Friday, October 6, 2017

Supergirl: A Transgender Girl's Thoughts

Like I think a growing number of Americans, I'm kind of tired of superheroes. It seems like there's way too many TV shows and movies and  they're all pretty formulaic. But, I had run out of shows to watch, and I thought I'd give the CW's Supergirl series a try. At first, I thought it was a bit of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer wannabe (BtVS is one of my absolute favorite shows ever). But the performances on Supergirl were good, especially Melissa Benoist who you could just tell was having a ton of fun with the role, so I kept watching. There's no more Buffy after all, so even a watered down version was worth sticking with. Needless to say, I was wrong and I got hooked pretty quickly. And now Supergirl is a show I love. It's brought me to tears many times with its amazing portrayals of strong women. 

The biggest reason that I love this show is that it has used its story lines as metaphors to discuss important social issues like the refugee crisis, immigration, xenophobia, and of course, LGBTQ rights. With the third season of the show coming out soon, I thought this would a good time to discuss how I think Supergirl touches on the transgender experience in ways that really resonated me with me, even if that wasn't necessarily the intention of the writers. 

In the first episode we meet mild-mannered executive assistant Kara Danvers. The only thing is that Kara has a secret that she can't tell anyone. No, she's not transgender. She's actually an alien from the planet Krypton. Unlike her famous cousin, she's not out as who she really is. For her whole life, Kara has had to hide who she really is. But, when a plane carrying her sister threatens to crash, Kara realizes that she can no longer hide her true self from the world.

We then see Kara struggle to find the courage to come out to friends and coworkers. We see how being her real self changes her relationships with those in her life. She's overjoyed to be able to come out to her best friend Winn, but worries about what will happen if she comes out to her crush James or her boss Ms. Grant. Kara's own sister thinks it's a bad idea to come out, that people will judge her or that she won't be safe.

Kara struggles to accept who is she really is and to understand what that means for her identity. When her loved ones tell her hide her true identity, when the world seems to hate her for who she is, we see Kara work to meet every challenge with a smile.

As a transgender woman, Kara's story in the first few season one episodes really resonated with me. When Kara felt the joy of coming out and being her real self with her friends, that reminded me of the happiness I felt coming out transgender to my friends, or being able to hang out and let people see the real me. And yes, I know the fear and worry of having to hide who you are. If my boss finds out will I lose my job? If my significant other finds out will they dump me?

And of course, there's also something else that a lot of non-LGBT people don't see. Despite the challenges in our lives, we are often expected to face them with a smile. And that isn't always easy.

Later in season two, Kara's friend Winn began dating Lyra, an alien woman. After they hook up the first time, Lyra is worried that Winn isn't really interested in her a person, just as an experience. Apparently a lot of guys in the show's universe like to hook up with an alien girl just once as a fetish but aren't actually interested in treating them like equals. It reminded me of the guys in our universe who are quite affectionately called "tranny chasers." And I've known of many transgirls who have worried about being treated as an object or check mark on a list rather than as a human being. Thankfully Winn was not that kind of guy and actually liked Lyra as an equal.

With the story of Kara’s sister Alex, Supergirl gave viewers the most realistic coming out story arc I've ever seen. Alex develops feelings for another woman Maggie. And while Alex is pretty sure she knows she likes Maggie, she also isn't really sure what liking Maggie would mean for her life.

My heart broke watching Alex explain to Maggie how she had never really liked dating or being intimate with men and thought that that was just how she was. Slowly, we see Alex come to terms with her own feelings. As Alex comes out, we see how coming out means risking rejection from important people in our lives, be they romantic partners, family members or others. Actor Chyler Leigh did such a great job that almost every other scene in this story arc brought me to tears.

What Supregirl really did correctly, and I think uniquely, was show a character who was confused. Too often, when a character comes out we see someone who absolutely knows they're gay and fully understands what that means. But for many LGBTQ people, coming out is a long, slow process that starts with confusion, and then proceeds to only more confusion.

When Alex comes out to her sister Kara, she seems to answer almost every one of Kara's questions with a "I don't know." Coming out doesn't come with a guide or a road map and neither do our identities. I grew up knowing I felt something, but without having the language to really be able to express what it meant to feel gender dysphoria or be transgender. If I would have honestly answered the question "Are you gay?" I would have had to say "I don't know." Figuring out who you are is a long and difficult process and I love that Supergirl showed how messy and difficult this process really can be.

Growing up in a marginalized group, finding positive media portrayals of your group can be nearly impossible. In that vacuum, metaphors can become an important surrogate for a discussion on the struggles marginalized groups face. So I've always found transgender themes in music, or movies, or TV shows whether or not they were there on the surface. In Supergirl I found a show that I think really resonated with what I was feeling as a transgender woman. And I'm looking forward to seeing what the third season brings.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Being Transgender at Hogwarts

Harry Potter author JK Rowling has not shied away from her beliefs in LGBT equality. Though not mentioned in the text, she has admitted that she wrote key characters, such as Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, as gay. When asked by a fan if she thought that Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was a safe place for LGBT students, she replied that of course it was. 

