Sean Baker’s Sundance hit Tangerine was shot on iPhones, and it looks like it. Its colors are nauseatingly saturated and its angles are often strange and unflattering. It stars non-professional actors and it shows. Leads Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (she plays Sin-Dee) and Mya Taylor (Alexandra) recite their lines in a stilted manner, frequently pausing too long between cues to seem natural. Its primary plot is so simplistic it’s insulting: Sin-Dee searches for and then abducts Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), the biological woman (“real fish”) with whom Sin-Dee’s pimp/fiance Chester (James Ransone) had sex while Sin-Dee was in jail.
Tangerine is also one of the most acclaimed movies of the year. It currently has a 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and its overwhelmingly positive reviews tend to be gushing raves. “One of the most important American films of the year,” reads part of the headline for Andrew O’Hehir’s review on Salon. “A reinvigorating reminder of what indie filmmaking can—and should—do,” writes Time Out’s David Ehrlich. “Tangerine Is Amazing—But Not Because of How They Shot It,” Wired assures us.
These reviews make me feel like I’m from another planet. I disliked this movie for many of the reasons that people seem to enjoy it—the aforementioned cinematography, acting, and story, as well as its sense of humor, which I found rarely funny (“You didn’t have to Chris Brown the bitch,” is how Alexandra evaluates Sin-Dee’s treatment of Dinah). But what I really hated was Tangerine’s portrayal of black transgender sex workers, perhaps the element of the movie that critics are responding to most jizzingly.
I didn’t know the extent of their identities beforehand, but it didn’t surprise me at all to discover that Sean Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch are straight, white, cisgender men. Of course the trans women they dreamed up are prostitutes. They supposedly did so with help from Rodriguez and Taylor, as well as the transgender prostitutes they befriended along the way.
I wonder how much more typical and threadbare their characters would have been without outside input. They rely so heavily on tropes as it is. In 2009 (six years ago!) trans actor/activist/author Calpernia Addams wrote a great analysis of trans stereotypes in media that still rings true. It includes:
The Four “P’s”: Unfortunately most filmmakers (certainly not all… but most) pull a cardboard sketch of transsexuality out of their store of ideas and use it to illustrate one of four basic types, the “Four P’s”:
Poor thing! aka the “Noble Victim”
At least three of these are represented in Tangerine—punchline is the only one that a case could be made against (Sin-Dee is a clown, but that’s not tied to her gender identity). That said, presence of black trans sex workers doesn’t have to be an issue itself—we live in a world that includes black trans sex workers. As fellow citizens of Earth, they deserve the compassion that cinema engenders. Their presence in the world should not be ignored, and furthermore their stories are probably more interesting than most people’s. Tangerine isn’t an interesting story; it’s a story about a raving lunatic who pulls a woman by her hair from one part of Los Angeles to another, ranting all along the way. We get virtually no sense of Sin-Dee’s interior life, and the sense we get of Alexandra’s is eye-rollingly trite (she wants to be a singer). We aren’t given so much as an indication of where these people sleep or what they think about when they aren’t exacting revenge or whoring. Between Sin-Dee’s explosiveness and Alexandra’s maudlin restraint, there are maybe enough layers between them to comprise one complicated character in a less flashy movie.
What’s depressing is that nonetheless, Tangerine is demonstrably progressive—trans critic Andreas Stoehr makes a good case for Tangerine’s importance based on its casting. Simply put, it is rare for trans actors to be cast as trans characters. That’s an important step. It’s also a baby step.
Positive Tangerine reviews tend to praise Baker for not being judgmental (“Baker casts a compassionate and nonjudgmental gaze on every one of his struggling, screwed-up characters, even when they make dubious life choices,” writes Slate’s Dana Stevens). I’m not exactly sure what that means except that Baker has Sin-Dee and Dinah smoke meth in a club’s bathroom at one point. It’s one of those movie scenes where the sound drops out as characters continue to talking to each other. They mouth words affectionately as plaintive music swells, giving the whole thing a contrived sentimentalism that bespeaks judgment as bad as if not worse than any of Baker’s characters. They’re smoking meth and Baker’s trying to give us the warm fuzzies. It’s one thing to refuse to condemn, but the scene plays like an endorsement of bonding through meth, a drug that most certainly will fuck up your existence and, quite possibly, face.
