While Palmer’s inclusion of a gender-nonconforming person is significant, the film misses an opportunity for emphatic representation.
Apple TV+‘s new film, Palmer, is the tender story of an ex-con (Justin Timberlake) learning to bond with his gender-nonconforming son, Sam (Ryder Allen). While the film features the crucial representation of a gender-nonconforming person, it goes about it in such a tentative manner that it misses an opportunity to bring an important social issue to a large audience.
Sam is depicted as a cherubic boy who loves to play with dolls and dress in blouses, which his gender role-enforcing father, referred to as Palmer, greatly dislikes. Sam is harassed at church and school by young boys his age and, horrifically, by their prejudiced fathers. However, Sam rarely loses his blissfully unbothered demeanor and Palmer undergoes an unexplained change of heart as he eventually embraces his son.
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Palmer severely underplays Sam’s gender-nonconformity by making his most prominent trait how lovable he is. The film highlights Sam’s sweetness as a way to get the audience to support him, instead of validating his existence regardless of his demeanor. This reduces Sam to a blanket representation of gender-nonconforming children, instead of fleshing out his character and allowing him to be truly real and flawed. By keeping Sam gentle and kind in the face of repeated harassment, Palmer doesn’t allow a complete picture of the struggles a gender-nonconforming person must endure every day.
Sam’s gender-nonconformity is never addressed head-on, in that any time Palmer questions Sam as to why he likes to dress a certain way, Sam responds with vague and indefatigable optimism, seemingly unaffected by the harassment. It isn’t until Sam is physically assaulted by grown men that the film shows the pain Sam has to endure from an intolerant environment. By simplifying Sam’s character to a sweet, perfect kid, Palmer denies itself any opportunity for authentic representation that would have been a landmark intersection of social activism and film.
The difference between simply including a character versus authentic representation is akin to the difference of being merely tolerated versus being enthusiastically accepted in the real world. Sam should be accepted for all of who he is — a lovable kid who is gender-nonconforming. Palmer seems to be too timid to vibrantly assert Sam’s gender-nonconformity and radically embrace his flaws and struggles. By simplifying the theme into just treating everyone with respect, Palmer neglects to address how gender expectations are a social construct in the first place.
Additionally, Palmer also glosses over how Sam’s father goes from telling his son, “boys don’t play with dolls,” to wholeheartedly supporting him. Without any insight into how Palmer overcomes his intolerance, he magically accepts his son by the third act of the film. A deeper depiction of how gender constructs are annulled is sorely needed, instead of just falling back on vague notions of parental love. This would help extrapolate acceptance for a community instead of one specific lovable child. Palmer is soft-spoken representation on both fronts: Sam’s struggle with his own gender-nonconformity and his father embracing him.
Authentic representation of a social justice issue is an invaluable avenue that film allows, so to tip-toe around the subject being addressed is unforgivable. Gender-nonconforming people encounter prejudice and violence throughout their life, and their harassers are not going to magically embrace them one day, as Palmer suggests. To see their struggles and stories proudly asserted on the big screen would be a validating experience and an informative one for society at large. Any social activist movement starts by inspiring and educating people, and there is no better vehicle than film to totally immerse a spectator in someone else’s shoes.
Palmer could have shown Sam’s internal struggle, and thereby the beauty in his difference and why acceptance is needed. Instead, it chose to portray him as an ideal child who should be protected because of his lovability. The film could have demonstrated how Palmer broke down his traditional beliefs about gender, instead of skipping over it. If a movie is going to address a social issue in the hopes of inspiring change, then it must do so emphatically.
Palmer, directed by Fisher Stevens and starring Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Alisha Wainwright, June Squibb and Ryder Allen, is now streaming on Apple TV+.
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