Would you be like this ravenous-for-blood audience? Is this the position into which you’d put trans women? (See 1m33s)
My recent emergence as a Hollywood cabaret singer and performer seems to have stirred up some members of the rapidly aging 1970′s/80′s stealth trans community who (understandably for the time) made denying their transition into a sacrosanct religion. Most members of the trans community are basically supportive, when and if they think of me at all. But apparently some have too much time on their hands, now that their “sexy” days are long behind them, and ditching dialup has put all my YouTube videos at their fingertips. How they manage their own histories is one thing, but criticizing my choices warrants a response.
Let’s be clear… My journey of self discovery had its start in the gay community. I was an artistic, feminine child who quickly learned to hide any allegiance with females or sexual interest in males. A stint in the military as a young adult gave me the confidence to begin discovering who I really was, and my only resource afterward was a huge gay nightclub and theatre. I was taken in by incredibly talented entertainers and eventually given a job that allowed me to indulge my performance skills AND get paid a living wage while being encouraged to become as feminine and womanly as possible. It was ideal.
My internet and media presence is obviously visibly inclusive of my trans history. In my daily life, walking around the city or having lunch with friends, I do not make an issue of my transition and I believe that most people around me have no idea that I ever transitioned. If a stranger asks me whether or not I’m trans, and there’s no value in discussing it, I will simply tell them to fuck off. Not because I deny that I had to transition my physical body into alignment with my soul, but because I don’t feel like discussing it on the street with a moron.
(Click CONTINUE READING to see the note that came in, and my response) (more…)
Tonight I watched “September Issue“, the documentary about the creation of Vogue magazine’s legendary annual coffee-table buster of an issue in 2007, usually made up of 500-700 pages of fashion and advertising. Of course, it featured legendary editrix Anna Wintour (and the sublime Grace Coddington, whose vision I’d much rather see on paper). Anna famously served as the inspiration for Meryl Streep’s icy “Miranda Priestly” in “The Devil Wears Prada”, and as the documentary began there was a palpable air of “Ooo, girl, she is the numbah one queen bee diva bitch! Ooo you have to watch how you step when you’re dealing with her! Ooo she is fierce!” etc etc etc.
Considered alongside the rapturous adoration of the behavior of Streep’s “Miranda Priestly” character, this kind of worshipful attitude shown women famous for being dragon-ladies inspired me to share a magic secret with everyone: People like Anna Wintour or “Miranda Priestly” have exactly as much power as you attribute to them, and not an iota more. If you stop caring which pictures of shoes she likes, then she becomes just another old lady with a weirdly perfect hair cut. This goes for almost anyone you’re afraid of in your life, so write it down.
I’m not saying AW isn’t amazing at her job. But I bristle at being told who to fear and respect. In this case, unless you aspire to a career in that most ephemeral and (at best) art-adjacent thing known as the business of fashion, then being afraid of someone like the “Pope” of fashion is ridiculous to me.
I am never going to work at Vogue. I am never going to be a high fashion model. I am never going to spend $20,000 on a purse or a dress. Any art I ever have or wear will probably be something made by myself or my brilliant, underground, artistic friends. Any success I ever have will always come at great personal cost, in spite of the efforts of the majority of society, and it will be the imperfect, quirky, outsider kind of success that people like Anna Wintour will never value. So who cares how AW likes her fucking coffee? Not me.
Now, “Anna Wintour” isn’t a name to which I ever really gave any thought… this little piece of writing really isn’t about her or any name in particular. It’s about rejecting the idea that respect and fear should happen unconsidered. Perhaps that idea goes back to being raised to believe that I should respect and fear a god for whom I had never seen any indication or proof in real life. I suppose I need a little more than someone else’s word before I believe certain things nowadays.
And must one be rude to be successful? It just seems so terribly unnecessary. Ugh.
