Preface: Some Context
I am not a humorless “Social Justice Warrior“. I hope for fair, compassionate treatment of other human beings, but I have little in common with some of the new generation of perpetually offended professional victims who have overtaken the public discourse on how to interact with underprivileged, disenfranchised and minority communities like mine. Also, when I originally wrote this piece, the term “transsexual” was the norm, and I’ve left it as written for historical purposes. This piece was written in 2009, and an update is due.
I love cinema, even — and especially– psychotronic, underground, schlock, B-movie and transgressive cinema. With that in mind, I risk sounding like a scold in this essay, but for this writing I’m putting on my activist/academic hat and dissecting what’s bad about trans portrayals in film. My writing here doesn’t mean that I don’t watch these movies and scream with laughter at how awful they are. Some of the worst movies on trans issues ever made are my go-to quotes for laughs among my close friends. That doesn’t mean I’d advocate for them in public. As a hilariously mean drag hostess I knew used to announce terrible performers: “Well, she’s already here, so let’s just make the best of it.”
This little piece was originally dashed off for a documentarian asking me for advice, but has been expanded and could inform any media piece about transsexual women. Its style and tone are conversational and idiomatic, reflecting the fact that these are my unpolished thoughts and this essay is not meant to be my perfectly considered “last word” on the subject. I write here almost exclusively about transsexual women (write what you know!), and will be interested to read a similar viewpoint from the trans male community when it is written. Someday I will probably reformat and footnote this essay, but until then I think the information can be useful to any media creator who wants to hear my perspective. Don’t miss my 1,000,000+ view YouTube video “Bad Questions to Ask a Transsexual” for a humorous but informative slant on these issues.
I’ve participated in many documentaries, going back to at least 1993, and I’ve probably seen or am aware of most English language docs or films of the last several decades that deal with trans characters, as well as many foreign language films. While I’ve done my best to influence those in which I’ve participated, my awareness has had to evolve over time, and sometimes I was simply not in a position of power once my participation was done. I have also participated in many narrative projects, including “Soldier’s Girl”, “Transamerica”, “CSI”, “Transamerican Love Story” and our own “Casting Pearls”, “Transproofed” and “Dallas Buyers Club”. In addition to the points I make below about the storytelling in narrative projects, a major concern of mine as an actress, activist and consumer is that transsexual women are rarely allowed to play ourselves on screen. And we are almost never allowed to play non-transsexual women. In both docs and narrative films, some key patterns have become apparent to me which are still fairly invisible to many creatives, so I will share an abridged list of some that I feel are negative, false, tired (ie:overused) or wrongly applied to transsexual women. This list isn’t intended to disparage the creative work of some very talented people, but I do feel it to be important to put this information out there. This is what transwomen who know something about film, tv and history are probably saying when they see these topics on screen.
Transsexual Clichés in Documentaries/Reality Television
Below are some of the seemingly “required” shots which can be found in most trans-focused documentaries and many trans-themed narratives, along with some reasons why they are negative, insulting or unnecessary:
- Getting “””DRESSED”””: ULTIMATE HALL OF FAME! Used in both films and documentaries, usually in the mirror, symbol of the probably closeted-crossdresser director’s narcissistic erotic interest in self feminization. Subject putting on lipstick, sliding foot into high heel shoe or stockings, painting fingernails, trying on “sexy” clothes. Usually done in close-up on the body parts, a typical in-camera dissection of us into fetishized, sexualized body parts, and easy broad-stroke telegraphing of a director’s ideas about “what it would be like” (*sexual moan*) to be a woman. You’ll find these shots in almost every movie with a prominent trans character, all the way up to the film made about my life (“Soldier’s Girl“) and the mostly wonderful “Transamerica”. If you can imagine the shot in a 1950’s black and white “Ladies’ comportment” instructional film, it’s probably falls into this category. The intended zing of these shots is usually the contrast between the highly female-gendered behavior and the visibly gender variant trans woman. “Look, a ‘man’ putting on high heels! a ‘man’ putting on lipstick!”
