Midsommar has a deeply trans narrative hiding in plain sight

For most of my life, I never quite knew what to do around men.

My confusion ended up being a bit of a problem — because for most of my life, people were pretty convinced I was a guy. (Spoiler: I wasn’t.) I spent almost all of junior high and high school avoiding athletic pursuits because I didn’t particularly like the forced camaraderie and lewd locker room talk from guys in the showers afterward. I struggled with typical male social codes, and I never quite felt like I had a firm grasp on being the guy in a romantic relationship.

Awkwardness and confusion are basically universal across all adolescent experiences, and struggling to understand unspoken social codes is so often true among kids across the LGBTQ+ spectrum. But my awkwardness went beyond that. I viewed manhood as a unique burden to carry, a boulder to push up a hill each and every day. I figured all men felt this way. We are all wondering, I assumed, if it would be easier and better and lighter to be a woman, but, alas, we were not blessed as such and had to continue trudging along.

What I know now is that, no, not every other guy was thinking about how hard it was to be a man. They weren’t thinking about how being a woman would be preferable. Today, I understand those thoughts as expressions of gender dysphoria and my own trans feminine identity, because every trans person I’ve talked to has described some variation on that level of discomfort with their assigned gender at birth. That discomfort was signaling something I didn’t know how to listen to at first — I simply wasn’t a man, and the burden I shouldered wasn’t one I had to bear.

But it was hard to find fictional representations of this journey to self-realization despite the ubiquity of stories about girls who find themselves falling down rabbit holes into worlds where nothing makes sense. These stories presented a sojourn in Wonderland or Oz or Narnia as a brief pause in a growing girl’s life, not as an unending puzzle that existed into adulthood.

And then I saw Ari Aster’s 2019 folk horror dramedy Midsommar when it was released a year ago. I finally saw myself. And I’ve been thinking about the film ever since.

The popular reading of Midsommar says it’s a scary, funny breakup movie

Dani’s boyfriend, Christian (left), is just the worst.

Midsommar follows a young American woman named Dani (Florence Pugh) who travels to far northern Sweden to attend a midsummer festival with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), and his grad school dude colleagues. She’s not particularly welcome on the trip — the guys mostly invited her to join them because they felt bad for her after she suffered a family tragedy — and she feels increasingly disconnected from Christian.

As members of the group (and a comparable group of Brits) begin to disappear, one by one, under mysterious circumstances, Dani finds herself more and more drawn to the society of the mysterious Harga people. By the end of the film, she has made her choice between the land of her birth and the new family she has found. She has also set her boyfriend on fire.

One reason Midsommar works so well is that you can watch it and draw any number of different interpretations. It’s scary, but not particularly so. It’s funny, except when it’s deadly serious. It’s a fairy tale, except it’s also a harrowing depiction of grief and trauma. The film blends all of these tones together in a way that feels straight out of folklore. The cause-and-effect relationships between events in the movie feel suggested more than confirmed.

The predominant read of Midsommar — one that Aster himself has more or less advanced — is that it’s a metaphorical depiction of a relationship in crisis entering a tailspin and plummeting to the ground below. Dani and Christian shouldn’t be together, and the story of the film tracks her slow realization of that fact and his slow realization of just how unhappy she is. When Midsommar begins, he’s a passive-aggressive jerk who can’t seem to break up with her but clearly wants to. When it ends, she’s finally free but at great personal cost.

For a lot of people, Midsommar plays like a kind of weird romantic comedy — the perfect date night movie for a heterosexual couple longing to test the strength of their bond. The movie’s depiction of a broken relationship between two people who don’t yet realize their relationship is broken is extremely believable. It’s all but certain to provoke conversation about the strength of your own romantic relationship if you’re in one, the bad breakups lurking in your past, and the ways that codependency can curdle into abusive behavior.

But none of those reasons are why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Midsommar for the past year.

Midsommar captured my trans experience perfectly without trying to capture my trans experience

Florence Pugh in Midsommar.

Finally Dani gets to be just one of the gals.

The first time I saw Midsommar was an almost emotionally overwhelming experience. I laughed, I cried, I became so overcome by Bobby Krlic’s score in the film’s final moments that recalling it even now makes me mist up a little. Something at the film’s center hit me as hard as any movie ever has.

At first, I assumed it was the way in which Aster has my number. His carefully composed, diorama-like shots are perfectly staged to make you wonder what’s lurking just off-screen, and his camera explores the village of the Harga with a detached precision when Dani first arrives. Its movement grows more fluid the longer she’s there, to indicate how much she’s begun to feel at home here at the ends of the Earth.

