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Joyland is not a trans love story Western progressives gloss over Pakistani women

The mistreatment of women in Pakistan is glossed over in the West. Credit: Joyland via/IMDB

The mistreatment of women in Pakistan is glossed over in the West. Credit: Joyland via/IMDB


March 8, 2023   5 mins

Why is Joyland being promoted as a “trans love story”? Since its release, the first Pakistani movie to ever be screened at the Cannes Film Festival has been making headlines in the West, where progressives celebrate it for bringing the country’s transgender community into the spotlight. But that interpretation is not only reductive — it is also harmful to the minorities these commentators claim to be supporting.

While one of the stars of Joyland is a trans actor, whose character has a budding romantic relationship, focusing on this aspect of the movie misses the larger themes its creators were looking to highlight: the soul-crushing demands made of women in Pakistan — particularly mothers — and the tragic choices some make to escape their desolate circumstances. Questions of masculinity, familial responsibility, and the struggles of working-class Pakistani families are all presented with care and nuance, as is the discrimination faced by transgender people. The latter, though, is not the crux of the story.

One wouldn’t describe John Wick as a movie about animal cruelty, or Jurassic Park as a tale of corporate negligence, even though those themes are present. But amplifying LGBT-related content in movies has recently become a trend in the West — partly fuelled by a marketing industry that has wholeheartedly adopted identity politics as a way to sell cinema tickets. It is, of course, encouraging that LGBT minorities in Western societies are increasingly accepted and visible in popular culture. But in nations where they are not, exaggerating their centrality to a storyline can spell disaster for struggling artists who are treading a line, carefully weaving overlooked narratives into their works.

Last August, Pakistan’s censor boards approved Joyland for release, but backtracked after receiving complaints from religious politicians that the film “contains highly objectionable material which do not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society”. It was banned until November, but was cleared for release after a government committee was set up to investigate the film. The hard work of local journalists, and a social media campaign in Pakistan with the hashtag #ReleaseJoyland, helped reverse the ban, and the film has enjoyed a successful run in cinemas. Still, the more sexual elements of the movie were censored for domestic audiences, and it is not being screened in the nation’s most populous province of Punjab.

In all this, Western discourse has probably been more of a hindrance than a help. Pakistan’s traditionalist circles tend to be biased against anything given the stamp of approval by Western progressives. Maria Butt, for instance, one of the nation’s most influential and successful fashion designers, has vehemently spoken out against the promotion and screening of Joyland in Pakistan, accusing it of promoting a “trans agenda”. Given that she supports boycotting the film, we can safely assume that she hasn’t actually watched it. But her response is still useful, in that it reveals what happens when Western ideology is imposed on works of art set in more socially conservative nations. Here, the labels of “trans” and “LGBT” can easily discourage a local audience from engaging with a work’s more subtle themes, potentially prejudicing moviegoers before they’ve had a chance to watch it.

The implications of this are profound. It’s not a big deal for Disney if Thor: Love and Thunder is blocked for release in Malaysia due to its blink-and-you-miss-it allusions to bisexuality. But for indie production companies such as Khoosat Films — creators of Joyland — local audiences being put off their work can prevent a project breaking even, as well as discourage up-and-coming directors from pursuing more risquĂ© stories. Filmmakers in Pakistan know this, which is why Joyland’s official trailers don’t mention the Queer Palm awarded to the film, instead only highlighting its Jury Prize at Cannes. (News of the award still made its way to Pakistan, with one politician responding: “Obviously if it’s received the Queer Palm award what kind of film must it be?”)

But where reviews in the West consistently describe the film as a “trans-cis” love story or a “trans drama”, Pakistani viewers rarely single out this plot point, focussing instead on its more universally accessible themes of loneliness and despair. Meanwhile, not all films with LGBT characters are met with condemnation in Pakistan. In 2019, Joyland’s director, Saim Sadiq, and trans star, Alina Khan, worked together on Darling. It’s possible that Sadiq was testing the waters with this 16-minute short film, which follows Khan as she tries to make it as an erotic dancer in Lahore, but faces pushback and discrimination. It was the first Pakistani film to be screened at Venice Film Festival and won the award for Best Short Film, but otherwise received little attention in the West. In Pakistan, however, it was heralded as a “landmark moment for queer cinema”.

