Entertainment » Movies

'Adam' Sparks Controversy Over 'Trans Deception' Storyline

by Sam Cronin
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Aug 13, 2019
Nicholas Alexander and 	Bobbi Salvör Menuez in "Adam" (2019)
Nicholas Alexander and Bobbi Salvör Menuez in "Adam" (2019)  (Source:Wolfe Video/YouTube)

Upcoming indie flick "Adam" debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and received mostly rave reviews. Since then, a contingent of critics, reviewers and cast members have come forward to criticize the movie both for its controversial source material and its storyline, as well as to allege that the set was a toxic workplace.

In response, director Rhys Ernst and another group of critics, reviewers and cast members have released statements and opinion pieces stating the contrary; that "Adam" is a sensitive and bold movie that features prominent positive, nuanced trans representation, and which was characterized by a comforting and inclusive workplace.

Let's get into it. Spoilers for the movie (and book) ahead.

First, as a point of fact, "Adam" (2019), the upcoming movie is based on "Adam" (2014), the book by Ariel Schrag. Many of the complaints of transphobia and homophobia about the storyline of "Adam" refer to the plot of the book, rather than the movie. Additionally, director Ernst and Schrag chose to remove or alter some of the more controversial scenes from the book to be more inclusive. In addition, few of the people involved in this story have seen the finished movie, including the cast members and critics who allege transphobia.

In the movie, main character Adam (Nicholas Alexander), explores queer spaces in New York City with his lesbian sister, Casey (Margaret Qualley). While there, he developes a crush on Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), a lesbian, who mistakenly assumes Adam is a trans guy. When this happens, he doesn't correct her.

Ernst said to Vulture that he's aware the elevator pitch still raises alarms.

"It's a tricky logline that sounds like it could be potentially problematic in a moment in which 140 characters is stronger in some cases than a more complicated, nuanced essay," Ernst said.

*Sexually graphic content warning*

Later in the movie, when Adam and Gillian have sex, Adam uses a strap on penis to play into the lie that he is transgender. This raised flags among critics as an example of "gender deception" or "trans deception," a negative stereotype that trans people trick sexual partners into sleeping with them. In the book, there is an even more controversial scene in which Adam again has sex with Gillian but removes the strap on and uses his actual penis without telling her. This scene, not present in the movie, also angered critics and raised flags of "corrective rape," defined by the New York Times as "the rape of gay men and lesbians to "cure" them of their sexual orientation."

The controversy was first outlined by a blogger named Theo, who on their site, GenderPunkSAP, posted an article called "Do NOT Support 'Adam' When The Film Comes Out." In the article, Theo outlines problems with the book's plot, and alleges that there are prominent tropes including "trans deception" and "corrective rape." They go on to call the movie "unfixable" and "the most disgustingly transphobic and lesbophobic narrative" they've ever come across.

"To imply that our identities are just costumes for other people to put on erases who we are as people," Theo wrote. "More than that, to imply it is done to trick people into sex is a dangerous lie that literally gets us killed."

In response to this criticism, Vulture writer Oliver Whitney said: "Having seen the film, I can confirm that it departs from its original source material in several ways. The script reshapes the character of Adam, whom newcomer Nicholas Alexander plays less as the book's willfully ignorant, easy-to-hate interloper and more as an awkward, disarmingly sweet teen grappling with his own identity.

Similarly, the film's depictions of trans men are more complex and positive than the ones in Schrag's book, which present transmasculine characters as misogynistic, image-obsessed, and one-dimensional — à la Max on The L Word, a notoriously offensive representation."

Ernst, who is himself transgender, went on to defend his work, saying: "Basically, the things that people are afraid of, who haven't seen the movie, none of those things are in the movie."

Oliver continues: "Though I initially approached Ernst's film with caution owing to my own objections to Schrag's book, I was among the critics who felt ultimately surprised by the ways 'Adam' cleverly subverts the 'trans deception' narrative. Instead of playing into the trope, the movie uses it to tackle the expectations so often placed on trans folks to disclose their trans status. As a trans person who came of age without any positive depictions of transmasculinity in media, I thought Adam offered something I felt was worth celebrating."