Aside from rejecting the idea that I need to fear and jump for people who have zero impact on my life, the documentary reminded me how gross conspicuous consumerism can be. Even after having rejected most every other tenet of my difficult religious upbringing, I still feel revulsion at images of people buying or showing off purchases for the sake of the label or price. “September Issue” presented me with an entire tale of grotesque vulgarians clothing the corporeal vessels for their souls (?) in calculated bits of art, taken out of the hands of the artists and sealed into little rectangular photographs to be arranged like refrigerator magnets on a whiteboard and sold to empty climbers. It was so gross… Andre Leon Talley’s horrible diamond watch and the ubiquitously boring Louis Vuitton accessories on the tennis court were the pinnacle of revolting for me. “Look at me! LOOK AT ME!” Honestly, put that crap away and exercise, if that’s what you’re there for.
I grew up relatively poor, and at the same time we were actively taught to reject clothing with conspicuous labeling. Jeans and shoes and shirts emblazoned with the names of designers and brands were seen as “vain”, and although I am a world away from that childhood mindset now I still prefer not to wear someone else’s name as my own personal style. Do they make a Chanel purse that doesn’t say “Chanel” on it? Probably not, alas. Not that I could afford one anyway!
Many people don’t realize that my song, “Stunning“, is making FUN of vanity… something that always cracks me up. I DO want beautiful things, but mostly because they are beautiful and fun. I don’t care who makes them.
As a fringe sub-lebrity, I’ve been attending events in Hollywood that take red carpet photos since 2002, so unfortunately there is a record of the “looks” I’ve worn to them, and especially in the first six years or so you’ll see that I’m either wearing something home-made or something that doesn’t really work. My hair was just awful, and my makeup rarely suited to the specific requirements of the red carpet camera. I could have used a stylist (some budding Grace Coddington II?) and may have benefitted from studying a few issues of Vogue. But I’ll never join anyone in trembling before Anna Wintour or other manufactured gods.
I now know people in real life who have real, living appreciations for fashion, glamour and beauty and though I will never “fear” or “revere” them, I will most certainly try to learn what I can from them. Here are things that I consider worthy goals for me in the realm of the aesthetic: Feeling and looking pretty, and wearing clothes that make me feel glamorous, beautiful and exciting. I think that can be done without ever dealing with Anna Wintour or Andre Leon Talley or anyone who drags a profusion of Louis Vuitton bags and diamond watches to their tennis lesson. Not that they were offering me their time, anyway, ha ha. I guess it all works out perfectly, which life has a way of doing sometimes, if you just let it.
This little piece was originally written for a documentarian, but has been expanded and can 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” and “Transproofed”. 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. 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.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:
- Ultimate cliché Hall of Fame (Used in both films and documentaries): Subject putting on lipstick (usually in the mirror), sliding foot into high heel shoe or stockings, painting fingernails, shopping for clothes. Usually done in close-up on the body parts. Typical dissection of us into fetishized, sexualized body parts and easy broad-stroke telegraphing of a director’s ideas about femininity. 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!”
- 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 Frank Smith, the current image of the transitioned woman becomes overlaid with subconscious thoughts like “Their real name was Frank. 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 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 Frank!?” 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, or gay/lesbian people who think they understand 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 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”
- And with these worn-out caricatures, they pepper their stories with a bit of drama, a laugh, a moment of “justified” revulsion or some sweet progressiveness-affirming pity.
- 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, Gwen Araujo Story) and scarily mentally disturbed (see Silence of the Lambs or “Ava” in Nip/Tuck). Decades of these portrayals 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 and clothing), or the erotic humiliation scenarios that result from 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, those chosen for portrayal 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 express 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 new 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 identificationy 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.
- 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” and “Transamerican Love Story” 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 Manga teeny bopper girls 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.
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, 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“
- 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
Today I recieved the following comment on a light hearted article I wrote on “beer goggles”, of all things:
But have you forgotten him or will you ever stand up fright for what happend to him i am sure he is happy you turned out the way you have but i look at other people who went thought what you have but they have not forggotten them they FRIGHT FOR THEM AND THE RIGHT THAT THIS STOPS IF YOU LOVE STOP WHAT HAPPEN TO OTHER JUST LIKE HIM.
how can you not fright people who are going thought what barry did!!
