So, I wrote an opinion piece for The Independent on the subject of Benedict Cumberbatch’s transphobic character seen in the trailer for Zoolander 2, and it was edited in such a way as to make me look considerably more liberal and much less decisively anti comparisons to “blackface” – I requested changes to these edits, and to the headline, but so far no joy. Here is my original piece.
Even as a transgender student of film, being asked to comment on ten seconds of a film trailer, no matter how offensive members of one’s community are finding it, is a bemusing task. As far as I can recall, the only reason I watched the stupid thing in the first place was on account of the complaints about Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, “All,” a transgender supermodel, who is asked, in particularly juvenile fashion, about the state of their genitalia.
Housekeeping: Cumberbatch’s performance is not the “modern equivalent of blackface.” To have a “modern equivalent” of anything requires the original comparative to be no longer extant and, aptly enough, the fashion industry bears witness on a regular basis to blackface being alive and well in the 21st century. A person of colour’s experience of racial oppression is not an academic reference point for white people’s experience of oppression. Last Friday, I read out the names of the 271 trans people reported to have been murdered in the past year, and the overwhelming majority were of colour. Experience of transphobia is often highly intersectional with experience of racism and I struggle to put my name to any campaign that conflates the two, as this boycott call has done. For want of a better term, the character All is “transface,” and that should be enough. I have no more disdain for what I’ve seen of Cumberbatch’s “transface” than I have for Leto’s or Redmayne’s. The latter performances were done to give cis actors Oscars, the former is done to give cis audiences yuks. I’m in favour of neither, and do bristle at any and all objectification of trans lives and bodies for cisgender purposes. It is undoubtedly an inherently transphobic tradition to render us solely figures of either comedy or tragedy for cisgender depiction and cisgender paycheques.
Honestly, from what little of All can be seen, as far as “comedy trannies” the depiction is an interesting one. There have been no apparent efforts to make All overtly masculine: no stubble, no bulges, no stumbling in heels. By making All seemingly non-binary (“All is all”), the filmmakers have given themselves, one might suggest, cynical wriggle-room to present a transgender character whose identity is simultaneously obscure and open to interpretation enough to be gendered or misgendered however the spectator sees fit. No doubt the response from those involved in Zoolander 2’s production will be that Stiller’s titular protagonist, and Wilson’s Hansel are renowned for their stupidity, thus their intrusive, crass line of questioning is indicative not of the team’s transphobia, but the opposite: they’re showing up Zoolander. I’m not unused to being treated like an idiot, so I can only be so offended by having that old chestnut thrown my way, once again. One cannot help but feel if the team were so invested in making any sort of point about transphobia (even one so banal as “don’t do it, kids”), they would have felt confident in hiring a transgender actor or model for the role – Andreja Pejić, perhaps– and writing Cumberbatch another part.
The biggest disappointment I felt was seeing Justin Theroux’s writer’s credit. It’s a shame to think that, whilst Louis was busy making a frankly pretty watchable documentary about transgender children, his cousin was busy writing outdated, unfunny “[insert trans character and reference their anatomy here]” jokes for cisgender posh boy actors to bore us playing in an unnecessary sequel for which few were clamouring. To be sure, the character of All is pretty grim but, more than anything else, it is a strong indicator of how the rest of the film is likely to go. I remember the Sin City sequel, nine long years after the distinctly okay original, and seeing it as a signifier of nothing other than the further deterioration of Frank Miller’s status as a writer and human being. Here comes Zoolander 2, a cool fourteen years after the first, trailer replete with Justin Bieber cameos, recycled transphobic material, and constant references to the jokes of the original (always a worrying indicator they have no confidence in the jokes of the sequel), my response to the call of a boycott is: wait, you were going to see it before?