The following is one of my presentations for the UCO International Gender and Sexuality Studies Conference 2018. I was introduced to this show by a student who found it while conducting one of her required cultural activities for Elementary French I. I watched excitedly, recommending the show to friends, colleagues, and students alike. I then learned a valuable lesson: don’t recommend a show until you’ve watched the whole thing! The show took such a drastic transphobic turn that felt even more of a betrayal from a feminist show than it would have from another. For months I couldn’t stop thinking about this type of transphobic feminism, especially as TERFs’ influence increasingly overshadows events like London Pride in June. Though I hesitated to discuss trans issues as a cis-woman, I felt my position as a French teacher allowed me to call out this French show that was receiving such positive reviews on Netflix. Below is my paper as it was given as the conference, with the accompanying Prezi. I am currently undecided if I will continue this project towards publication and welcome feedback!
Transphobic Feminism in Mass Media: Netflix’s La Mante
CW: assault, abuse, violence, transphobia
Netflix’s French police thriller La Mante (“The Mantis”) begins as an excitingly feminist take on the serial killer genre, following the titular abuse-revenge serial killer who, decades later, aids the police in tracking a copycat killer. Named for the insect whose female consumes the male after reproduction, La Mante murdered men guilty of rape, domestic abuse, incest, and sex trafficking, modeling her crimes on kills from the animal kingdom. However, it is precisely this deliberately feminist approach to the genre that makes the sudden transphobic turn in the show’s final episodes all the more problematic. The copycat killer is revealed to be Camille/Virginie, a trans woman, who believes she is continuing La Mante’s mission by seducing and murdering transphobic men. To make matters even worse, the show reveals that Camille’s motivation lies in a botched gender affirming surgery, and her victims are the men who refuse sex with her. This paper argues that La Mante is indicative of a pervasive form of feminism that vilifies trans women. La Mante seems to applaud itself for its inclusion of a trans woman as a principle character in line with the feminist plot, but the show ignores that it does so in a disturbingly transphobic manner. My analysis will follow 3 parts: first, exploring La Mante as a deliberately feminist show, second examining the multi-faceted transphobia that is not incidental but essential to the plot, and finally discussing the show as representative of media’s role in perpetuating transphobic feminism.
Caveat: as a cis-woman, I want to preface this paper by admitting that I feel slightly uncomfortable discussing trans* issues when it’s not my story to tell. I learned about this show from a student who found it for one of their cultural assignments for my beginning French class. I excitedly binged the edge-of-your-seat six-episode show with another French professor until the transphobic turn left us horrified. I chose to speak on the topic because, as a feminist, I believe it is our responsibility as the audience to challenge transphobia when it appears in pop culture and media. But I do want to make it clear that the discussion in this paper is disturbing due to the show’s portrayal of a trans villain, and I apologize for any discomfort this causes. And I will certainly not be offended if anyone decides to leave in the middle.
It is first essential to establish La Mante as a feminist show to demonstrate the show as representative of transphobic feminism rather than transphobia in general. First, the main character is not only a woman, but her feelings, experience, motivations, and relationship with her family are at the center of the show; I must also here nod to Carole Bouquet’s compelling performance that brings depth and fascinating ambiguity to this atypical female character. Though “the mantis” is the moniker of a serial killer, the titular character is actually referred to much more regularly in the show by her real name, Jeanne Deber. In the title sequence [show], Jeanne is the first billed actress and the only character to appear in the sequence. [pic] Even in all the publicity posters and advertisements, Jeanne is always placed in the primary position with her police-officer son Damien clearly portrayed as of secondary importance.
