Welcome to a rare un-paywalled edition of the newsletter! Here is your chance to read some of the thoughts I normally only inflict on paying subscribers.
As a reminder, my new comic, THE NEIGHBORS, is due out from Boom! in March of 2023, and you still have time to pre-order it at your local comic book shop. (Don't know your local comic shop? You can find out here.)
There are times, writing this newsletter, when I feel myself torn between two reactions: The one I’m having, and the one that I know a Trans Critic is supposed to have. Watching Men was just such an occasion. I knew going in that I was supposed to hate it; shortly after its release, Them charged that Men “Upholds Gender Essentialism” (oh, no!) and “boils down to ‘the patriarchy, right?’” (possibly worse!). The reviews on Letterboxd seethe with trendy anti-feminism — raking Alex Garland over the coals for being a self-loathing beta cuck or a smarmy, overeager ally. This review, which currently has over 7,200 likes, sums it up:
heyyy queen i saw your tweet about how men are trash and i just wanted to let you know that i agree. although i myself am a man, (i know, ugh) i am on your side. “one of the good ones” as some may say,
The truth is that I kind of liked Men. I don’t think it stacks up against Alex Garland’s best work — Ex Machina, Annihilation — but that’s because Ex Machina and Annihilation were some of the best movies of the decade. Good artists sometimes make middling work. I hated The Northman, but you don’t hear me calling Robert Eggers a piece of shit.
I also bristle at the idea that men with feminist politics “hate themselves” or are necessarily lying. Sure, there are a lot of sleazy guys out there, and those guys do, in fact, frequently try to present themselves as extra-super-trustworthy on gender matters in order to gain access to traumatized and vulnerable women. This happened, and we should all feel bad. Yet, if men never voice feminist politics, women will be much easier to mock and dismiss. In patriarchy, men's voices are generally regarded as more credible and important than women's, and male silence is a powerful weapon; it's much harder to call a woman "crazy" or convince her that she's "oversensitive" about the discrimination she experiences if men say that they see it, too. Men are supposed to stay quiet when their buddies harm women because, if they spoke up, that harm would have to be acknowledged as real. I've had that male silence leveraged against me in the past, and I'm loath to repeat the offense now that I'm in the position to lend out credibility.
So, sure: Men undeniably levels some criticisms at, well, men. (The title card drops at the very end of the movie, after one of them has said something terrible; it lands almost like a joke, a weary, muttered “men,” and this is not the only way the movie demonstrates a sense of humor.) I find them pretty mild, though, compared to the critiques in — say — Ex Machina, which suggests that smarmy male feminist allies should be locked up and left to starve like unwanted dogs so that women can prosper. If you want a movie that really hates men, Ex Machina is it; it’s one of the best and most misandrist movies I know, so man-hating that only a white cis man could have gotten it greenlit. It seems ridiculous to go to a movie by that same director expecting a kumbaya statement on positive masculinity, and I don’t know why anyone did.
I should also point out that the gender politics of Men, in which a woman fleeing an abusive relationship finds herself menaced by a village full of misogynistic Rory Kinnears — again, it’s a joke; every man in this movie is the same man, thus presenting an extremely literal take on the complaint that “men are all the same” — are not even new within the horror genre. There are lots of “abused and traumatized woman recovers her strength by facing down a different abuser” movies, from Red Eye to A Wounded Fawn to basically every Scream sequel. The dynamic of Final Girl and male menace was not invented by Alex Garland in 2022.
So that’s my defense of Men (the only defense of men I will ever make! he added, making another joke that everyone is going to hate, or not recognize as such). It was only much later, while watching a much better movie — Resurrection, also released in 2022 — that I realized Men is in fact really fucking transphobic. What’s more, it’s transphobic in the exact same way as Resurrection, and in the same way that an increasing number of contemporary horror movies are.
Here is where I have to dive into spoilers, and here is where I will make the cut.
So: There were actually two movies released in 2022 in which female abuse survivors are drawn back into abusive relationships (either by the original abuser or by a half-dozen Rory Kinnears) and have to triumph by taking their feminine power back from the men who have victimized them. Somehow, in both movies, the final scare is the image of a pregnant man giving birth.
That repetition can’t have been intentional, right? Resurrection and Men were made too close together. This is a reflection of some wider cultural idea about what a pregnant man means, or how male childbirth relates to women’s oppression. Keep in mind that both men are evil: In Resurrection, the man who claims to carry a woman’s baby in his stomach is the abuser who killed her child. In Men, he’s the embodiment of all the female protagonist’s trauma, and everything wrong with masculinity writ large.
These movies are full of men doing terrible things to women, and they both ultimately suggest that the most terrible thing a man can do to a woman is get pregnant and have a baby at her. I have been pregnant. I’ve had a baby. I didn’t do it to anyone — or at least, not to any women. I just did it, because that’s how my body works. That’s how a lot of men’s bodies work, and the culture keeps violently shaming those men, trans men, for trying to access reproductive healthcare.
