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The gender euphoria of ‘Being John Malkovich’

Cameron Diaz as Lotte Schwartz in Being John Malkovich
Cameron Diaz as Lotte Schwartz in Being John Malkovich (Image credit: USA Films)

When talking about transgender identity, we often default to gender dysphoria as a centerpiece of the trans experience. The overly reductive and cis-normative sentiment of “being trapped” in a body different than one’s gender is what many still default to, but gender dysphoria reflects a wide range of physical, psychological, and emotional states that stem from a disconnect between a person’s gendered self-image and the person they see reflected in the mirror. However, what is often left out of the conversation about transgender experience is the inverse condition: the feeling of gender euphoria.

Gender euphoria is not as commonly portrayed in trans-centric media, which has historically traded on the pain and suffering of transgender people as a series of teachable moments or exploitable tragedies for the benefit of cisgender audiences, but that doesn’t mean that the joy of transgender self-discovery is entirely absent from popular culture. So let’s talk about Lotte and the revelatory experience of Being John Malkovich.

Lotte Schwartz (Cameron Diaz) starts the film as what is commonly referred to in the trans community’s vernacular as an “egg”: they are a transgender person who does not yet realize that they are trans. They present as a woman and are in a heteronormative relationship with their husband Craig (John Cusack), and though the relationship is not outright toxic it seems to be one based on mutual convenience than any shared interests or romantic energy. Something changes once Lotte hears about Craig’s discovery of a portal to enter the mind and perspective of character actor John Malkovich. You can see their egg crack as the idea of being in another body seeds itself into their consciousness.

When Lotte crouches at the entrance of the portal, their speech and body language indicate that they are scared of this big step, filled with trepidation as to what will be on the other side, even though it is exceedingly obvious that this is a step they want to take. So it is with many trans folks discovering for the first time their ability to transgress against the social norms that have prevented the actualization of their identity. As Lotte discovers, taking that terrifying first step is exhilarating and rewarding.

Lotte’s first time as John Malkovich lasts a grand total of fifteen minutes spent in the shower, but looking down on themselves, feeling the way Malkovich’s body moves and feels in just that brief time, it’s a revelation. Lotte doesn’t just find Malkovich sexually attractive, but in that moment thinks of themselves as sexually desirable, a noted contrast from the baggy, concealing clothes and posture that Lotte exhibits when in their own body. It’s no wonder, then, that Lotte immediately wants to go back into Malkovich after their physical form is spit out by the New Jersey Turnpike.

They start telling Craig about how much everything made sense when in Malkovich’s head, like they finally knew who they were. There is definitive joy in being “John Fucking Malkovich” and Lotte immediately starts fantasizing about the portal as a metaphor for a vagina and a desired melding of Malkovich’s masculine and feminine sides. From there it takes absolutely no time for Lotte to come out to Craig as a transgender man, fully embracing the idea of taking steps toward gender-affirming surgery.

Setting aside Craig’s reaction for a moment, it’s worth noting how this is reinforced once Maxine (Catherine Keener) starts seducing Lotte when they’re in Malkovich’s head. When Maxine calls Malkovich, Lotte feels something for the enticing feminine voice on the other end of the line, so much so that they influence Malkovich into taking her up on her out-of-the-blue offer of a date. On the date itself, Lotte revels in the way Maxine looks at them and Malkovich, feeling joy at being seen as attractive by a woman. 

It’s not uncommon for the sexuality of a transgender person to shift and evolve over the course of coming out or receiving hormone replacement therapy, because by definition an egg had been previously unaware of the totality of their own self. So when Maxine starts a relationship with Lotte – and, let’s be clear, engages in some explicit emotionally abusive and manipulative behavior toward Lotte at a particularly vulnerable time in their life – it’s as much a sexual awakening for Lotte as it was a gendered one, since it’s quite easy to assume that whatever relationship brought Craig and Lotte together was not based true love or sexual compatibility.

Craig, as the ostensible protagonist of this film, is the antithesis to Lotte’s self-actualization. Unlike Lotte, Craig isn’t obsessed with Malkovich as a means of self-discovery or a vehicle for romantic exploration. To Craig, Malkovich is like any of his other puppets, a mechanism for the obliteration of his own self in favor of being someone, anything else. He’s a character motivated by self-hatred that channels his loathing into controlling a wife whom he has no interest in actually having a relationship with.

When Lotte comes out to Craig as a trans man, Craig’s immediate reaction – like that of many spouses in a similar situation – is to try to deny Lotte’s reality, to equate the rush Lotte felt in self-discovery with the rush he feels in self-annihilation. Though the relationship wasn’t necessarily abusive before, it certainly becomes so at this point. Craig fundamentally denies Lotte’s reality and believes that he is justified in conforming them into the wife he wants to possess, even as his own designs are toward sexual infidelity with Maxine.

That’s why we later see Lotte walk back her gendered fascination with being John Malkovich. They’re doing so not just to hide the blooming relationship between Lotte and Maxine, but to mollify Craig so that they can continue their experimentation with gender expression and masculine sexuality. Like many trans folks with limited support systems and openly hostile partners or parents, Lotte is verbally denying their identity so that they can continue to explore it safely in secret. They resist the negative influence of someone who claims to love them in order to more fully embrace a love of oneself. When this self-exploration is discovered, Craig again mirrors reality by imprisoning Lotte for their transgression and denying access to the means of their growth and maturity.

It’s unfortunate that Lotte’s euphoric arc is largely eclipsed by Craig’s descent into self-destruction by this point in the film, but we can glean quite a bit from how Lotte is portrayed in the film’s final moments. After Maxine realizes the worth of the relationship she threw away with Lotte, the two live as a couple and raise the daughter they conceived while Lotte was in Malkovich’s body. In the poolside epilogue set many years later, Lotte appears comfortable in her own body, wearing feminine clothes but also showing more skin and displaying a more relaxed and comfortable posture than they’d had anywhere else in the film.

One could point to the apparent femininity of Lotte’s public presentation as a refutation of Lotte’s transgender identity, but that would deny a few ways this scene could be interpreted. The way Lotte expresses their gender through clothing is not the same thing as their gender identity, which could still be binarily transmasculine or even non-binary, a distinction that wasn’t as well-known in popular discourse upon the film’s 1999 release and might have been harder to portray. The clothing Lotte wears, though, does not nullify their stated self-perception as a trans man they embraced earlier in the film. Trans folks undergo a variety of therapies and procedures to achieve transition goals that don't necessarily adhere to cis-normative beauty standards. And, particularly when it comes to swimwear, their clothing options may still need to adhere to societal notions of what is acceptable for “men” and “women” of their body type to wear in public.

The biggest takeaway shouldn’t be a dissection of the specific labels and affirming choices this trans person has adopted in the intervening years. The point of Lotte’s story, if not the entirety of Being John Malkovich, is that they have finally achieved happiness. Stemming from that initial feeling of gender euphoria, that glorious moment of experimentation that brought out the depths of their true self, Lotte found a way to feel comfortable in their own body, a partner that loves them, and a life that is as bright and wonderful as a trip to the pool. Being John Malkovich was simply a first step in becoming the true Lotte Schwartz.

If Being John Malkovich's exploration of identity through surreal storytelling is your cup of tea, then you'll likely enjoy the latest film for its screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman. Check out our review of I'm Thinking of Ending Things, one of the best films of the year.