Content Warning: Mention of domestic abuse, gender dysphoria, suicide, and drug use.
The space between my self-discovery and “coming out” as trans is a kaleidoscopic mess of emotion. I obsess over patterns of behaviour and speech and presentation. It’s often difficult to parse what makes it all “real” and I know the movies will not have every answer I need. This is perfectly reasonable. What they do, however, is allow me to confront images that, by the concerted alchemy of the filmmaking process, evoke something close to a personal experience. “I saw myself in that” is a flicker of joy that I, and other trans people I know, cherish. And it can be found everywhere. Making a link between mine and a dream world is a form of psychic clarity. Tracing steps back to my younger self, I still feel bound to Michelle Rodriguez’s portrayal of Diana Guzman in Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight. But before we get anywhere, let’s describe the stink trailing this connection.
Back in 2016, following a horrific Instagram post, Rodriguez argued that she could not be criticised for playing a forcefully transitioned person in The Assignment because of her identity as a bisexual woman. “I’m you,” she typed out in her own defence despite receiving criticism from several trans people for whom the premise of the film alone was regressive and harmful. Truly, one would think she had a taste for her own foot on the Tomboy/(Re)Assignment/The Assignment press tour. I will hold my tongue on Walter Hill’s dubious misfire of a crime thriller for now, but it’s important to note Rodriguez’s allyship has been justly questioned and that she has thrown herself into a contrarian pit behind the scenes of her films since. So if the association is too troubling, I understand. But my piece rests on the lowered brow of the face in the header image. On the focused savagery that Rodriguez channels in a role that actually bothers to explore the parameters of her gender identity in an aggressively cis-male arena.
As a young person eager to lash out, I watched Girlfight and understood Diana’s temperament. I locked horns with my own father, whose abuse often made my mother ill. I bounced around haphazardly in spaces that read gender onto me, struggling to maintain appearances. I spiralled far enough down my own volatility to instigate fights. There wasn’t a shred of empowerment in any of it and was sad no matter the outcome. The only release I could find for the vague torment in my head was in a bottle or by self-medication. Diana squares her issues in the ring. I envied her relationship to the sport because I lacked an outlet for my own anger. When I started coming into my own as an adult, I found the language to put things into place. By then, the movies and my perception of reality were ready to be disentangled. Girlfight re-entered my life and I was drawn to the fluidity of Kusama’s vision. It is so grounded in Diana’s presence that even though the comparison was seldom one-to-one, watching her again was like tapping into a dormant volcano. And I engaged the film with a broader frame of reference that helped me understand the difficulty I was facing.
In “Corporeality and Embodiment in the Female Boxing Film,” Katharina Lindner analyses the transformative presence of women in boxing films. Stemming from the inception of the medium itself, the genre has engaged matters of potency, class, and race from a predominantly white male perspective. Lindner uses Sara Ahmed’s theories on queer phenomenology as a framework to study the spacial and temporal orientation of the leads in Million Dollar Baby and Die Boxerin; two women who epitomise the sport while challenging its notions of gender. What is observed is how the “masculinities” of boxing (forcefulness, assertiveness, destructiveness) shift from the symbolic to the transgressive. Women in boxing films, according to Lindner, do not initially occupy the same space as comfortably as the men do. A man performs masculinity in a theatre of his own peers, triumphantly compensating for losses in the ring whether he wins or loses. When there is a woman at the centre of a boxing film, audiences are not solely treated to an underdog story. A woman will take on the phenomenological and corporeal aspects of masculinity and upend the entire narrative.
According to Lindner, as the protagonist orients herself in a masculine role her journey encompasses a range of queer signifiers. Masculinity is untethered from cisgender representations of maleness. And the drama of a boxing film, which typically incorporates a romantic angle, can breathe a refreshing air of non-traditional gender dynamics in relationships. In Girlfight, this is present in the relationship between Diana and her love interest, Adrian – who conspicuously shares the same name as Talia Shire’s iconic character in the Rocky series. Diana becomes Adrian’s equal the harder she trains and their attraction to one another emerges independent of who “wears the pants in the relationship” so-to-speak. Diana is allowed to progress uncompromised. She readily occupies the space at her gym that was reserved for her less combative brother. Her hunger for the ring pushes her to fight undeterred by a crowd that loudly rejects her.
Diana’s final bout affirms her growth. She moves with the strength and speed of her cinematic male predecessors, keeping time with her fists while literally shaking the status quo by striking at us through the screen. Kusama is a filmmaker who is mindful of the women in her frame. And the rig cinematographer Patrick Cady utilises (which allows him to take hits) announces Diana’s physicality quite clearly. Other than being a woman in the ring, however, her racial and class identities are crucial to the formation of her character.