The show opens to the discovery of a murder victim and the declaration that this is the work of a copy-cat killer. [screenshots Jeanne making tea, or silent video if possible] The sequence immediately cuts to a woman making a cup of tea and listening to a news segment discussing the copy-cat killings and rehashing the original crimes of La Mante (whose identity was hidden from the public) 25 years previously. We the viewers listen along with the woman as an author specializing in serial killers explains: “[elle etait] arêtée il y a 25 ans pour avoir assassiné 8 hommes et de manière extrêmement cruelle. C’était des pères violents, des pères incestueux, des hommes qui abandonnaient leur famille. Et à ses yeux, toutes ses victimes méritaient de mourir. Pour la Mante, tuer, c’était en quelque sorte, un petit peu, rétablir l’ordre naturel des choses” (1.1, @4.50). And this is in the background against a very normal looking woman in a crisp white shirt making tea. The two men continue to discuss how she’s not a woman, but a beast, committing the worst atrocities of predators from the animal kingdom. On the first viewing, you assume she’s a woman at home just making her tea. That she would be the monster they are discussing on the news is almost absurd. The juxtaposition is extreme and deliberate. Jeanne is not a monster, no matter how much she is described as such. She is, in fact, aggressively normal, reasonably attractive, concerned primarily with her family. No matter how much people insist she is this disturbed sociopathic killer, she clearly is not.
For those who don’t know, Jeanne is the French name we translate as “Joan”, [Jeanne d’Arc image]; this means, of course, that naming a character who claims to be following an essential yet violent mission against a dominating force of patriarchy can’t NOT be a nod to Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc), the young woman divinely-inspired to lead the French armies in expulsing the English invaders who had overrun France in the 15th century. In the original arrest tapes, Detective Feracci asks Jeanne if she cares to show any remorse; she responds, “Pour avoir rendu service à la société? Non.” (1.1, @24.30). To Jeanne, killing abusive men and rapists is not a crime but a mission that serves the public good. Like her famous namesake, Jeanne feels she serves the nation by violently removing the dangerous men who have overrun it. Jeanne d’Arc was and is also known as La Pucelle d’Orléans (the maid of Orléans), a woman (like so many), defined by her sexual relationship to men. This provides an interesting contrast to Virginie, the woman revealed to be both the copy-cat killer and a trans woman; Virginie is of course the French form of the name Virginia, a name most well-known for the famous virgin queen of England, Elizabeth I, though the name itself has deeper Latin roots related to Virgo, also notably virgin. Though this might appear coincidental, once we learn that Virginie’s motivation is murdering transphobic men who refuse to have sex with her, the choice of the character’s name carries more weight. However, that’s a topic to explore further in the next section.
Despite the problematic representation of Virginie’s sexuality, the women in this series are decidedly not sexualized. Of the seven most important characters (based on billing, screen time, and dialogue), four are women, none objectified, hyper-sexualized, or (excessively) archetypal. Most notable is the reunion scene in the first episode between Damien and his wife ; relieved of his undercover assignment early to serve as liaison between his mother and the inspector hunting the copy-cat killer, Damien is in the shower when his wife Lucie finds him unexpectedly home. Though highly atypical of French film-making, the reunion does not lead to a sex scene. The reunion is romantic and emotional, with no explicit sexual element, despite taking place in the shower. Indeed, there is surprisingly no nudity whatsoever in the entire mini-series. While this might not be as notable in an American series, anyone familiar with French cinema and television will recognize this as a deliberate choice to avoid sexualizing the characters.
The final essential feminist point is one that somewhat exonerates even Virginie. The culmination of the show’s drama does not end with Virginie; the climax actually comes with the revelation of Jeanne’s real motivation: murdering her own abusive father who, until this point in the show, seemed to be a kindly doting grandfather and great-grandfather. The real monsters are not Jeanne or Virginie, but the abusive fathers who created them. We learned earlier from Virginie’s mother that her transphobic father beat her and her mother all throughout her childhood. In the final moments of the show, we also learn that Jeanne’s father regularly raped her and eventually murdered her mother in front of her. Jeanne reveals him to be the show’s true vilain: “c’est toi qui as fabriqué le monstre que je suis devenue en me violant pendant toutes ces années. Et en tuant ma mère sous mes yeux” (1.6, @47.50). Thus the show’s climax and conclusion affirm the feminist message in placing the responsibility on men when their abuse spurs violence in women.
