This weekend at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, I had the deep misfortune of going to see the world premiere of About Ray. In fairness, there were a lot of people who warned me against doing this — especially because director Gaby Dellal did an interview earlier this summer with Refinery29 in which she deliberately refused to call her protagonist by his desired pronouns. I knew this was going to be a tricky experience for me.
I did my best to go into the experience with an open mind. To focus on the story rather than the storyteller. It was a noble strategy that ultimately proved impossible. About Ray purports to be the story of an adolescent trans man who is trying to gain access to medical autonomy while living with his mother and lesbian grandmother. The TIFF website describes the film as “Witty, warm, and ultimately wise, About Ray courageously explores what it means to grow up knowing that the gender you were born into doesn't quite fit.”
In reality, this is not a film about transitioning so much as it’s about a put-upon single mother. Naomi Watts’ character Maggie struggles in trying to meet her son’s demand of refusing to start at a new school until he starts testosterone. This is balanced by the transphobic position of her mother Dodo (played by Susan Sarandon) who doesn’t understand why Ray (played by Elle Fanning) “can’t just be a lesbian."
For his part, the character of Ray is actually more characterized by his absence than his presence. In a ninety minute movie, Ray is only present approximately forty percent of the time. The rest of the film is filled with the cisgender people in his life putting their expectations and judgements upon him — why is he doing this, will he regret it, etc.
When we do see him, Ray is underdeveloped and overly emotional — at times he borders on hysterical. It would not be a stretch to say that there is nothing likeable about him. For a character who everyone constantly claims to love, he’s pretty damn unlovable. He’s stubborn, insensitive and volatile but most of all he’s portrayed as selfish. This is a trope that occurs again and again in films made by cisgender people about transgender experiences: that the trans person is selfish and that their gender transition is a burden to all around them. That it's harder to be around a gender transition than to actually go through it.
Cisgender characters in the film are more worried about how Ray’s transition will reflect on them than how his current body is impacting his life. Nothing encapsulates this better than when Ray throws a violent tantrum as his mother tries to restrain him. He doesn’t get what he wants so, like a small child that has a toy taken away, he implodes. Derisive and condescending, this is Gaby Dellal’s version of a transitioning teen. More of the film is spent voicing transphobic concerns than disproving them. In short, About Ray is another self-congratulatory film made for and by cis people about how great they are for allowing other people to exist.
The only thing more alarming than the film itself was the Q&A section that followed it. Dellal talked at length about how she wanted “to create a film about three generations of women." When I asked her how the trans community had responded, she replied that she “had shown it to three trans boys and they really liked it.”
This was the point where I can comfortably say: Gaby Dellal, go fuck yourself. Fuck your white cisgender privilege that allows you to feel as though you can explore an issue that you clearly know nothing about. Fuck you for capitalizing on the struggle of the most murdered minority in the United States. Fuck you for making a mockery of trans allies everywhere. Fuck you for taking up space and attention and fuck you for putting your voice where it has no value. You are stepping on the broken bodies of the Gwen Araujos, the Brandon Teenas, and the fifteen trans people who have been murdered in 2015 alone.
According to Planet Trans, a transgender person dies every 29 hours. Why is it that people like Dellal get to have a voice and they don’t? Why is that in her film and in her subsequent interview, Dellal only uses the worlds “man” or “woman," never referring to her protagonist as how he identifies — as trans? Why does she only use her language and exert her privilege in order to talk about an issue that does not apply to her?
Dellal has said in interviews that she believes “[She] did a good job in starting a conversation about the community.” Which is exactly the kind of ignorance that trans activists want nothing to do with. No, middle class white cisgender lady. You do not get to take credit for “starting a conversation” about an entire group of people that you do not identify with. You do not get to inject yourself into a civil rights movement that has been more than a century in the making and then take credit for it. This is not about you.
I would love to see the film that the TIFF website described: A film that is sensitive, funny and thoughtful, which explores the experience of a transgender teen who lives with his family. But let’s be clear: About Ray is not that film. I would have loved to see a film that was actually about RAY rather than about how hard it is to be around him. Who knows? Maybe that film will be at TIFF next year.
*** Since writing this review, About Ray’s release date has been pushed back at the last minute. I can only hope that The Weinstein Company has realized how offensive this film really is.
Evan Read Armstrong is an aspiring feminist filmmaker and critic based out of Ontario Canada. She is currently finishing her masters degree and writing a thesis on transgender cinema. Her twitter handle is @kickuparumpus.