But is Hogwarts, and the rest of the Wizarding World shown to us in the Harry Potter series,  really all that friendly to LGBT people? Here, we'll focus mainly on transgender individuals within this universe. How are they they treated and how is their gender dysphoria addressed? Do transgender people exist in the Harry Potter books? There are no specifically transgender characters, and JK Rolwing has yet to announce such a thing on Twitter (though if she were planning to do such a thing, I would hope it was Luna Lovegood, just because she's my favorite character in the series). 

Rowling has, in tweets, hinted that transgender people exist in this world and that they might use magic to address their dysphoria. “All I’ve done so far this week is change three characters’ genders," she wrote "And I still don’t know whether their current genitalia are permanent.” Now, gender has nothing to do with genetalia, but the fact that she's stated that her characters' genders are not set in stone could imply that there are transgender kids in Hogwarts and that these kids are capable of using magic to deal with their dysphoria. I mean, you can't have LGBT kids Hogwarts without T kids right? But what it is like being one of those transgender kids? 

The Wizarding World of the Harry Potter books does seem quite conservative. Or should we rephrase that to "incredibly conservative?" Slavery still exists and is practiced even by Hogwarts. Minorities like werewolves are openly oppressed. The Ministry of Magic seems to entirely ignore the concept of human rights. Accused criminals are not given due process and the only punishment handed out is life in prison where the accused are subject to continued torture. In fact, the entire Ministry of Magic seems to be run with a Medieval  mindset, despite the series taking place in the 1990s. It's clear that the Wizarding World had not yet caught up with the rest of the UK when it came to liberal values such as equality.

We see this also in the name of the school that Harry and his friends attend. It's the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Gender differences are highlighted in the very name of institution. Terms like wizards and witches retains a hetero and cis normative view of gender. Boys are wizards. Girls are witches. There's no option for non-binary or gender queer magic users. We don't see single use restrooms. Instead they are all divided into male and female. Perhaps a gender queer student could use the Room of Requirement when they wanted privacy, but that clearly seems unfair.

So in a world where the gender binary rules, where the bureaucracy is unwieldingly byzantine, and where people have few (if any) rights, how does a transgender kid go about becoming their true self? Would they become forever stuck in front of the Mirror of Erised, staring endlessly at a reflection of themselves as their true gender? Or would they more likely turn to magic and use one of the various spells, incantations, and charms that can bend reality itself?

First off, there are the healing spells. Episkey can heal minor wounds and Vulnera Sanentur is a more powerful healing spell that can be used to repair more grievous injuries. We also see the Oculus Reparo, a type of mending charm, used to quickly and easily fix broken glasses. Could a tap from the wand and an uttering of Genus Reparo fix a transperson's gender too? Would healing or fixing erase dysphoria, making the person happily cis, or would it transform them into their preferred gender? It might depend on the skill of the spell caster, so you'd be better off getting help from Hermione and maybe leaving Ron out of it.

Would a Switching Spell allow one to switch out body parts for more preferred ones? It does allow Neville Longbottom to turn his ears into cacti. Could it allow one to turn a penis into a vagina, for instance? Again, it might depend on the skill of the magic user in question. The more powerful spells do seem to be more difficult after all. Luckily, though, there are a few more powerful spells that young Hogwarts students could turn to.

Metamorphmaguses like Nymphadora Tonks are described as rare, but a transfiguration spell seems a good bet. In the books these spells are described as being extremely difficult and dangerous. One slightly incorrect movement could cause the subject to turn into something else entirely. Though it really can't be that difficult, as we see mere students using it for pranks. There is however, a risk of getting stuck in your transformed state, which would be great it you do a good job and transform yourself into say, a female version of you. But if it goes wrong, you could be stuck as something horrible forever. So perhaps transfiguration is better left to only the best transgender witches, wizards and other magic users.

One other option of course polyjuice potion, the magical elixir which allows the imbiber to assume the complete physical appearance of another person. It can change your age, your height, and even your sex. We're told that it's difficult to make, but, when brewed by a skilled potions-master, it can last for a full day or more. It can't be that difficult to whip up a quick batch of polyjuice though. After all, we see Hermione make an effective batch in only her second year. What transgender kid wouldn't want their own batch of polyjuice potion?

Polyjuice potion does however present a major ethical question. It can't turn you into, say a female version of your assigned-male-at-birth self. It only turns the individual into a copy of an already existing person. Not only that, but making the potion requires using the other person's body parts, usually hair. In the one case we see of someone living as another person, they had actually kidnapped their subject to ensure they had a daily source of hair at their disposal.

Even if no kidnapping were involved, how would you feel if a classmate, even a close friend, decided to live as you? What would you do if classmate asked for your hair so that they could look exactly like you? Would you be flattered or, more likely, completely creeped out? What if they stole your hair from the Hogwarts barber shop? Would it feel like a violation? I think it would.