The myopia of Western critics also ignores some of Joyland‘s more tragic themes, which involve its non-trans female characters: the pressure to produce a male heir; the discouragement to pursue meaningful work outside the domestic realm; the feeling of powerlessness as the men in your life are free to explore and “find themselves”, sexually or otherwise. The despondency and desperation that millions of Pakistani women experience in their daily lives is not relatable for the average North American or European moviegoer. What Western audiences are well-acquainted with, however, is the claim that transgender people face discrimination in society. And as a result, the film’s layered exposĂ©s of Pakistani society are reduced to the latest progressive cause: trans activism. The mistreatment of women in Pakistan, meanwhile, is largely glossed over. 

This is part of a wider and worrying cultural trend. Last month, I wrote about how Pakistan’s annual International Women’s Day march, due to take place in Lahore today, had been hijacked by causes more palatable to Western progressives. The Aurat March organisers’ foregrounding of trans issues made it more controversial in its country of origin, to the point where, over the weekend, it was banned. Here, surely, is a sign that those seeking change in Pakistan must reach out to social conservatives — the nation is home to so many, both male and female — or face being outlawed. It may be unfortunate that some of the LGBT lifestyles presented by the Western media would be viewed as scandalous to the average Pakistani, but that is the reality. Pushing a unipolar idea of what “progress” looks like won’t remedy this. What’s needed are films such as Joyland — films which are doing the hard work of trying to change hearts and minds by presenting subtle, nuanced stories that encourage the viewer to come to a different understanding of what it means to be gay or transgender.

Despite the negative press and attempts at censorship, Joyland has received enormous support from Pakistanis who recognise how necessary the film is, not just for the country’s struggling movie industry, but also for its social culture. It deftly handles domestic challenges that devastate the lives of far too many in the country — men, women and transgender people. It’s a movie by Pakistanis for Pakistanis that reflects back to us a more complete representation of our society than we’re used to seeing on screen. By the time the credits roll, your heart swells — and, when viewed as its creators intended, it doesn’t occur to you that what you’ve just watched is an award-winning “trans romance”.


Hina Husain is a Pakistani-Canadian freelance writer based in Toronto.

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Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

I still have no idea what a “trans” actually is.
Even Stonewall is unable to enlighten me.
Here is their, er, “definition”:
https://www.stonewall.org.uk/the-truth-about-trans#know-trans
Q on Stonewall site:
“How does a person know they are trans?”
A on Stonewall site:
“Many people know they’re trans from a young age. Some trans people might not have the language or understanding of what it means to be trans until later in life. Other trans people do not know until they are teenagers or adults. There is no right or wrong way to be trans, but what is clear is that it’s not something that’s a fad or a ‘lifestyle choice’ and that all trans people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. If you aren’t recognised as being the gender you know you are, it’s extremely damaging.”
Clear as mud.
Now try adapting that question for straights and gays – see how clear and simple the answers are:
Q: How does a woman knows she’s straight?
A: She’s sexually attracted to men.
Q: How does a woman know she’s gay?
A: She’s sexually attracted to women.
Q: How does a woman know she’s bisexual?
A: She’s sexually attracted to men and women.
When something actually exists, it’s easy to define.
I defy anyone to read the stonewall “definition” of what a trans person is and tell me what on earth it means.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I take issue with your statement that When something actually exists, it’s easy to define, there are things that exist that are complicated to define. However, this is beside the point – the problem with the Stonewall “definition” is that it is not a definition, it’s not even a simple statement of how being trans manifests itself in the sexual feelings or behaviours of an individual, it is a jumbled justification of Stonewall’s stance of the whole trans issue.

Helen Laurel
Helen Laurel
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Maybe the reason that sentence doesn’t explain what being trans is, is because it’s not supposed to? It answers how a person knows they’re trans not what being trans means. It even clearly says that in the title of the segment which is “How does a person know they are trans?” and not “Definition of the word Trans”. See things make a lot more sense when you don’t purposefully misinterpret them.

If you want a simpler answer to the question “A person knows they’re Trans because their gender does not match their sex assigned at birth.” The reason stonewalls answer is longer is because it tries to dispell common myths for example the myth that every trans person knows they’re trans from the moment they were able to think.

