Shortly after the release of the “Zoolander 2” trailer, many people were quick to critique Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, a gender nonconforming supermodel named All. So much so that a petition, which garnered over 12,000 signatures, was created to boycott the film for being transphobic, and Sara Pascoe wrote a piece for The Guardian titled "Zoolander 2 isn’t just bad for trans people – it’s a step backwards for us all." In the two minute clip, All is only featured for a couple of seconds, when Owen Wilson’s character Hans asks him, “...Do you have a hot dog or a bun?” a crude and unnecessary joke of which trans people are the butt.
In the past year, visibility for trans and gender nonconforming individuals has increased dramatically in the fashion industry -- this isn’t to say it’s without its flaws, but it finally seemed as though an industry that revolves around the physical and conventional beauty ideals was opening up its doors just a little bit more to everyone. Hari Nef knows this firsthand. As a model and actress, Hari’s walked the runway for brands like Hood By Air and Eckhaus Latta and most recently, landed a role on the Amazon series "Transparent." She’s also a trans woman and knows that opportunities like these are growing but still rare for women like her. We talked to Hari about the “Zoolander 2” trailer and her thoughts about having a character like this in a sure-to-be blockbuster film -- and how people can get the trans experience right in the media.
MTV: What was your initial reaction to the “Zoolander 2” trailer?
Hari Nef: I remember seeing the first “Zoolander” when I was really little, and it’s always cool when something in Hollywood interacts with the fashion industry in a really meaningful way. I was watching [the trailer] like, “Oh, this looks like fun, this’ll probably be funny. This will probably have great cameos,” and then all of a sudden, Owen Wilson was making a joke about a gender nonconforming person’s genitalia. And I was just kind of like, “Wait. That wasn’t very fun.”
I was surprised that [the trailer], in just two minutes, especially when the rest of the film looked kind of fun, would feature this potentially upsetting, or over-the-top, or disproportionate portrayal of a gender nonconforming person. I didn’t really understand how this was funny. I didn’t understand how this was comedy in 2015. It rubbed me the wrong way in a certain sense, but I’m still going to wait and see the film before I pass judgment on it in any meaningful way.
MTV: What was your reaction to the petition against the film?
Hari: I think that petition’s heart was in the right place. Obviously, a lot of people saw [that trailer] and were upset. The fact that the petition compared Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of a gender nonconforming person to white actors using blackface -- that’s kind of a ludicrous, really inflammatory comparison, which disregards the different intersections of race and gender. That’s a very wild comparison to make.
However, that petition did get 10,000 signatures within a day or something, so it seems like a lot of people were able to watch this trailer and feel like that one aspect of it was questionable or potentially problematic. This isn’t something that only sensitive trans and gender nonconforming people are really dealing with; it seems like a lot of people were really able to see that there was something questionable happening in the trailer.
MTV: Why do you think the “Zoolander 2” writers and producers felt it necessary to have this kind of character?
Hari: I did some research actually, and this film about the fashion industry was written by four cisgender males, which is potentially accurate because white cisgender males kind of run the fashion industry in a lot of ways. But the vast majority of the fashion industry is built around women, catering to women. [In that way,] I feel like the problems that might have potentially arisen during the writing of this film reflect problems that just exist in the fashion industry: The portrayal of women, or trans women, or a gender nonconforming person is being put in the hands of a cisgender man, and unfortunately, that -- historically speaking -- has not been a successful recipe for positive representation and positive portrayal.
That's why I think people saw the trailer and were so quick to jump to conclusions about the film in general -- not because anybody’s seen the film, but because they assume, via its trailer, that this film is going to reflect something that we’ve seen, unchecked, in film in general for years: humiliating, satirical, unrealistic portrayals of gender nonconforming people.
This is no “Transparent.” This is no “Orange Is the New Black.” This is not a sympathetic, realistic portrayal. It’s a caricature. And Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor, but there’s part of me that's kind of like, “Hmm. When they were casting this, was my phone off that day? Did I not get a request that I was supposed to get?” Because to my knowledge, I’m one of the only models in history that’s ever been the face of an agender fashion campaign.
If this portrayal touches anyone, I feel like it touches me and my colleagues like Andreja Pejic and Lea T and Ines Rau and Tschan Andrews and Kira Conley. We’re trans women. That’s what's also interesting about "Zoolander 2" and All, because there are no gender nonconforming models signed to a major agency that I know of. There are no nonbinary trans people signed to major agencies. If they’re trans, they’re trans women, basically.
MTV: Do you think there’s a possibility that there’s more to this character than what we see in the trailer? And if there is, do you think that changes things?
Hari: It’s really important to think about comedy. It’s important to understand that if the first “Zoolander” film is anything to go by, nobody in this film is going to be safe from being the butt of the joke or being parodied. And Hans makes this joke about a gender nonconforming person’s genitalia after we’ve seen Benedict Cumberbatch’s sort of silly rendition of what a gender nonconforming person who works in fashion is supposedly like.