- Before/After Photo: Deserving of it’s own category, the before and after photo set and old name/new name are seemingly mandatory inclusions in any representation of a transsexual in any media. It is undeniably fascinating to the average gawker, in the same way that some people find autopsy photos of JFK or Marilyn Monroe fascinating. But what it does is implant an image in the viewer’s mind which “disproves” the subject’s womanhood. Once the viewer sees a photo of a mustachioed guy in a flannel shirt named Butch Manley, the current image of the transitioned woman becomes overlaid with subconscious thoughts like “Their real name was BUTCH. They used to be a man.” Unfortunately, many transwomen have so little support and recognition in their lives that they are eager to do anything to please anyone who shows interest. They gladly offer up anything requested, at the sacrifice of their own dignity and identity. Sometimes they don’t even understand this is happening. And of course, for some people who medically and socially transition, it really is all about the process, the mechanics, and the surgeries rather than just *being* a woman. They are as much a gawker at the eye-popping before/after photos and “would’ja believe my name used to be BUTCH!?” shockers as anyone, and I believe these people have something else entirely going on than I do. There are also a small number of women who share old photos and information among other transitioners in order to educate and inspire, and I personally remember being very inspired and heartened by seeing selectively shared photo evidence of how far some of my trans idols were able to come in their transitions. This sacrifice is admirable, because outsiders seeking their carnival sideshow fix will usually be along to snap up these images for their own purposes, ripping them from websites and albums intended to inspire and splashing them across tabloid media projects.
- Surgery and Process Focus: People outside the transsexual community, especially guys, love to hear all about the mechanics of transition. They cringe with excited horror at descriptions of genital surgery, leer at breast implant procedures and want every scalpel slice diagrammed and illustrated for their shivering, fascinated disgust. Most trans-focused documentaries focus on these mechanical aspects of transition and have included the seemingly required blood-drenched surgical porn disguised as “operating room footage”. Non-trans people seem to love to cringe at the sight of genitals being carved up, and there are many freaky transition fetishists who are mesmerized by the sight of gory sex-change surgery, too. Transsexual people themselves are interested in understanding the procedures that they may someday undergo, but this wise self-education is very different from the body-parts obsessed surgery porn that is usually a part of documentaries. I personally find surgical footage revolting, and for me, the nitty-gritty of one’s vaginoplasty was better kept a private experience. For most transsexual women, vaginoplasty and other surgeries are just a part of the journey to their target gender. Far too many documentaries make the transformation itself and the gory surgery the entire focus of their film, or the “big finale”. For many transsexual women who choose to have surgery, having vaginoplasty marks the beginning of their new life assimilated into the community of women. Few filmmakers ever look at what happens once the surgical landmarks have been passed, so we are left being portrayed as eternal debutantes, preparing for the big moment and then once it happens, the credits roll.
This process focus is mostly due to the camera always being in the hands of cluelessly fascinated straight people, closeted cross-dresser fetishists, or gay men who think they understand trans people because they really liked “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”.
Narrative filmmakers have been fascinated with transsexual people for as long as they have been aware of them. As an artist and storyteller myself, I understand that the journey of a transsexual character can seem like a bit of real magic happening in the mundane world. To the sympathetic eye, it can illustrate someone literally “transforming” from one form into another form, crossing some of the most basic divides in humanity: sex (physical characteristics) and gender (social roles). To the un-sympathetic eye, it can represent a profoundly disturbing freakishness that masquerades itself as “one of us” and walks among “us”, grotesque truth hidden by dark and forbidden alchemy of bio-chemicals and surgery and mincing affect. Obviously, I ascribe to the former view when considering my own journey, choosing to find magic and evolution in my story.
- The Four “P’s”: Unfortunately most filmmakers (certainly not all… but most) pull a cardboard sketch of transsexuality out of their store of ideas and use it to illustrate one of four basic types, the “Four P’s“:
- Poor thing! aka the “Noble Victim”
- Negative Focus: Genre writers especially love to write transsexual women characters as prostitutes (see every cop show ever on television, except for that very special episode of Andy Griffith they don’t air anymore), the punchline/butt of a joke (see Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Surreal Life: Alexis Arquette), noble victims (see Soldier’s Girl, Boys Don’t Cry, Dallas Buyers Club, Gwen Araujo Story) and scarily mentally disturbed (see Silence of the Lambs, Sleepaway Camp, Dressed to Kill, or “Ava” in Nip/Tuck). Decades of these portrayals in turn influence many documentarians, writers and filmmakers to seek out these archetypes or play up these traits in their subjects, whether they realize they’re doing it or not. “I’m going to write a transsexual character… I guess I should read up on prostitutes!” or “I’m going to write a transsexual character… I guess I should crack open some books on abnormal psychology!” is not the way to start your research. Where do these clichés come from? Like many clichés, they probably have roots in some real situations that tend to be more visible than other less flashy ones. There are many transwomen driven to sex work in order to survive, because their families have cast them out, their schools did not protect them from bullying and companies will not hire someone who is visibly gender variant. There are many people undergoing medical and social transition who play with gender tropes to get a laugh, from drag queens to people who feel humor eases some social tension when they are unsure of themselves. There are some people who crack under the indescribable pressure of transition, and there are even some few people who are just plain crazy and their flavor of insanity directs them to pop in a set of implants and decide that they’re a woman, just like the person next to them has decided that they are Napoléon Bonaparte. And there are many of us who have suffered somehow at the rough hands of society, and who try to bear this suffering with nobility and move forward from it. But clichés are really just a kind of shorthand that people use to categorize others into comfortable “types” without having to do much work, and even when someone seems to fit a cliché, there are always deeper levels. Outside of the easy clichés, there are so many other interesting realities to use when telling your stories. Why not a transsexual computer scientist? A transsexual doctor? A transsexual airline pilot? Click here to look at some amazing transwomen you may never have heard of. You may ask, “Well if they’re not going to be a gritty prostitute or a shocking reveal, then why does it even matter that the character is transsexul at all?” EXACTLY!!! IT SHOULDN’T!!! Why not let the character be interesting because of what she feels, says, chooses to do, instead of because of what she “is”?
