A Fantastic Woman is the story of a Chilean transsexual named Marina dealing with life in the aftermath of her boyfriend’s death.
Marina is a male-to-female transsexual, pre-op I think (though when someone asks her, she angrily rejects the question as inappropriate to ask). As I’ve written elsewhere in these essays, though I’m more liberal than not on LGBT (and most other) issues, I’m unconvinced that it is obligatory to refer to a person with the gender terms associated with whichever gender they assign to themselves, but since it is now such a firmly established linguistic convention I’m inclined to go along with it for reasons of clarity if nothing else. So I’ll be using “she,” “her,” etc. when referring to the protagonist.
The first few minutes of the film are used to establish how happy Marina and her boyfriend Orlando were. Perhaps it could be criticized as painting a picture that is unrealistically idyllic, but I mostly bought it; sometimes couples are genuinely that storybook happy together, especially early in a relationship. It gave me a warm feeling to see two people that loving toward each other and appreciative of each other.
There’s no indication that it matters to Orlando that Marina is transsexual. He treats her no different than any man would treat any woman. Well, he treats her a lot better than most men treat most women, but what I mean is there’s no indication that his attraction to her, his interest in her, his feelings for her, are based specifically on her being transsexual.
That’s obviously a good thing, and I’m sure something that will be applauded by liberal-minded people as the way things should be, that he sees past that and they are able to interact as simply two people—two people in love, that is—rather than as a transsexual and a guy who’s into transsexuals.
Still, if Marina’s being a transsexual really were relevant to Orlando’s being interested in her—and it’s not explicitly stated one way or the other in the film—I’m not so sure that would speak poorly of him.
I mean, I understand that it can be objectifying for one’s sexual, romantic, or emotional response to someone to be based on what they are (fat, Asian, tall, elderly, etc.) rather than who they are. I understand why a transsexual could feel demeaned by “I’m really into you because I have a fetish for transsexuals” (though I’d say that’s still only about 2% as objectionable as “I really hate you because you’re a transsexual,” so let’s keep things in proportion).
But I contend that it would not be a bad thing in and of itself if it turns out that Marina’s being a transsexual is indeed a factor in (of for that matter even essential to) Orlando’s interest in having her as a partner.
Think of it this way: A heterosexual male, by definition, is only inclined to have certain kinds of relationships (sexual, romantic, marital) with people of a certain gender. The same is true of homosexual males, heterosexual females, and homosexual females. Is it therefore inherently objectionable, because inherently objectifying, for a person to be heterosexual or homosexual?
Unless something pretty drastic changes, I, for instance, can only see myself falling in love, and doing all the cute romantic couple things we see Orlando and Marina doing, with a woman, not a man. Then within the category of women, there are further factors that would influence whether I could develop feelings like that for someone. You know, maybe it would be more likely with a woman of such-and-such age range, or a woman who speaks English, or a woman of this body type rather than that body type, and so on.
Is that wrong? Am I morally obligated to “see past” such things, to not objectify a person by “reducing” them to such things, and to base my preferences on something else? (On what, by the way?)
On the other hand, if it’s not wrong to be drawn to a person as a potential romantic or sexual mate due to this factor or that factor, is it OK for transsexuality to be such a factor?
I’m not a hundred percent sure what side of the question I’m on, so to some extent I’m playing devil’s advocate. Because I too respond favorably to the fact that—at least from what we can plausibly infer from what we’re shown—Orlando seems completely indifferent to whether Marina was born a female with a vagina or is transsexual; it’s seemingly not a factor in why he is attracted to her, and loves and appreciates her. But when I step back from it and think about it, I lean toward the position that if he’s actually not indifferent and is turned on by Marina being a transsexual, that’s fine too.
The other notable thing about them as a couple is that Marina is young—in her 20s I believe—and Orlando is at least 20 years older than her.
I admit I’m kind of tickled by this, because I know how much most women and politically correct types in general loathe any indication that men are attracted to youth and thus that age is a big factor in a woman’s dating market value. A man who dates or marries someone decades younger is routinely the target of disgust, ridicule, and undisguised hatred. Which I think is an asinine reaction, but what’s funny here is that I suspect most such folks would reluctantly hold their fire in this case because as much as it kills them to have to endorse or even tolerate a relationship with this kind of older man/younger woman age difference, there’s the competing political correctness factor that this is a relationship where a transsexual is being accepted as a woman and treated well. So if you condemn this relationship, you’re putting yourself on the side of the villains in this movie.