“TommyBoi” is talking about Barry Winchell, my boyfriend who was murdered just short of ten years ago. Our relationship and his murder were portrayed in the Showtime film “Soldier’s Girl”, which continues to play and be shown since it came out in 2003. I have received a few notes like these occasionally, but consistently, over the last decade. In the early days, I found them rude but hoped to live up to the task of honoring Barry’s memory and so I worked hard toward doing that. As years went on, I tried to respond with some class and composure by pointing out the activist work I had done and was still doing to honor his memory and fight to prevent this from happening again. Approaching the ten year mark, I am just tired of this unconscionable rudeness and will now respond by pointing it out. My entire life, I’ve been a person who agonized over the least possibility that I hurt someone’s feelings in my real-life interactions, and who would chew off my own arm before I put someone else to any discomfort on purpose. Now, seeing someone take not the slightest effort to afford me the same courtesy is genuinely upsetting, especially in the area of the death of a loved one.
Although ten years is a very, very, very long time to still relive the story through it being brought up by people whose compassion has been stirred by the movie, I completely get how powerfully affected one can be by stories like this, and how much one might want to express that. After seeing “Boys Don’t Cry”, I was left wishing I could have helped somehow, wishing I could have been there, done something for Brandon. I can relate to how many people have felt after seeing “Soldier’s Girl”.
But it’s been a struggle to make sure that Barry‘s death is not the defining event of who I am. I have been an entertainer since I was a kid, it’s all I ever wanted to be, and I like to think that I am making progress as such in spite of the murder, rather than because of it. While many people may know of me because of the story, they certainly don’t hire me to work because of it. And I’m sure I haven’t been hired many times because of it.
To have an onlooker essentially “tap me on the shoulder” in the middle of my bright, sunny, happy day and disaparge my character and my handling of these circumstances is… hurtful, to say the least. I simply refuse to live a joyless life of enforced widow-hood for the rest of my days. I’m going to laugh, dance, act, perform, sing… it’s what drew Barry to me in the first place, after all.
I rarely write bad reviews of people, places or things. The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are my reviews of the horrendous customer service of the Rathbone Hotel in London and Christian Siriano. And I’ve been blogging for well over six years now. So obviously, I must have some strong feelings about El Chavo, a Mexican restaurant and bar in the Los Feliz/Silverlake area. Sigh.
When I first moved to LA in 2002, I began looking for cool places to go, eat, drink and socialize. Among the first places I found was El Chavo, which I immediately loved for the following reasons:
- Funky decor (flourescent sombreros and Aztec art)
- Quirky foul-mouthed live harp player and JosÃ© Gonzales-esque live guitarist
- Delicious and POTENT $5 margaritas poured out of mysterious white jugs
- Spicy free salsa and chips
- $10 appetizer platter for two allowed two people to get a margarita buzz and nosh for $10 each, total.
- A GIANT FRAMED AND AUTOGRAPHED POSTER OF DOLLY PARTON!
It had everything, and was also right around the corner from the wonderful Vista theatre. A great evening consisting of a movie, appetizers and drink could be had for less than $20 per person. I went there for years, enjoying myself most every time.
At some point in the last few years, I heard that it was purchased/taken over by Melanie Tusquellas, the owner of the lovely-for-a-champagne-brunch Edendale Grill in Silverlake. Edendale Grill is a little on the edge of my self-imposed class limitations — meaning that everyone there is a little more gorgeous, rich, Ivy-League-fraternity/sorority-ish than the people I normally hang out with. But it’s friendly and tasty, in its own polished way. El Chavo, on the other hand, was shabby and weird, which is much more my speed and a very odd place to impose the Edendale template.
