Sally Jane Black’s review published on Letterboxd:
TW: transmisogyny, ableism, sexism, transition/surgery
This is what passes as sympathetic.
The narrative surrounding Joanne is complicated: it's entirely the wrong narrative but it's incredibly warm. The film's greatest sins actually are a reflection of its era, for once. While films made now but set in the past have a duty to comment on the values of the past (I am not arguing about this), films made in the past that make a flawed commentary on the deeper past perhaps have some leeway. I won't remain quiet on its misunderstandings, but I will acknowledge the earnestness with which those misunderstandings were made. To put it succinctly, the equation of Joanne's status as a trans woman being dependent on surgery is dangerous, damaging, but at least it has the excuse of a lack of resource. Even though the idea that trans women were and are and will always be women existed at the time, before the Internet and the weakening of the HBIGDA restrictions, it might have been harder for well meaning cisgender filmmakers to access. Cissexist assumptions that cisgender doctors knew us better were harder to disbelieve without a hundred thousand voices breaking through their barriers.
So it's still wrong and bad, but it's contextualized to still be empathetic.
Let me assert what is wrong with its portrayal of trans women, for the sake of any gender-questioning souls who might get the wrong idea from it:
The film asserts that Joanne's surgery defined her transition and that she was a man before it. If she is a trans woman, she was always a woman. The film shows her expressing regrets for having surgery. It's hard to tell what she is specifically regreting, but more and more, it seems evident that most trans women who transition do not regret the actual medical transition. It is not impossible that, especially in 1975, she might regret the societal consequences of her transition, however. Not all trans women go through any sort of transition (medical or otherwise) (but they are still trans women no matter what), but scaring trans women away from transitioning is just as damaging as equating being trans entirely with transitioning. There are many other moments, large and small, that are damaging or offensive, but those stand out as two of the worst. Though the film seems to also embrace the idea that trans women are just gay men taking drag in a different direction, it makes a lie of that idea as well. Joanne truly does love Mona. Whether she is bisexual or a lesbian or simply fluid in her sexuality, she is not unequivocally depicted as a gay "man."
The absolute worst, though, is the story of Joanne's "tricking" a local boy into going to bed with her at the prom. Within the context of the film, it seems like this version of events might be accurate, but the stereotype that trans women do this--that we are men in drag luring straight men into traps--is probably the most dangerous stereotype for us, the one that gets us killed. The film's take on it is complicated, however, in that it actually depicts the trans woman sympathetically. It makes it clear that the violence done to her in the wake of this moment is wrong. That's what is most startling about this film: it accedes to the stereotypical, dated/limited/inaccurate views of trans women, but also asserts that scorning us even if we are those stereotypes is wrong. Other films that attempt this fail in one of many ways, either centering the story on cisgender people (this film is hit-or-miss with that), artificializing trans women and negating the assertion of our humanity (this film succeeds via performance if nothing else at portraying Joanne as human), or simply being too shallow to have any meaningful impact (this film has its flaws, but shallowness is not among them).
The film is an ensemble piece, and the cis women get as much focus as Joanne, with Mona specifically more or less being the most central character. Joanne's role in the ensemble is catalystic, making her seem sometimes less a character than a plot device, but many of the cis woman come off this way as well. Joanne's scathing questions, Mona's emotional outbursts, Sissy's passive aggressive comments all serve as much as plot points as characterization. The film relies on performance, relies on human beings to draw the depth out of words designed to bring action to an actionless film, and between the camera's skill at catching moments (the way Juanita fails to take Joanne's hand for the prayer, the way Joanne's face falls when she is misgendered, the way Mona moves in response to certain references, Sissy sitting with her legs spread) created by these performances brings the heart of the film to the fore.
The one truly positive point in the portrayal of Joanne is the film's best moment. Edna Louise is being viciously mocked for her new dress by Stella and more softly derided (or complimented in a left-hand way) by some of the others, and Joanne takes Edna Louise in, locking eyes on the whole of her before suggesting in the most humane and kind way that she can change into something more comfortable. Joanne is shown to value comfort over spectacle, while many trans women are accused of being substanceless, and she is shown to be sympathetic to Edna Louise's plight. She tells her without saying it that there is no need to subject herself to judgment based on her sartorial choices while giving her a way out of the cruel mockeries of her friends that retains her dignity somewhat. It's one of the few moments of absolute, gentle compassion the film shows.
The film's worst characteristic is an invisible one, though. The off-screen character of Jimmy Dean is described in offensive terms, and his alleged disability is treated as a horror. Sissy is the voice of sympathy for Jimmy Dean, but even her sympathies are belittling in many ways. Given the commonly offensive depictions of those with mental disabilities in films from this time period, it's hard to say that the lack of an appearance by Jimmy Dean is worse somehow, but certainly his description-only depiction is lacking in empathy, in no small part because so much of the empathy in this film comes from performance. It's an ableist use of the character as a plot twist rather than a real person.
Despite these flaws, the film captures something important and powerful. The predominant ideas here are self-deception and repression. Mona is lying to herself and everyone else about her son. Juanita keeps telling herself lies about rain and prosperity. Sissy has lied about her lovelife. All of them have tacitly lied to Mona by not asserting the truth about her son and her life. In comparison, their worship of James Dean is a nostalgic dream of a better world they never had. If anything in this film makes it compelling to a trans woman, it's this idea that the glories of the past are all a lie, that the rose-colored hindsight with which we view the old days is restrictive and hurtful. The old days were never good for us; America's sock hop motorcycle slick early Cold War greased lightning paradise was living hell for us. That living hell ripples forward, and, when collectively ignored (just as the lies these characters hold onto are), grows malignant, destroying us as it always has but also encompassing everyone else as well. Their group dynamic, the contention and cruelty, the love and fellowship, it struggles to survive, just as we always have.