Transphobic Representation of Virginie
I decided to begin this talk with a thorough exploration of this show’s deliberate feminism so that you can be as disappointed as I was to experience the downright dangerous representation of a trans woman that serves as the show’s “exciting twist.” As the police team hunts the copy-cat, Jeanne notices a detail to one of the murders that proves the new killer was present during one of Jeanne’s murders; Jeanne reminisces about killing a man who abused his daughter, Camille Fontaine, and determines this must be the copy-cat killer. (This Camille is later revealed to have changed her identity and is actually Damien’s wife’s best friend Virginie.) Damien and Szofia find the mother in a nursing home with advanced Alzheimer’s [grammar slide], and from there the entire 5th episode is like watching a train wreck of transphobia in slow motion. On this slide, I have included the French dialogue (taken from the French subtitles) to demonstrate the intentionality in representing gender. Since language is gendered distinctly differently in French and English, I show the gendered markers color-coded. It’s worth noting that his/hers doesn’t exist in French, so my translation will be inherently off and will even further mis-gender Camille/Virginie. [translate slide and highlight the gender choices]
Ok, so that’s all well and good – clearly a trans villain is problematic, but trans people have the same right to be a murderer as cis people, I guess. However, La Mante is only just beginning its problems. As the investigation into Camille Fontaine continues, the police learn more about her history and motivations, including the fact that she must have changed her name. The first disturbing revelation is that Camille finds her victims through an online persona named Ruby (so yes, we’re up to three names for the same character now – I’m sorry). Through this highly sexualized profile, Camille flirts with men and lures them into sexual encounters in order to murder them. This narrative choice is far more disturbing than the mis-gendering as it both reflects and propagates the stereotype that trans women are inherently predatory and out to “trick” cishet men into sex “with a guy”. It is this stereotype more than anything that leads to the high violence rates against particularly trans women, a point to which I return shortly.
So at this point, the show still isn’t done and seems determined to keep digging the hole deeper; the writers reveal their own ignorance by diving into the obsession with trans individuals’ private bodies that is so detrimental to the acceptance of trans people. The detectives find Camille’s health records and discover that she repeatedly sought gender confirmation surgery but was denied on the grounds of mental health by surgeons and therapists alike. This led Camille to seek a back-alley surgery that left her “disfigured” in some unclear way. It’s at this point that she changed her identity, and the trail goes cold for the police. The copy-cat is still in contact with Jeanne, so we continue to learn more about her motivations. With her voice disguised on the phone, Virginie explains to Jeanne: “Virginie: Je suis sur vos traces. Je suis votre élève. Jeanne: Pourquoi les tuez-vous? Virginie: Ne vous fiez pas aux apparences. Ce sont des ordures. Exactement comme vos victimes” (1.4 @36). Where the « trash » that Jeanne killed were abusers and rapists, Virginie’s victims turn out to be the men who refuse to have sex with her. Her motivation is killing the men who are grossed out and reject her for her “wrong/disfigured” vagina. This represents the very existence of trans women as fundamentally problematic.
The police interview a victim they narrowly save from being murdered. He describes meeting Ruby online, then making plans to meet in person. (English translation in slides)
“Quand je suis arrivé, toutes les lumières étaient éteintes, les rideaux tirés. Elle voulait qu’on soit dans le noir. Au début, j’ai pensé à un jeu, mais… Ça collait pas. Elle était vraiment mal à l’aise quand on a commencé à…. J’ai commencé à la caresser… puis…. j’ai vu qu’il y avait un truc qui collait pas.”
Szofia: Oui, c’était un homme.
Victime: shakes his head…
Szofia: Enfin, je veux dire un travesti.
Victime: Je sais pas comment appeler ça. C’était pas beau à voir. Elle avait dû se faire opérer ou quelque chose. Je sais pas. [at least the victim isn’t misgendering her!] Je me suis rhabillé et je suis parti tout de suite. (1.4 @33)
Virginie herself describes the trauma of her repeated rejection that motivates her to kill transphobic men. She screams hysterically at Lucie: “Mais ça tu connais pas. Tu sais pas ce que c’est, le rejet, l’humiliation. Tu connais pas! Quand ça te déchire le ventre à chaque fois, tu connais pas! Non. Tu vois, la seule chose qui m’apaise, qui me soigne… c’est de les voir crever. Ce silence, juste après” (1.6 @2.30). Virginie sees rejection as tantamount to the abuse Jeanne’s victims perpetrated. Again, this is a dangerous representation of a trans character because her trans-ness is not incidental to her motivation, but is essential to the violence she commits. This once again reinforces the idea of trans women intentionally setting “traps” for cishet men, turning them into victims of trans aggression.