- Assumption of Monolithic Community: Most media people assume transsexuals all form a homogeneous group of like-minded people with the same goals, motivations and beliefs. Actually, there are COUNTLESS reasons why people assigned the male gender role at birth decide to adopt things associated with the female gender role, from the aforementioned lipstick and heels to body-affirming surgeries and the social role itself. These are just a few:
- Transvestites: Some men are incredibly “turned on” by items which represent archetypical femininity (such as makeup, shoes and clothing), or the erotic humiliation scenarios that result from loss of male status and power by wearing these things and adopting female-gendered behavior in public. Some eventually come to build their entire lives around this fetish. They may self-identify using the DSM-defined terms “crossdressers/transvestites”, or they may be so invested in the erotic scenario that they adopt the supposedly more “acceptable” medical self-diagnosis of “transsexual” to maintain or justify it. Like the famous definition of pornography, many transsexual women feel that people undergoing medical and social transition for erotic reasons is a situation which “they know when they see it”, but issues of identity can be difficult to pin down if the subject is unwilling or unsure themselves. Whether transitioning for erotic reasons, under the influence of poor mental health or just doing it with limited success, these characters are often very alluring to documentarians and television news people, because they are usually visibly gender-variant (many characteristics traditionally identifiable as male are obviously visible in high contrast to attempts at female gender presentation), sometimes fairly exaggerated in presentation and usually eager to act out their eroticized scenarios of gender role-play and humiliation for anyone interested. Much of the time, due to generational differences, those chosen for documentation are older and often have a wife and children, which adds to the drama. This crossdresser/transvestite type has been quite over-represented in documentaries, in my opinion. Why not just do a Ken Burns image montage narrated by a somber-voiced man illustrating World War II? That’s probably the only documentary cliché more hackneyed than “Let’s watch Uncle Billy become a lady! Wow, there’s the surgery footage! Roll credits!”
- Late Transitioners: Many transsexual women of previous generations were forced to hold off acting on their need to embody their target gender, and are older with a wife and children when they finally decide to begin transition. Documentarians and television news crews love to follow them on their first awkward fumblings through femininity, watching with smirking wonder and patronizing pats on the back as someone who “looks like their grandpa ” shops for dresses and models a first wig. Transition is not an erotic fetish scenario for these women, but they have put it off for so long in consideration of their loved ones that everything can appear tragically incongruent and difficult for them to the merciless eye of the camera. I always find it very sad when these women are taken advantage of, sometimes with their pitifully grateful compliance and sometimes at their complete uncomprehending expense. Instead of spotlighting these women in their most awkward moments, why not document your mom’s experience of menopause for us all to watch?
- Survival Sex (Gay Males) : Some gay men living on the streets who become involved in sex work find that a flamboyant female “character” catering to the larger “heterosexual” sex market makes more money than a gay male sex worker. Closeted men unwilling to give up their self identification as a “straight male” sometimes find it easier to have gay sex with a male prostitute who is in drag. These characters wrap up the media-beloved heartbreaking-but-sexy prostitute story with the always fascinating “look! It’s a guy in makeup!” story, but many times these unfortunate people are driven by financial need and opportunity rather than a lifelong core identity as a woman. Vastly over-represented and exploited.
- Survival Sex (Transsexual Women): Some transsexual women are driven to sex work after being cast out by their families and rejected for traditional jobs and educational opportunities. The media usually lumps them in with the previously mentioned category, uninterested in differentiating. Vastly over-represented and exploited. This is probably the root of the “tranny hooker” trope.
