Sean S. Baker’s 2015 street opera, Tangerine, is a tenderly woven story of trans sisterhood. Using K-Mart realism, and as many have noted, shooting the film entirely on an iPhone, Baker captures the grit of Los Angeles in a way its natives, the film’s stars, felt authentically represented their reality. Baker said in an interview with Gay Times that he relied heavily on the input of the film’s stars, Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, which “allowed the women to have approval at almost every stage: the treatment, the dialogue, workshopping.” Tangerine’s raison d’être, Baker says, was “L.A.’s unofficial red light district goes back several decades and is primarily frequented by transgender sex workers,” which he wanted to highlight in a realistic way.
Despite Sin-Dee’s opening declaration of “Merry Christmas Eve, Bitch,” it’s easy to forget this is a Christmas tale. It is set in a snowless Los Angeles where Dinah, Sin-Dee’s object of scorn, turned frenemy, and her boyfriend/pimp Chester’s new cisgender employee he was sleeping with while Sin-Dee was in jail, is wearing flip flops (well, one flip flop) for more than half the film. Bakers film, though, is a new classic American Christmas Film. Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra, Tangerine’s sisters, show us the madness of our modern world while also exploring arbitrary divisions: certainly in step with the often moralizing ghosts of American Christmas stories past.
I found the people who criticized the film as a “caricature” may not have believed people are actually living their lives this way, not so much that their critique on the hyperreal aspects were not valid, but that they had trouble understanding the violence, alienation, and obscurity that could characterize real lives. Yes, it was a dramatic depiction, but it also called attention to patriarchal structures which cultivate micro and macro expressions of violence toward women in these communities.
When we think about our notions of sisterhood, it’s important to understand that sisterhood is something earned. Sisterhood, like womanhood, is not “natural,” it is learned, some women recalling different codes that taught them about how they should be a woman and a sister.
Sin-Dee and Alexandra play out their lives to trap music, the plot-driving force. There is a resonant dramatic purity from Rodriguez and Taylor shaped by a criterion of subjectivity, even in situations that objectify. Donna Haraway describes the assemblage of humanity that I see happening in this transfeminist film, “A cyborg is a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction,” which I feel Tangerine, as a work of art, represents, along with its metanarrative of the relationship between Baker, Rodriguez, and Taylor during filming. The transfeminist sisterhood of Tangerine is easily related to Haraway’s seminal “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” Haraway points out the constructed femininity taken for granted in our society:
The international women’s movements have constructed ‘women’s experience,’ as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial collective object. This experience is fiction or fact of the most crucial, political kind. Liberation rests on the construction of consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility. The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century. This is a struggle over life and death…
Critics have said the wigs coming off at the end was like saying “these aren’t real women,” which muddies the expansive nature of feminism today. Transwomen are not the only women who wear wigs, use prosthetics, or generally focus on embodiment.
As I poured over all the critical reflections on Tangerine I found some pieces by transwomen condemning the depiction of Sin-Dee and Alexandra as sex workers. Many of them were rightfully upset that transwomen are frequently stereotyped as sex workers. I see this as an important social justice issue and agree: plenty of the times I’ve seen transwomen depicted they are sex workers. For Rodriguez and Taylor this appropriately reflected their reality, along with the violence of men and the social violence of L.A.
A huge concern of transwomen is their erasure in film. This was certainly addressed in Tangerine with a conscientious push from Baker and the vision of Rodriguez and Taylor. That makes this a triumph of the women’s sisterhood: the agency they demonstrated in the film’s process. Rodriguez and Taylor influenced Baker’s work in a way that was pleasing to them–they represented their community. Not everyone’s community, but theirs, wielding unmistakable agency.
When speaking of differences in communities, Audre Lorde pointed out the need to recognize there are both strengths and vulnerabilities in same-groups. She says, “When you are a member of an out-group, and you challenge others with whom you share this outsider position to examine some aspect of their lives that distorts differences between you, then there can be a great deal of pain.” Yes, there are transwomen who are not sex workers, who don’t have high drama, or are members of supported communities. There are also transwomen who are suffering because they do not have those things in their lives.
While watching Tangerine I’m also reminded of Monique Wittig’s seminal work of second wave feminism, “One is Not Born a Woman.” There is no “natural” group of women, just sets of practices. One of the ways oppression is able to be carried out is because it is “natural.” We place a lot of stock in the “natural.”
My favorite scene is when Sin-Dee, Alexandra, and Dinah are in the bathroom getting ready for Alexandra’s Christmas gig.
