Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in Zoolander 2 barely offends me – as a transgender person, I’m used to it

But if the film makers were committed to calling out discrimination, why didn’t they offer the job to a trans actor?

Lexi C.m.k Turner
Monday 23 November 2015 19:55
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"There have been no apparent efforts to make the character overtly masculine: no stubble, no bulges, no stumbling in heels."
"There have been no apparent efforts to make the character overtly masculine: no stubble, no bulges, no stumbling in heels."

Even as a transgender student of film, being asked to comment on ten seconds of a film trailer - no matter how offensive members of one’s community are finding it - is a tough task. After all, the only reason I watched the stupid thing in the first place was on account of the complaints about Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, ‘All’, a transgender supermodel who is asked, in particularly juvenile fashion, about the state of their genitalia.

It’s not good start, but I do not agree that the actor’s performance is the “modern equivalent of blackface.” To have a modern equivalent of anything requires the original comparative to be no longer relevant, and sadly that’s not the case. That the comparison has been made, however, is rather apt. Last Friday, I read out the names of the 271 transgender people reported to have been murdered in the past year, and the overwhelming majority were of colour.

For want of a better term, I suppose the character All is “transface” - and that should be enough. Though I bristle at any and all objectification of trans lives and bodies, from what I have seen, the depiction of All is an interesting one. There have been no apparent efforts to make the character overtly masculine: no stubble, no bulges, no stumbling in heels. By making All seemingly non-binary - “All is all” - the filmmakers have given themselves cynical wriggle-room to present a transgender character whose identity is simultaneously obscure and open to interpretation enough to be gendered or misgendered however the spectator sees fit.

No doubt the response from those involved in Zoolander 2’s production will be that Stiller’s titular protagonist, and Wilson’s Hansel are renowned for their stupidity. When they approach All, their intrusive, crass line of questioning is indicative not of the production team’s transphobia, but the opposite: they’re showing up Zoolander. I’m not unused to being treated like an idiot, so I can only be so offended by having that old chestnut thrown my way, once again.

Yet one cannot help but feel if the team were really so invested in making any sort of point about transphobia (even one so banal as “don’t do it, kids”), they would have felt confident in hiring a transgender actor or model for the role - Andreja Pejić, perhaps – and writing for Cumberbatch an alternative part.

In fact the biggest disappointment for me was seeing Justin Theroux’s writer’s credit. It’s a shame to think that, while the documentary maker Louis Theroux was busy making an interesting and watchable film about transgender children, his cousin was busy writing outdated trans jokes for posh boy actors in an unnecessary sequel film.

To be sure, the character of All is pretty grim but, more than anything else, it is a strong indicator of how the rest of the film is likely to go. Here comes Zoolander 2, a cool 14 years after the first, trailer replete with Justin Bieber cameos, recycled transphobic material, and constant references to the jokes of the original. My response to the call of a boycott is: wait, you actually going to see it?

Lexi C.M.K Turner is a queer activist and student of film

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