In “Sports of Spectatorship: Boxing Women of Color in Girlfight and Beyond,” Camila Fojas takes Diana’s physical orientation and analyses it via racial, patriarchal, and class contexts. According to Fojas, when non-white women are visible in boxing their presence is exociticised by a portion of an audience for whom women in the sport are still considered a sideshow attraction. Even in entertainment they are, at best, relegated to the stoic, brutish opponent (such as world champion Lucia Rijker’s character in Million Dollar Baby). By all accounts, Michelle Rodriguez – a punchy latina of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage – bombed her screen test. Producers pulled money because Kusama refused to back down on her decision to cast an unknown latina. In the end, it was Rodriguez’s power that garnered her the role. But her physicality isn’t what puts her over in the film. It’s the way she lowers her expression without shrinking herself. Her calculating scowl. Her contradicting bellicose suaveness. If you were ignorant you could read her as the heel who exists only to prop up a doe-eyed babyface. I saw in Rodriguez what I struggled to project for years without knowing. Watching her made me feel comfortable in my skin.
The specificity in Kusama’s vision is what makes Girlfight an authentic film. She follows through on several aspects of Diana’s life which are compounded silently on the way she interacts with those around her. Typically, the “mean” and “unapproachable” latinas are not afforded an interior as detailed as hers. It’s like that all across the board, especially at school. And Kusama takes an unflinching look at where this hurt comes from. As a working-class latina in a family setting dictated by patriarchal norms, Diana lives under a threat of violence from her father, Sandro (played by Paul Calderon). Her mother committed suicide as a result of it. We do not find this out until she finally confronts Sandro, but it is woven into the character’s being and visible in the way Rodriguez plays her. The seething anger manifests itself wherever Diana feels a loss of control, but as she develops as a character, her rage brings with it a momentary gain of stability. It is a shocking moment when she reciprocates the learned violence from her father back to him, but true to her being. I’ve been there. It gets silent for a while but you move on. Whether there is any peace in it or whether you can restore a broken relationship is beside the point. It’s a necessary and powerful statement.
Being out I know what I face. My safety is not a guarantee. And things are dire in the world for trans families, not just in sports. That’s why representation will remain fugazi without material investment in our lives. Nonetheless, what film/TV can do is undeniable. Although my media diet is made up of all kinds of different worlds, I square up with versions of myself regularly. What’s strange about relating to a fictional character is that, in this case, a lot of who Diana is exists in real life. Women in boxing saw a boom of coverage in the mid-to-late ‘90s and their stories continue to be told all over the world. Here in the US, two of the best documentaries about the subject, Katya Bankowsky’s Shadow Boxers and Jill Morley’s Fight Like A Girl, echo the struggle of showing up in a male-dominated sport to not only fight for your spot but maintain a clear picture of who you are. Identity is a major factor in why women fight. It’s something I latched onto despite my lack of a trained fighting background. Through Girlfight, I grasped a sense of being that doesn’t adhere to a strict presentation of gender one way or another. It allowed me the freedom of self-expression when I was the one holding me back.
Mediated representations of transness have flourished this last decade. I’m grateful for this if only because the generation coming up will not have to suffer the damaging impact of seeing caricatures of themselves written by outsiders projecting their own anxieties. Instead, a younger viewer can look around and see an open world of trans identities being dealt with care and complexity. In Pose, Black trans families in NYC have seen a reclamation of narrative and culture amidst crisis in the barbaric 1980s. The anxieties of a Filipine trans immigrant (directed by and starring the wonderful Isabel Sandoval) are front and centre in last year’s Lingua Franca. And the limited HBO Max series Veneno based on the life of Spanish singer and sex worker Cristina “La Veneno” Rodriguez is an aesthetic/emotional wrecking ball. I hold these works, along with others, in my heart because of what is possible for trans families moving forward in the realm of entertainment. We demand and deserve more here and everywhere.
by RC Jara
RC (she/they) mostly enjoys genre films but can write up anything with a patience for research and an active imagination. You can read more of their stuff on their blog here, hire them for coverage by reaching out here, and shoot the breeze with them on Twitter. Watch that social for developments on upcoming projects or if you’re open to having your head talked off!
Categories: Anything and Everything, Feminist Criticism, Films, Women Film-makers
Such a wonderfully detailed and enriching article. I wish you more strength in your journey as a writer and individual.
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