*This story was updated on 18 November 2021. Jack Neo and Kelly Kimberly Cheong have commented on the controversy. Neo said he would change the name of the character in the movie.
SINGAPORE — The upcoming Jack Neo movie, Ah Girls Go Army, has received criticism for naming a character played by a transgender actress "Amanda Man".
The movie, a spin-off of director Neo's Ah Boys To Men films, is set in an imaginary Singapore in which females are conscripted into the military alongside males. Apple Chan and Glenn Yong will star, as well as more than a dozen actors that Neo cast through audition videos submitted by influencers and netizens.
After filming for Ah Girls Go Army began on 13 November, cast member Kelly Kimberly Cheong, a transgender TikToker known for videos teaching martial arts techniques, posted a photo of herself in costume on Instagram. Her character's name, Amanda Man, was printed on the military uniform that she wore.
A number of netizens have criticised the move. They said it reinforces the transphobic notion that trans women are still men and not women, and perpetuates harmful misconceptions about transgender people.
Transgender netizen Nusrat Zulkeflee wrote, "Can the local media please stop positioning transgender women in such a manner where the impressionable audience is compelled to believe that transgender women are just men pretending to be women, and transgender identities are a joke? I hope (Kelly) raises the issue with the creative team of the film and educates them on how harmful such portrayals are to the transgender community. Society at large will develop deeper mistrust in transgender women and see us as being nothing more than mentally ill men pretending to be women, as if we aren't already grossly misunderstood as being perverts preying on women to begin with."
Cheong responded jokingly to commenters on her post, writing in response to one critic: "So you're saying trans women can't be called Amanda?😂"
Cheong had deleted the mentioned post, together with the critical comments, when Yahoo Life SEA checked her Instagram page on 16 November. We saved some screenshots:
Jack Neo, when speaking to news portal AsiaOne (which is partly owned by MM2 Asia that is co-producing Ah Girls Go Army), said that Cheong's character is "not a trans character", but a "female tomboy who is a bada**".
"Kelly was cast specifically for this role for her fighting ability, not her gender identity. However, we understand that some people are not comfortable with the character's name, which had been interpreted as a reference to her trans identity. The character's name will be changed. We apologise for any distress we have caused," Neo said.
Cheong told AsiaOne that her character Amanda was not a transgender person, but "a cisgender, biological girl". She said she did wonder if it was appropriate for her character to be named as such and brought up the matter to director Neo after some netizens commented on her Instagram post.
"He said that he didn't mean for this to happen," said Cheong. "He explained that my character is a tomboy. Jack always tries to assign very iconic names to each character that represents their personality, and since my character is a tomboy, I guess they just put 'Man', [as a word] play on masculinity. I don't think he came from the angle of trying to give me any low blow or anything."
disappointed but not surprised pic.twitter.com/bShPaHW0BD
— nusrat (@foreheadfatty) November 14, 2021
calling it now: they will copy the "ohh,, a man, duhh - amanda" joke from friends. unoriginal and unfunny https://t.co/WegFK3jJXy
— kris (@hear69sg) November 14, 2021
I just realised it's transgender awareness week, 13-19
Really shitty of Jack Neo to release this information this week.
— OliviaParamour (@OliviaParamour) November 14, 2021