Tangerine: Challenging Respectability Politics Through Media

By Sung Yim

Courtesy of Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

WARNING: Post contains spoilers.**

Tangerine opens with a scene inside an LA donut shop. Two broke girls sharing a single donut and gossiping. From here unfolds a vibrant world of girl talk and theatrics amidst pockets of economic devastation in one of America’s wealthiest cities. The plot is pretty basic stuff—Girl A discovers her boy’s been cheating, so she goes after Girl B, who he’s cheating with. Well, Girl A, or Sin-Dee Rella (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriquez), happens to be fresh out of prison. Sin-Dee also happens to be a transgender sex worker, and her boyfriend Chester happens to be a drug-dealing pimp, and part of what’s got Sin-Dee riled up is that he’s rumored to be cheating with a cis white woman. So whenever I bring this movie up, people inevitably question whether or not it perpetuates harmful stereotypes.

It’s understandable in some ways. Main characters Sin-Dee and her friend Alexandra (played charmingly by Mya Taylor) are both trans, both black, and both sex workers in Hollywood. These girls are rough around the edges. Sometimes they have to be ready to throw down when a john tries to skip out on the bill. Sometimes they lock up in a bathroom stall to smoke meth. They’re brassy, they’re loud, they’re unapologetic, they’re out on the streets selling sex and surviving.

Much of the action in Tangerine takes place in cars, which frequently serve as a workplace. We learn about the kinds of men our girls are dealing with day to day, we learn what these transactions are like, we get glimpses of the potential for danger they face now and again, and we even see moments of real connection. Still, given the subject matter and the unflinching way Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s lives are laid out for us, it’s understandable why movies like Tangerine are saddled with the responsibility of representation. Considering the current state of American media, where trans women are regularly played by cis men onscreen, where varying degrees of black, brown, red, and yellow face are still disappointingly common, where narratives across all mediums predominantly center the lives of white, middle-class cishetero people-- I can understand why this movie might seem dangerous. When there is such a woeful lack of representation for you and yours, it might be instinctual to demand respectability of what scraps you have.

I can’t honestly argue the movie’s accuracy because I haven’t lived this life. I don’t know what a brothel looks like and I don’t know how johns pick their girls up on a corner or on which corners. What I know is the release of Tangerine broke new ground in the chokingly white world of contemporary indie cinema. This is a movie that stars two black trans actresses as black trans women—something that is, unfortunately, a revolutionary decision. Not only that, Mya Taylor actually has experience with sex work in Hollywood, like her character Alexandra. She could probably tell you more about how accurate or ethical the writing is than I can attest.

But speaking from the perspective of the average film enthusiast, Tangerine doesn’t play up Sin-Dee or Alexandra’s gender or profession for laughs. The comedy largely comes from characterization and everyday circumstance—perhaps "everyday" looks a little different for Sin-Dee and Alexandra, perhaps the intersections of race/class/gender and so on more often than not will drastically skew the meaning of "everyday" depending on who you ask. But that’s what makes these characters so compelling. They capture the world-weariness of people whose everyday is harder than most, while maintaining a sense of humor about it that only the jaded can. Rodriguez is hilariously glib and feisty as the self-professed “upper-hoe” Sin-Dee, who spends the better part of the movie dragging around the white girl her boyfriend’s purportedly cheating with, singularly focused on confronting him with the evidence. Mya Taylor’s straight-faced reactions to Sin-Dee’s outrageous shenanigans make for a classic comedy pairing. Tangerine isn’t a movie about being trans

This movie is in many ways your typical zany slice-of-life romp. It allows Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s transness to simply exist as an honest and integral part of their backdrop, but never hog the stage as the only distinguishing trait about them. Take for example, a moment when Alexandra is consoling Sin-Dee after the revelation of Chester’s infidelity. Alexandra recalls how as a young girl, she had a Barney doll that sang the “I Love You” song, which she cherished dearly until it broke when she took a bath with it. “The world can be a cruel place,” she says. And Sin-Dee replies, “Yeah, it is cruel. God gave me a penis.”