The final problematic angle I’d like to briefly mention is one very common to cinematographic representations of trans characters: a cis actor. Though Frederique Bel is a talented actress, having a trans actress in the role would not only further positive trans visibility, but perhaps a trans actress would have been able to prevent such problematic representation – or perhaps inversely, because of this, no trans actresses were interested in the role. The only positive I can say about this choice is that at least they did not cast a cis-male actor in the role of Virginie, despite the fact that awards committees apparently adore cis actors playing trans roles (see: Hillary Swank, Jeffery Tambour, Jared Leto, etc).
The only other positive is that though the other characters constantly mis-gender Virginie/Camille, they never dead-name her because there is never a dead name even given for her. However, I read this supposed positive as further evidence of the transphobic feminism inherent in the show. The show seems to pride itself on the inclusion of a trans character who is sexy and empowered with agency. The French subtitles reflect the intentionality of the gendering and mis-gendering of Virginie as every adjective and pronoun must agree in French. The fact that such deliberate decisions were made regarding gender shows that the offensive, irresponsible, and downright dangerous representation of a trans woman was not due to negligence, but was instead a conscious decision.
Why Transphobia in the Media Matters
How trans characters are presented in the media is important because the effects of such representation are felt far beyond the confines of the screen. First, media (and especially feminist media) sets a precedent for talking about and treating trans people. The show seems to delight in the gender confusion, playing with foreshadowing as they see the killer on surveillance tape and debate whether it’s a man or a woman. The discussions among the police team bounce back and forth constantly, not limiting only specific characters to misgendering errors, but all of them. (Actually, Jeanne is the only one who never misgenders Virginie, interestingly…) As I said before, these gender changes are too detailed in French to demonstrate mere negligence; this is a deliberate choice by the writers. For most people, the only interaction they have (that they’re actually aware of) with trans people is through media, so when audiences see mis-gendering modeled in shows, this reinforces the idea that “ah! It’s all so confusing! Are they a man or a woman, we can’t possibly tell!” Seeing this “confusion” echoed in media and popular culture only confirms that misgendering and confusion is acceptable because, well, clearly it’s just too hard to understand.
The most serious crime committed by this show is depicting a trans woman as a sexually-motivated serial killer. This perpetuates the dangerous stereotype that trans women are predatory, deliberately “tricking” men. Such representation reinforces these presumptions that ultimately lead to the disturbingly frequent murders of trans individuals. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 2017 reported the highest number of fatal attacks on trans people in history, a statistic corroborated by the Trans Murder Monitoring project in this infographic. As we approach the Trans Day of Remembrance next month, we are sure to see updated statistics demonstrating the same trends. And as TMM specifies, these are only the reported murders of trans people that can be found through databases and internet searches globally; they believe the actual number to be significantly higher. As this is particularly relevant to the character of Virginie in La Mante, I have here Glaad’s statistics showing the violence rates against trans women to be significantly higher than for other trans individuals. Again, this is why I find the portrayal of Virginie and her motivations for murder to be so irresponsible and dangerous.
So why is it so vitally important to call out transphobic feminism when we see it? When distinctly transphobic media becomes popular, we must challenge it because its continued presence reinforces dangerous stereotypes. When Stephen King Tweeted his endorsement of La Mante, his recommendation was immediately picked up and repeated by entertainment sources all over the internet. Though I’m certainly not the only one to be disturbed by the blatant transphobic version of feminism presented in the series, positive buzz about the show far outweighs those critiquing the show. And it’s honestly a really good thriller… but in my opinion the dangerously transphobic representation of Virginie far outweighs the positives as a point of measurement for the series.
Gordon, Arielle. When will it end?: Documenting the U.S. epidemic of anti-trans hate violence in 2017, Glaad, Nov.17, 2017. https://www.glaad.org/blog/when-will-it-end-documenting-us-epidemic-anti-trans-hate-violence-2017
Carla LaGata/Carsten Balzer & Boglarka Fedorko, The Grim Numbers and Human Cost of Violence against Trans People, Open Society Fountations, Nov. 20, 2015. https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/grim-numbers-and-human-cost-violence-against-trans-people
Trans Murder Monitoring, Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR) 2017 • Press Release – 325 trans and gender-diverse people reported murdered in the last year, Nov 14, 2017. https://transrespect.org/en/tmm-update-trans-day-remembrance-2017/