But judging from your second to last sentence I doubt that you’ll listen to reason as you seem to have already made up your mind so I’m mostly typing this out to highlight your flawed arguments to others reading through the comments here.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I take issue with your statement that When something actually exists, it’s easy to define, there are things that exist that are complicated to define. However, this is beside the point – the problem with the Stonewall “definition” is that it is not a definition, it’s not even a simple statement of how being trans manifests itself in the sexual feelings or behaviours of an individual, it is a jumbled justification of Stonewall’s stance of the whole trans issue.

Helen Laurel
Helen Laurel
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Maybe the reason that sentence doesn’t explain what being trans is, is because it’s not supposed to? It answers how a person knows they’re trans not what being trans means. It even clearly says that in the title of the segment which is “How does a person know they are trans?” and not “Definition of the word Trans”. See things make a lot more sense when you don’t purposefully misinterpret them.

If you want a simpler answer to the question “A person knows they’re Trans because their gender does not match their sex assigned at birth.” The reason stonewalls answer is longer is because it tries to dispell common myths for example the myth that every trans person knows they’re trans from the moment they were able to think.

But judging from your second to last sentence I doubt that you’ll listen to reason as you seem to have already made up your mind so I’m mostly typing this out to highlight your flawed arguments to others reading through the comments here.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

I still have no idea what a “trans” actually is.
Even Stonewall is unable to enlighten me.
Here is their, er, “definition”:
https://www.stonewall.org.uk/the-truth-about-trans#know-trans
Q on Stonewall site:
“How does a person know they are trans?”
A on Stonewall site:
“Many people know they’re trans from a young age. Some trans people might not have the language or understanding of what it means to be trans until later in life. Other trans people do not know until they are teenagers or adults. There is no right or wrong way to be trans, but what is clear is that it’s not something that’s a fad or a ‘lifestyle choice’ and that all trans people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. If you aren’t recognised as being the gender you know you are, it’s extremely damaging.”
Clear as mud.
Now try adapting that question for straights and gays – see how clear and simple the answers are:
Q: How does a woman knows she’s straight?
A: She’s sexually attracted to men.
Q: How does a woman know she’s gay?
A: She’s sexually attracted to women.
Q: How does a woman know she’s bisexual?
A: She’s sexually attracted to men and women.
When something actually exists, it’s easy to define.
I defy anyone to read the stonewall “definition” of what a trans person is and tell me what on earth it means.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

I’d imagine this article represents something of a niche subject as far as Comments is concerned. I think it’s important though, not least since Pakistani communities here in the UK (and probably elsewhere in the West) tend to take their mores from their home country. I was struck, having worked with many Pakistanis in healthcare, how many still refer to Pakistan as “home”. So anything which allows for greater understanding between communities is to be welcomed.

This isn’t about pushing an aggressive trans agenda, but simply about the right of trans people to live in peace in a civilised society. It should be said that the trans lobby we witness in action has become a hindrance rather than a help to trans people.

Not having seen the film, i can’t comment on whether it gets this balance right. It would seem so, if passing at least some censors in Pakistan and with the writer of this article at pains to point out it’s not the primary focus of the film, which appears to be the treatment of Pakistani women as second class citizens, itself an even more important hindrance to social integration.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Like you, I haven’t seen the film and probably won’t. On the surface it does seem a niche issue but it speaks powerfully to how progressive obsessions with minority issues, affecting trivial numbers of people, are now actively hindering efforts in less developed societies to deal with inequities that impact the lives of huge numbers.

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The rights of women, actual gay people and all types of religious minorities are fairly non-existent in Pakistan so it is a bit rich that a film that is so feted in western countries deals with the tiniest of these minorities. It may not be widely known but like Iran, the Pakistani government actually promotes surgical transition for its gay men and passed a landmark trans rights law in 2018 which is considered very progressive by transactivists. Traditionally given the seclusion of women, transwomen were used in entertainment and the sex industry. Transwomen straddle two worlds and have much greater ease of movement compared to the average Pakistani woman.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

As it happens, i’m aware of the issues with females in Pakistan.
You’ve actually missed the point of the article, which is that the trans issue it just a minor part of the film, despite what the film buffs have taken as being their preferred issue. Instead, as the article clearly points out, the film deals with the major issue of women’s rights in Pakistan.
Audiences can judge for themselves what’s important. You should therefore welcome the film, rather than describing something which you’ve misjudged as “a bit rich”.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Mirax Path
Mirax Path
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The trans relationship is central to the movie and the wife set aside is a minor footnote.

