*content warning – discussion of violence, quoted homophobic and transphobic slurs
The queer* protagonists of Tangerine (2015) often assert their masculinity in order to overcome situations that they find compromising—with varying degrees of success. Although this reliance on masculinity as a claim to power is not without its problems, as it can be argued that it perpetuates traditional, patriarchal gender norms, it does have the potential to reflect an embrace of nonnormativity and in some cases can help queer people advance themselves in a system that wasn’t built for them. To argue this freedom in the fluidity of non-cishet identification (and even non-LGBT identification in the sense that these identities carry some rigid norms of their own), I want to look at three characters’ assertions of masculinity that illustrate complex relationships with gender and sexuality: Alexandra’s public claiming of her penis demonstrates a queer femininity that is fluid enough to embrace culturally-coded masculine attributes in attempt to evade short-term misfortune, while Chester and Razmik’s claims to masculinity only attempt to save their already-failed heterosexuality.
Helpful for reading queerness and masculinities in Tangerine are David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender and Judith Bulter’s gender performativity theory. In chapter 3, “‘I Know What I Am’: Gender, Sexuality, and Identity” of his work, Valentine presents a series of interviews with sex workers in New York’s “Meat Market” who would be considered transgender by social service organizations but describe themselves in terms that even Valentine—and the sex workers themselves—find contradictory. Butler’s work engages gender as performative drag, always striving to confirm itself as natural—and failing to do so. With these insights in mind, Tangerine showcases the freedom of self-knowledge and -identification that a person gains when they reject the strict boundaries of mainstream identity categories, straight and LGBT alike.
Alexandra, “You Forget I Got A Dick Too” + Queer Fluidity
After a client refuses to pay her because he doesn’t finish, Alexandra steals his keys and gets out of his car. In the ensuing altercation, Alexandra threatens the man, “You forget I got a dick too,” before intensifying her aggression toward him. Rooted in gender norms where men are stronger because of their bodies, penises, and dominant personality traits, Alexandra’s claim to power through her penis’s tie to masculinity rejects the prescribed narrative for transgender women’s existences, that they should embrace only cisgender feminine gender norms, stay quiet about their “mismatched” anatomy, and strive for passing, maybe even going stealth. Instead, Alexandra mobilizes her penis to try to gain an upper hand in a compromising situation.
While none of the AMAB,* feminine-presenting sex workers in Tangerine describe themselves as transgender or transwomen, Alexandra surely “knows what she is” for herself—this is not a coming of age film—so making public declarations about her identity or correcting the misidentifications made by others is not necessary to her; indeed, none of the characters in the film do these things. That being said, there is a label that Tangerine’s protagonists use. The word girl circulates the film as an identifier that is used by both the clients of these prostitutes and, more importantly, the girls themselves. Girl provides not only a personal identification but also a community demarcator: these sex workers call out to each other “hey girl!”, use the word when consoling each other, and are viewed as a cohesive group by clients as “girls.”
The community of girls in Tangerine is consolidated not through the shared identity category transgender but through the girls’ not being fish. The word cisgender is not used in the film; instead, feminine AFAB* sex workers are called fish, but achieving fishiness/passing is not the goal of the girls—counter to the mainstream transgender narrative. Valentine argues that none of the his research subjects’ “understandings of themselves or their desires are intelligible in political categories of collective agency, because of the gap between their understandings of personhood and the political categories of identity which claim to represent them” (108), and this is useful for considering the community of girls in Tangerine who have no problem employing their masculinity to try to get what they want—“you forget I got a dick too.” Some semblance of passing is still important to the survival of the girls in the film, but it cannot be achieved fully, allowing Alexandra to publically claim her penis. The leading girls in this film, Alexandra and Sin-Dee, present as feminine and take feminizing hormones in order to alter their appearances to fit a more comfortable, passing ideal, but they cannot fully pass because in order to attract clients who are specifically looking for girls, they need to be legible as non-fish. (Razmik actually throws a sex worker out of his taxi after he discovers her vagina, even though he had been delighted at how beautiful she is—more on that later.) And they take advantage of this acknowledgment of their penises by using it to claim autonomy while working.
Chester, White Boy in a Durag + Straight Failure
The Donut Time scene—the film’s climax—presents two assertions of masculinity: Chester’s attempt to affirm his heterosexuality when Dinah challenges it, and Razmik’s response to his mother-in-law’s realization that the girls aren’t fish. Sin-Dee completes her movie-long search for Chester by finding him in Donut Time, a local shop where the pimp often conducts business. After Sin-Dee brings Dinah into the shop in attempt to discredit Chester’s lies about his fidelity, Chester reveals that he and Sin-Dee are engaged. Both Alexandra and Dinah are shocked, and Dinah laughs at Chester, “You just went from half-fag to full-fag!” In response, Chester grabs her head, slams it against a nearby table, and holds her down. His visceral reaction to this allegation of homosexuality sets the stage for Chester to begin arguing his heterosexuality through hyper-aggression, physical violence, implying that the feminine people in the shop are being hysterical, and acting as a provider by buying donuts for everyone and insisting on his constant hard work as the pimp breadwinner for his workers. He repeatedly tells Sin-Dee, “Sit your ass down,” and yells at all of the women to “chill” in order to make them seem like they are overreacting and invalidate their emotions.
