To introduce my piece, some background on the film Tangerine:
As I was writing this feminist critique of the movie, Tangerine, I felt overwhelmed by the near unanimity of praise for this supposed comedy from the critics, even female critics. So, I was gratified to read of a protest by Lesbian Nation at the London film premier of the film. Go sisters!
In preparation for writing this article, I also came across an interesting piece of information on Wikipedia. In summary, it states that the tangerine (Citrus tangerina) is an orange colored citrus fruit closely related to, or possibly a type of, mandarin orange (Citrus reticulate). Under one classification system it is considered a separate species, under another, a group of varieties. The term tangerine may yet acquire a different genetic meaning.
Sean Baker’s Tangerine films a day in the life of two trans women street sex workers in Los Angeles. Alexandra tells Sin Dee, who has just been released from a month’s jail sentence, Chester (her lover and pimp) had sex with the new girl, a “fish” “with a vagina”, during her absence. Sin Dee charges off to find and confront him. Alexandra goes to find customers and hand out leaflets to fellow sex workers to publicize her up-coming performance that evening, Christmas Eve.
I watched Tangerine to learn more about trans gender women, especially since the trans community has been vociferously asserting their demand to be included in women-only spaces, including public bathrooms, women’s festivals and separatist meetings on the grounds that they are “women”. Others hotly debate this.
The film unerringly captures the dynamic of the gender relationships between men and women and how trans women fit into it. Sin Dee and Alexandra are males who identify as women, but, from what I saw, their main similarity to women is their outer appearance and the ways in which they defer to men. I witnessed the possible arising of new gender/s. If it is, this new gender of trans women can be just as hateful to women as the most sexist men, and are as oppressive to women as the other males in the film.
The plot plays out the gender hierarchy. The male pimp exploits both trans women and “fish”. Razmik, male cab driver who’s also Alexandra’s customer, cheats on his wife and deserts his family’s Christmas dinner to hear her perform. Sin Dee goes to a “party room” at a motel and violently overpowers the “fish” (we eventually learn she is named Dinah), dragging her by the hair across town to accost Chester at the doughnut shop that he works out of.
Both Sin Dee and Alexandra, use their testosterone-created size and musculature to survive on the mean streets. Alexandra squares off to physically collect her fee from a welching client, reminding him, “I have a dick too”. Sin Dee kicks down the door to the motel party room and grabs Dinah, pulling her onto the bus. Making a stop at the bar to see Alexandra perform, she relaxes her brutal treatment only long enough to repair the damage she’s done to her make-up so that she can appear to be a respectable member of Alexandra’s audience, and gives her have a hit of methamphetamine to feel better. Alexandra watches Dinah when Sin Dee can’t.
All of the males, including Sin Dee and Alexandra, treat all the women in the film disrespectfully. Sin Dee insults the hairstyle of Razmik’s wife when she comes to the donut shop where Chester, Sin Dee, Alexandra and Dinah and Razmik are, to see for herself that her husband is not working, but is with prostitutes. She’s faced with her husband’s expensive sex habits, and admits that she’s dependent on her husband for support, so she goes home. The mother-in-law asserts the gender role she probably learned growing up in Isfahan, denouncing and exposing her son-in-law for having sex with prostitutes. Everyone, including Chester, subjects Dinah to verbal abuse (he can’t remember her name either), and he slams her head against a table. After Chester mollifies Sin Dee by proposing marriage, the “fish” is left to find her own way home, moneyless, poorly clad, and then jobless, homeless and shoeless. No one notices her plight nor cares.
As in real life, other than buying doughnuts for the group as a way of apologizing for all the suffering he’s caused, the man comes out unscathed, dismissing the whole brouhaha as a “girl thing”. The transgender sex workers come to terms with their respective places on the man’s totem pole. Razmik has lost face and is miserable because he’s trapped in a heterosexual family situation despite having an attraction to trans women.
Tangerine is billed as a “girlfriend movie”, because Sin Dee and Alexandra come back together after they fight when it comes out that Chester had sex with Alexandra also. They reunite when Sin Dee is a victim of a drive-by assault from a carful of men. Alexandra helping her recover is a touching scene. Not only does it show their friendship, but to me it shows something equally heart-warming—gender solidarity.
Trans women will do better, I think, to unite to fight for their rights as a new gender rather than re-defining what it is to be a woman, thus weakening the sisterhood of women by insisting on a broader definition to include people who don’t have uteruses and cannot give birth. It ignores how the gender of woman has (and continues to be) shaped under oppressive control of our reproduction—and by not seeing what womanhood could be if patriarchal control of our reproduction were overthrown.
Comment: Although the intent of filmmakers is usually irrelevant in evaluating their artistic effort, it is relevant to the discussion of how reflective Tangerine is of reality. In interviews with Sean Baker, the co-author, cinematographer, director, editor and producer, he talked about the collaboration of the actresses who play the leads. Mya Taylor, who played Alexandra, asked him to make the movie realistic but funny. He tried to make “a movie that these women would enjoy themselves.” I presume that means that these actresses and their community were gratified that film viewers would see the brutality they’re subjected to by gender-enforcing men, but also they would get a lot of big laughs at seeing the brutalization and degradation of women.
Also, it’s surprising that no gay men or lesbians are in the film, since the gay community lives nearby and because Tangerine focuses on the overall cultural shift from stereotypical male-female coupling.
The area where the film takes place is light industrial. Many, many small film-production businesses are there. So, it is a thriving part of “Hollywood”, even though it has none of the trappings of Hollywood glamour.
(creative contribution by Madison René Knapp)