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The trans relationship is central to the movie and the wife set aside is a minor footnote.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

As it happens, i’m aware of the issues with females in Pakistan.
You’ve actually missed the point of the article, which is that the trans issue it just a minor part of the film, despite what the film buffs have taken as being their preferred issue. Instead, as the article clearly points out, the film deals with the major issue of women’s rights in Pakistan.
Audiences can judge for themselves what’s important. You should therefore welcome the film, rather than describing something which you’ve misjudged as “a bit rich”.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Like you, I haven’t seen the film and probably won’t. On the surface it does seem a niche issue but it speaks powerfully to how progressive obsessions with minority issues, affecting trivial numbers of people, are now actively hindering efforts in less developed societies to deal with inequities that impact the lives of huge numbers.

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The rights of women, actual gay people and all types of religious minorities are fairly non-existent in Pakistan so it is a bit rich that a film that is so feted in western countries deals with the tiniest of these minorities. It may not be widely known but like Iran, the Pakistani government actually promotes surgical transition for its gay men and passed a landmark trans rights law in 2018 which is considered very progressive by transactivists. Traditionally given the seclusion of women, transwomen were used in entertainment and the sex industry. Transwomen straddle two worlds and have much greater ease of movement compared to the average Pakistani woman.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

I’d imagine this article represents something of a niche subject as far as Comments is concerned. I think it’s important though, not least since Pakistani communities here in the UK (and probably elsewhere in the West) tend to take their mores from their home country. I was struck, having worked with many Pakistanis in healthcare, how many still refer to Pakistan as “home”. So anything which allows for greater understanding between communities is to be welcomed.

This isn’t about pushing an aggressive trans agenda, but simply about the right of trans people to live in peace in a civilised society. It should be said that the trans lobby we witness in action has become a hindrance rather than a help to trans people.

Not having seen the film, i can’t comment on whether it gets this balance right. It would seem so, if passing at least some censors in Pakistan and with the writer of this article at pains to point out it’s not the primary focus of the film, which appears to be the treatment of Pakistani women as second class citizens, itself an even more important hindrance to social integration.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago

Mr. Murray says that this piece is something of a niche subject. And so it is, for about 1bn Westerners. For the 7bn non-Westerners, it is anything but niche. For them, having to deal with the preoccupations and hypocrisies of the West is an everyday problem, and a problem they could well do without.
We Westerners occupy a privileged position in non-Western imaginations, and it’s a position we don’t deserve. This has nothing to do with colonialism, and everything to do with us being imperfect human beings.
Our relative wealth allows us to dominate the airwaves. Thus, our opinions, good, bad and indifferent, are hard to ignore. People like Ms. Husain wish we would shut up once in a while. It’s hard to disagree.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  David McKee

Mr. McKee has misinterpreted (wilfully?) my comment.
The “niche subject” i was referring to was the film itself, not the publicity and discussions which surround it.
Interestingly, only 8 comments (by mid-afternoon, UK time) seem to confirm my description.

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Mr. Murray – I meant no personal slight. In fact, I thought I was agreeing with you!
Your point about seeing Pakistan as home is relevant, and important. Is this attitude confined to the emigrants themselves, or is it leaching into their British-born descendants?

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Mr. Murray – I meant no personal slight. In fact, I thought I was agreeing with you!
Your point about seeing Pakistan as home is relevant, and important. Is this attitude confined to the emigrants themselves, or is it leaching into their British-born descendants?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  David McKee

Mr. McKee has misinterpreted (wilfully?) my comment.
The “niche subject” i was referring to was the film itself, not the publicity and discussions which surround it.
Interestingly, only 8 comments (by mid-afternoon, UK time) seem to confirm my description.

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago

Mr. Murray says that this piece is something of a niche subject. And so it is, for about 1bn Westerners. For the 7bn non-Westerners, it is anything but niche. For them, having to deal with the preoccupations and hypocrisies of the West is an everyday problem, and a problem they could well do without.
We Westerners occupy a privileged position in non-Western imaginations, and it’s a position we don’t deserve. This has nothing to do with colonialism, and everything to do with us being imperfect human beings.
Our relative wealth allows us to dominate the airwaves. Thus, our opinions, good, bad and indifferent, are hard to ignore. People like Ms. Husain wish we would shut up once in a while. It’s hard to disagree.

