PRINT March 2021


Poison Pen

Veneno, 2020, still from a TV show on HBO Max. Season 1, episode 4. Cristina “La Veneno” Ortiz Rodríguez (Daniela Santiago).

THE FOURTH EPISODE of HBO Max’s Spanish-language biopic Veneno (2020) etymologizes its title, the national pet name of Spain’s late trans icon Cristina “La Veneno” Ortiz Rodríguez. In the limited series’ most memorable sequence, Cristina (an intoxicating Daniela Santiago) descends on Parque del Oeste, the center of trans sex work in 1990s Madrid, to mark her territory among peers and bullies. Dressed in a slinky harem ensemble—complete with an ass-grazing human-hair wig and brand-new Jessica Rabbit breasts—Cristina confronts her rival, Fanny (Lara Martorell). Fanny shrieks that “a boob job doesn’t change shit! You’re still a faggot,” so Cristina tackles her, strangles her, and tears one of Fanny’s nipples clean off between her teeth! Lightning streaks, rain gushes; a gang of Nazis arrives to terrorize the working girls; Cristina, blood dribbling down her chin, brandishes a sickle and begins to carve up the intruders. Paca (Desirée Rodríguez), Cristina’s best friend, gapes at her sister and proclaims, “Esa chica: ¡un veneno!” which translates roughly to “This woman is pure poison!”

What distinguishes Veneno from its predecessors in the trans-TV canon—Transparent, Pose, Euphoria; the list goes on, though not far—is its affinity for poison itself, venom: the audacity to portray its heroine as the vicious product of a toxic environment while allowing her to claim that lineage as such, flaunting her thorns with intention and pride. In one of Veneno’s reenactments of its namesake’s many talk-show appearances, La Veneno submits to a polygraph test regarding accounts in her autobiography, including the bit about the nipple. One cohost announces that the machine has exposed the tale as a lie; another pathologizes Cristina’s self-narration, asking if she’s “some kind of Spielberg now?” Leaving the studio, the humiliated Cristina doubles down. “Back then, things were different,” she fumes. “On a rainy night, the park was flooding and faggots floating!” While Veneno works, sometimes arduously, to assert the goodness of its heroine, it also sanctifies her wrath—a wrath that empowers her in the face of detractors. “Spielberg” is a choice pejorative for a woman who tells her story as she feels it, bending a complicated past into a dazzling hero’s journey worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. Where erstwhile entries of “trans tipping point” television have sought—single-mindedly, it seems—to humanize their characters in the name of positive representation, Veneno lays bare the process of representation itself. Veneno’s Veneno not only tells but directs her own story, from the inside out, with all the fearful powers of cinema at her disposal. 

Veneno’s Veneno not only tells but directs her own story, from the inside out, with all the fearful powers of cinema at her disposal.

In a 1992 article on independent gay and lesbian film for the Village Voice, B. Ruby Rich detected a break “with older humanist approaches . . . that accompanied identity politics.” The version republished later that year in Sight & Sound christened it “the New Queer Cinema,” a movement all in on “renegotiating subjectivities”: “Claim the heroes, claim the villains, and don’t mistake any of it for realness.” In 1992, a film-critical citation of “realness” would trace a hard line back to Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1990), a documentary Rich identifies as a foundational work of the New Queer Cinema along with narrative features such as Todd Haynes’s Poison (1991) and Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992). Realness, in Paris Is Burning, is a frequent target for those competing on New York’s ballroom circuit, where gay and trans contestants battle to determine who among them passes the most effectively as a “real” woman or man, straight or cis. (“You’ve erased all the mistakes, all the flaws, all the giveaways, to make your illusion perfect,” explains someone off-screen.)

Realness carries significance for any transsexual, but the terms of realness are reshuffled when documentary storytelling gives way to narrative and the force of illusion contained therein. When a trans person on-screen wields her own frame of “heroism” and “villainy”—as in Veneno, whose source material is the real Veneno’s memoir—the functional definition of “the real” must submit to a “subjectivity negotiated” on that person’s terms, with the potential to defy the conventional humanism of pop identity politics. Indeed, Veneno herself, in her memoir, disposed of the hero/villain dichotomy entirely by naming it Digo! Ni puta ni santa, which translates to “I Say: Neither a Whore Nor a Saint!” Though Javier Calvo and Javier Ambrossi, the creators of Veneno, are neither trans nor female, they’re wise to tell Veneno’s story through the cracked lens of talk shows and memoirs: media in which realness—fact—is an expectation, defied here by a woman who finds virtue in fantasy, in her “perfect illusion” of beauty and ferocity. Fantasy gives way to the “irreverent,” the “energetic,” and the “excessive”: the most delicious attributes that Rich ascribes to the New Queer Cinema. And what could be more irreverent, energetic, and excessive than a nipple torn by teeth off a fake tit, parks flooding and faggots floating, Nazis slain in their wake? Veneno picks up where Rich left off in her ratification of a movement that, in its nascence, dealt almost exclusively in cis queer narratives. If the New Trans Cinema is still to come, Veneno is an unprecedented example—on TV of all places!—of what it could be.

Hari Nef is an actress and writer in New York.