One of West Side Story’s biggest changes is a powerful, poignant win for trans representation

Susan Oakes as Anybodys in the 1961 version of West Side Story and Iris Menas version of the character in 2021

For many years, queer audiences have flocked to West Side Story and seen themselves represented in the gender non-conforming character Anybodys.

In the original 1961 film, the character is depicted as a tomboy who desperately wants to be accepted by the Jets, a gang of white boys who wage a territory war on a rival Puerto Rican gang. Anybodys was played by Susan Oakes in that film and their gender identity was never really explored in any meaningful detail – which is exactly what you would expect for a film released in 1961.

Now, West Side Story has been reinterpreted through the lens of Steven Spielberg – and this time around, it’s made abundantly clear that Anybodys is trans. Throughout the film, Anybodys – played brilliantly by non-binary actor Iris Menas – fights tirelessly to be accepted into the Jets, and he pushes the all-male gang to see him as one of their own.

There are a number of significant moments along the way for Anybodys in the 2021 version of West Side Story. The character lingers in the background for much of the film, but he comes to the fore in a scene in the police station where he is cruelly misgendered by members of the Jets, who speculate about his genitals and insist that he is a girl. But Anybodys isn’t willing to sit back and have his gender determined by others. “I ain’t no goddamn girl!” he says angrily.

Anybodys has a powerful moment where he is recognised for who he is in West Side Story 

Perhaps Anybodys’ most significant moment comes towards the end of West Side Story. He finally manages to ingratiate himself with the Jets through his efforts to protect Tony (Ansel Elgort), which leads a member of the gang to tell him: “You’ve done good, buddy boy.”

The camera lingers on Anybodys for a moment as he smiles, realising that he has finally been accepted and seen for who he really is by the gang he so badly wants to be a part of.

It’s a remarkable and timely revision to a character who came to represent gender diversity for queer viewers who have fallen in love with West Side Story over the years.

Notably, West Side Story doesn’t give audiences any concrete ideas about how Anybodys identifies. In a promotional video, Menas refers to the character using both he/him and they/them pronouns – and provides some crucial context on Anybodys’ back story.

“We meet Anybodys when he’s kind of been disowned from his family and is looking for a home, essentially,” Menas explained. “He’s sleeping on the streets and he’s been following the Jets closely… So we see this lost soul hoping to join this gang of brothers not only to be accepted into a family and seen as a unit but be accepted for who they are as a person and accepted in their own skin.”

Ultimately, Menas hopes the film will show audiences that love can flourish when people make an effort to learn about the experiences of others.

“We all just need to be a little more open and a little more compassionate toward one another, which I think we’ve all been in this cast, which is more than anyone could ask for,” zie said.

The film’s trans story has resulted in it being banned in Saudi Arabia

West Side Story was released on Friday (10 December) to critical acclaim, with a number of stars – including Ariana DeBose – garnering Oscars buzz for their powerful performances.

Sadly, the film’s story will not be seen all across the world. It has been banned in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations over the decision to make Anybodys explicitly, rather than implicitly, trans. Sources told The Hollywood Reporter that censors in some countries asked Disney and 20th Century Fox to cut scenes which made the character’s identity clear. When the studios refused, the countries opted to pull the film from cinemas altogether.

The decision is a tragic indictment of where we are today with LGBT+ representation on screen. There are more queer characters in film and television now than ever before – but whether you get to enjoy those depictions depends entirely on where you live and whether the culture deems it permissible.

Still, it feels significant that Anybodys has been rewritten as canonically trans in 2021, leaving the tiresome practice of queercoding right where it belongs – in the past.