Perhaps a transgender kid would need to have a particularly close friend they could ask. It would probably need to be a quite selfless friend. Maybe Ginny, stuck in a house full of boys, wouldn't mind if Ron approached her, explained his deep feelings, and asked if he could have a bit of her hair every day so he could live as her twin sister. It's a tough question, and I think that it presents a lot of challenges to any transgender kid who plans to go the polyjuice potion route. And it also presents some serious challenges to any donor.

So are there no really good options for a young transgender Hogwarts student? Though JK Rowling has never discussed it, I would hope that any good and decent professor like Dumbldore or Minerva McGonagall would be willing to help any young Hogwarts student who came to them expressing transgender feelings. Perhaps they would then send an owl to the student's parents, explaining the situation. I'd like to think that even if you had terrible parents like the Malfoys, Dumbledore would still let the student take on their true form during their time at Hogwarts, even if their parents didn't agree. That seems like something Dumbledore would do, perhaps with a sly smile and a "We shall keep this within the walls of Hogwarts for the time being, and of course Hogsmead too." Then he would would make a deft move with his wand and and say "Revelare verum genus!" And in the end, all would be well.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Boy Meets Girl: A Transgender Girl's Thoughts


Generally speaking, I'm not usually interested in movies or TV shows with transgender themes or characters. Mostly it's because a lot of them, like TransAmerica, Boys Don't Cry, or The Danish Girl were obvious Oscar Bait. And, Oscar Bait films annoy me. So when there are trans characters in a movie, I tend to see it as a cynical and manipulative attempt to commodify a marginalized group (in this case my marginalized group) for the sake of awards and ultimately the increased money that studio executives think those awards will bring. One of my all-time favorite YouTubers Lindsay Ellis did a great video on Oscar Bait.

The other reason I generally don't care to watch trans-related films is because I'm already living my life. I don't really feel the need to be reminded of what life is like for a transgender person or how their transition affects the cis people around them. This is especially true when the movie is written, directed by and most likely staring cis people. 

But, Boy Meets Girl, is a little bit different. In a world where there are Emmy speeches about how trans characters should be played by trans actors, Boy Meets Girl features a transgender character played by Michelle Hendley, an actual transgender actress. Plus I knew of star Michelle Hendley long before this movie came out. For years she had a YouTube channel that I subscribed to and I remember her making videos discussing this movie before production even started. So I figured I would watch Boy Meets Girl, since it isn't Oscar Bait, it is independent and hopefully my Netflix rental will result in at least an extra dime or two ending up in Ms. Hendley's bank account.

Boy Meets Girl tells the story of Ricky, a young transgender girl living in a small town in rural Kentucky. There she works at the coffee shop, makes YouTube videos about her own fashion designs, hangs out with her platonic best friend Robby and dreams of the day when she can move to New York to get a degree in fashion. Things get complicated, however, when she meets Francesca who's engaged to a Marine but unsure if she's comfortable settling down just yet.

As it's a low budget indie, I'm willing to forgive some of the slightly sloppy cinematography, editing and sound mixing. Generally the acting is good for unknown performers and Ms. Hendley brought a natural charm and likability that made her character work. The script is fairly full of cliches and lacks real weight despite touching on some incredibly serious topics like suicide, self-harm and violence against trans women. Where it could have brought some truly wrenching emotional moments to the forefront, it prefers to keep them at arms length, instead focusing on a slightly bouncy, carefree tone. 

As this film was written and directed by cis male Eric Schaeffer, I was interested to see how realistic its portrayal of a transgender woman's life could be. Mr. Schaeffer obviously did his homework. We are shown that Ricky takes hormones and is saving up for surgery. Life and relationships are shown to be difficult for the transgender main character. Like many LGBT people, Ricky longs to get the hell out of her small town so she can head to the big city. Plus Ricky has a YouTube channel, which I think is a requirement for all transgender girls. But the depiction of transgirl life is not entirely accurate. Some things the film portrays realistically and others not so much.

Ricky talks about not enjoying sports growing up but being forced to play anyway. She talks about how growing up she always felt more normal doing feminine things. As a transgirl who grew up in the South I can definitely relate. And I can also relate to the desire to get out of the South and move to New York. Ricky is shown commenting on how shorter Francesca is the "perfect height." Often transgender girls feel jealous of how cis girls look or sound.

Ricky's relationship with her parents is shown to be quite complicated. She fears her mom left (or committed suicide - it's not made clear) because Ricky wanted to transition. Because of this Ricky deals with self-doubt, anxiety and suicide; all things that many transgender women deal with throughout their lives. But, Ricky's father is shown to be loving and supportive and I think many transgender people are often surprised by how accepting people can be. 

During a fight, Ricky's BFF Robby accuses her of not being a boy or a girl. This particularly hurts Ricky. And I think would land hard on most trans people who struggle constantly with doubts about whether our transitions allow us to be seen as real members of our expressed genders. 

There are a few quotes that really struck me with how well they summed up some of my own feelings as a transgender person: 

"Living out loud comes with a pretty big price tag, but not as big a price as the alternative." 

