We all thought that the film The Assignment, originally titled Tomboy: A Revenger’s Tale, then (Re)Assignment, had disappeared from the face of the earth, but it got a trailer just a couple of weeks ago, which means that it has come back to haunt us.
The B-movie thriller, directed by Walter Hill, tells the story of an assassin named Frank Kitchen, played by Michelle Rodriguez, who undergoes sex reassignment surgery performed by Dr Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver) against his will. This leads Frank to seek revenge.
Pedro Almodóvar’s 2011 film The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) also featured a psychopathic plastic surgeon, played by Antonio Banderas, forcibly giving a man (Vicente) a sex change. However, this film didn’t receive as much criticism as The Assignment has, perhaps due to how Almodóvar uses sex reassignment in the story.
Although it’s slightly unfair to compare these films, given that I’ve seen The Skin I Live In and have only seen the trailer and read the plot and reviews of The Assignment, the limited material of the latter film speak volumes.
For instance, the impression the plot for The Assignment gives is that the film uses sex reassignment as a prop to tell a story about revenge. In fact, in an interview in the Hollywood Reporter GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) rightly said that The Assignment uses sex reassignment as a “sensationalistic plot device.” This sadly leads to trivialising the subject of gender identity.
The trailer does nothing but affirm this assumption, given that its focus is on guns and violence. Its tag line even tells us that this film is just about the action and revenge, as Frank states “[i]f there was anything left of Frank Kitchen, it was his point-blank aim.” Although this quote does touch upon Frank questioning who he is after his sex change, it still leans more towards showing the revenge side of things than to exploring the nuances of gender identity, which makes sense for a film that features sex reassignment to explore.
On the other and, although The Skin I live In is quite a warped film and is not devoid of problems, it deals with gender identity in a, perhaps, more constructive manner. In fact, Almodóvar demonstrates that gender is separate from sex as Vicente still identifies as a man even though he has been given a sex change. This is because we see his disassociation with Vera (the name Banderas’s character, Robert, gives to him) throughout the film, which one could argue gives us insight into the hell that trans people experience as they’re trapped in a body that they don’t identify with. In fact, Almodóvar definitively demonstrates that Vicente still identifies as a man, despite being given a sex change, by making the final line of the film “I am Vicente.”
Unfortunately, The Assignment promotes the opposite message to this as it perpetuates cissexist views about trans people. This is because the synopsis and many critics’ discussion of the film mention that Frank is turned into a woman when this isn’t necessarily the case. Frank has had a sex change, but if he still identifies as a man then he’s a man even if he has female genitals because sex and gender are two different things. Furthermore, this belief that Frank is turned into a woman because he’s given a sex change equate transitioning to having sex reassignment surgery when it’s so much more than that.
At the end of the day, The Assignment is an “entertainment piece,” according to Rodriguez, so it’s unclear as to why it would feature a serious topic like sex reassignment. Walter Hill’s use of sex reassignment in the film has ultimately trivialised issues surrounding gender identity and being trans, as well as spread misconceptions about the latter, and that’s not entertaining at all.