Chester, a white man, organizes many of these points of argument through a caricature of blackness, molding his accent and vocabulary around AAVE and interspersing his speech with the n-word, in order to draw on racist popular notions of the hypermasculinity of black men to cover up his perceived-feminizing “gay” relationship with Sin-Dee. This desperation reflects Butler’s work on the anxiety and impossibility of maintaining gendered, heterosexual normativity: “heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself—and failing. Precisely because it is bound to fail, and yet endeavors to succeed, the project of heterosexual identity is propelled into an endless repetition of self” (313). Chester sees himself failing to be heterosexual because his fiancée has a penis and because others know she has a penis, and he appropriates a caricature of black masculinity in attempt to evade failure as a straight man. This is impossible, as he has transitioned to “full fag” with his engagement and is a pimp to the girls who must himself “test the merchandise,” in his words. Even if he were to end his relationship with Sin-Dee and stop having sex with the girls, the damage has been done to the reputation of his heterosexuality—he has failed for good. The constant fight to assert a natural, uncontestable heterosexuality in turn demonstrates its unnaturalness and performativity; “the naturalistic effects of heterosexualized genders are produced through imitative strategies; what they imitate is a phantasmatic ideal of heterosexual identity, one that is produced by the imitation as its effect. In this sense, the ‘reality’ of heterosexual identities is performatively constituted through an imitation that sets itself up as the origin and the ground of all imitations” (Butler, 313). Because his heterosexuality must be performed for those around him in order to be recognized as heterosexuality, Chester necessarily loses the fight to be viewed as such given his circumstances. He may “know what he is,” but this knowledge isn’t compatible with that which Valentine’s work presents, which we see with the girls—heterosexuality is a public identity that requires recognition and constant affirmation.
Chester and Sin-Dee’s relationship itself is interesting in its queerness. Chester claims heterosexuality and is engaged to Sin-Dee, a feminine-presenting, AMAB person. Trans rights activists and pop-culture transgender narratives have fought to allow this pairing as acceptably heterosexual. But their relationship is complicated by the fact that Sin-Dee’s work is predicated on her not fully passing as female and her having a penis. This is not at all to say that transwomen can only be in heterosexual relationships when they pass and after they have had bottom surgery but rather to say that Sin-Dee is subject to the same standards of heterosexuality as Chester. In order for their relationship to be read as heterosexual, she must both succeed in being read as heterosexual herself and identify with a gender that is compatible with heterosexuality—she would have to identify as a transwoman, but she doesn’t—she’s a girl. This identity fails to fit the mold established by trans rights activism as acceptably heterosexual. Others read Sin-Dee as a man in drag, a gay prostitute, etc., and while what others think is of course not necessarily correct, it does matter when it comes to determining one’s access to a position of privilege. Sin-Dee cannot be heterosexual without the validation of onlookers, and thus neither can her relationship—nor her partner. Butler writes that “identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberating contestation of that very oppression” (308), and relationships, too, are instruments of regulatory regimes. A theme throughout the film is that characters label each others’ identities: Dinah calls Chester a “full-fag” when he reveals his betrothal to Sin-Dee, Razmik’s mother-in-law, Ashken, implies his homosexual deviance after realizing that the prostitutes “are men,” the men who throw urine in Sin-Dee’s face call her a “tranny faggot”… There can be no claim to the privileges of normativity without a community-wide agreement of this normativity (although Butler’s work argues that even this is never fully secured).
Chester’s assertions of masculinity do not save his heterosexuality from failing because of the factors discussed above. His claim to knowing the self differs from Alexandra’s in that it does not arise from a self-recognized-and-accepted queerness like hers does; because he is trying and failing to convince himself and others that he is straight, he fails to gain power from his masculinity in this situation that he views as compromising. Instead, he is ludicrous, desperate, confused—and the more he tries to show others that he is a tough straight man, the farther away from normativity he moves.
Razmik, Family Man + Straight Failure
The Donut Time scene also reveals a challenge to Razmik’s sexuality. Suspicious of her son-in-law’s whereabouts, Ashken calls a taxi and eventually makes her way to the commotion inside. There, it is revealed that Razmik has been buying the girls’ services. His mother-in-law is distraught, and Razmik adopts a similar method to Chester, invoking the norms of heterosexual masculinity to try to diffuse the situation and remain straight in her eyes. Razmik calls Ashken crazy, tries to convince her that she is being irrational, and hits her, and he holds Sin-Dee in a protective, paternal way when Chester is yelling at them. All of these actions are attempts at being quintessentially masculine and patriarchal. Razmik dominates his family members in the scene and invokes his family-man status as a way to make his relationship with Sin-Dee seem less deviant: He may pay for her services, but those are extracurricular; he’s a man who provides for his family back home—the quintessence of heteronormativity. These methods are similar to those that Chester employs, but the film makes us call into question the validity of his claims to heterosexuality more than it does with even Chester, even though they both have relationships of some sort with the same girl. Razmik searches for Sin-Dee the entire movie, he picks up a sex worker that turns out to have a vagina and throws her out of his car, and he performs oral sex on Alexandra in the carwash. His desires are not for men, though—he is certainly looking for people with penises, but for girls. He has a crush on Sin-Dee in particular, and the observations of the other characters, especially Alexandra, imply that this attraction is more than sexual, especially given his movie-long search for her.