Ernst also posted a lengthy essay on Medium explaining his intentions for the film and thought processes while making "Adam." In it, he says: "Believe me, I had some concerns... when the screenplay for Adam dropped in my inbox, I was admittedly apprehensive. I was ready to be offended and to tell the producers to look elsewhere. But when I finished the script, I was stunned and pleasantly surprised. It wasn't at all what I had expected, and I couldn't get it out of my head. The screenplay flipped the 'trans deception' narrative trope on its head. It was poking fun at, but also challenging, cis people's obsession with transness. And I was pleased to see that it included several complex trans characters who defied stereotypes. I also saw huge potential here to push and pull on the screenplay to further center trans characters in deeper ways. And in the casting and shooting, I saw an exciting opportunity to showcase a large and diverse cast of trans performers."

Addressing the controversial elements of the plot, he writes: "In my telling, what Adam does is wrong, it affects people, and that is the point. Furthermore, the trans and queer characters in the film exist in a way that is wholly independent to Adam — the spaces are not for him, the characters do not revolve around him, and they will go on existing long after he has gone home."

Speaking to BuzzFeed news, who posted a comprehensive breakdown of this developing story, Ernst said that he felt empowered while making this movie to push the boundaries of what trans artists can do.

"I kind of am pushing back on that," he told BuzzFeed, "— that trans filmmakers or queer filmmakers have to do safe work. That we shouldn't push boundaries, and we shouldn't make people question things or be uncomfortable. I can get bored and frustrated by affirmation and representation for representation's sake. That would be disenfranchising to me as a creative."

Aside from the plot concerns, several cast members allege that the workplace was not respectful of their gender identities. First, a Twitter user named Al posted a thread saying: "Costume people constantly misgendered us, literally did not respect our pronouns or even ask..." He also goes on to say that the costuming was disrespectful, writing: "Dressed us up like dolls according to whether they wanted us to look 'butch' or 'girly'... most of the trans men there were being identified and cast as 'butch lesbians.'"

His comments are corroborated by another cast member, trans writer/actor KC Clements, who spoke to Vulture saying the crew "really didn't have a grasp on they/them pronouns at all. Folks who were not cis-passing, and especially transfeminine folks, weren't being treated with respect."

Echoing the costuming complaints, Clements said: "They sent us these horrendous look books with pictures of what we should dress up like to go to the set as extras." Clements recognized the photographs are "evocative of that period and what queer folks dressed like at the time" but felt the images played into trans stereotypes.

Neither Clements nor Al have seen the finished movie, but both question it's representation and intentions.

"I just would have to ask, why at this moment? We have so many other stories to tell," Clements said.

In response to the toxic workplace allegations, Ernst said to BuzzFeed: "I'm somebody who has worked for many years trying to pave inroads for trans people in the industry," he added. "This work won't always be easy ... cis folks are growing and learning and there's gonna be missteps ... but it's not a fair characterization to say we had a transphobic set. Fifty percent of people, from the crew to creative to the cast, were trans people."

Additionally, the filmmakers tweeted a lengthy response to all the complaints and allegations.

All the controversy has spawned a Twitter hashtag #BoycottAdam and a Change.org petition to "Stop the film Adam being released," which has received over 2,400 online signatures.

"I do believe somebody could have accidentally been misgendered at some point," Ernst said to Vulture. "This is a production coming from a good place, and yet mistakes can still be made."

Several cast members have also come forward to defend Ernst. Alisha B Woods, who plays Jackie said to the Telegraph:
"[Al's] experience is the opposite of what I've experienced with being attached to this project. If you actually watch the movie, you are able to see that the book, the script and the finished product are their own separate entities."

Another actress, Dana Aliya Levinson, a trans actress who plays Hazel in Adam, commented on whether she thinks the film plays into negative stereotypes about trans people: "Absolutely not," she writes, "The film centres a cis[gender] het[erosexual] male who desperately wants to be a part of the trans community to find a sense of belonging. If that's not a comment on the beautiful power of queer family, I don't know what is."

The author of the Telegraph article, Eleanor Margolis, seemed disappointed with the film, however, writing: "As a gay woman, I didn't feel represented by any of the supposedly lesbian characters, two of which have relationships with trans men — which is doubly offensive as it makes both the assumption that lesbians are on some level attracted to men and that trans men aren't real men to begin with."

Trans actor Leo Sheng, who played Ethan in the movie, also spoke to NewNowNext to say: "When I was on set it felt like people involved with the film had this understanding that this was a really big queer moment."

"It seems self-defeating, frankly," says Ernst to the Telegraph, "to call for a boycott of work from a marginalised community, by that same marginalised community, especially before it's even been seen."

"It's not to be taken literally," Ernst also said to BuzzFeed. "It's not a morality tale, it's not a manifesto about how one should act — but it's a thought experiment, in a delicious and subversive way."

Adam debuts nationwide on August 14.


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