Science fiction paradox and the transgender look: how time travel queers spectatorship in Predestination

by Jenée Wilde

Genre, gender, and representation

The Australian science fiction film Predestination (Spierig and Spierig 2014) is unusual for its representation of an intersex protagonist who medically transitions, albeit unwillingly, from female to male. Produced at a time when images of trans people were still rare in mainstream cinema, the film stands out for this alone.

Yet representation by itself is not necessarily positive or progressive, as critics of the film have shown. While the movie offers a strong and interesting intersex protagonist, says film critic Hanna Schenkel, its depiction of the character conflates intersex and trans identities, as well as “reinforces the overly medicalised and sexualised focus with which mainstream media usually analyses trans experiences” (2015: 58). Schenkel grounds her social critique of the film in the very real material conditions faced by trans and intersex people and the effects that negative, stereotypical media portrayals have on real lives:

“If sex and gender transitions were as fictional as time travel, [Predestination] would have been an amazing story, but trans and intersex people really exist and are highly stigmatized” (Schenkel 2015: 60).

In spite of the film’s “horrifying” and “distressingly accurate” representation of the violence done to intersex people by normative medical practices, Schenkel condemns the movie for “cast[ing] the protagonist as an inhuman, impossible and even monstrous being, morally ambiguous and sexually deviant” (2015: 60-61).

Schenkel’s analysis follows Richard Dyer (2002) in assessing the political stakes involved in the representation of women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, and other oppressed groups in cinematic media. As Dyer notes in The Matter of Images, analysis of these images often centers on a critique of power, social normativity, and institutionalized inequality that have arisen from “the feeling that how social groups are treated in cultural representation is part and parcel of how they are treated in life, [and] that poverty, harassment, self-hate and discrimination […] are shored up and instituted by representation” (2002: 1). Indeed, Dyer says, the resonances of the term “representation”—as in “presented over again”—suggest not only how members of a group see themselves but also how others see that group and their place and rights within society (2002: 1).

I agree with Schenkel and Dyer’s observations that the social and political stakes of representation for trans people and other marginalized groups mean that their specific portrayals in films matter. As cultural critics, we must be willing to call out problematic images in order to bring attention to and push back against the modes by which social inequities are instituted and sustained in popular culture artifacts. However, I believe there is more than one way to achieve this necessary political work. Attention to the effects of representation in film alone may overlook more subtle effects, such as how narrative and genre influence spectatorship.

As Dyer reminds us, images in film must use “the codes and conventions of the available cultural forms” at the time of their production (2002: 2). In the case of Predestination, the film is a close adaptation of a 1958 short story by U.S. author Robert A. Heinlein. As such, the codes and conventions of 1950s time-travel science fiction are not only crucial to its narrative structure and intersex character portrayal, but also are the means by which audience expectations are overturned with unanticipated results. As Dyer cautions, “Without understanding the way images function in terms of, say, narrative, genre or spectacle, we don’t really understand why they turn out the way they do” (2002: 2).

I wish to suggest that when one pays attention to how images function in terms of narrative, genre, and spectatorship in Predestination, the film performs some surprisingly productive political work upon a viewing audience that, for the purposes of my analysis, I frame as “mainstream”—that is, cisgendered, heteronormative viewers who comprehend others through conventional frameworks of gender and sexuality. Let me be clear: like Dyer (2002) and Doty (1993), I do recognize that varieties of response are always available to and within any given audience, group, and/or individual reader/viewer. I also recognize that queer, trans, and/or intersex viewers and their allies may interpret and engage with the film in ways other than I describe here, though such an analysis is outside the scope of this paper.

Rather, my interest here is in understanding how Predestination may work to undermine mainstream audience assumptions about gender and sexuality through an analysis of its particular generic and cinematic features. When critics read the film’s representation of intersex and trans identity through cinematic naturalism or realism, where verisimilitude requires events to happen according to natural possibilities, they treat as insignificant or irrelevant the film’s non-naturalistic genre characteristics and their effects on mainstream audience perception. As a result, I argue that they overlook how the time-travel narrative enables a transgender look or gaze (Halberstam 2005) that radically destabilizes the mainstream spectator’s cisgender assumptions. Using science fiction theory alongside analyzing cinematic features that create a transgender look, I will explore how the film’s narrative paradox combines with audience expectations and identification to push viewers to look deeper for meanings about gender and self-identity. Specifically, I will suggest that precisely because it defies real-world verisimilitude, the film’s transgender gaze queers spectatorship for mainstream audiences and upends the contemporary Western binary epistemology that those viewers may rely on to “know” and understand the gender and sexuality of another.

 “Wait—what happened?”

When I write this discussion question down before screening Predestination in my film classes, students usually think I’m kidding. By the time the movie is over, however, they realize the question is no joke as demonstrated by the stunned and perplexed looks on their faces. When the lights come back up, we spend a good deal of class unraveling (or trying to) the looping Mobius strip that is the film’s puzzle plot. For a story with only one primary character and one secondary character, the film takes multiple viewings to fully grasp its complex and folding timeline. So let me begin here by summarizing the story’s set up and thoroughly spoiling the plot twists.

“What if I could put him in front of you—the man who ruined your life? And if I could guarantee you’d get away with it, would you kill him?”

With these words in voiceover, Predestination launches viewers into a mind-bending time-travel narrative spanning an alternate version of mid-20th century United States, from the 1940s to the 1990s. The film meticulously adapts and expands upon Heinlein’s short story “—All You Zombies—” (2008), which explores a chicken-and-egg progenitor paradox through a time-traveling intersex protagonist.  

