The great Feminist writer, Simone de Beauvoir, famously stated in her landmark book, The Second Sex, “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” I was reminded of this radical statement while viewing A Fantastic Woman. One of the most compelling films of 2017, A Fantastic Woman, does exactly what cinema should — challenge the audience. In this case, the film challenged my preconceived views of gender, prompting me to ask myself what does it actually mean to be a woman? What are the qualities, the attributes that make us such?
A Fantastic Woman tells the story of Marina, a young trans woman, coping with the aftermath of the death of her partner. From the time of his death, Marina is viewed with suspicion and derision and denied the right to grieve for his sudden passing. At the hospital, where her lover Orlando dies, her recounting of his sudden illness and subsequent injuries are met with skepticism. Marina soon finds herself under investigation by local law enforcement (as personified by a female detective). In one of the most affecting scenes in the film, Marina is forced to subject herself to a physical examination as part of the investigation for which she is unjustly the target. The female detective refuses to leave the room and Marina must endure the humiliation of exposing her naked body in her presence. To add insult to injury, the people she encounters refuse to call her by her chosen female name of Marina telling her it’s not really her name because it has not yet been legally changed.
Marina also faces prejudice on a more personal level as she’s treated with derision, hostility and eventually violence from Orlando’s family. Her relationship with Orlando is treated as a perversion, and she’s ordered to surrender his car to his ex-wife. Shortly thereafter, his son orders her out of the apartment she and Orlando shared together. The family bars her from attending his funeral, and when she attempts to do so, she is forcibly removed. Orlando’s son and his thug friends accost her on the street and violently attack her. It’s wrenching to watch Marina navigate a society that views her with contempt and cruelty, but watching the film unfold it is clear that she is not the one with the identity crisis.
After viewing this film, I found myself reflecting on the question of what exactly makes us women. Most of my life, I assumed it had something to do with our physical attributes. Is it our physical ability to become pregnant and give life? If a woman has a physical condition that prevents her from getting pregnant or carrying a term to child, we don’t then look at her has being less female, so that is not necessarily indicative of being a woman. Is it our menstrual cycle that makes us women? That also does not explain being female because when we reach a certain age and are no longer subject to that, we don’t become any less female. It does not have to do with physical attributes since women come in all shapes and sizes and many women do not necessarily look feminine in the traditional sense. If Simone de Beauvoir, always ahead of her time, is correct that we become women, this pronouncement would aptly apply to Marina and trans women everywhere.
Trans men and women challenge us with our preconceived notions and beliefs of what constitutes gender and how, culturally, we come to identify with our sex. It is a process we all experience in a different way, and this reality doesn’t render any of us as lesser men or women. Given this complicated reality, what gives any of us the right to look at transgender individuals as confused or as less than other men or women? Marina is subjected to vicious treatment simply because she has embraced her gender in a manner distinct from most people’s experiences. A Fantastic Woman makes clear that transgender individuals are fully fleshed out, realized human beings and deserve to be accorded the respect due any person. Marina is a talented, artistic, complex character trying to make her way in the world — no different from any woman I know. It is up to the rest of us to allow her to do so.
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