The Plight of the Transgender Prostitute

Inside the groundbreaking film ‘Tangerine,’ a stunning film shot on the iPhone 5s about sex work, drugs, and the plight of transgender women.

Courtesy Tangerine

There are fewer films about Los Angeles than there should be considering how many movies are made there.

But in director Sean Baker’s Tangerine, LA is etherized upon a table, laid bare, and stripped to the bone. “When I came out west, I was shocked to find a huge city and we’ve seen very little of it in film and television,” Baker told The Daily Beast. “With Starlet [Baker’s most recent movie] and this film, I wanted to show parts of LA that aren't seen.”

But the limitations of narrative film only begin with location. Nearly a century of government, corporate, and religious censorship have stripped film stories of the perspectives desperately needed in American cinema. And so Tangerine is a story about characters at the intersection of axes rarely seen on screen except when played as tragedy, pathology, or both.

On Christmas Eve, Sin Dee, a trans woman of color (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), is released from prison only to discover her boyfriend/pimp, Chester, has been cheating on her with a white, cis woman. Sin Dee learns about her philandering man from her best friend, and fellow sex worker, Alexandra (Mya Taylor).

Angry beyond all reckoning, Sin Dee swears to find Chester’s trifling ass and get some good old-fashioned Christmas justice.

On their adventure, Rodriguez brings a fire and energy so robust it could easily outpace several dozen of Michael Bay’s garish robot brawls. And it doesn’t matter if the next Star Wars has a phalanx of Darth Vaders riding dinosaurs into battle against a zombie dragon army, it still won’t match the speed and pacing of Tangerine, a movie that takes place on only a few blocks in Hollywood and was filmed entirely on the iPhone 5s.

Mya Taylor as Alexandra is something else all together. As her friend spins out of control, Taylor remains the strong force holding the center together—all while handing out flyers promoting her Christmas Eve cabaret show.

Sean Baker spotted the quality while researching the film with screenwriter Chris Bergoch at a local LGBT center. They started visiting businesses in the area where they met Mya’s friends and people who worked on the block. “It was like watching stand-up comedy,” Baker said. “They were finishing each other’s sentences and delivering punchlines. We’re at our most free when we are with our friends and family.”

Taylor is originally from Texas, but moved to LA around 2009. “It was hard. Very hard. It wasn't easy at all,” she said of making a home out West.

She then apologized. Taylor was in the middle of doing her daily makeup (Revlon today, but usually Mac) which she also did herself on the movie. “Sometimes I had help.” Taylor said. “But I know how I love it.”

The film reaches its climax when Sin Dee and her boyfriend Chester’s other girlfriend, played by Mickey O’Hagan, watch Alexandra perform on-stage and sing a perfect rendition of the song “Toyland” from the Laurel and Hardy movie Babes in Toyland.

For Taylor, the performance was easy. “As far as the music goes,” she said, “ I've sung my whole life. Singing is nothing for me. One day of practice, forty minutes to get it recorded. It wasn’t hard. It was very, very easy. Singing comes natural to me.”

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Baker said he chose the song for two reasons: “I’m a big fan of the original Laurel and Hardy Babes in Toyland. We used Harry Horlick’s version of ‘Toyland’ to give a sense of something old, something new. We were trying to do a slight homage to buddy comedies like Laurel and Hardy.”

The other reason? “From a budgetary standpoint, setting the movie at Christmas was a way of getting more lights and colors on camera,” said Baker. “We knew it would add production value. But we had to find a public domain Christmas song, because we had no money to license. Mya wanted to perform Toni Braxton or Whitney Houston. She was disappointed, but she grew to love the song.”

“I hated the song,” said Taylor. “It was old. It wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I wanted to do Toni Braxton. But with the budget and everything…”

About the performance, and what the character is experiencing, Taylor said, “Alexandra is living in her moment. She fantasizes about being a big star. And it takes her out of all the drama and everything in her own life. It’s like she’s living in her moment right there. Her life is so hard, and singing is what she wants to do. She’s trying to live her dream.”

Baker’s Tangerine breaks several barriers, not only through its acknowledgment of trans and black women’s realities (with characters played by actors from the communities represented), but it is one of the few films that even acknowledges the existence of America’s Middle Eastern community.

Parallel to Alexandra and Sin Dee’s adventures in the city, Tangerine follows cab driver Razmik, an Armenian expat who lives with his wife, children, and mother-in-law. Razmik weaves around Alexandra and Sin Dee’s lives because he’s a frequent customer of the area’s trans sex workers. Played by Karren Karagulian, the film explores questions about Razmik’s sexuality and marital fidelity.

“In a way,” Baker said, “it’s two separate tales of infidelity converging. Chris pitched that it would take place on Christmas because your first thought, whether you are religious or not, you associate Christmas with family. These women, the closest they have to a family are each other.”

Sin Dee is paralleled in the story by Alla Tumanian, who plays Razmik’s mother-in-law, Ashken. The matriarch suspects her son-in-law is carrying on outside his marriage, and her anger toward him is equal to Sin Dee’s.

“It’s mostly the protective action of a mother,” Baker said. “She’s not satisfied with America. The language is foreign. She’s living in a foreign place mostly because of economics. She’s there for childcare. It most definitely parallels Sin Dee’s anger to Chester. They even have a similar wardrobe. At the end they’re even wearing the same pattern top. Part of the reason is we wanted to show that these are things everyone goes through on a regular basis. They are universal. Friendship, infidelity. Everybody has faced infidelity, whether on their side or their partner’s.”

Taylor agreed about the need for family. She left Texas to escape hers. “I was done wrong by a lot of people,” she said. “As a result of that, I've limited my circle of people. I only have two best friends.”

One of them is in the movie. His name is Alfred Lopez. He plays Squirtel.

The movie also reflects a common experience for the people who live in and around Santa Monica and Hyland Ave. The finale takes place in a donut shop on the corner which Baker and company filmed while the shop was still operating. Even though more celebrities have been caught with trans sex workers in recent times than cis, Tangerine is a long way from Pretty Woman and does an honest job of depicting sex work.

“Of course the storyline itself is made up,” Taylor said. “But yeah, it is an actual representation of how it is… in certain people’s lives.”

In a patriarchal society, all sex is transactional, which is one reason why majority male legislators at every level of American government have criminalized financially compensated sex. Baker’s film captures the state of oppression in which all sex workers operate.

“They are in an underground economy,” Baker said. “They’re constantly dealing with and working around the police. We heard so many stories we had to pick and choose. Everything from police officers being kind and supportive to police officers being johns, abusing the girls, stealing money. We were trying to get our characters to a certain place. We settled on a middle ground. The police are indifferent, unsympathetic. It leans toward the john.”

Baker and Taylor see a system exploiting its hardest working members.

“There has to be a push for change overall. There has to be decriminalization.” Baker said of prostitution. “In Sydney, where prostitution has been legal for 25 years, support from health services are available. It has to happen [in the US], and it has to happen through governmental change. In places where sex work is legal or decriminalized, sex workers are not ostracized or economically destitute. It then becomes an issue of harm reduction. Drug-use harm reduction works and the same can apply to sex work. Advocacy groups, simply by fighting for decriminalization, can help bring an end to unsafe working conditions. It has to begin with lobbying lawmakers for policy change.”

And Taylor knows what would most benefit the community: “I think there needs to be more acceptance of transgender people. And more housing opportunities. And food. And just the chance to live a better life because sex workers want to have better lives.”