But anyway, let’s move on to the story and to the emergence of said villains.
Once it is made clear how happy Orlando and Marina are as a couple, Orlando promptly dies of a heart attack. Basically the remainder of the movie is about how transphobia hurtfully deprives Marina of the kind of social support that a person who was not transsexual would routinely expect and receive during the grieving process upon the loss of their significant other.
Orlando’s ex-wife is especially hostile toward Marina, forbidding her from attending the funeral.
Granted, she would likely manifest some degree of such hostility toward any woman in her 20s that her ex-husband took up with, but surely Marina being of a despised minority enables her to more fully take the gloves off in her ill treatment of her. For example, were Marina not a transsexual, I would imagine the ex-wife would be more likely to tolerate her presence at the funeral but adopt a frosty attitude toward her there.
Orlando and his ex-wife’s adult son is hostile toward Marina as well, though with more ambivalence than his mother. He comes to Orlando’s apartment, which Marina moved into shortly before his death and in which she still lives, to let Marina know that they expect her to vacate the premises as soon as possible. Later he and a couple of thuggish young companions grab her and throw her into the back of a car, and proceed to intimidate and humiliate her.
The people at the hospital where Orlando dies and law enforcement personnel also treat Marina worse than you would expect them to treat a grieving wife/girlfriend whose partner has just died. They may not be completely unsympathetic toward her, but there’s still that sense of “Yeah, but there’s something not quite right about this person and this relationship, not as fully worthy of respect as if she were some regular, non-transsexual, woman.”
One of the law enforcement personnel that Marina is forced to interact with the most is an investigator who in a sense is on her side, but who Marina perceives as an adversary.
This is a woman who has experience working with the transsexual population, and who sees herself as something of an advocate for them. She knows that the police suspect Marina of having had a role in Orlando’s death, based on the fact that he had arrived at the hospital with multiple bruises (what actually happened is he fell down some stairs when he was staggering around having his heart attack). She also knows that as an oppressed minority, transsexuals are routinely pressured into sex work, beaten or threatened by men, reluctant to go to the police or be honest with the police for protection, etc. So she’s trying to gather what evidence she can that either Marina didn’t strike Orlando, or that she was justified in doing so because she was defending herself from his violence.
But Marina experiences the investigator’s interrogation, and her insistence on a physical examination (to see if there is evidence Marina was abused) as simply further humiliation, and is as uncooperative as she can get away with.
Through it all, Marina is tight-lipped and sullen about 90% of the time, polite and going through the motions of doing what is socially expected about 5% of the time, and losing her temper about 5% of the time.
The longer the movie goes on, the more you get the sense that Orlando was an even bigger loss to her than was initially apparent. Because Marina just seems so alone now. In a time of great emotional need, she evidently has no one she can really open up to, no one she can be vulnerable with, no one she can be confident will fully support her.
As I say, some of the people in her life are simply hostile toward her. But even with her co-workers and others who seem to be more positive than negative figures in her life, she doesn’t really open up with them and seek support.
My sense is that even though she really needs that support right now, past experience has made her too gun shy to risk trying for it. I think she has received so much hatred, mistreatment, and misunderstanding in her life that when she’s hurting she falls back into her default mode of anger, defiance, and fierce independence, whether in fact that’s the most constructive course of action or not. Since her experience tells her that most people will only hurt her further if she lets them in, she puts up a wall to keep everyone out indiscriminately.
So I’m inclined to criticize some of what we see from her in this film, but also to excuse her about 90% and blame her at most 10% for any such criticizable things since they stem from all the negativity she has received, both now in the aftermath of Orlando’s death and also presumably throughout her life as a transsexual. I see her as almost wholly a sympathetic figure, as I’m sure we’re intended to.
So, for instance, when she defiantly shows up at the funeral after all (and causes tumult and gets thrown out), I’m not convinced that is the best decision she could have made, but even if I ultimately can’t endorse it I still see it as a lot more understandable and excusable than condemnable.
