‘Assassination Nation’ and the Transgender Gaze

Harmony M. Colangelo
7 min readDec 29, 2019

In a similar fashion to how Heathers and Mean Girls were caricatures of the teen experience for the specific time they were released, Assassination Nation is the high school fantasy film that we deserve in a post-#MeToo, post-Trump’s election, post-“more online privacy leaks to keep track of anymore” America. Often uncomfortable and salty as hell, this film is very satisfying to watch, both from it’s writing and the catharsis released from it.

Assassination Nation is a surreal, violent x-ray of society’s brain and all of the impulses, shame, and secrets therein as represented by an entire town trying to murder four high school girls. This batshit insanity is brought to us by Sam Levinson, who’s name and distinctive filming aesthetic you may recognize from HBO’s Euphoria this year. (Author’s Note: I want to believe both works take place in the same universe) For the life of me, I am not sure how Levinson, as a cisman, is able to convey the experiences of women as well as he does, but he was somehow able to craft one of the most aggresively feminist and visually stimulating films of the last several years.

When I say that this is an “aggresively feminist” movie, I do not mean this in a simple “men are evil” or “male vs. female” sort of way that many detractors are so quick to slap on any film that prominently features women these days. In Assassination Nation, there are bad people and good people regardless of sex or gender identity, but everyone has their own mess and it’s just how much of that mess is exposed and how we treat others that the film looks to spotlight.

Never is that more obvious than in what is probably my favorite exchanges in a film that is bursting with incredible hot takes and one liners. Main character Lily (played perfectly by Odessa Young), is having a discussion with her Principal (played by the always underrated Colman Domingo), about the artistic merit of a nude drawing;

“All you’re looking at is the nudity, but this isn’t about that. This isn’t about the sex or the porn or even being naked. This is about everything that goes into it. The pressure. The endless mindfuck. The 10,000 naked selfies you took before this one, trying to get it just right. Trying to make sure the light hides your left nipple because it’s slightly inverted or it’s smaller or maybe your labia’s too big, but if you pull your pelvic bone up, and bend to the left slightly in a low-light setting… then you will be beautiful. Hashtag flawless. Body confident. But it’s all one big lie you can never be because nobody’s flawless, and all it takes is one fucking asshole to remind you of that. One guy to say ‘lol’ or ‘she’s nasty’ and you’re right back at square one. So yeah, maybe it is explicit or extreme but it sure as hell looks like life to me.”

Some may argue it is too obvious for Assassination Nation to point out the entire point of the film in the first twenty minutes, but we are living in an era where nuance is seemingly dead so…maybe not? I mean, I am sure there are people out there who wouldn’t even notice that the setting of the film is a town named “Salem” and much of the film’s conflict is from a witch hunt by townsfolk who seemed to think The Purge is the coolest idea ever. If you are going to make a film that is loudly critical of subjects like toxic masculinity, rape culture, and nationalism (amongst many others), then you might as well make it loud enough that even the people in the back row will hear you perfectly clear.

I am sure there are many who would immediately jump to conclusions and still take offense at this movie fundamentally, but that is really just them telling on themselves for being shitty people (See Also: Reactions to 2019’s Black Christmas). While Assassination Nation is a beautifully shot and stylish movie, it is still quite raw as all of the varnish is stripped away and the characters speak in the most blatant ways possible.

This might make some of the antagonists a bit over the top as they appear to be just blatantly evil, but as someone who has some pretty vivid memories of how sociopaths high schoolers really are and with sentiments like, “you will not replace us” still echoing loudly across the country, I truly do not believe Sam Levinson’s vision has tiptoed that far outside of our current reality.

The most true to life moment in the film, at least for me, is where a group of high school jocks seek out and attempt to hang the trans character Bex (Hari Nef) out in the street after finding out she and one of their teammates had sex. This attempting lynching is horrific to witness, but for the reality of transwomen, this is not an exaggerated scene. Transwomen are statistically more likely to be murdered more than any other group and they are frequently killed under extreme circumstances, just like Bex would have been.

So, this brings me to that part where this films qualifies for a write-up, which means it is time to talk about TRANS THEMES!

The first person who’s internet history is leaked is Salem’s conservative, anti-queer mayor and it becomes public knowledge that he has a crossdressing fetish. He can’t deal with the shame of being exposed and shoots himself in the head at a press conference ala R. Budd Dwyer.

Now, obviously cross-dressing fetishism and the gender presentation for transwomen’s actual lives are not at all the same thing, but in a film where the mayor and everyone else lose their right to privacy..how does that affect the trans character Bex?

She has the same skeletons in her internet closet as anyone else would have as far as private conversations, porn history results, nudes, etc., but what does a massive leak of information mean for a person who is not able to hide the thing that society feels like they should be most ashamed of…like being trans?

What this means is that you become other people’s dirty little secret. Bex has no clear insecurities within herself for being trans and it is only in the way that people treat her that she is ever weakened (being in a badass, supportive girl gang helps I am sure). Yet, when the jock named Diamond that she is involved with tells her that whatever kind of relationship they have has to “stay a secret,” it’s because he knows what it would mean for him if it got out, and he was exactly right.

Diamond gets to walk away from whatever shame being associated with trans and queer topics would mean socially, and gets to hide away in his simple, pre-information leak life. It’s unfair and it sucks that he can essentially wash his hands of their interaction if he so chooses, but that is how life works. It’s not how it should be, but this is how it is and how it has always been. He has that privilege. This relationship is exactly the kind of stuff I would much rather highlight as “real” examples of trans representation in films because while it is ugly and uncomfortable, it is ironically a better example of how transfolx live than most of the films that focus on trans individuals who’s stories culminate in how they die.

The reality of the trans experience is that we are not “just like anyone else,” and that is not our fault. Most of the insecurities, anxiety, coping mechanisms, social awkwardness, suicidal thoughts, and fear are not rooted in being transgender, but from how people have treated us and the fear of how much worse they could. I personally am not phased by people knowing that I am a trans woman but the fact that they think they have figured me out as though I am trying to fool anyone into thinking I am anything that I am not is ridiculous, and that causes an immediate shift in people’s attitudes for me.

At the end of the day, people love some hot gossip and smugness of feeling like they are in on something they shouldn’t know. That is why, even though no one in Assassination Nation made anyone read any of the leaks, everyone in Salem did it anyway. People want to feel like they have the moral high ground over other people’s deepest bullshit and that is what merely being transgender is to a lot of people…bullshit.

With all the praise I can show this film in the one possible negative I could make is that our main fours characters, Lily, Bex, Em, and Sarah, aren’t given as much time for us to know them as well as they definitely know themselves, but that is not what they are meant to do. We’re outsiders looking in on them, and not knowing them as well as they know themselves allows us to make judgement calls, and puts us in the same space as everyone else in Salem.

When the topic of representation for anyone in any form of media is brought up, the goal is for people to be able to watch something and see themselves in it. Now, I don’t want to seem ungrateful for what we have gotten so far, and I am very proud to see trans actors getting more and more roles, but I have yet to see myself on screen.

I see people like me, I see people who kind of look like me, but I have never seen my story or personally identified with any trans characters before. That said, I feel like the Bex is the closest I have gotten so far and that as much as this country is losing it’s motherfucking mind, we are getting better. I’ve been out as trans for over ten years and I remember when the trans community had almost no mainstream options. This is why people over the age of 40 frequently use Boy George as a point of reference when trying to figure me out, because they have nothing else to go off.

At the end of the day, we aren’t there yet and I don’t know when we will be, but Assassination Nation gives me hope. Some days, that’s all you need.