TERRY JESSOP
TERRY JESSOP
1 year ago

Sorry for being basic here, but if I am reading an article about a movie I like a rough hint as to what the plot of the movie is. I get that it’s about a trans person, but is this person in the movie played by the actor on the left of the accompanying photo (who appears to be an attractive woman, although maybe she is really a natal male who thinks she/he is a woman). Or is it the actor on the right (who looks like a regular bloke). Either way I think I might be giving this movie a miss.

TERRY JESSOP
TERRY JESSOP
1 year ago

Sorry for being basic here, but if I am reading an article about a movie I like a rough hint as to what the plot of the movie is. I get that it’s about a trans person, but is this person in the movie played by the actor on the left of the accompanying photo (who appears to be an attractive woman, although maybe she is really a natal male who thinks she/he is a woman). Or is it the actor on the right (who looks like a regular bloke). Either way I think I might be giving this movie a miss.

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
1 year ago

It’s all so tiresome.

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
1 year ago

It’s all so tiresome.

Mary Garner
Mary Garner
1 year ago

A simple point I am tired of the abbreviation LGBT
Adding T is forced teaming trans is a huge umbrella term which is largely manufactured
Non trans women and cis are also plain insults
Not seen film yet but seems Western critics are looking at through reductionist lens so yawn

Last edited 1 year ago by Mary Garner
Mary Garner
Mary Garner
1 year ago

A simple point I am tired of the abbreviation LGBT
Adding T is forced teaming trans is a huge umbrella term which is largely manufactured
Non trans women and cis are also plain insults
Not seen film yet but seems Western critics are looking at through reductionist lens so yawn

Last edited 1 year ago by Mary Garner
Marissa M
Marissa M
1 year ago

Can’t blame the West for everything.
Pakistan made the movie….

Marissa M
Marissa M
1 year ago

Can’t blame the West for everything.
Pakistan made the movie….

mike otter
mike otter
1 year ago

You’ve got to feel sorry for the Pakistani people – they have been as cruelly used by Western countries pre and post 1948 as they have by their own leaders: 1940s -present: Proxies against India and particularly Indian communists. 1950s > Cheap labour in UK. 70s > target practice for cops and skinheads. 90s > scapegoats for Jihadism and now proxies for the TQI brigade and their far left fellow travellers. I write from a town where Urdu is the most common language and Pakistani the largest of our population groups by ethnic origin. I think it’s their strong work ethic, natural honesty and Chinese levels of respect for Family above all that causes envy, which breeds spite, which breeds lies and so on. What do the leftists in UK (or Cannes) care for gay or trans people who may get battered in Islamabad because of their virtue signalling? The same SFA that Mountbatten cared when Hindu gangs burned Moslems alive on trains in 1948. (Not that he cared anymore for Indians killed in that conflict). A late friend of mine who came over as a child in 1950 remarked when the leftist/al qaeda/grooming gang axis was forming in the 90s: “My father brought us 5000 miles from Port Qasim to escape these primitives and now they are following us!”

Last edited 1 year ago by mike otter
mike otter
mike otter
1 year ago

You’ve got to feel sorry for the Pakistani people – they have been as cruelly used by Western countries pre and post 1948 as they have by their own leaders: 1940s -present: Proxies against India and particularly Indian communists. 1950s > Cheap labour in UK. 70s > target practice for cops and skinheads. 90s > scapegoats for Jihadism and now proxies for the TQI brigade and their far left fellow travellers. I write from a town where Urdu is the most common language and Pakistani the largest of our population groups by ethnic origin. I think it’s their strong work ethic, natural honesty and Chinese levels of respect for Family above all that causes envy, which breeds spite, which breeds lies and so on. What do the leftists in UK (or Cannes) care for gay or trans people who may get battered in Islamabad because of their virtue signalling? The same SFA that Mountbatten cared when Hindu gangs burned Moslems alive on trains in 1948. (Not that he cared anymore for Indians killed in that conflict). A late friend of mine who came over as a child in 1950 remarked when the leftist/al qaeda/grooming gang axis was forming in the 90s: “My father brought us 5000 miles from Port Qasim to escape these primitives and now they are following us!”

Last edited 1 year ago by mike otter