"I know it seems like it doesn't, but it takes so much for me to put a smile on my face and go out in the world every day." 

Ultimately, the film shows a transgender woman who has self-doubts, often feels out of place, struggles to find real connections, longs for a better life, and whose transition has taken years but still hasn't gotten her to the point where she feels like it's complete. On the whole it's a fairly accurate portrayal of life as a transgender person.

But, there are some inaccuracies too that, I think, show that a cis person did create this character. For one Ricky randomly outs herself to people she doesn't know. In one exchange she makes a remark about men being unable to commit because they're "afraid of dicks," and in another she mentions how hard high school was because she "was a boy." In both cases she's talking to complete strangers she's never met. Not only that, but they are odd comments to make in the scene, and seem to have been written simply so they can be shown in the trailer. Most trans people don't like putting the spotlight on themselves especially by making odd comments to strangers. Trans people tend to want to fit in as best they can and generally don't out themselves at the drop of a hat.

There are some other inaccuracies that come up when Ricky and Francesca share a kiss and allow their mutual attraction to grow into a sexual relationship. Before engaging in sex with a cis girl, Ricky attempts to gather data from her best friend Robby, asking him detailed and graphic questions about how vaginas work. This stood out as an odd scene because this is information that Ricky should already know simply by living in society or having visited the internet. Seriously, what trans girl has never researched vaginas online or learned about them from schoolyard banter, media, or simple cultural osmosis? Additionally, Ricky has been on HRT for seven years, but when she finally beds down with Francesca she seems fully functional and there's no discussion about how HRT might have affected her body. 

There are some other inaccuracies that have been seen in many other films and are practically cliches. Transgender people in movies and TV always pass 100% of the time no matter what they look or sound like. This trope is most problematic when it's used in comedy with cis men in drag. But it's also seen in more serious works as well. I'm sure Ms. Hendley can pass in real life, but in Boy Meets Girl, its assumed she can pass. We never see Ricky struggle with this or experience anxiety about it.

Another issue with anxiety in particular involves the plot device of a video made by Ricky when she was younger (maybe 12 or 13 years old - it's not made clear). In the video she admits to cutting, drug use and suicidal ideation. These are all indications of a serious struggle with depression or other mental illness. But, when we see adult Ricky, seven years later, she seems to have gotten over her mental illness and never seems to be affected by it at all. Sadly, this is far too often seen in media, especially episodic television, but in movies as well. Characters, often with a single dramatic breakthrough moment, are able to instantly overcome serious mental illnesses. In real life these issues can stay with a person throughout their life and are never so easily overcome.

Boy Meets Girl missed a serious opportunity to honestly address these issues. As these issues weren't addressed, they really didn't need to be included at all. In the end, the video functions simply as a plot device (any time a movie character puts a video online it will go viral without fail). Ultimately, the movie cheapens real issues transgender people face by using them in a plot device and then simply hand-waiving them away.

Another serious issue that is not dealt with well is violence against transgender women. In Boy Meets Girl, it is shown, but also depicted as something that is easily stoppable and not really all that dangerous. There is a transphobic character who seems almost cartoonishly over-the-top. He even considers transgender people to be terrorists and enemies of the Untied States. But of course, it turns out that he isn't really hateful. He's just attracted to transgender women like Ricky. In Boy Meets Girl, the transphobe is really a good person deep down. Once he gets over his own issues, he turns into a smiling, happy fellow who is able to wish Ricky well.

Transgender people, especially transgender women, really do face serious issues of violence. In providing the violent transphobic character a complete redemption without his so much as apologizing to Ricky for attacking her, the movie makes light of a serious issue facing the LGBT community. What's worse is that transphobe's violent attack on Ricky is never something Ricky has to deal with. She's able to shrug it off without much bother. So while trying to address violence against transgender people, this movie ultimately stumbles.

How other characters react to Ricky is a major part of what makes the film unrealistic. She seems to be the most popular girl in her small Kentucky town. Everyone in the town (of what seems like no more than 8 people) either wants to sleep with Ricky or praise her. Sadly, Ricky seems to have creative a new type of trope; the Magic Transgender Woman. Everyone loves her and she's the catalyst that improves their lives. She heals Francesca and the transphobic fiance's relationship and gives Francesca the inspiration to live her life as she pleases. In the end, everyone comes together to help her out in a bit of a deus-ex-machina It's a Wonderful Life moment.

While real transgender people struggle to be accepted at work, or family, or even with peers or strangers, Ricky is universally beloved, even by the transphobe who attacks her. Needless to say, most transpeople do not experience this overabundance of love and acceptance from everyone in their lives. Sure, audiences like happy endings, but in this case, the happy ending seems a tad false.

There is one other major issue I had with this movie and that is the nude scene. In the third act, Ricky is shown exiting the water after skinny dipping and the camera lingers on her fully nude form. This felt completely and utterly unnecessary. The nudity seemed gratuitous and even exploitative. It served no function in the plot and scene would have worked just as well, if not better, with a fully clothed Ricky. I've heard that the director insisted that nudity was a deal breaker for any actress he signed. Because of this I suspect it was there simply so the director could "prove" that he cast a real life transgender girl in the part. This decision, I think, majorly detracted from the story as well as from the elements of the story that had, up to this point, been rather respectful of transgender women. 


