In just a few years, there have been major steps forward in trans representation on screen. Complaints about cis gender actors signing on to play trans roles are increasingly becoming a thing of the past, whereas just five years ago it could have been a cynical way for an actor to get an Oscar nomination. There may still not be a wealth of rewarding trans roles available – but we have at least finally crossed the low bar of ensuring trans actors are at least getting cast in those that are. Progress still needs to be made, however, and that is laid bare by the type of trans stories that are regularly getting told.
Cowboys, the latest film from writer/director Anna Kerrigan, could never be accused of ill intentions, or of not acutely understanding the issues faced by trans children. But as trans stories are beginning to be told with more regularity, it does showcase the biggest issue in how these stories are now getting told; namely, that trans characters are often secondary in their own narratives to the cis characters around them. On its own terms, Cowboys is an often moving family drama. But it is yet another film that makes a trans coming of age story a lesser concern within its own narrative, and the thoughtful manner in which it studies the parents’ relationships with their son doesn’t fully make up for this.
Photo © Courtesy of BFI Flare
After Joe (Sasha Knight) comes out as trans, his parents react differently. His father Troy (Steve Zahn) is immediately accepting, eager to buy him the masculine clothes to present as the person he truly is. His mother Sally (Jillian Bell) reacts differently, thinking this is a tomboy phase that is getting out of hand, forcing him back into playing with Barbies and wearing dresses despite his love for cowboys. After the couple messily separate, Troy runs off with Joe on horseback through the Montana wilderness in the hope of escaping for Canada, while a giant police search gets underway for a “daughter” who doesn’t exist. On the road, Joe learns that his fantasy of what being a man entails couldn’t be more different from the reality.
On paper, this story calls to mind several other nightmares ripped from the headlines tales, in which parents of trans children who rejected their child’s gender identity were granted custody. Kerrigan’s film doesn’t go down that route, instead it’s offering a portrait of a more nuanced sense of transphobia – the inability to accept a child’s stated identity because of personal confusion, and unwillingness to even attempt to understand it. This is a more interesting dynamic to explore dramatically, and upends certain stereotypes; here, the soft-c conservative mother is causing more harm than a father figure who appears to have all the characteristics that point to a “toxic” form of masculinity. It all boils down to a simple moral (that if you love your child, it shouldn’t be a struggle to accept them as they are), but one that feels more powerful due to the fact Joe isn’t met with violent hostility. His mother is the unassuming, everyday face of transphobia.
Photo © Courtesy of BFI Flare
Troy having what would be considered stereotypical toxically masculine traits (from gun ownership, right down to enjoying endless boozy drinking sessions) is a key character factor in what is a thoroughly contemporary attempt to reckon with what it means to “be a man”. With his son having come out as trans, eager to emulate a dress sense most associated with the stars of western movies, Kerrigan wisely utilises that genre’s most superficial traits to compare a fantastical sense of tough masculinity with its real responsibilities. Joe fantasises about being a cowboy, but learns from seeing his father’s protective instincts that violence isn’t the solution to all of life’s problems in practice. That father and son are planning to flee the country on horseback seems like one genre anachronism too far, but it doesn’t detract from a deeply sincere interrogation of masculine responsibilities, and how they crucially differ from what pop culture tells us. Again, this all boils down to a corny sentiment about how empathy is the only crucial character trait anybody needs – but Kerrigan manages to explore this in a way that won’t make you roll your eyes.
Cowboys may suffer from spending more time with the parents than the trans child at the centre of the narrative, but there is still much to commend it for here. As an examination of the very notion of masculinity, it can’t be faulted for its sincerity, and is the rare film on the topic that doesn’t feel like it’s begging for a million think pieces written in its name. It’s all the better for it.
Written by Alistair Ryder
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