In that ten-page story, a young man who writes women’s magazine confession stories under the name of The Unmarried Mother walks into Pop’s Bar in New York City, Time Zone 1970. When the Barkeep asks him how he knows “the women’s angle” so well in his stories, the young man says, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” He replies, “Bartenders and psychiatrists learn that nothing is stranger than truth. […] Nothing astonishes me.” The Unmarried Mother snorts and says, “Want to bet the rest of the bottle?” The Barkeep offers a full bottle on the bet, and so the young man begins, “When I was a little girl—” (Heinlein 2008: 552-53).

Likewise, Predestination’s looping narrative complexity starts with that unexpected phrase and flashes back through the protagonist’s early life as Jane and her upbringing in an orphanage. “I never understood why my parents abandoned me,” John says in voiceover as he narrates his story, “What had I done wrong?” Growing up, Jane had felt different from other girls and stronger than even the boys, both a fighter and smart. However, sex confused Jane; she didn’t understand how the parts were supposed to work together.[1] [open endnotes and references in new window]

As a young woman, Jane was recruited by Mr. Robinson to join the SpaceCorp, a “progressive” program to train women as “companions” for astronauts in space. Jane excelled in the training, though she confessed during a psychological assessment that something felt “out of balance,” like she was “living in someone else’s body.” After a fight with another girl and a more thorough medical examination, Jane was disqualified from service in the Corps. Trying to get back into the program, Jane was working as a mother’s helper and taking charm school classes when she met a young man. After a whirlwind romance and subsequent pregnancy, Jane knew she would never get back into the Corps.

After childbirth, doctors informed Jane that she possessed both female and male sex organs, and that complications during the cesarean delivery necessitated a hysterectomy and sex change operation to construct a male urinary tract, much to her shock and dismay. Eleven months and three surgeries later, Jane had fully transitioned into John. “I was as ruined as woman could be,” John says to the Barkeep, “I was no longer a woman […] and I didn’t know how to be a man.”

When John finishes his story, the Barkeep asks, “What if I could put him in front of you—the man who ruined your life?” Things start to get really complicated as the Barkeep is revealed to be a Time Agent recruiting John on behalf of Mr. Robinson for a job in the Temporal Agency. John’s time travel commences with a trip back to 1963. With a gun provided by the Time Agent, he sets out to kill the man who ruined him—only to bump unexpectedly into Jane in charm school. In that shocking moment, John realizes that he and the man who ruined his life are one and the same.

Before exploring my critical reading of the film, I believe understanding some of the contexts of the film’s production will help to illuminate the significance of genre in the critical analysis that I propose. According to media interviews, German-Australian film directors and twin brothers Peter and Michael Spierig set out to create a faithful adaptation of Heinlein’s science fictional time-travel narrative: “There’s something wonderful about adapting another person’s work because it changes your voice as a writer,” Peter said. “And that was the thing we learnt doing this: that Heinlein’s voice is all through the film” (cited in Hoskin 2015: 9). The first time Peter read Heinlein’s short story, he said it blew his mind. “I read it about seven years ago and it’s just stuck with me,” Peter said. “I’ve never read anything like this. It was written in 1958 and even now it’s kind of shocking in certain parts, and still completely relevant and highly original.” His brother Michael added, “It’s 60 years ahead of its time” (cited in Russell 2016).

Because the short story is more expositional than cinematic, the brothers relied on character development and the outstanding performances of actors Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook to carry the story’s opening conceit of a man in a bar telling his life story on a bet (Hoskin 2015: 10):

“I love the idea that this person says, ‘I’ve got the best story you’ve ever heard,’ and so they’re telling that story to win a prize. So I think, in that sense, the expositional element works, and I also think the movie has so many complex ideas that certain things need to be laid out—like, ‘This is my character. This is who I am. This is my life. I was a little girl when this happened’—because so much complex stuff is coming." (cited in Hoskin 2015: 10)

Though the Spierig Brothers see the film primarily as a time-travel thriller, they were well aware of the necessity for the audience to believe in an actor playing the role of the intersex protagonist both before and after the unasked-for sex change (Hoskin 2015: 11). “Until [Sarah Snook] came on board, we really had no idea whether it was going to work. And she handled it with such a delicate, intelligent, well-researched approach,” Michael said. “I mean, one of her friends was going through the change—female to male—and she spent a lot of time with that person researching.” Peter added, “But talking more about identity and things like that—who that person is. Not so much the physical, but the mental, the social aspects of that” (cited in Hoskin 2015: 11).

Snook discussed the challenges of her character in a documentary about the making of Predestination. “The saving grace is I’m not playing a man,” she noted, “I’m playing a man who was once a woman.” In conversations with her friend who transitioned from female to male, she gained insight not only into the process of transitioning but also “how you feel mentally and emotionally, what things you feel like you do have control over and what things you don’t have control over. That gave a really good foundation and background from which to work from” (Spierig and Spierig 2013).

When interviewed about recreating the character’s gender transition physically, Michael said they “didn’t want to hide Sarah under a tonne of rubber or go for the joke shop beard, because you want to be emotionally connected [to the character]” (cited in Russell 2016). While the protagonist is intersex, Peter emphasized that Predestination wasn’t written as a niche queer film but rather was intended for mainstream audiences: “We’re proud that the intersex angle isn’t a ‘message,’ it’s just part of this character’s life and experiences, and I love that” (cited in Russell 2016).

While the filmmakers consider genre characteristics to be central to the film narrative, the Spierig brothers seem equally aware of the need for empathetic character portrayals to sustain audience engagement through the complicated science fiction plot twists. As such, Predestination moves beyond mere genre action thriller to engage with dramatic realism by presenting the emotional and relational development of realistic characters. As I will show, this character realism opens the way for mainstream audience identification with the protagonist that, when combined with the non-realistic time-travel narrative, ultimately upends their assumptions about gender.