Baker weaves in another story about a cis male taxi driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who frequents trans prostitutes. While an examination of men who sleep with trans women could be enlightening, Tangerine is not the place for it. Razmik is as shallow as the rest, and his storyline ultimately feels like a way of cramming more characters into the final showdown, which finds at least six people on screen howling in disagreement for about 10 minutes. The denouement (SPOILER ALERT) finds Sin-Dee getting piss thrown on her in a flash of anti-trans violence. Alexandra then offers her friend the wig off her head. It’s supposedly the ultimate proof of friendship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra—Baker says he cried while filming it. That such monumental sentiment derives from the exchange of a wig is also indicative of the superficial lens through which Baker views his characters.
Of Tangerine, Baker has said, “I wouldn’t call this a trans film. This is a look at such a subculture that it should be seen as more a film about sex workers than that they happen to be transgender.” Yeah, well, nothing just happens to be in fiction; it is because the creator put it there and any indication otherwise is a cop out. Given our cultural climate, the institutional injustices still in place for trans people, and the scarcity of representation, how could people see Tangerine as anything but primarily a trans film? How could a director whose main characters are trans (and played by trans women) claim anything but?
Consider the two leading ladies, who are beautiful in conventional ways, apart from their penises.
Who says penises can’t be conventionally beautiful?
It creates its own world, one with different definitions of “normal” or “acceptable” than Hollywood or even mainstream indie cinema usually offers, and the film is most thrilling for that reason.
Wow, a new normal, what a new concept. How thrilling, a world in which white men aren’t the center, said the white man. It’s almost like he’s...never...considered...otherwise.
Given the girl talk and high-pitched shrieks of laughter, you may not immediately notice that the women are transgender, with identities that speak to the cultural moment.
Yes, that’s exactly what their identities are doing, speaking to a cultural moment. And aren’t we lucky to listen in?
What’s radical about “Tangerine” isn’t identity — which enters directly and obliquely, playfully and powerfully — but that Sin-Dee and Alexandra aren’t limited by it. There’s something blissfully freeing about that, just as there’s something shocking when you remember that, not long ago, characters like these would have often been called on to decorate the story’s edges or just laid out on a slab.
This is fucking stupid. Sin-Dee and Alexandra open the movie sharing a donut because they can’t afford two. They walk all over a driving town because they are poor. They turn tricks because they have virtually no other attractive choices for income. They have a conversation in which Alexandra calls the world “a cruel place,” and Sin-Dee snaps back, “Yes, it is cruel. God gave me a penis. That’s pretty cruel, don’t you think?” To pretend like they aren’t limited by their identities is to ignore bigotry, misogyny, racism, which at the very least Tangerine doesn’t do. But hey, at least they aren’t dead or (gulp) extras.
Dargis’s review ends this way: “When he bathes Sin-Dee and Alexandra in the luscious orange of another smoggy Los Angeles sunset, you may note the warm, radiant palette and, almost in passing, admire how the harmonious performances fit with the gracefulness of the filmmaking — but what you see, really see, are two women shimmering in the sun.” And you see the critic’s intellectual arc—suddenly, trans women are women and wow, isn’t the world complex and beautiful and a crazy place?
Tangerine and its outpouring of praise suggests that any representation is better than no representation at all. I disliked this movie so much that I remain unconvinced. Yes, I’d rather live in a world where people err on the side of kindness regarding art that depicts trans sex workers, rather than disparaging it on principle or ignoring it all together. But more than that, I’d rather live in a world where we’re beyond these one-dimensional and stereotypical depictions that floor outsiders by having the nerve to exist at all. The ideas that trans people are people, and that sex workers deserve dignity are not really that hard to comprehend. I’m getting impatient waiting for people to catch up to these basic truths, and to me, Tangerine is as charmless as a growing pain.