Michelle Hendley's performance was ultimately what made this movie work. Firstly, let's get it out there; she looks great - especially in the black dress she wears for the party scene. This was a great debut performance and she infused every scene with a casual likability and charm. Even in the more emotionally complex scenes, she sold it well. The script wasn't perfect, but she worked with it and her performance makes the movie worth watching.

Boy Meets Girl did at least endeavor to create a realistic and respectful portrayal of a transgender character. Plus it actually cast a transgender actor. Except for the aforementioned nude scene, the movie didn't feel too gimmicky in a "see the real transgender girl," kind of way. There were a number of flaws, but it was clear that Eric Schaeffer was attempting to create an accurate depiction of a transgender character and her life.

Ricky is three dimensional and has more character traits than simply being trans. We see her self-doubts, worries and anxieties. She has hopes and dreams and is well-rounded person. It's a nearly spot-on portrayal of a transwoman and one that is much more authentic that what's usually seen in media.

Boy Meets Girl also tries to be respectful to the transgender experience. Characters defend Ricky, stick up for her and it's made clear that she is a woman.  The film points out that it's right to call her by her preferred pronouns. Trans people are seen as real people who deserve to be treated as such.

The flaws I think, are from, Ricky and her experience being shown from a cis point of view. Robby and Francesca function as audience surrogates. We experience the transgender Ricky through their eyes. They ask the questions the general audience wants to ask and the story shows Ricky's reaction to their choices.

As a trans girl, I am not the intended audience. But maybe a trans kid and their family might be. I could see Boy Meets Girl as a potential useful tool one could show cis family members so they can understand that trans people are normal, that they really are real members of their expressed gender, and that they deserve to be treated as such. The nude scene unfortunately ruins this. What we're left with is a decently accurate movie that tries to be respectful, has a good performance from its lead, but fundamentally misses the mark.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Silence of the Lambs: A Transgender Girl's Thoughts

Silence of the Lambs won the 1992 Academy Award for Best Picture. It became that oddest of commodities; a pop-culture phenomenon that featured kidnapping, cannibalism, sexual taboos and serial killers. It was parodied on Rosanne, The Simpsons and Animaniacs. It was the movie that made X-Files possible and launched a thousand procedural shows like NCIS, CSI and Bones. I remember being twelve or thirteen and joking with my parents about the fact that there was a kitchen wares store in the mall called Lecter's.

Because it was R-rated and featured so much content that was not for kids, I didn't see the movie until probably 11th or 12th grade. It was a great film; creepy, violent and with lots of suspense and surprises. It became one of my favorite movies. I love watching as Agent FBI Clarice Starling unravels the clues surrounding the identity of notorious serial killer Buffalo Bill with the help of the terrifying and enigmatic Hannibal Lecter.

But this movie is in a lot of peoples favorite movie lists. What is it like watching this movie as a transgender woman? Is the serial killer Buffalo Bill transgender? Does this movie imply that there is something inherently creepy and weird about transgender people, transgender women in particular? Does it paint us as freaks, mentally ill or even killers?

Gender is one of the major themes of Silence of the Lambs. This is established in one of the earliest scenes when we see our protagonist, FBI agent-in-training Clarise Starling sharply contrasted with her male peers. Here and throughout the film she is shown from a high angle designed to show her diminutive size as well as her vulnerability and powerlessness.

This deliberate choice continues throughout the film. We constantly see Clarice as she is treated as an object, as less than her male counterparts. Even the "nice" guys like her friends at the Smithsonian entomology department hit on her. Clarice can't walk through the airport without getting checked out as a object. Hannibal Lecter's presents her with a creepy niceness. In their discussions he alternately abuses her by talking about her sexually in an uncomfortable way or treats her nicely.

We, the audience, are meant to notice how sexism impacts every part of her life, as it does for most women in our society. It's the rare film that puts this on display and invites us to feel uncomfortable along with a female character.

As the film deepens the sexism is taken to the point of extreme vulgarity. In the prison, Multiple Miggs makes degrading comments about Clarice's genitals. Later Clarice is shown to be the object of Multiple Migg's masturbatory fantasies. He even goes so far as to assault her by throwing his semen on her in a humiliating and dehumanizing attack. We see Buffalo Bill's complete misogyny in the way he strips the humanity from his victims. He even uses the object-pronoun "it" to refer to them. To him they are nothing but objects to be used in the way that he sees fit  the ultimate misogyny.

Professionally, Clarice is not treated fairly and she encounters a great deal of sexism within her workplace. Her male boss chooses her to interview Lecter, putting her in a difficult and dangerous situation, specifically because of her naivety and vulnerability. They send her in blind, using her as a tool. Her naivety and vulnerability then ultimately don't belong to her. Her emotional state is something to be used by her employer when her male superior deems it necessary.