When Razmik picks up the AFAB sex worker, complimenting her beauty and acting very excited, his excitement comes from his misidentification as such a beautiful girl with a penis. He is looking for people who demonstrate an inversion of normative sex-gender (female-woman) alignment but in a way so particular that not just any of the girls will do; they must pass as much as possible, but he must still be able to read them as having penises, and that he guesses wrong reflects the hard-to-pinpoint group he is chasing. While Razmik never self-identifies, the altercation at Donut Time demonstrates his dedication to maintaining his privilege as straight. But heterosexuality is not as comfortable an identity as he would have it. Butler’s theories on gender as performative and heterosexuality as compulsory are clearly at play here (as they were with Chester); she writes, “gender is performative in the sense that it constitutes as an effect the very subject it appears to express. It is a compulsory performance in the sense that acting out of line with heterosexual norms brings with it ostracism, punishment, and violence, not to mention the transgressive pleasures produced by those very prohibitions” (Butler, 314-15). Razmik invests himself in performing the masculine man-of-the-house role in his family—the “compulsory performance.” He also desires a feminine gender and an AMAB body—a “transgressive pleasure.” It’s funny that his strongest claim at heterosexuality is his driving a taxi to make money as his family’s breadwinner but that this occupation also facilitates and seeks to cover up his having sex with the girls (and his crush on Sin-Dee), which eliminates the possibility of his heterosexuality.
Even before he is caught by his family, his failure at heterosexuality has begun; the girls all know he does not solicit fish. But Razmik insists that he is straight through his references to his breadwinner status for his family and the paternal way that he touches Sin-Dee in Donut Time, trying to extend his family-man masculinity over her as a sort of father figure (he ends up leaving Donut Time with his actual daughter in his arms, making this parallel even clearer). Like Chester, Razmik is desperately trying to succeed as heterosexual, and he weaponizes a binarized distinction of gay-versus-straight by vehemently denying homosexuality in order to try to make his claim to heterosexuality more credible, even though this binary cannot exist given his own desires and experiences. Further, in citing his masculinity to try to claim heterosexuality, Razmik forgoes access to a complex identity. Because heterosexuality is not just a personal knowledge of the self, but also a community-validated identity, Razmik’s reputation as a solicitor of the girls who claims heterosexuality invalidates his attempt to use masculinity to evade harm in Donut Time. Whereas Alexandra saw some freedom to mobilize masculinity in order to navigate a harmful situation, Razmik’s masculinity is preoccupied with the vain attempt to be recognized as straight, limiting its usefulness and retaining its misogyny.
Tangerine’s representation of complex queer identities with Alexandra and Sin-Dee points to the freedom of expression and intimate self-knowledge that can come from self-identification outside of mainstream identity categories. For these queer characters who are able to access (or unable to deny) the complexity of their identities compared to the homogenized identity categories that have been produced to contain them, there can be some benefits, like Alexandra’s success at intimidating her uncooperative client. But, Alexandra did not succeed in getting her money from him, and this is indicative of a larger issue: as Valentine’s work argues (109, 124), without the institutionalized labels to back up her identity, she is unintelligible to the police officers who stop the altercation and has limited political power—she is seen as a ludicrous, anomalous pest.
On the other hand, Chester and Razmik desperately cling to the privileges of heterosexuality, but their sexual behavior prevents them from convincing their community of this identification. In arguing (almost begging) in vain to be read as straight, these characters overperform their masculinity, calling even more attention to their failure.
Tangerine serves as a reminder that it is possible to look for words and meanings beyond those of the system that you were born into, words and meanings that are validating and deeply introspective. But this reminder includes a double-edged warning: to do the hard work of intimate self-discovery is to forgo the privilege of widespread intelligibility, and to fail to do this work is to spend a lifetime striving to achieve something that just doesn’t quite fit.
Queer – I use queer here to encompass gender and sexual nonnormativity outside mainstream identity categories (straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender…)
AMAB + AFAB – Assigned Male At Birth, Assigned Female At Birth. I find these terms most useful for discussing the concept of “sex,” as they centralize its social construction. Terms like “biologically male” imply that non-masculine genders are mismatched to the body and reinforce a sexual binary that doesn’t exist.
David Valentine, Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of A Category (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).
Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” in Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993).
Tangerine, directed by Sean S. Baker, performances by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor (Magnolia Pictures, 2015).