Sin-Dee: Yeah. Fix your face, fix that mug, that’s what everyone is gonna be lookin’ at.
Alexandra: I need to get my eyebrows done.
Sin-Dee: YES, you do.
Sin-Dee projects her insecurities onto Alexandra, like most sisters do, as if to say, “I’m saying everything I say to myself to help you. I want to help you the way I want to help myself.”
Sin-Dee: Your highlight is all fucked off, girl. You need to learn how to blend, your chestnuts are roasting on the bottom of your chin-y chin chin.
Alexandra: What exactly are you doing to my face?
Sin-Dee: Trying to make you look better than what you looked like before.
I couldn’t help reflecting on some of the times I have helped girlfriends get ready to go out. At about 18 I was doing a friend’s eye shadow and she said, “Are you sure this looks good? You’re going pretty high on the eyelid with this black.” I said, “It’s the smokey look, so just let me do it!” It looked crazy as hell, in retrospect, but I thought I was doing her a solid. We never forgot that conversation.
Back to the film: Dinah distracts Sin-Dee from her make-up help with a sack of meth, so Sin-Dee leaves Alexandra with this advice:
“Girl, finish your own make-up. You know how I taught you: highlight, highlight, contour. BLUSH, BLEMISH, BOMB, BAM.”
To be quite honest, I could have used that advice months ago because sometimes my contouring is wack.
What determines our womanhood is a combination of our own feelings, how we’re gazed at, and, when society gets involved, who we’re sleeping with (or not). This scene where the women are putting on make-up shows the continual process of presentation women are faced with and how they work through it.
The violence of Sin-Dee and Alexandra against the other women, mostly white women, has been criticized as problematic (and what violence isn’t). As Alexandra notes to Sin-Dee, “You didn’t have to Chris Brown the bitch.” We have to consider the pressure cooker of living with transmisogyny. When trans women refuse to hide their often misunderstood bodies and live authentic lives they risk abuse. Sin-Dee’s violence against Dinah is coming from a place of not being accepted, of fighting self-hatred. This is clear.
Alexandra also commits an act of violence against Sin-Dee when she sleeps with her boyfriend/pimp Chester during Sin-Dee’s stint in prison. Chester (who turns out to be a pretty deep guy) offers an apt reflection on this behavior when he notes Alexandra was jealous of their relationship and trying to break them up. Adding depth to the film, this opens us to another avenue of analysis: sisterhood as a homosocial relationship and sisterhood as triangulation or homosocial play. More boldly, this undercurrent of the film reveals the deeply dividing fear of your sister stealing your man. That just hurts.
What I love about Tangerine is we see how transwomen are directly enmeshed in the stereotype Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss in “The Madwoman in the Attic”: “Women are warned that if they do not behave like angels they must be monsters.” Sin-dee and Alexandra are not allowed to be free in a racist, capitalist, heteropatriarchy. They are surviving as sex workers, and sometimes just barely. We never see where they live, and it seems like they might not live anywhere. Since there is a dark campiness to the film, our focus is directed there instead of sometimes wondering how these women fight to survive every day. Not only that, but how they learn their bodies, build themselves even as others tear them down.
We see the inherent classism in surgical procedures, denying some transwomen access. We also see the gradient of sexualities present in everyday life, the condemnation surrounding the shroud of secrecy is treated as comical which serves to underscore heteronormativity’s restrictive bind and ties to capitalist gain.
It is because Rodriguez and Taylor were so influential in shaping Tangerine’s plot that we are drawn to the transpolitics which allow us to have access to feminist issues for the liberation of all women.
Since films produce feelings in us that we may not normally feel or give us experiences we might not have, we can also become sisters with Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s characters. Sisters bond through their commonalities and grow from their differences.
To draw from critic Julia Serano, Tangerine makes us see transmisogyny as “the assumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to, and exist primarily for the benefit of maleness and masculinity.” In their work, transience, and abuse Sin-Dee and Alexandra help us see the limitations placed on those who wish to embody their true selves, to create themselves. So many transwomen, especially sex workers, are faced with knowing they could be killed for who they are, yet they choose to be themselves anyway.
The characters Sin-Dee and Alexandra, crafted carefully by Rodriguez and Taylor, show us how to be bravely ourselves, and despite their fights, their “drama,” they show us how to do it as sisters, together.
Poignantly, in a panel for Tangerine, Rodriguez said, “We have to remember to stay together as one, as supporters, as lovers, as sisterhood and brotherhood. It’s going and nobody can stop reality.”