As the new management began taking over, some unpleasant changes began showing themselves. The cadre of affable Mexican bartenders was infiltrated by a dour blonde woman with an accent somewhere between France and Eastern Europe. After spending several minutes bent over with her back to us fiddling with a radio, her response to the ice-breaker question “how’s the new business going?” was a flat “I haff no idea.” Then she unforgivably replaced the delicious and potent mystery jug margaritas with “fresh made” ones that seem to consist of 27 parts scaldingly acidic Rose’s Lime Juice, 15 parts lemon-juice-from-a-bottle, a splash of tequila and a pound of kosher salt. A request for one of their delicious corn tamales was met with “Not at this bar, dining room only.”
The once interestingly decorated walls were stripped bare throughout the restaurant and painted over in huge featureless expanses with what looks like institutional latex in colors that dishearten me in a way that I can’t distinguish between missing the old style or their own intrinsic dullness. The dining area now resembles a boxy airport cafeteria rather than one of LA’s typical personality-infused Mexican eateries. The Dolly poster, sombreros and much of the art behind the “good” bar was left the same, but I can’t help wondering if those things will be next. The “good” bar is the original one, where you can still (for a limited time?) get the mystery jug margaritas and have only a one-in-three chance of getting “Ilsa the ice princess” as your bartender.
The “bad” bar is located in the newly opened other side of El Chavo’s first floor. It has the same cold, featureless feel as the dining room, although there are a few scattered decorations on the wall. The several times I’ve had to go in due to the “good” side being full of dinner-hour guests, it always feels as if I’ve walked onto a set for a Mexican Restaurant scene in an underfunded WB sitcom. The only margaritas to be had on this side are the scalding pH1 “fresh” ones. Why, oh why is this so? Can the magic mystery jugs not be carried around the corner? Is this an experiment to force patrons to become used to the non-jug ones? With all the bad changes going on at El Chavo, the singular reason to still come there for me is the tasty, inexpensive margarita, and this is being ruined, too.
Monday night was the death knell of my love affair with El Chavo. In celebration of a good day, I invited a friend to have a margarita with me and as we walked down the stairs into the restaurant we heard horrendous music booming from the “bad side”. It sounded exactly like a car alarm with an irregular beat behind it. We smiled knowingly at each other, sadly amused at how El Chavo was going bad and relieved that at least we could go into the “good side” for relative quiet and enjoyment. Then, to our horror, we saw that the “good side” was blocked off. Since we were already there, and I had my mouth all set for a margarita, we sighed and went on in.
A DJ had set up some turntables, and was blaring the loudest, most discordant music imaginable. It sounded sort of like Mr. Bungle raping the Shirelles. The room was populated by hipsters… an aesthetic manufactured by appropriating the culture of poor or so-called trashy people via ironic-but-expensive fabrics and designs purchased on Melrose. The only good thing was the young, cute bartenders (does this mean the longtime Mexican ones are out?), but they must’ve been well schooled by “Ilsa” because no mystery jugs were in evidence… only the acrid sting of concentrated Rose’s Lime Juice, bottled lemon juice and a hint of tequila. As my friend and I shouted our conversation to each other, shivering in the cigarette smoke wafting in the nearby propped-open door, I felt my teeth softening in the acidic margarita seemingly without benefit of numbing alcohol. Where one of the jug margaritas usually had me pleasantly buzzed, I barely felt anything after two caustic glasses of the new ones.
The food here is perfectly fine, the corn tamales are excellent (some of the best I’ve had in LA) and the jug margaritas are great if you can get em. The usual patrons have always felt “neighborhood-y”, pleasant and non-douchey, excepting Monday’s hipster overload. It’s sad to see my favorite aspects of a place I’ve been coming for 6-7 years going away, though.
I can’t say that I won’t dip back in on some occasion or other, after consulting my astrolabe, horoscope and the entrails of a two-headed snake to determine if I might chance to enter the ever more elusive El Dorado-like “good side” on a night when jugs are flowing and “Ilsa” isn’t working. But I am now actively searching for a new Mexican place with strong, tasty and cheap margaritas, fewer hipsters and no grim Eurpean blondes serving me Mexican food.