A Fantastic Woman shines spotlight on transphobic language


Sticks and stones will break bones, while words can be used to label and alienate, lash out and ostracize. Words are far from harmless. When it comes to the politics of identity, words mean everything. As self-identifiers, they allow a feeling of belonging and choice. As labels chosen by others, they can become malicious tools of exclusion and pain. In A Fantastic Woman, words play a significant role, as they are directed at Marina, a transgender woman grieving the loss of her partner.

Marina is played by Daniela Vega, a transgender actress and singer. After her partner, Orlando, dies in a hospital, Marina is approached by Orlando’s family with hatred, distrust, suspicion and malice. They warn her to stay away from the wake and funeral, keeping no secrets as to their distaste regarding Marina’s identity.

When Orlando’s ex-wife first encounters Marina, she says, “I can’t imagine Orlando being with you.” The family tries to ignore the fact that the two had been, indeed, together, while Marina tries to find a way she can grieve, haunted as she is by sudden appearances of her late lover.

Part of Marina’s troubles lie within documentation. According to Marina’s identification card, she is still Daniel, a Chilean male. She is told by a police officer, “Until this is changed, this is still your legal name.” Even for those not directly concerned with Marina’s legal papers, some still choose to “deadname” her — the use of a person’s birth name after they have changed their name — calling her “Daniel” in an effort to show opposition toward her current identity.

Words come in the form of homophobic slurs and transphobic language. Orlando’s family weaponizes words to lash out at Marina, while she is forced to put on the stoic face that Vega infuses well with an underlying anger. Her eyes and eyebrows hint at the determination of the character and her wish to be herself. For most of the movie, Marina suffers silently, allowing herself to be verbally abused to avoid even more trouble.

The lives of transgender people can be full of dealing with cruelty. Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy group, have shown a rise in violence against transgender people, and that is specifically physical, not including the verbal and nonverbal harm that can be inflicted.

Director Sebastaián Lelio observed after a screening at Lincoln Center that in one shot, a dog sits next to Marina, unconcerned as to her identity. However, he pointed out that his thought when first seeing the film at a festival was, “We cannot even be like dogs.” Lelio noted that on repeat viewings, he came to the conclusion, “We can be just like dogs.” He considered if it is possible for transgender people to be treated with some form of respect.

Marina does not ask to be accepted. She just asks to be a human being. She wants to be treated with the dignity that allows humans to grieve for their loved ones and avoid the demeaning treatment she continuously receives.

In one scene, where a doctor photographs the nude Marina in order to check for injuries, a single glance from a detective exemplifies the dehumanizing attitude addressed toward transgender people.

There are hints toward the fantasy of the film’s title. Music carries with it notes of wonder. Lights from emergency ambulances look nearly identical to the lights in a club scene. Orlando silently appears in mirrors and shadows, haunting the waking world. All of these are hints in a manner that deepens, rather than distracts from, the world of A Fantastic Woman.

One of Lelio’s points about his choice of subject is in the fact that a character like Marina might be a secondary character in another movie, yet here, she is the protagonist. It is good that she takes the lead here, as Vega’s performance drives the film. Her stoicism can be painful to watch, and her anger is palpable. She lashes out at punching bags and at stopped cars.

As a woman already standing out in the world, Marina knows she cannot act out in a way that would focus further attention on her. Negative judgements would be amplified by the distance she has with transphobic people, so her anger comes out in powerful bursts instead.

In part, A Fantastic Woman deals with the imposition of identity. Marina seems to wish to be a person, unburdened by the label of transgender and the expectations that come with that. Her passion is for singing, yet she withholds her voice when confronted by vicious family members of her late beloved.

Instead, she is defined straightaway by appearance as out-of-place or abnormal. Freedom of identity is important, but so is the freedom to identify one’s own identity, without having one imposed.

At one point, while Marina drives, a song plays with the words, “You make me feel like a natural woman.” This song is about Orlando and all the other people who treat transgender women with respect. A Fantastic Woman emphasizes that transgender people are humans too, with real stories to tell. The grief is genuine, and the pain of not being able to properly let it out is meaningful.

Words hurt, especially when they are backed by hateful ideologies. It is not an opinion that the character of Marina is a human being. Much of the film is focused on her struggle to find human decency. Orlando’s family chooses to dehumanize her with their words, doing more damage than sticks and stones would.