Celebrating transness: Tangerine and the iPhone

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Limitations and possibilities of trans representations

From the very first scene in Tangerine, it is no secret that the main characters are trans women who present as feminine. Sin-Dee, recently released from a short stint in jail and now at Donut Time catching up with Alexandra over a shared confection, declares “You finally got tits, bitch!” Alexandra, pleased, explains “Bitch, the oestrogen has been kicking in, the only thing it hasn’t broken down was these fucking arms. Everything else on my body looks good. I look like the real thing” (1:40). Alexandra does not hide that she is pursuing a bodily transformation that fits her desired form. In the collection Trap Door, trans and cis artists, activists, and scholars explore the possible complications as well as openings that result from this kind of visual and narrative presentation.

Some denounce representations that uncritically uphold cisnormativity by depicting trans people as neatly fitting into some uncomplicated category that liberal audiences can easily grasp: in other words, showing trans people who conform strictly to socially held gender norms and who are consumed with the need to pass, only telling stories about trans people that revolve around transitioning and the movement from questioning to gender stability, or presenting stories about trans people that align with “capitalist and liberal values” (Barrow et al. 2017, 330). Such representations unfortunately “[promote] problematic hegemonic ideas about what bodies are or are not legitimate” leading more to body-policing than to opening-up of possibilities for living one’s felt identity (Gossett and Huxtable 2017,).

Even if one’s goal is not to consistently pass in all contexts as what others deem male or female, a basic desire of many trans people is to be properly recognised by others as a man or a woman. For these trans women, appreciating and cultivating beauty in a gendered way can be a radical move, provided that one is “not hiding away from transness” (Gossett and Huxtable 2017, 54). By leading with a conversation about the process of transitioning, Tangerine proclaims rather than hides the characters’ transness. Yet the narrative that unfolds afterwards is preoccupied neither with the changing bodies of its protagonists nor with the characters’ moving away from questioning their gender and towards gender stability. On a story level, the characters are amid their distinct processes of becoming who they want to be, and there is no emphasis on completion or stability. Similarly, the film refuses to offer any sense of completion, reality, or stability on a visual level.

The consequences of filming Tangerine with an iPhone are filmic images that deviate from what viewers expect from a film that tells a realistic story; this departure from the visual norm disrupts the otherwise transparent nature of many films, destabilises the relationship between perception and what is real, and underscores the non-naturalness or constructed nature of both film and gender. The disruption of the visual norm is a complement to a diegesis that, I argue, also results in challenging perceptions of gender, asking viewers to rethink “cissexist or biologically essentialist presumption of [gender’s] naturalness” (Cunningham 2018, 53). The technical choice of the form (use of the iPhone) works with the content to challenge cisnormativity on a visual level while simultaneously celebrating transness.

The iPhone and Tangerine’s distinct visual differences

While shooting on iPhone 5s ultimately led to a theatrical release for Tangerine and a picture quality that many critics and viewers alike accepted as a film, what viewers see when they watch Tangerine differs from what they would see watching the same kind of movie captured on 35 mm or on digital cameras specifically outfitted for filmmaking. Director Sean Baker combined the iPhone footage with the high-definition shooting app Filmic Pro, as well as a cheap, experimental lens modification from Moondog Labs, and he also heavily treated the images in post-production (McGarry 2015).

As a result, Tangerine looks different from other films of its same genre in three major ways: the heavily saturated image, the use of extremely close, intimate shots given the iPhone’s wide lens, and the sharp focus of each shot given the iPhone’s lens’s far-reaching depth of field. Aimee Balridge (2015) categorises Tangerine as part of a social-realist tradition, as the story centres on a marginalised group in society and captures some truths about the conditions in which these people live and work. In an interview with Balridge, Baker notes that a film attempting to capture a sense of reality would normally opt for a desaturated look as “[f]or some reason, we consumers of media associate desaturation with reality.

