“Girl” sounds like a film that transgender moviegoers might rally around. It depicts a teenage trans girl, Lara, raised by a single father who supports not only her dreams of becoming a ballerina but also her gender confirmation surgery. It’s set in Belgium, so much of Lara’s health care is paid for and her doctor and therapist are encouraging caregivers. And it’s a prize winner that is up for a best foreign-language Golden Globe on Sunday.
Yet “Girl,” which has been picked up by Netflix, faces a firestorm, one that pits the director, Lukas Dhont; the trans woman who inspired it, the dancer Nora Monsecour; and the film’s supporters against trans activists and others who consider its scrutiny of a trans character’s body so dangerous that they urge no one to see it. Stuck somewhere in the heated debate are those who say that shunning “Girl” risks turning off cisgender viewers who might benefit from seeing a young trans character who’s as likable as she is complicated. (Cisgender is a term describing someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.)
Not long ago, when trans people showed up in movies, if at all, they were victims or predators. As advocates demanded increased visibility, shows like “Pose” made waves with more truthful depictions written and portrayed by trans performers. Problems persist, for sure. But the days seem to be gone when a movie like “Dressed to Kill” assumed trans women were psychos in skirts.
“Girl” asks a provocative question: Have we gotten to a place where a film can explore dark aspects of an individual trans character without feeling regressive? No one should have the burden of representing a class of people in a film; real people are complicated. But what happens when a movie is both art and a trigger?
That’s the question behind the two main criticisms of “Girl.” One is that neither Dhont nor his co-writer, Angelo Tissens, nor the young actor who plays Lara, Victor Polster, are transgender. (Dhont said he auditioned more than 500 performers, including trans actors.) Adding salt to the wound, Polster won an acting award at the Cannes Film Festival.
The other objection, the one that has prompted foes to label the film “traumatizing” and “sickening,” involves scenes near the end.
(Spoiler alert: Stop reading here if you don’t want to know more about the film.)
In a single long take, Lara calls paramedics, picks up scissors and cuts off her penis. Her back is to the camera, so viewers hear her screams but see neither the act nor blood. She recovers from her injury, and the final shot is of her smiling face. But there had been no obvious cues that Lara would harm herself, and it’s unclear why she takes this horrific step other than the fact that her gender confirmation surgery has been postponed and, like many teenagers, she’s impatient and impulsive.
The outrage has played out ferociously online. The film critic Oliver Whitney wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that “Girl” is the “most dangerous movie about a trans character in years.” Whitney, who identifies as trans masculine, told me that seeing a trans girl mutilating herself suggests “it’s part of her survival, and that’s harmful.” He said he was most upset that the film “sends a damaging message to all audiences, but especially to trans folks suffering from dysphoria who may not have access to medical care or information about medical transitions.”
Some opponents are framing “Girl” as a matter of life or death. Nick Adams, the director of transgender media at Glaad, a media advocacy group for L.G.B.T. people, warned that the scissors scene “might provoke a young person to harm themselves beyond repair or even end their life.”
The concerns are heightened by the fact that the film is likely to reach a wide audience via Netflix. The movie was set to stream beginning Jan. 18 but has been moved, probably to the spring, according to Netflix, which declined to comment further.
When I spoke with Monsecour, she sounded tired of having to defend the film. “I know what the truth is, and ‘Girl’ is my truth,” she said.
She also said the reactions surprised her. “The words people have used to describe ‘Girl’ came close to my heart because the scenes they are criticizing are scenes that I had in mind during my transition,” she said. “To criticize Lukas for portraying those things made me think, am I the only person who had suicidal thoughts or was bodily focused?”
Dhont told me that the film comes from a place “of love and empathy for Nora,” and that he stands by it “100 percent.” He said he was happy the film “is part of a conversation,” and added, “I think of cinema as a medium that can present dark ideas or thoughts. We don’t hide away from them.”
Three trans women who saw the film at a screening in Los Angeles said it was the film’s dark territory that made it compelling. Crystal Stull told me “Girl” was “the closest that cis people in society will ever get to understanding just how bad dysphoria can really get.”
Jessica Hogan said: “Some films are made for trans people and some are made to help cis people understand.”
Ann Thomas, the founder of Transgender Talent, a talent listing service for trans people, chastised the campaign against it.
“The message these arrogant trans activists are saying is that Nora doesn’t have the right to tell her story,” said Thomas, who also defended “Girl” in an opinion piece for The Advocate.
One idea that foes and fans of the film might agree on is a content advisory card that tells viewers the R-rated film is for mature audiences. Netflix added a similar message to the TV series “13 Reasons Why” after it faced criticism from mental health professionals who said the show glorified suicide.
Netflix reached out to Trans Lifeline, which runs a suicide prevention hotline, and other organizations for suggestions about advisory language, but nothing has been finalized. Several trans people I spoke with urged Netflix to be specific about what they said were medical inaccuracies in “Girl.”
“We’re worried about harm reduction,” said Elena Rose Vera, the deputy executive director of Trans Lifeline, who has not seen the movie. “We just want to protect our community.”
Monsecour told me she hoped the trans community knew that “Girl” was a beginning, not an end.
“I have a platform to speak with ‘Girl,’” she said. “Without ‘Girl,’ I wouldn’t have that. There’s a lot of work to do, but I’m confident that more trans people will tell their stories.”