- Early Transitioners: In these times of increasing acceptance, some transsexual women are able to access social, informational and medical resources at an early age. They are usually able to transition fairly smoothly and lead average female lives. Traditionally there has been very, very little portrayal of these women, although in the last few years some news programs like the Barbara Walters feature have covered real stories, and some reality television series like “Transgenerations”, “The Real World”, “I Want to Work for Diddy”, “Transamerican Love Story” and “I am Jazz” have blazed trails. Perhaps these real-life portrayals will open the minds of creatives and inspire stories that are more representative of real trans people.
My basic advice, in light of what I’ve written above, is this: If you really want to step into uncharted territory and do something that hasn’t been done before, try to be aware of the clichés, pitfalls and easy-outs that I’ve mentioned. Try to tell the story of how the issues you’re interested in affect a woman who is rejected, hated and disbelieved. A woman who has repaired a disfiguring birth defect. If you advertise for subjects in the back of the local gay rag next to the escort ads, you are going to get responses from one kind of person. If you advertise with fliers at the local college, another. If someone’s website has a photo gallery named “My Sexi Leg Pix” and blocky animated gifs of big-eyed underage Anime lolis in crop-tops with pink hair blowing kisses — and they are a fifty year old construction worker — then apply the same screening criteria you would when looking for subjects who aren’t transgendered. Don’t just assume that “that’s the way transsexuals are” and stop there because it’s easy. The only subject you can find/write is a fifty year old married construction worker? (really?) Then find a fifty year old married construction worker who otherwise fits into society with other fifty year old women, one who is earnest about really being a woman and one whose transition was the path to living a fulfilled life in society rather than an end in itself. You can only find/write a sex worker? Then consider a bright, inspiring one who is saving that money for school or a home, a millionaire OnlyFans success story.
Because really being a woman, day to day, in relationships and in society, is what transition is about. When all the colorful makeup is washed away, the frilly sexy clothes are replaced with jeans and a white t-shirt, the hair pulled back, the mirror confiscated, does this person still feel like they are a woman? That’s the core from where everything else grows. The showgirls, sex workers, activists (and yes, the “nut cases”) are the visible tip of a vast, secret iceberg. There are real transsexual women of all ages, races and careers, living all over the world. Quietly in neighborhoods as members of the PTA, or walking the runways of Milan, many in what we call “stealth” with no one knowing their history. We are all around you, if you only care to look.
Hall of Shame
Some of these movies were good or even great pieces of art, and some weren’t, but their treatment or use of a transsexual character (stated or implied) was damaging or poor, in my opinion.
- Normal – Regardless of the writing on the back of the DVD, this was made as the story of a man who decides to start wearing earrings and perfume to his factory job. Even the lead actor didn’t take his character’s transition seriously, referring to “Ruth” as “he” and “him” in most interviews.
- Flawless – Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a nuanced performance as a feminine drag performer, and then the writer takes the story on a bewildering turn in which Hoffman suddenly decides to get a sex change without ever a mention of any of the groundwork that transsexual women go through before that last step. Why not have the character announce in the third act that he is going to compete in the Olympics, without ever mentioning that he had trained for them?
- Dressed to Kill: Michael Caine as a man in a dress, killing people.
- Psycho – Tony Perkins as a man in a dress, killing people. The psychologist at the end says that Norman wasn’t really a transsexual, but a tacked-on dismissal by a non-character does not compete with the previous imagery of the male lead character in a dress and wig, stabbing another lead character to death over the strains of that iconic violin music.
- Silence of the Lambs – Another psychiatrist (this time a psychotic killer himself, and thus not a reliable source) briefly mentions that the villain is not a “true transsexual”. But this does not compete for space in our psyche with the unforgettable image of Jame Gumb smearing on drugstore makeup, tucking his penis between his legs and asking the camera, “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me… I’d fuck me so hard…”
- Check this great list of “Top 15 Transsexual Killer Movies“
Hall of Fame
- Ma Vie en Rose – Gorgeous movie about a little boy who wants to be a little girl, and the resulting strife felt by his family.
- Red Without Blue – Documentary which focuses on relationships rather than mechanics of transition.
- Different for Girls – A true-to-life portrayal of a transsexual woman working a normal job and dealing with her relationships.
- Soldier’s Girl – I’m unavoidably biased toward this film, which depicts my relationship with my Army boyfriend and his subsequent murder. But I do believe that it showed a realistic trans character as a human being, a love interest and as someone worthy of love.
- Transamerica – A complex, real portrayal of one individual transsexual woman’s journey. “Bree” reflects a somewhat unique experience, but not an unrealistic one, and Felicity’s portrayal captivated the film world and put MTF trans roles into a new class of viability for female actors, rather than the typical “let’s put this guy in a wig and let him flex his acting muscles playing this tragic freak” track which characterized most trans roles up to this point.
See more examples of transsexual-interest films at http://www.tsroadmap.com/info/films.html