Review of “Women Talking”: Trauma-Induced Trans?
I recently saw the Oscar-winning film “Women Talking,” by critically acclaimed Canadian director Sarah Polley, based on a novel by Mirian Toews. (NOTE: this review contains major spoilers.) The Toews novel, which I have not read, is itself loosely based on a horrifying true story about a group of Old Order Mennonite women drugged and raped by a few male members of their community. It’s a heartbreaker of a film, and I found myself crying through much of it at what these girls and women had to go through and, as they talked through the film, trying to make sense of their situation and next steps.
For the purposes of PITT, however, I want to focus on one aspect of the film: a FTM (and presumably unmedicalized) trans-identified teenage character named Melvin. Melvin is raped by her own brother and subsequently identifies as a male (she also becomes mostly mute). I knew the media would be fawning over the inclusion of a trans character and wondered if Sarah Polley, the actors, or the reviewers would have any idea of what it really means. A cursory search turned up exactly what I expected, such as this review from the Daily Beast, entitled “‘Women Talking’ Squanders Its Chance to Tell a Great Trans Story”:
Melvin has undergone similar trauma to the other women, who have been drugged, raped, and assaulted by the men in their community. Melvin was likely assaulted by his own brother—though Melvin can never be sure, as he wasn’t conscious. The unbearable pain of his circumstances pushes Melvin to come out as trans. This is the one thing regarding this character the film does well. Women Talking makes it clear that Melvin is not trans because he was assaulted; rather, the assault made it no longer tenable for Melvin to stay closeted, forcing him to go public with his transition.
However, this analysis falls apart if you understand that it is based on unproven queer theory, which posits that all people have some sort of mystical gender soul.
Conversely, if you look at it through a scientifically grounded developmental lens, it is clear that trauma, in particular sexual abuse, can interfere with normal childhood development and thus can be linked to subsequent gender dysphoria, a mental health condition listed in the APA’s DSM-5.
The research on this link between trauma and gender dysphoria is nascent but clear. For instance, in a peer-reviewed study of detransitioners, 38% believed their gender dysphoria was caused by something specific such as trauma or abuse. Several other formally published case studies, research articles, and news articles back this up. Moreover, anecdotal evidence from a variety of detransitioners supports this point. More depoliticized research that studied potential trauma-induced trans identification is sorely needed. It would benefit those who need it most, allowing these traumatized young people to access the care and mental health supports that would actually benefit them. It’s also illustrative to compare the fact that mutism can be induced by trauma, which is uncontroversial.
There is nothing in “Women Talking” that, as the Daily Beast emphatically states, “makes it clear that Melvin is not trans because he is assaulted.” That reviewer saw what he wanted to see, colored by queer theory, and then created the narrative to go along with it.
To this reviewer, the parent of a child who suddenly identified as trans and is now immersed in the research beyond the propaganda, it is blazingly clear that a trauma-induced trans identification is exactly what happened to Melvin. The movie shows no prior history of gender nonconformity or dysphoria but clearly shows a form of protective gender dysphoria (as well as protective mutism). Melvin was as a teenage girl raped by her brother. It’s nearly unimaginable. The pain of this assault to her female body is so deep, so searing, that she wants to disembody herself from this experience. What safer way to do this than to identify as male?
Melvin is a very sympathetic character, and you would have to be a block of wood not to have sympathy for her. But as the credits rolled, I could only wonder what would happen to Melvin if she got the psychological services she so clearly needed (and very likely, given her community and its distance from modern society, would never receive). Would she continue to identify as male, or would she be able to return to her female body? Or regardless, would the trauma of what she experienced be so deep and wounding that she would be unable to make this psychic leap and remain identified as male?
However you analyze it, Melvin’s trauma-induced trans identification is hardly cause for celebration.
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