I also tend to love stories that filter a genre idea through interpersonal drama, and the rupture between Dani and Christian was nothing if not interpersonal drama. Add the structure of a folk horror tale — wherein at least one person from modern society finds themselves lost in a bygone world where people still follow the old, pagan ways (usually involving human sacrifice) — and you have something potent and powerful.

Aster’s 2018 film Hereditary was another favorite of mine (and another film that can sustain a trans reading, incidentally). But my reaction to Midsommar was deeper, more substantial. Figuring out why I reacted so strongly was figuring out why Midsommar rapidly went from being one of my favorite films of 2019 to one of my favorite films of all time.

But reconsider the very premise of the film: Dani travels to Sweden with her boyfriend and his male friend group. She is an outsider, an interloper. They bring her along somewhat grudgingly, seemingly aware that Dani will only get in the way of them having a good time when they want to kick back and get high or ogle hot Harga girls. In other words, Dani is a buzzkill.

There are plot reasons for her buzzkill status. Midsommar opens with her losing her entire family in a gruesome murder-suicide — but Aster shoots early scenes where she’s with the group of guys in such a way that she is removed from them, detached. (A notable early shot takes great pains to show her reflection in a mirror but not her physical presence, in the same room as Christian and his friends but not really.) The guys keep assuring Dani she’s fine, she’s part of their group, they’re excited to have her. But she can tell from their tone of voice how little they actually mean that. The filmmaking betrays their true feelings by isolating her.

Thus, Midsommar is a movie about a woman who hangs out with a bunch of guys, never quite feeling welcome, or like any of them understand her. She’s always out of place, disconnected from what’s happening, even as they laugh and celebrate jovially around her. Cis women can certainly have this experience when hanging out with their boyfriends’ pals, but male group dynamics typically shift to avoid seeming too bro-y (for good or for ill) when they know a woman is present. For whatever reason, the guys Dani goes to Sweden with don’t shift their behavior in similar ways. What Dani goes through is almost a universal experience for trans women before they come out. They’re in the party but not of it, always feeling like there’s some joke they’re just not getting.

What’s more, the moment Dani starts to find acceptance from others is when she finds herself spending time with the Harga women. After an entire movie of trying to make sense of Christian’s moods, she finds herself competing for the title of May Queen with the other women of the village. Her face shines with happiness and abandon, and when one of the other girls starts talking to her in Harga (a language invented for the film), Dani finds she can just naturally speak it. It’s an incredibly cathartic moment. She displays an ease she’s never felt before, and it carries through the rest of the movie, as she finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into the Harga’s lifestyle and rituals.

But Midsommar has quietly been building to this catharsis all along. Around the film’s midpoint, Dani bears witness to a particularly horrifying ritual, and where others who’ve traveled to visit the Harga object in terror, Dani stares dead ahead at what’s happening right in front of her, seemingly unfazed. On some level, she’s on the Harga’s wavelength. On some level, she belongs there.

Folk horror is always about the inevitable clash between modernity and the ancient, pagan ways, but Aster layers atop that idea some gender commentary that feels particularly pointed. Dani can never find a way to connect with all of the men she’s joined on this trip to Sweden, but she can connect to the women she meets in a village on the other side of the planet. They just know each other, and in being known, Dani finally feels the rush of knowing what home is.

I don’t mean to suggest that Midsommar is an intentional trans allegory. Aster has said that he views Dani as a bit of a proxy for himself within the film, which is interesting on a “guy tries to imagine what’s going on in a woman’s head” level (Aster is very good at doing this, where many male directors aren’t). But the movie has plenty to say about bad relationships and tribalism and depression and a whole host of other things. As with all truly great films, there’s so much going on inside of Midsommar that you could spend weeks and weeks discussing it with friends and unearth more takes with every new conversation.

And yet … when Dani discovered she could speak to the other women in the village, I felt, deep inside of me, the sensations I had felt the first few times the women I knew saw me and knew me for who I really was. I felt the way I now feel every week when I gather on Zoom with some of my best trans woman friends to talk about what’s going on in our lives. There is an immense power to being seen and to being known, a power that many cis people don’t even realize they have possessed since the moment of their birth. I still have many friends who are men, but now, I feel like I understand better how to relate to them. I no longer feel like there’s a secret language I cannot speak.

To feel lost in your country of origin and stagger about looking for a home is to experience a deep emptiness at your very core. And then, one day, somebody speaks your name, and a whole secret world spreads out all around you. That world had been there all along, hiding. All it took were the right words, the right glance, the right knowledge to unlock its secrets. And once you’ve found them, you need never go back.

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