Throughout the film, Clarice is not taken seriously by her male counterparts. Her coworkers joke about female murder victims in a dehumanizing way. When visiting a crime scene in a rural area her FBI supervisor deliberately leaves her out of key discussions, justifying this by saying the local sheriffs wouldn't take her seriously. As a woman, Clarice must struggle to be seen as a competent professional.

As a transgender woman, I deal with institutionalized sexism just like any other woman in our society. I've dealt with having sixteen year old store clerks manspain things and talk down to me like I'm naive and ignorant. I've had many guys deliver their "niceness" with a good dollop of creepiness and a threatening undercurrent. Even in my own short five months working as a woman I've encountered new situations like men attempting to take credit for my work, my ideas being questioned - things that I didn't encounter when I presented male. Every day I deal with stares in public, with being an other, and you don't have to look any further than the editorial page or a comment section to know that trans women are quite often dehumanized in our society.

But I have lived with male privilege for a great deal of my life. While I've dealt with sexism, I've also been on the giving end of sexism, both intentionally and unintentionally. Upon repeated watchings of Silence of the Lambs I really started to notice how large a role gender and sexism played throughout the movie. It helped open my male privileged eyes to the pervasiveness of sexism and how it can effect people. As a transgender woman I've had the opportunity to watch and learn what not to do, but also to watch and relate with Clarice more as a character.

Now, the greater questions is, can I, as a transgender woman relate to the character of Buffalo Bill? Otherwise known as Jame Gumb. He uses a fake cast to make himself appear weak and lures women into his van. There he incapacitates them, takes them back to his basement and keeps them in a deep well. We come to learn that he is actually killing women in order to harvest their skin so that he can sew himself a "woman suit." He longs to put on this suit so he can become a woman. Certainly he is a horrible individual, but is this person presented as transgender?

While the above plot line is developing, we watch Gumb in his free time. He's shown putting on makeup and dancing naked with his genitals tucked between his legs. Though it looks less like he's attempting to present female and more like he's doing David Lee Roth cosplay. A similar scene with a character doing naked tucking was used in the little known film Different for Girls, It seems to be a sort of visual shorthand for a character's internal transgender thoughts. I know as a trans woman I've never danced in front of the mirror with a naked tuck, but maybe I'm abnormal (let me know in the comments).

Clarice and Lecter have a conversation about Gumb's pathology and potential transgender nature. Of course this was filmed in 1990 or 1991 so the word transsexual is used rather than transgender. Transsexual was more commonly in use at that time. Below are two Hannibal Lecter quotes from that conversation:

"Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence. Our Billy wasn't born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying."

"Billy's not a real transsexual, but he thinks he is. He tries to be. He's tried a lot of things I expect...I wouldn't surprised if Billy has applied for sex reassignment surgery at one or all of them, and been rejected." 

Okay, so the movie doesn't quite say that Jame Gumb is transgender, but it also leaves us with a potentially non-existent condition of "thinking you're transgender." In 1992 the current psychiatric bible was the DSM III R, which identified Gender Identity Disorder as a psycho-pathological condition with three subgroups; transsexualism, non-transexualism and other. Now, I'm not a psychologist or psychiatrist but then again neither is Silence of the Lambs author Thomas Harris. Is this character in the 'other' category?

What exactly does it mean that Jame Gumb only "thinks he is transsexual." It's hard to say, but I think it's implied that he is an individual who is deeply broken psychologically and has decided that becoming a woman will fix his problems. You could argue that, in the movie's world, Jame Gumb is a fake transsexual, but what does a real-life audience take away from that? I would worry that someone who already thinks transgender people are freaks may find it easy to ignore the "fake transgender" diagnosis and thus allow the character to reinforce their negative attitudes of trans people.

As a transgender woman, on my first viewing of this movie, my ears of course perked up at the mention of anything having to do with gender change. In a way that sort of made the notion of changing one's gender more real. It was in a movie. Big Hollywood actors were sitting around talking about it like it was a thing that was normal and existed and was spoken about by adults. As I've aged more, come out and embraced my trans identity, my attitude has shifted sort of more toward embarrassment. Now I cringe when I see Buffalo do his little dance and I sort of shrug at the diagnoses scene and wonder if the script really needed any mention of transgender topics at all.

Does this movie need transgender topics? That's something the author and script writer didn't necessarily have to include. This isn't the real world and both Jame Gumb and the psychiatrist-cum-murder diagnosing him are fictional characters in a fictional world. Though Jame Gumb is a fictional character, he is based on real individuals like serial killers Ted Bundy and Ed Gein.

Ed Gein was a killer active in Wisconsin ("America's Serial Killer Basket") in the 1950s. He was a product killer rather than a process killer, ie, he was obsessed with human body parts rather than the act of killing. More often a grave robber than a murderer, Gein was obsessed with human body parts and kept a grim collection in his house including women's head, vulvas, nipples, face and heads. Often human remains were fashioned into wearable items; leggings and corsets made from human skin or a mask made from a woman's face.

