  1  people to become more  physically alike to the biological sex they see themselves as. The movie adopts a rather documentary style, trying to capture the many layers of conflict Lara and her family have to face. She tries to simultaneously express her identity, where the ballet certainly supposed to help, while also has to deal with society’s strange curiosity and distrust. It has to be noted however that Lara comes from a highly tolerant middle-class environment and her only living  parent is sympathetic  –   the conflict with him could be seen as a conflict surrounding the lack of tools to communicate, a problem I believe typical in relation to adolescent people and their families. She also gets support from the healthcare system, although not necessarily the right support all the time, and manages to start hormone replacement therapy in her teen years  –   something that is hardly given since there are only a few countries, even in the west, that allow such a thing.   In this article I do not wish to concentrate on the finer details of the movie, however. Dhont’s work was highly acclaimed, particularly in Cannes, but it did not gain its fame or notoriety due to its artistic qualities. It became a hotly debated topic because of its problem, the story of an adolescent transgender girl, and its way of representation. While praised and defended by many, it was also strongly debated, particularly in the United States, with critics focusing on the  predominantly physical nature of the depiction of Lara and her transition as well as on the controversial final act, the scene of self-mutilation (image 1). In his ominous article, the 1  To my knowledge there is no clear consensus on the meaning of each category describing different forms of transgender, but in line with the sources I used, I will refer to the condition of Lara as transgender  –   and I will not make a mistake with that. Transgender is an umbrella term describing many forms of gender-questioning identities, while transsexual is the term describing the specific form of transgender most well-known to the public, involving physical transition from the assigned biological sex to the one the person identifies with.   4 American movie critic Oliver Whitney called the Girl “the most dangerou s movie about a trans character in years” 2 . He criticizes the focus of both the director and the camera, fixed on the  bodily aspects of transition as well as on Lara’s crotch and chest. He emphasizes that nude scenes have more screen time than dialogues in Girl  . He points out that much of the conflict is  based on the physical difference between Lara’s body and her  peers and argues that it is somewhat false given that teenagers on testosterone blockers do not look like androgynous  boys, but rather like girls. He also criticizes the negative depiction of hormone replacement therapy that seem to cause more issues than good due to the slow process. The transgender critic Cathy Brennan goes further than Whitney, and reports that she felt alienated while watching the movie and realized that the film intended to turn the bodies of those like her into a spectacle 3 . She points at the enigmatic scene where curiosity and transphobia correlate (image 2), when Lara’s classmates force her to show her penis to them and argues that the attitude of the other  ballet dancers could represent the attitude of both the director and the “camera” thro ughout the entire movie as well. She emphasizes that the images revealing the penis and the chest are as voyeuristic as those teens themselves. Furthermore, she could empathize with the character very well  –   as a victim. Both critics, as well as many others lashed out at the final scene, the image where Lara cuts her penis with scissors, arguing that it is problematic since it tries to show the act as a final solution to gender dysphoria, especially considering that it is followed by an ending showing Lara as finally happy and confident. The reception was not universally negative however, many journalists and the director himself attempted to defend the film from the critiques. Cath Clarke of Guardian, after her interview with the director, attempts to emphasize the positive aspects of the movie 4 . She cites the director and points at the fact that while the movie was indeed quite physically oriented, it was a personal story based on the real-world dancer Nora Monsecour who approved the imagery of the film. The art of ballet is quite physical in nature, and thus the fact that movie focuses on the tangible  parts of transition seems a logical consequence. Both Clarke, and according to her interview, Lukas Dhont treats the movie as a personal story with no intention to represent the entirety of the transgender and transsexual community. Yet Dhont expresses that he nonetheless wishes to advance the cause of trans acceptance and visibility but points out that there is no essence  to be depicted in this regard, all he can do is to show one account, one angle. Ann Thomas, another 2  Whitney 2018 3  Brennan 2018 4  Clarke 2018   5 transgender journalist also draws a positive picture of Girl  5 .She points out that the reason why the main character was a cisgender male might not have been an overlook by the director, but a deliberate choice since on one hand, trans actors and actresses are hard to find, on the other, the adolescent period of a transgender person is particularly difficult as the potential actor might want to forget their own body at a later stage. She calls the nude and partial nude scenes “ artistically well-done ” and  explains that her American peers might have a too conservative approach towards nudity. She calls the final scene of self- harm “disturbing indeed”, yet emphasizes it as a metaphor of gender dysphoria, a feeling with undoubtedly strong physical connotations. In this regard, I believe Girl   manages to capture the more tangible parts of transitioning and the struggle to solidify the image trans people have about themselves, yet despite being transgender myself, I could not fully emphasize with the character on screen. I would delve into that later, however first I would address the somewhat disorienting firestorm of criticism surrounding the movie. I would argue that the journalists, critics and the director himself all have valid points, yet fail to communicate to each other efficiently or problematize the reason why this movie gained such notoriety on a theoretical level. Dhont and his supporters point at the uniqueness of the story and the validity of it as an artistic vision, although the director contradicts himself  by stating that he wishes to advance the cause of trans visibility by this personal representation of the problem at hand 6 . His critics might consider the depictions of Lara’s body or her violence against herself too vulgar, but their real focal point is on the potential harm the film might do to the cause of trans visibility or transgender people. The extent to which this fear of harm goes could be illustrated by the warning the American distributor Netflix attached to the movie, stating that “ Genital mutilation, hormone overdose, and acting against trans-competent medical advice are life-threatening behaviors likely to make gender-affirming surgeries impossible. Safe options and transgender resources exist if you or a loved one wish to medically transition. If you are considering self- harm or suicide, support is available. You are not alone” 7 . The ominous warning is problematic on many levels, but nonetheless shows how seriously the concerns of certain journalists were taken. Furthermore, Kathy Brennan emphasizes that she could not remove herself from the images seen on screen and considered the excessive nudity 5  Thomas, 2018 6  Clarke 2018 7  Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/netflix-girl-resource-website-1.5058101
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