[Trans Agenda] Examining THE LURE - The Fetishization and Exploitation of Trans Bodies
Trans Agenda is a monthly column about trans representation in horror where Ten Backe provides analysis on trans characters and how their actions compare to real life using her own experiences.
Ten Backe examines The Lure’s metaphor for the Trans experience.
Queerness has been ingrained in horror since the very beginning. The use of monsters and killers as metaphors for gender and sexuality has been around since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). This act of being othered is still used in horror today, and for anyone from the queer community, this is an all too familiar feeling. As a trans person, I often find myself looking deep into subtext to find something that I can relate to and desperately wanting to see myself represented. I project those themes onto films, even if they weren’t originally intended to be there. Sometimes, however, these themes are so prominent that even a casual viewer can see them. I believe that to be the case for Agnieszka Smoczyńska‘s 2015 Polish horror musical The Lure (Córki dancingu).
The film takes place in the 1980s. Our main characters are two mermaids, Golden (Michalina Olszańska), and her sister, Silver (Marta Mazurek). After coming to shore and sprouting legs, the two girls find themselves joining the disco rock band ‘Figs n’ Dates.’ The band consists of the singer/keyboard player (Kinga Preis), the bass player Mietek (Jakub Gierszał), and the drummer (Andrzej Konopka). The young mermaids begin performing at a nightclub as backup singers and strippers. Eventually, they gained enough popularity to become the lead singers and perform under a new name: The Lure.
As the story progresses, the girls' values begin to differ. Golden becomes bloodthirsty, killing and eating men, having lesbian sex, and performing in a metal band with her fellow sea creature Triton (Marcin Kowalczyk). Meanwhile, Silver falls in love with the bass player Mietek, who refuses to see her as more than just a fish. After a confusing series of antics, including the presumed murder of the mermaids and their unexplained resurrection, Silver has surgery to replace her tail with a set of human legs and genitals. Just as Triton warned, this causes her to lose her voice. Even worse, after having sex with her, Mietek is still unable to view her as a real woman and begins to fall in love with someone else.
Triton repeatedly tells the sisters if Mietek marries someone else, she will turn to seafoam by sunrise. Despite Golden urging Silver to eat Mietek on his wedding night, she refuses and disappears forever. In the somber final scene, Golden kills Mietek in anger, before escaping to the sea and realizes that she will never be fully accepted into the world of humans.
In it’s dark retelling of Han Christian Andersen’sThe Little Mermaid (1837), the film follows many mermaid tropes, including the loss of voice, the hunger for human blood, sexual deviance, and the magic of femininity. According to Smoczyńska, The Lure is a coming of age story that comments on puberty, misogyny, and the sex industry’s abuse of immigrants in Poland. While it is certainly not the first film to contain pubescent themes easily tied to the trans experience, it does so in ways I have never seen before.
From the beginning, this film sets its focus on genitals and nudity. In one scene, the club manager (Zygmunt Malanowicz) meets the mermaids for the first time. He becomes angry that the two seemingly young girls are in his adult space. The girls are quickly stripped naked and we discover that while in their human form, the mermaids have no genitals. Golden and Silver are completely smooth below the waist. However, when they are splashed with water, their phallic eel-like tails appear along with a scaly vagina. Immediately recognizing their “unique” genitals and appearance, the club manager decides to not only allow them inside but to have them sing and strip, showing off their nude bodies to the audience. This rings parallel to the constant fetishization of trans bodies (especially their genitals) in the real world. Trans people are treated as sexual objects so often that even in non-sexual situations, even existing in a public space, can become demeaning and even dangerous.
“To me, you’ll always be a fish… an animal.”
When Silver develops feelings for Mietek, he expresses that he is unable to reciprocate them. Despite Silver's human features and their shared attraction, Mietek refuses to separate her tail and lack of vagina from her personhood, saying “I can’t do this, as much as I’d like to.” and “To me, you’ll always be a fish… an animal.” This doesn’t stop him from accepting oral sex from her. Ultimately, the whole sequence plays out like transphobia to me. The idea that Silver couldn’t possibly be a real woman because of her lack of vagina is, unfortunately, a common cis belief. People are so conditioned to associate genitals with gender so often, that they make the mistake of associating all trans existence with genitals. The truth is, that there is no one way to be trans. While some people might want to make surgical and hormonal changes, others may not find those things important at all. This difference in trans beliefs is perfectly expressed by the two sisters.
Also, Golden feels comfortable in her own body. In one scene, a cis woman detective (Katarzyna Herman) begins to question Golden about a murder that she committed, and then falls under her seductive spell (women chasers do exist). They find themselves entangled in each other, in a graphic sex sequence showing their reciprocating lust. During the sex, Golden seems to embrace her tail, and her lover does the same.
Along the way, we meet Triton, a different sea creature who seems to live among the humans. While he doesn’t have a tail, instead he has large scarring on his forehead where his horns have been removed. Triton is experienced in the ways of human integration and gives advice to the mermaids, warning them of the dangers of living in human society. I thought of Triton to be a representation of an older trans man. Triton proudly showcases the scars from his “top surgery”, and offers advice on his experiences with cis people. Despite their differences, he sympathizes with the sisters and genuinely wants to help them.
As the film moves forward, Silver becomes increasingly unhappy with her body. Driven by her desire for acceptance, she makes the decision to get her tail replaced with a human bottom. We watch as Silver is cut in half on a bed of ice, in a playful fish joke, and her new lower half is sewed on. The donor of the legs is also shown to be alive and seemingly receives the tail to replace her legs which admittedly, left me with a few unanswered questions. What genuinely shocked me was that they chose to show Silver getting literal bottom surgery. It brought me to tears seeing a trans experience like this being shown so playfully.
When Silver loses her tail, she also loses her singing voice. Upon returning to the club, the manager decides she is no longer of value to perform. This scene takes a jab at the way the sex industry treats trans bodies. Once their genitals have been removed, sometimes they are no longer viewed as having the same sexual value. The trans body is something that people often wrongly view as “exotic” or “taboo.” Often, this fetishization excludes post-op trans women and ultimately, harms both sides.
As Silver begins to feel better after her surgery, she makes the decision to have sex with Mietek. However, she is not fully healed and leaves blood on Mietek’s stomach. He seems repulsed by this and leaves. No matter what Silver does with her body, he never seems happy. Once this sexual exploration was over, he no longer needed her. Even with a vagina, he still refuses to look at her as the woman that she is. As a trans woman who fights for recognition every day, this scene, in particular, cuts deep for me.
The Lure uses dark satire to showcase multiple trans experiences, across a gorgeous series of abstract musical scenes. The movie manages to make statements on misogyny, sex work, transphobia, fetishization, and exploitation, while never feeling too heavy handed. The film is an incredible coming of age trans story, with more layers to discover on every rewatch. Silver and Golden represent two smart young trans women making their way through life in 1980s Poland. They experience love, loneliness, lust, and pain.
While the heavy themes stand tall in The Lure, it is important to keep in mind that not everyone's experience is like this. There are plenty of happy and healthy trans people living their lives every day. Despite the tragic ending, the beautiful depiction of trans struggles in this film will stick with me for life. Now I just need to figure out how to manifest my own shark teeth.
Ten Backe is a Colorado based autistic disabled nonbinary trans woman. She is a writer, editor, musician and producer known for her queer perspective and co-host of the giallo podcast Violence On Velvet.