There has been conjecture, mostly on the internet and almost if not wholly by people who neither interviewed Ed Gein nor have psychiatric degrees, that Ed Gein was transgender. For the most part this is based on his obsession with his mother "he could become his mother—to literally crawl into her skin" and the fact that he appeared to have been crafting a female skin suit for himself.

Of course, these are not things that transgender people tend to do. Ever. So, it is quite conceivable that an author or script writer could write a story about a hunt for a serial killer, even basing said serial killer on Ed Gein, without needing to involve transgender topics in any way. Pyscho is based on the same killer and avoids discussions of transgender topics, focusing instead of its own dubious psychological diagnosis of multiple personality disorder. House of 1000 Corpses is another movie based on Ed Gein that also managed to leave out any reference to transgender people.

Silence of the Lambs's authors decided to include the topic. What does the movie say about transgender people? For one, transsexualism is only discussed in the context of diagnosing serial killers. It's presented as a psychiatric condition, one that is perhaps motivated by self hatred. Yes, it does try to say that Jame Gumb is not transgender but it muddles that explanation with pseudo-psychiatry that is designed less to provide realistic information on transgender identities and more to simply drive the plot along. Now, Clarice does say one thing that sounds positive "There's no correlation in the literature between transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive."

See? Trans people aren't serial killers! Honestly, I think this line must have been included late in the game after someone said "trans people might be mad if we say they're all serial killers. Let's include a line about how they're not." Yeah, so it now lumps all transgender people together and says we're "very passive." Very passive. What does that mean? Yes, it is true that transgender people are far more likely to be the victim of violent crime than to perpetrate it, but that doesn't mean that no transgender people are violent lawbreakers. I'm sure some are. We are a diverse group and the only thing we really share is our gender dysphoria. 

Ultimately the reason I think that transgender topics are present in Silence of the Lambs is that they're freaky and fringe, at least to mainstream audiences in the early Nineties. They make audiences uncomfortable. In 1991 this was certainly the case. Silence of the Lambs hit a lot of taboo subjects; cannibalism, murder, dismemberment, torture, insanity. These were designed to make audiences squirm, to frighten them, to take them out of their comfort zones. And unfortunately, they lumped transgender people and gay people in there with those subjects. I'm sure it made mainstream audiences back then squirm and think they were going to a dark psychological place, but in the end it just demonizes LGBTQ people, lumps them into the weirdo category with cannibals and murders, and reinforces the idea that LGBTQ people are part of the Other.

At the beginning I said that this is one of my favorite movies. And it still is. Movies are a product of their time and in the early Nineties transgender people were barely talked about, not taken seriously and often thought up as weirdos, perverts, or worse. Sadly, the societal view bled into what is otherwise a perfectly entertaining movie with some of cinema's most compelling characters. Silence of the Lambs is a great film but I do wish they could have made a couple quick edits to excise the transgender discussions that could have been left out without affecting the plot or the characters.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Trainspotting: A Transgender Girl's Thoughts

Trainspotting is one of my absolute all-time favorite movies. For some unknown reason my Republican, Evangelical dad took me to see this movie in the theater. Maybe it was because he was a bit of an Anglophile and I guess Scotland is part of the UK so he took young teenage me to go see a film with insane amounts of drug use, nudity, swearing and dead babies. Well, this movie blew my mind. It redefined for me what a movie could be. 

In its initial US theatrical release it played in one theater on the other side of town for exactly one week. I ended up going back and seeing Trainspotting five times that week. By this time I was deep into my film connoisseur stage and was an unabashed fan of Tarantino, Kubrick and Scorsese. But Trainspotting blew me away. The music, the shots, the relentless energy, all of it compounded by the rapid dialogue delivered in heavy accents. The film, the story, the characters - all of it. I remember leaving the theater and thinking "I didn't know a movie could do that!" 

So when I saw that the new Alamo Drafthouse here in Brooklyn was showing Trainspotting for one night only I bought tickets as soon as I could. Yeah, I've seen this movie on DVD a hundred times, with commentary and without, but it's been twenty years (Wow. Twenty years) since I'd seen it on the big screen. And with the trailer for the sequel looking really good I was super excited to see this movie again. 

But, this isn't a movie blog. If you want info on Trainspotting you can find it all over the internet. As a transgender woman though, I think I can bring a unique perspective, especially having just seen it again on the big screen. Though the movie doesn't have any LGBT themes, Trainspotting does have a brief scene involving either a transgender woman or a crossdresser (it's not made explicitly clear how this person identifies - more on that later). For brevity I'm going to simply refer to her as a transgender woman. Because of this scene I think transgender people will come away from a viewing with a slightly different perspective than would a cis person. 