Two movies are a coincidence, but three, as they say, is a trend. When you realize that the protagonist of Titane (which I loved) was also a heavily pregnant, plausibly transmasculine person, and that the protagonist of Titane also murdered women in sexualized ways, and their pregnancy was also played for horror and gross-out value, there’s a whole horror trope about transmasculine bodies taking shape, and, friend, it ain’t good.
Of course, there are non-political reasons to deploy this imagery. Horror thrives on grossness, and pregnancy and childbirth rank among the grossest things any human body can do. I love it when horror movies use pregnancy and birth imagery, and there are ways to do it without being transphobic: Alien features a horrific male birth, the chestburster scene, and it’s fantastic. Evolution, a great and under-appreciated film by Lucile Hadzihalilovic, gets a lot of mileage out of C-sections administered to adolescent boys. I’m not objecting to reproductive horror, or to scary scenes of men giving birth. I’m objecting to them in this specific context, where male pregnancy is framed as a continuation of misogyny and abuse, and I’m objecting because it evokes a very long history of trans existence being framed as inherently misogynistic or threatening to cis women.
It’s an idea that reaches as far back as feminist readings of Frankenstein, and I have repeated it in the past, much to my shame: Woman’s power consists of creating Life through her Body. A man who gets pregnant — who tries to give life or create a child without a woman’s involvement — is not only making a monster of himself and his child. He is, on some level, stealing women’s power. He is threatening to make women irrelevant or obsolescent by appropriating their reproductive role; he aims, not just to harm one woman, but to end Womanhood itself.
Thus, the worst threat to women is not the man who beats women or lies to them or calls them names or sexually assaults them or murders them. The worst threat is the man who is trans, and it is he, in the end, who must be killed in order for women to be safe.
Can you see why I might object to that? I mean, I’m sure, if you really put your thinker to work, you can catch some unfortunate implications there. Then again, I didn’t, when I was quoting all those Frankenstein readings. I am in no position to get self-righteous; I’m just trying to process the day-to-day obstacles I encounter. All I can tell you is what I see.
I am not here to tell you that you’re not allowed to find value in these movies. A lot of people read horror against the grain, finding themselves in the rage and power of the monsters; I often do. I adored Titane because it was centered on the pregnant trans person’s perspective. I liked Men more than I was supposed to.
I liked Resurrection, too — maybe even loved it. Resurrection is undeniably trying to do some of the same things as Men, but it does them much better. It seems uniquely keyed in to certain realities of abuse that I’ve never seen on screen before. The most terrifying thing about the abuser, in this movie, is that he can make his victim believe almost anything, including the idea that she deserves what he's put her through. No matter how strong she seems, one word from him reduces her to a shaking wreck. This really is how it works, with some people. They can get inside your head. They can undo your defenses. They can isolate you and warp your reality, until you believe whatever they want or need you to believe. Resurrection is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen about what it’s like to be the victim of such a person, and I loved its final gut-punch (heh) of a moral: An abuser might control your sense of reality, but they should be careful of what they tell you, because you will take them at their word.
I almost wrote “he” and “take him at his word,” there, and I changed it. I liked Resurrection because I have been abused and manipulated, and the people doing that to me were operating out of misogyny as much as anything else. They wanted to hurt a woman by hurting me, and they wanted it more because I wasn’t doing “womanhood” properly. I am firmly on Rebecca Hall's side of things, when I watch this movie. I have every reason for solidarity with women, and I know that.
But if those women are cis, they might not see reason for solidarity with me. The end of Men, the end of Resurrection, are both set up to convey that I am the enemy of womanhood — even more of an enemy than men who abuse women are. I hope I don’t have to recite my entire history to tell you why that hurts.
I very much doubt that any intentional bigotry was at work here. These scenes feel like a case of the directors unconsciously summoning transphobic imagery in service of a metaphor, not like a message being hammered home. (If there were a message, Men wouldn’t be subtle about it. Men never is.) Nor do I want to exaggerate my own suffering. Horror tropes about trans women as misogynistic killers have been around for ages; I have relatively little to complain about, all things considered.
There are just these moments when I sense myself dividing into two different people, two different viewers. There is the reaction I have to have because I’m a trans person. There is the reaction I want to have because I’m me. What I want, ultimately, are movies that don’t ask me to pit those two reactions against each other; where I’m never so distracted by what I am, or what people think of me, that I can’t hear myself think.
Resurrection is currently streaming on Shudder. Men is available to rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and YouTube.
At my other job: When trans men aren't menacing everyone with our uteri, we were in medieval monasteries, attaining sainthood, which is nice to know.
Finally: After writing this piece, I found out that Amanda Hess had already compared these two movies at the New York Times. Her piece is linked above, but I also want to spotlight it here, just to make sure you see it, because it would really be something if I concluded this piece by repeating a woman's idea and claiming it as my own.