You’d think that in discussing a movie starring Penelope Cruz, I’d focus on Penelope Cruz. Today is not your day. Au contraire, in 2000’s Woman on Top, it’s Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr.), the trans friend, who’s much more interesting.

So how does Monica fit into a turn of the millennium Latin-flavored rom-com? Isabella (Cruz) leaves Brazil and her restaurateur husband Tonihno (Murilo Benicio) for the haven at Monica’s in…wait for it…San Francisco. Tonihno soon follows her, his only clue a postcard of Monica’s street sans a return address. Until he spots Isabella on her TV cooking show, he tries to pester a telephone operator to find her through Monica.

But she is unique! 5’10, braids, great legs and…she’s a man!

In San Francisco, that is not unique! 

“Toninho, you are a macho, romantic, primitive heterosexual. Honey, that is so 20th century.”

In San Francisco, it’s a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. That’s unique.

Yes, the city allows trannies to roam the streets freely, rent apartments, and even sidekick a TV show from time to time. People play with gender in their free time. But for all its fluffiness, WoT‘s Isabella never makes a big deal out of her friend’s gender identity or cracks a joke at her expense. We don’t even find out she’s trans until we first see Monica, which is a good 15 to 20 minutes into the film.

In fact, the pair is so tight that they even take bubble baths together. Because that’s what friends who are biologically female and not necessarily biologically female do. Duh.

Monica, who clearly still has Carnaval in her blood, is a Brazilian transplant with a San Franciscan view. She’s sassier and wears a lot more turbans than most denizens, but like the city’s vocal bunch, she isn’t afraid to spit in the face of heteronormativity. After hearing Tonihno’s wining about Isabella, she counters:

“Toninho, you are a macho, romantic, primitive heterosexual. Honey, that is so 20th century.”

Aw yeah. Work it, girl. It’s not often you’ll find a movie that has not only a legitimate gender-transgressive person but also one who speaks her mind. There are moments when the TV execs stare at Monica and exclaim, “What is that?!” But the film allies us with Isabella and Monica, not with the men in the control room. We like Monica, even if her long red nails are a bit too ’90s.

And then my point would be that the city allows her to be herself and, above all, be likable. As much as we shout about gay rights, trans people and people who mess with the biologically assigned gender binary are much maligned in the United States. San Francisco offers a viable refuge, one that expands its LGBT community into LGBTIQQA.

Although I would have to disagree that Monica’s artifice would allow her to dress so hideously, for the most part, WoT treats her character as a buddy, sidekick and supportive friend instead of a sort of ugly sister. In San Francisco, we like our ladies with a little surprise.

Woman on Top is available on Netflix and Amazon.

Starring San Francisco is Appeal culture reporter, Christine
Borden’s, take on the city’s cinematic past to illuminate today. Have a
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