I have mixed feelings about it. I would guess that most viewers would applaud her showing up, as an instance of her standing up to mistreatment, asserting to these people that they are wrong to deprive her of the right to take part in an aspect of the grieving process that one could only be excluded from out of blatant disrespect. A part of me is inclined to react in just that way—because I too am pissed off that they could treat someone who has lost a loved one so cruelly—but still I’m not fully comfortable with her decision.
My thoughts are these: Obviously the best way for things to play out would be if the people she were dealing with were sane and had at least an ounce of compassion, and therefore she were welcome at the funeral to join with all the people who loved Orlando and were coming together for mutual support following his death. But that’s not an option; there’s nothing she can do to bring that about.
Her only remaining choices are to go to the funeral where she is not welcome and get into a conflict, or stay away from the funeral.
They’re being transphobic assholes; there’s no disputing that. They’re in the wrong in telling her she can’t come to the funeral. They have no right to exclude her from the funeral.
But none of that changes the fact that the choice she is presented with is to go to the funeral where she is not welcome and get into a conflict, or to stay away from the funeral.
I’m not going to say I’m totally comfortable with the choice of staying away, in that it lets the bad people “win.” But as a Gandhian, I feel like her going to the funeral smacks too much of returning evil for evil, of in effect saying, “You’ve hurt me by depriving me of the opportunity to mourn in the conventional way by attending the funeral of this person I loved, so in retaliation I’m going to hurt you and ruin the funeral for you.”
I think it’s understandable that she wants to strike back in that manner, but I’m not convinced it’s the morally best course of action. It’s certainly OK for her to register her disagreement with their disrespecting her and her grief, but ideally she should find a way to do that that respects them and their grief.
One of the characters that was most interesting to me is Orlando’s brother. He is the exception in that family who is not unkind to her. Unfortunately she mostly doesn’t respond any better to him than to those who have earned her scorn, until late in the film that is, when I was heartened to see that she does soften toward him slightly.
My sense is that he as a character is meant to represent mainstream liberals, the kind of people who are more or less on the right side of civil rights and most issues, but who will only take quite limited risks or make quite limited sacrifices. So he’s not openly hostile toward her like the others, and he’ll kind of gently make points in her favor here and there with them, but he’s not the type who is really going to assert himself on her behalf. For instance, even insofar as he disagrees with their banning her from the funeral, it’s not like he’s going to assertively take her side and raise a stink about it, or tell them that if she’s excluded he’ll refuse to come as well. He doesn’t like her being mistreated, but he’s kind of a meek fellow who’s not going to do too much about it.
Such liberals often come in for considerable scorn from leftists, but I mostly am sympathetic toward such people, perhaps because I’m sure I fall into that same category in certain respects on certain issues. But to me, allies who will only contribute modestly to a good cause and aren’t willing to put it all on the line are still good guys, compared to the bad guys who oppose the cause. And so if you’re going to attack them at all, it really should be in proportion, i.e., you should direct your anger and criticism toward them far, far less often and far, far less severely than toward the people on the other side of the issue.
Orlando’s brother may not be willing to fully stand up for LGBT rights or whatever, but he’s actually making at least some modest effort to support and respect Marina. In a world far too full of hate, imperfect love should be recognized and appreciated.
(So you could say I disagree with the famous JFK quote that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Actually what’s far more necessary for the triumph of evil is that evil people do evil. So I have much more of a problem with the people doing evil than with the people who some judge as not doing enough to oppose them.)
Overall as I watched A Fantastic Woman I felt an increasing sadness for Marina, not just for how she is treated, but for how the treatment has seemingly forced her into a shell, and made her the kind of person who goes through life feeling she has to keep everything inside and not show any vulnerability.
Whatever you think of LGBT issues—on some of those issues I’m on the side that on the left is currently regarded as obligatory, and on some of them I am not—whatever you think of people who feel that they’re really in some sense the other gender and feel compelled to live their lives accordingly, there’s simply no reason to hate and to go out of your way to hurt someone.
You know, this is a person who is in real pain over the loss of someone—maybe the only person—who genuinely loved and accepted her. That’s what matters, not her preference in how she dresses, not her preference in how she has sex, not whether she used to have a dick and doesn’t anymore, not whether she still has a dick but wishes she didn’t, not that she changed her name to a woman’s name—none of that. Why add to her pain when you have other options?