Why ‘The Assignment’ Stinks of Sensationalist Transphobia
The trailer for the action movie, starring Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver, confirms that it sees a transgender person’s transition in purely physical terms—and as a lurid torture.
The forthcoming thriller about a male hitman who is forced to undergo sex reassignment surgery is now on its third name. First, it was Tomboy, then it was (Re)Assignment, and now it’s just The Assignment.
The third time is not the charm.
The film’s new trailer confirms the fears that GLAAD and other LGBT critics have expressed for months: It turns sex reassignment surgery into a “sensationalistic plot device” at a moment when media representations of transgender people are just beginning to improve. 2017 will already see renewed legislative attacks on the transgender community. Does Hollywood really need to pile on?
The Assignment, as best as it can be explained, follows male hitman Frank Kitchen (played by Michelle Rodriguez wearing a fake beard and a breast binder) as he seeks revenge on the doctor (Sigourney Weaver) who surgically transformed him into someone who looks like Michelle Rodriguez without a fake beard or a breast binder.
The trailer shows Kitchen waking up after the forced procedure, tearing the bandages off of his face and loudly screaming, “No!” when he discovers what the doctor has done. Then there’s a lot of gunfire.
“If there’s anything left of Frank Kitchen,” Rodriguez grumbles at the end of the trailer, “it was his point-blank aim.”
One of the worst possible consequences of The Assignment is already taking shape: Media outlets—from the Huffington Post to the BBC are describing it as a “transgender film” or a “transgender thriller.”
This is decidedly not a transgender film. A cisgender man who is given breasts, a vagina, and feminine facial features against his will is nowhere near the same kind of person as a transgender woman. Frank Kitchen is a man who, according to early reviews, “just wants to go back to how he was.”
Those who describe it as a “transgender” story reduce transition to its physical aspects, lending credence to the old canard that a transgender woman is just a man who gets admitted into a hospital one day and emerges as a woman.
There are steps to an actual gender transition: struggling with gender dysphoria; taking hormones to alter brain chemistry and secondary sex characteristics; and, in many cases, undergoing surgery to alter one’s genitals and/or breasts. (As one clever YouTube commenter put it, “If I knew I could fully transition in one simple surgery I would have gone to this doctor YEARS ago!”)
In other words, The Assignment is a “transgender film” the same way I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry was a “gay film.” And if a movie came out in which a straight man was forced to have sex with another man, one would hope that we would call it a “sexual torture film” rather than a “gay thriller.”
The Assignment is indeed a torture movie in that portrays sex reassignment surgery as a punishment or, as Sigourney Weaver’s character puts it in the trailer: “I wanted to cause Frank Kitchen enormous psychic pain.” (Speaking of which, it’s disappointing to see Weaver—a longtime LGBT ally who has been honored by the Human Rights Campaign and who attends GLAAD events—in a film that turns transition-related medical care into a horrific spectacle.)
It would be less tempting to judge the film by its trailer if our previous glimpses at the production had not been fraught with transphobia.
But in an Instagram post from the production, Rodriguez used the outdated term “sex change” and talks about the “man implants” and “fake hairy ‘mangina’” that she wore to look like “a man stuck in a newly operated sex changed body.”
In another with a caption that begins “Hahahhaha,” Rodriguez shows off her character’s armpit hair while two women make disgusted faces. Get it? A woman with armpit hair? Hilarious.
And some of the film critics who have seen The Assignment—back when it was still called (Re)Assignment—have relayed that it doesn’t exactly subvert expectations. The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee saw it at the Toronto Film Festival last fall and he called it “a film made with such staggering idiocy that it deserves to be studied by future generations for just how and why it ever got made.”
According to Lee, it contains plenty of “gratuitous nude shots of Rodriguez as both a man and a woman” as well as “an extended shot of her clutching her vagina and screaming ‘NO!!’”—the latter of which we apparently see in the new trailer, sans vagina clutch. And writing for Film School Rejects about the movie’s approach to transgender representation, Victor Lee called it “a valuable lesson” in “what not to do.”
“It’s a tough blow to the LGBTQ struggle when members of their community are cast in a disproportionate amount of heightened roles (killers, weirdos, and comic relief),” he wrote.
The cast and creators have tried to defend the film from charges of transphobia. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Rodriguez said that the film was “an action genre film and we’re not trying to get psychological or deep about it so lay off.”
“It’s an entertainment piece,” she added. “Calm down, guys. I’m on your team.”
But entertainment—even schlocky B-movie entertainment—has consequences. It is entertainment that has cemented the completely unfounded association between transgender femininity and violence, from Norman Bates in Psycho to Bobbi in Dressed to Kill to Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs to Chloë Sevigny’s transgender assassin in Hit and Miss.
And it is entertainment that is responsible for perpetuating the myth that the surgeon’s table is a one-stop shop for all your transition needs.
The Assignment doesn’t get to tinker with that transphobic imagery while avowing all social responsibility for doing so—especially at a time when Hollywood is so badly bungling actual transgender representation.
After decades of maligning transgender people in film and television, writers are only now beginning to produce transgender characters who aren’t complete caricatures.
Even then—with a few notable exceptions like Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black—transgender actors almost never get to play these parts, with the roles going instead to cisgender performers like Matt Bomer, Jared Leto, and Jeffrey Tambor. (Tambor, to his credit, has said that he “would not be unhappy were [he] the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television.”)
If The Assignment were coming out in a distant future when transgender medical treatment were not under attack—and when there would hopefully be far more positive examples of transgender representation than there are awful ones—then maybe, just maybe, it could get away with its hokey premise about a gruff assassin who is forcibly feminized.
But we don’t live in that world. And there’s no way that The Assignment would be interesting if it weren’t feeding off of its own controversy, leveraging society’s pervasive transphobia for shock value.
The studio can slap whatever title it wants on The Assignment before it gets released in the U.S. later this year. But by any other name, it would smell just as rotten.