Yet he and his collaborators ultimately wanted something that was “very different on many levels,” hence his choice to infuse the film with deep, vibrant jewel tones from the deep yellow-orange glare of the sun to the ruby and emerald twinkling of Christmas lights. Another “convention” of social-realist films which Tangerine does not use, according to Baker, is “telephoto lens” which he says almost gives films of this nature a “National Geographic” documentary feel. Tangerine instead uses a “wide iPhone lens and anamorphic adapter” which “draws viewers close to the action of the scene.” Lastly, Tangerine defies current predilection for shooting in “shallow focus” as the iPhone captures everything in the image with extreme clarity. With Tangerine, “everything is in focus,” Baker says, “and I think that’s actually pretty cool.

It plays against all the other films that are out there right now.” While arguably most viewers accept these images as filmic, Tangerine nevertheless defies expectations for what such a social-realist film ought to look like, prompting audiences to notice the elements of production and question the reality of what they are seeing. Yet some might say that, despite disruptions, most people’s socially constructed ideas of gender are so deeply entrenched as to resist meaningful change. However, trans scholar Sidney Cunningham’s (2018) work on trans comics ChaosLife and Eve’s Apple leads him to believe that it is possible, with exposure to representations that

challenge cisnormativity, for individuals to begin to shift the way they categorise bodies.He says that “the way we perceive people as being similar to or associated with other people. is necessarily based on a symbolic schema of gender that runs deeper yet is fundamentally plastic” [my emphasis]. He discusses how our perception is linked to a socially-informed, almost automatic process of attributing gender to those we interact
with. One important component of disrupting cisnormative visual logic is to undermine what Cunningham calls the “cissexist or biologically essentialist presumption of [gender’s] naturalness – what we might think of as the passing model”.

While he distinctive visual elements happen concomitantly throughout the entire film, I will focus on three scenes in which there is a powerful intersection of perception-challenging form and content. The first of the three scenes takes place early in the film as Sin-Dee idles outside of a Metro stop, smoking a cigarette on a bench; as my analysis will show, the close shots and depth of field combine with action and imagery to challenge cisnormativity. The scene occurs directly after she receives a tip from drug-dealer Nash (Ian Edwards) that she might find her boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), and his mysterious new romantic interest at the food line on Schrader Boulevard, the site of an L.A.

LGBT Centre facility. During this encounter, Nash misgenders both Alexandra and Sin-Dee, suggesting as Alexandra leaves that Sin-Dee should “just go with your homeboy and get the fuck out of here” (14:05) then later saying to Sin-Dee “Alright, come on man,” as she helps herself to the last of Nash’s cigarettes (14:56). This act of misgendering factors into understanding the scene to come. On the heels of this encounter, the iPhone shows us Sin-Dee sitting on a bench in the low, midday December sun. The audience knows both that Sin-Dee’s goal is to make it to Schrader and that she spent the last of her money on bus fare and a donut to split with Alexandra, leaving her without the funds for additional transportation.

While not as explicitly dream-like as the bathroom and carwash scenes, the rest of the movie is similarly bursting with deep jewel-toned colours, giving it a fantastical, celebratory feel. Yet those colours abruptly recede during the film’s final sequence, replaced by stark whites, dull greys, and municipal browns. Leading up to this visual switch, Sin-Dee and Alexandra are standing on the curb of a busy street. They part ways as Sin-Dee approaches the car of someone she assumes to be a potential client. Upon greeting the passengers in the car who have rolled down their window, one of them flings the liquid contents of a cup into SinDee’s face and yells, “Merry Christmas, you tranny faggot” before peeling off. Alexandra rushes over to her whimpering friend who laments, “Oh my god, they just threw fucking piss on me”.

Alexandra briskly leads Sin-Dee by the hand to the nearest laundromat. Before they enter, we see the last few pops of vibrant colours: the lollipop red and candy apple green of gas-station signs glowing in the night, the neon “OPEN” sign casting a pink haze on the two women scurrying to the interior. Once the two main characters enter the laundromat, the dynamic, beautiful colours disappear and are replaced by the muted, desaturated tones and dull fluorescent light that we, as Baker notes, “associate with reality.” Alexandra pulls Sin-Dee past a wall of black and white washers, one row stacked neatly atop the other in an orderly, predictable fashion, contrasting the swirling lights and colours in the bathroom scene.

Author: Meagan E. Malone

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