WHEN YA PUBLISHER Houghton Mifflin Harcourt put out Ariel Schrag’s Adam in 2014, it felt predetermined that this debut novel would eventually become a movie. Indeed, the promotional materials included a trailer for an imagined film, a digital elevator pitch. Moreover, as a preexisting YA property, the story had a potentially lucrative built-in audience, which is still necessary for many LGBTQ-themed features in the current film marketplace. The 2019 film adaptation of Adam is backed by major independent producer James Schamus (Brokeback Mountain) and directed by trans man Rhys Ernst (Transparent and the web series We’ve Been Around), with Schrag, a cis lesbian, writing the screenplay.
But the basic story of Adam — a cisgender white teenage boy poses as a trans man because an older cis lesbian he has a crush on mistakes him for one — has been controversial since its inception. Suffice it to say that Adam has had a complicated relationship with the LGBTQ community because of this problematic masquerade — and consequent erasure — of trans masculinity. While there are trans male characters in Adam, they appear on the margins, remaining oblique rather than being front and center.
The tale is set in 2006, a significant time for the LGBTQ community in terms of media visibility. At the time, Schrag was writing for Showtime’s The L Word, then in its third season and with a growing audience. Viewers of the show will remember that third season as the introduction of Max, a trans male character. Adam (the book and film) features a viewing party for The L Word, with the characters watching a scene where Max is confronted about his trans identity. The trans men at this viewing party call out the most glaringly unrealistic aspects, such as the fact that Max, only just starting hormone replacement therapy, has practically overnight grown beard scruff all over his face. The scene distills the media representation of trans masculinity at a specific moment in time. Max was more a prism for ripped-from-the-headlines trans themes than an actual character, spending the final season of The L Word pregnant and miserable, in a subplot clearly inspired by Thomas Beatie’s international notoriety as “the pregnant man.” The character today still provokes viewer animosity.
It is notable that this viewing party, while critical of the representation of Max’s physical transition, is unrealistically silent over the way Max is confronted on the show as a “gender traitor.” None of the queer characters at the viewing party is critical of this incendiary claim; instead, they prefer to joke about which characters on the show will sleep together next. For all Schrag’s efforts, in both The L Word and Adam, to create a space where the relationships of queer women and trans men can be explored, there are obvious limits to her imagination, which tends toward tabloid-style exploitation rather than empathetic investigation.
In a 2014 interview with The Rumpus, Schrag revealed that her book’s genesis was connected to Max and The L Word, with the show’s lone cis male writer, Adam Rapp, being her unofficial muse. Schrag recalls that they
were doing the Max story line, and I started to have this fantasy that Adam Rapp would go out to clubs and pretend to be a trans man in order to gather fodder for this lesbian TV show, and the more I thought about it I thought that’s hilarious and weird and fascinating. I became fascinated by this idea of a cisgender man passing as a trans man, especially because we were working on this story about a trans man trying to pass as a cis man.
Schrag wanted to create a story in which a teenage boy in a queer femme space would be confused for a trans man because this was an inverse of something that happens a lot to trans men in cisheteronormative spaces (and even queer spaces). It is true that being on hormone replacement therapy and going through a kind of second puberty can lead to many kinds of misunderstandings in trans presentation, all of which can be potentially comical. Unfortunately, Adam’s simplistic premise, by obscuring actual trans identity, produces little more than a shallow sex farce in which the historically complex relationships between butch lesbians and trans men in these queer spaces barely registers. Moreover, the experience of romance and sex with a trans masculine body is merely suggested, largely deployed for titillation, and undisturbed by any reality since Adam does not actually have such a body.
In fact, Adam’s ability to pass as trans is pretty dubious. Nobody suspects that he is faking it, and the consequences of being outed are, all things considered, nonexistent. Adam may not get the girl in the end, but his punishment is merely an “education”: to learn how to play his role, he is shown reading J. Halberstam’s Female Masculinity and watching a montage of trans masc YouTubers talking about their experiences. Adam absorbs all of this like a college student cramming for an upcoming exam, which he will “pass” by regurgitating the bullet points he has absorbed from studying actual trans men.
As director, Ernst presents these scenes earnestly, but what Adam is doing here is pretty insidious. The internet has long been a space where trans people can share their experiences in beneficial and potentially life-saving ways. By contrast, Adam uses it to cultivate his fraud, like a cynical “catfisher” who constructs fake identities in order to exploit unwitting strangers. Being an “innocent,” “dumb” teenager, his straight white male privilege gives him an all-too-easy out.
The essential vacuousness of Schrag’s and Ernst’s treatment can be seen in their depiction of an actual trans character, Ethan. Introduced on Craigslist as “the mystery man” who lives with Adam’s sister and her on-again-off-again girlfriend, Ethan is a cool-headed, rather solitary figure who works at a movie theater. Ethan befriends Adam, who is at first unaware of his friend’s trans identity, despite seeing him in just a towel. While this cluelessness could be used to explore the complexity of trans visibility, the story takes an easier route, and Ethan becomes its most frustrating gambit. How Ethan relates to his body, his relationship with queer spaces, how he connects to masculine images, how he relates to other trans men, what gender dysphoria means to him — all this exists as untapped story potential. Lacking any obvious flaws or complications, Ethan is a character so absent of nuance that he is one-dimensional, a simple foil for Adam’s masquerade. The other trans male characters in the story are equally one-note sounding boards.
Schrag uses trans masculinity as a Trojan Horse that allows a straight cis white boy to have eye-opening experiences of queer sexuality and gender fluidity. Given the story’s fundamental lack of interest in actual trans people, it is depressing that the novel and film have been embraced in some quarters for what amounts to the crumbs of representation they offer. As transness gains real visibility in the media, Adam comes across at best as an inadvertent revelation of how, in the end, Ethan’s story would make a far more interesting movie than the title character’s. But the promise of that story being fully realized relies on ambitious and serious artists receiving the kinds of platforms and exposure afforded to Schrag and Ernst.
Caden Mark Gardner is a freelance writer from Schenectady, New York. He is working as a co-author on an upcoming book on transgender cinema called Corpses, Fools, and Monsters: An Examination of Transgender Cinema.