But I don’t necessarily think that we’re siding with Hans as this straight shooter protagonist, nor are we going to side with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. It’s really unclear what the case is. At my most generous, I would hope that the next line is Benedict Cumberbatch’s character telling him that that was an inappropriate question and walking him through the reasoning, and then Zoolander, Hans, and All go on a magical journey of trans acceptance and gender fluidity and everyone lives happily ever after. Maybe that’s in the film. [Laughs]
I think that with comedy, it’s a really difficult line to walk because you don’t want to exclude people or certain types of characters from being part of a comedic situation. I think "Transparent" does that really well, where this character is trans and obviously we need positive trans portrayals, but there are things that are funny about her and her life that you can laugh at without feeling like you’re laughing at her.
MTV: Do you think there is an appropriate or respectful way to cover the trans experience in comedy? What shows or writers or actors or comedians do this well?
Hari: Ian Harvie is an amazing stand up comedian who speaks very candidly about his experience as a trans man. The big issue here is that trans people don’t get to portray themselves in media, and they don’t often get to write their portrayals, they don’t get to act their portrayals, they don’t get to direct their portrayals, and they don’t get to produce their portrayals. If there were more trans people in the writing room, the conference room, behind the camera, in front of the camera, then these controversies wouldn’t be popping up.
Basically, do I think now is the best time to be satirizing gender nonconforming or trans people? No. Do I feel like gender nonconforming and trans people are people and deserved to be satirized like everybody else? Yes, absolutely. Do I think that it’s a really delicate line to walk between funny and offensive? Yes.
MTV: What’s the difference between Benedict Cumberbatch starring as this gender nonconforming person and the show you work on, "Transparent," which stars a cis man (Jeffrey Tambor) playing a trans woman?
Hari: At the end of the day, we should be moving towards trans people playing trans characters whenever possible. In this case, it’s a question of portrayal. It’s a question of how a person is being portrayed more than it is a question of who is playing the person. I’m sure Benedict Cumberbatch and Jeffrey Tambor would stand right beside me and say that there should be more trans and gender nonconforming actors playing trans and gender nonconforming people in media. Is that always possible in the big Hollywood system that we have, where a cisgender white man is the person who green lights every casting decision? No, that is not easy because we have no precedent of trans and gender nonconforming people carrying a show or carrying a film.
But at the end of the day, a streaming cable serial comedy that interrogates a limited number of characters in a realist aesthetic -- one that is focused on real relationships and real issues and real victories -- is ultimately going to be a more humanizing portrayal than a cameo caricature of a trans or gender nonconforming person in this star-studded Hollywood production making fun of the fashion industry.
What that trailer is saying is that this trans and gender nonconforming aesthetic is this esoteric fashion thing that nobody else really does, and so therefore, it’s a fashion thing, and so therefore, we’re satirizing it. I get it. And maybe they’re right. But I feel like fashion is doing something amazing now that more realistic versions of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character exist in the industry and work in the industry. I think the fashion industry is ahead of its time. I feel like things are a little too sensitive right now to really make fun of it.
MTV: Do you think there’s any chance that “Zoolander 2” is shining a light on the fashion industry’s interest in trans aesthetics rather than trans issues?
Hari: Unless they are going to create a whole storyline about this, which if they really want to go there, in order for that critique to be fully realized and fleshed out, that would have to be a big part of the film. I don’t really see this film that has cameos from Justin Bieber and all of these huge celebrities -- I don’t really predict that the core teaching of this moment is about respecting trans people and focusing on trans issues.
Do I think that the fashion industry has some work to do in not only embracing trans and gender nonconforming aesthetics and also trans and gender nonconforming issues? Of course I do. At the same time, this trailer portrays a gender nonconforming supermodel surrounded in absurdity. I think, while we should always be striving for more and asking for more in terms of understanding and visibility and awareness, we do need to celebrate what we have as well and what trans and gender nonconforming people are doing in the industry, and the strides we are making. It’s this simultaneous thing where you need to celebrate the present and strive for the future. You can apply that paradigm to so many different aspects of the trans experience or the gender nonconforming experience.
MTV: I see what you’re saying where it’s kind of, like, even if the fashion industry is making these strides slowly, at the end of the day, it’s still making strides. Whereas this whole “Zoolander” thing is more of a step back if anything as far as bringing visibility for trans women in the industry into the mainstream media.
Hari: There is a lot to critique in fashion. Whether you want to critique the capitalism, the superficiality, whatever you want to critique, there is a lot to critique in fashion. That’s why the “Zoolander” franchise is so successful. Because people really want to tear fashion down because they feel excluded from it or they feel it’s silly, or this, that, and the other thing. And those critiques are funny and many of them are valid.
However, fashion is also this really powerful industry that gets to choose what’s beautiful, what’s expensive, what’s acceptable. And for a trans or gender nonconforming person to participate in that industry and infiltrate that space where formerly only cisgender people were allowed to go, especially as image talent, that is a good thing, I would say. That’s a positive thing. That allows trans and gender nonconforming people access into an industry in a physical language that they’ve been historically barred from forever.
So, this is something about the fashion industry that I don’t think needs to be critiqued right now. And that’s why it gets so much attention because it’s something that doesn’t feel violent or oppressive. It feels liberal and affirming. Obviously there are issues of representation and obviously we have a long way to go before we celebrate. However, I feel like the fact that these tides are changing in fashion is not only something good but something that puts fashion ahead of so many industries. I’m not sure that’s what we want to be making fun of right now.