Predestination was a movie that I, overall, did not like. It did an impressive job turning a fairly reasonable and easy-to-grasp style of time travel (the Stable Time Loop) into something so convoluted and incomprehensible that it gave me a headache trying to piece its logic together. The motivations behind the actions of its characters were hazy at best and outright nonsense at worst (why in the world would John hook up with Jane when he knew exactly how the scenario would play out?).
I don't recommend this movie. As such, I'm going to be including entirely open, unmarked spoilers for the whole thing over the course of this review – except that this isn't going to be a review.
Nope, y'see, I don't actually give a damn about this movie. I'm content to let it suck in peace. The issue is the way this film handles gender identity and transition – that's what I'm going to be talking about.
“But Lexi, it was based on a Heinlein book, and he's ooooold so you can't blame the movie for having outdated social concepts included in it.”
Yes I can. If the source material is offensive, it's the job of the filmmakers to fix it. If they choose not to, then I'm well within my right to criticize those decisions. In the case of Predestination, those decisions were very, very poor. Let me try to first explain why this movie required the plot devices that it required.
Predestination was about Ethan Hawke becoming his own father. And his own mother. Take special note that this was premeditated, not accidental.
Let's, for now, ignore the genetic impossibility that this creates (how does his genetic makeup work, besides not?). Let's also try to ignore the flaw in the concept itself (how did they know that the child would be intersex/why was the child intersex at all/why did they do this in the first place/what the actual f***?). Instead, let's focus on what this says about gender identity.
Jane Doe (Ethan Hawke's character's original name) is left on a doorstep (by future Ethan Hawke... ugh) to live a hard life in the 60's, a tough time for any woman. She grows up as a cisgender woman, entirely content with her gender identity but with superhuman strength -- punching a headlight out as a small child -- because of her internal male sex organs (...oh my God...). She's incredibly apt and intelligent, also entirely fertile as a woman, and eventually has sex (with herself...) and gets pregnant. After having a daughter (herself, again) her female sex organs are somehow totally destroyed.
Naturally, upon noting that she has some extra equipment inside of her, the doctors take it upon themselves to totally turn her into a man. This begins with reconstructing her urinary/sex organs with the male counterparts, which were apparently mostly-formed inside of her. Bizarrely, this is the first thing they do, then move onward to mastectomies and hormone replacement (or... just addition, I guess, since they never mention estrogen blockers) therapy.
What ensues is actually a very compelling tale about gender transition that's (sort of) realistically handled. The bizarre part is that it way more closely emotionally parallels the experience of being a non-transitioned transperson than a person moving towards the way they want to be. Jane (now John) hates the way she has to present herself, hates her clothes, hates her voice, hates the person she sees in the mirror, and it takes until she magically becomes Ethan Hawke for this inverted rage and despair to miraculously fade away.
To sum up, Jane has her gender appointed to her as a result of surgeons giving her (without her consent) male sex organs. She is then forced to go through all of the torment and therapy of a transperson with none of the reward for doing so.
This has some extremely unfortunate implications. Jane's gender is assigned to her. She has no choice in her sexual reassignment surgery, and then because of that reassignment and the new changes in her “equipment,” she is forced to transition despite not identifying as male. She has to change herself to reflect what society expects of her, despite the fact that she never genuinely identifies as male until her transformation into Ethan Hawke.
Predestination pulls no punches when it comes to showing the audience how horrific the process of gender transition can be, both physically and emotionally. It lets you know what kind of hell Jane goes through, and frequently makes it clear that her “life has been ruined.” And it's right. Her life had been ruined.
While it isn't outright stated, the idea that this conveys is that society's perception of you is more important than what's in your heart. It conveys the idea that any amount of suffering is worth fitting in with what everyone else expects of you. It makes the point that your sex organs are equal to your gender identity, and that choice does not enter the matter. That other people have the right to decide how you express yourself.
And that's super messed up.
I understand, of course, the contrived reason for all of this. The movie needed to make sure that the Jane/John character was fertile both as a male and as a female, and therefore used intersexism and transgenderism as plot devices. But in its (nonetheless flawed) attempt to be grounded and realistic, it touched way too closely on the actual anguish (and occasionally trauma) that genderqueer people go through – while also invalidating their struggles.
How it could have been fixed: Easily. Jane/John was already established (albeit indirectly) to be bisexual. The entirety of the “has sex with/births her own self” plotline could have been kept entirely intact by reassigning Jane's sex and not having her unnecessarily transition. They still could have had the pair of Janes bump uglies and give birth to baby Jane, and they could have still made the reassigned-Jane fertile (it would have made just as much sense as it did the other way). Having a ciswoman and a differently-equipped woman enter a relationship would have been as progressive as forcing Jane to transition was backwards.
In closing, Predestination would like us all to know that gender identity is as simple as having your gender issued to you, and cannot be in any way contested or defied. I've never seen a movie that was so realistic about its handling of gender transition, that was also this thick-headed about the nature of gender expression and identity. I don't think this film's implications were intentional – I think they were the product of ignorance, rather than malice (though I could always be wrong). Nonetheless, if you're going to use an important and underrepresented topic as a plot device, actually research that topic and make sure that you aren't going to totally screw it up.
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