From the aforementioned moment, we are flippantly informed that yes, Sin-Dee’s mad about her cheating boyfriend, but there’s a lot more where that came from. As we watch Sin-Dee stir up drama (against Alexandra’s hopeless pleading), we grow more and more conscious of what’s beneath the surface of Sin-Dee’s manic confidence and self-absorption. We watch her rudely accost friends for information and take a dude’s cigarettes without asking, strutting around with a teacup-sized backpack and flaunting that Mean Girl-type of bitchy grace. Yes, she’s mad he’s cheating, but he’s also cheating with a white girl. He’s also cheating with a cis girl. There are things she’ll just never be and she’ll never have, and there’s this unspoken sense that a lot of her bravado is masking vulnerability. It’s what made me forgive her for committing an assault and an abduction. As ludicrous as it might sound, I had to. She’s not perfect, but neither is anybody. In this movie or in the world.

A lot of this film’s tension rests upon the potential for violence that our girls face. There’s one moment where Alexandra gets cheated out of money by a john. Their altercation is witnessed by cops, who misgender Alexandra in the squad car before getting out to diffuse the situation. Nothing monumental happens here, no arrests are made, but Alexandra has to walk away unpaid and the fact that a cop misgenders her, albeit privately, is unsettling.

At the heart of it, this movie is one that centers female friendship above all else. I would argue that Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s friendship is the main character. Throughout the film, we see Alexandra trying in vain to calm Sin-Dee down. There’s a little bit of anxious energy to the way Alexandra pleads with her friend, and we quickly learn that she’s eagerly promoting the show she’s playing at a club that night. It’s clear, judging by their dynamic, that Alexandra rightfully fears she’ll be ditched with no audience. She’s running around digging up cash and handing out flyers while Sin-Dee drags her boyfriend’s side piece halfway across town for a wrought confrontation. Then very abruptly, it occurs to Sin-Dee that it’s almost time for Alexandra’s performance. She drops everything (except the white girl) and runs over to the club to show her support. Nobody else shows up and Alexandra’s waiting outside dismayed when Sin-Dee barrels down the street shouting and waving, still dragging her abductee around by the wrist. It’s not perfect, but it’s what they’ve got.

This is largely how Tangerine functions. The characters’ motivations are frequently interrupted by one another, by the world outside, and sometimes they have to drop everything they care about to deal. The movie builds these whirling, kaleidoscopic scenes on top of each other. It never takes itself too seriously and it functions a lot like life, making room for the random. There’s the everyday hustle, the drama, the antics, Sin-Dee at it again and Alexandra putting up with it still, until suddenly a car full of transphobes passes by shouting slurs at them.

These sharp notes of violence strike without warning, realistically sudden and disruptive. Sometimes the girls scrape by and the worst thing is getting misgendered. Sometimes the worst thing is having a stranger’s urine hurled at your face, which is exactly what happens towards the end of the movie. And there’s always this looming sense that it could be worse. It could be worse.

Tangerine ends with a girlfriend moment, much like how it began. Tender and private. Alexandra walks a jarred Sin-Dee into a laundromat, where they wash her clothes. Sin-Dee takes off her urine-soaked wig and laments that she can’t afford new hair. Alexandra then takes off her own wig and lends it to her friend. Sin-Dee smiles and says they can both be bald together. There’s this sense that the wig wasn’t the worst of it, and they’re working to recover the real loss together. They sit and gab, they laugh softly. It’s not the best way a night could go, but they’re in it together. Their love and support for each other is at once hapless and steadfast, possibly the one safety net these girls have in a world brimming with potential danger.

And whatever it says to the wrong people, whatever stereotypes it might reinforce for the wrong audience, whatever role this movie plays as one of such few opportunities for trans women in popular media, don’t these girls deserve love, too? Don’t these girls deserve compassion, understanding, and adoration? Don’t these girls embody tenderness and feminine love, too? Who says you can’t smoke meth and love somebody in the same breath? Who says you can’t throw some punches and own your girlhood in the same day? Aren’t these girls more than the stereotypes their lives overlap? Isn’t their friendship an act of revolutionary survival, too?