The scene takes place after our hero Mark Renton has moved to London to try and get away from his self-destructive lifestyle and the friends that encourage it. Unfortunately for Mark, his violent, quick-tempered, drunken asshole of a friend Francis Begbie shows up on the run from the law. After Begbie ends up winning big on a horse race, he and Renton go out to celebrate and visit a busy club in London. There Begbie meets the transwoman on the dance floor, then goes back to her car to hook up. As they're making out and petting heavily, Begbie discovers that she's not a cis woman and freaks out. Later, back at home, Mark kids him about the encounter and this causes Begbie to threaten him with a knife.

This scene actually has some really positive, forward thinking things to say about gender. During these scenes, Mark's voice over explains his thoughts:

Diane was right. The world is changing, music is changing, drugs are changing, even men and women are changing. One thousand years from now there'll be no guys and no girls, just wankers. Sounds great to me.

You see if you ask me we're heterosexual by default, not by decision. It's just a question of who you fancy. It's all about aesthetics and it's fuck all to do with morality. But you try telling Begbie that.

I love this because it's so prescient. I feel like society in 2017 is ever so slightly edging towards the point where this type of conception of gender is becoming the norm. In the twenty years since Trainspotting came out our ideas of gender and sexuality have evolved to the point where it's fairly normal to accept that both exist on a continuum and that there is a heck of a lot of grey area. We're not all just wankers quite yet, but the idea of a rigid binary between men and women, straight and gay, is in the process of breaking down. And it does seem great, at least to me.

I distinctly remember watching this back in 1996, before I really knew what it was to be transgender, and I remember loving the line about how in the future there'd be no guys and no girls. It was a great thing to hear in a movie for someone who knew they weren't comfortable in their gender role but didn't yet have the tools to really be able to articulate that yet.

Yeah, so while there are some positives, I have to say that there are quite a lot of negatives when it comes to this scene. Firstly, it plays off the tired old stereotype of the transgender woman who's out to "trick" straight men into acting gay. The underlying idea to this trope is that it's shameful to want to hook up with a transgender girl because it makes you gay. Yes, and of course it's shameful to be gay, obviously.

Now, there does remain the question of whether or not Begbie is in fact gay. Actor Robert Carlyle has gone on record as saying that he played the character as a closeted gay man who was desperately trying to bury his feelings and lashing out at anyone who threatened that. Author Irvine Welsh has stated that Begbie's sexuality was written to be a bit more ambiguous. But even the character is secretly portrayed as gay doesn't mean the audience (who's likely not in on the actor's motivation) fully understands this. This is especially true when the "gay" character is party to the all-too-common transgirl tricks the straight guy moment.

Gay or straight, this scene is told specifically from a male point of view. And it's the male character in this scene whose feelings are what the camera focuses on. Whatever his sexuality may be, this is Begbie's experience and the movie only follows him as he reacts to the transgender woman. This is again, all-too-common a trope when trans women are portrayed in media. They are presented as objects whose existence is there to be remarked up or reacted to by the cis male character.

Now, another question arises. Does this scene work to establish Begbie's character? I think it does, but not really in any new way. We know full well that Begbie is a psychopath. As viewers we've had lots of scenes thus far that illustrate this. He's starting fights with random unsuspecting people for no reason, he's robbing people, he's threatening his friends. We know he's a violent pyschopath with a hair trigger temper. All this scene adds is that, for whatever reason, he's also transphobic and homophobic. Now, t's certainly within character for Begbie to be a transphobic and homophobic asshole. It can add some complexity to  his character, but this attribute of his personality is never brought up or addressed again throughout the film.

It is interesting though that we've seen Begbie violently assault people for non-existent offenses like eating crisps too loudly in a large pool hall. Yet, when he realizes that he's making out with a transgender girl, we don't actually see him assault her. There's a shot where he seems to realize what's going on, a shot of her confused and slightly worried reaction. Then the next shot is Begbie outside the car freaking out. This is an absolutely psycho character and it's telling that we don't see him actually harming this woman. That's curious. Perhaps he's angry with himself? But again, if this is a situation where this scene is supposed to establish that he's a self-hating closeted gay man, this never resurfaces again in  the movie.

Ultimately I think the issue can be summed up by asking what is the point of this scene?Unfortunately I don't think this scene was written in to provide insight into Begbie's character or as a means to allow Renton to get philosophical on the nature of society and gender. Ultimately, I think this scene is there for a laugh. We as the audience get to see the asshole Begbie end up in a situation that embarrasses him and we as an audience get to laugh at him. Mark Renton, our protagonist and the character we are led to identify most with even makes the jokes for us.

But to set up this joke the movie has to express the ideas that it is shameful and embarrassing for a straight identified cis man to fancy or hook up with a transgender woman, that doing so makes that cis man gay, and that being gay is a undesirable state. These aren't great ideas to espouse. Ideas like these normalize homophobia and transphobia and that normalization can negatively affect the lives of LGBT people either through marginalization or even through legislation.

Even with the negatives, I still love this movie. Yes, I think this one scene could have been cut without really changing the narrative of the movie. I think now, two decades later, this type of joke really wouldn't fly in a movie, at least not without people calling it out for what it is. Yes, Trainspotting is a classic but even classic films carry the baggage of the culture that produced them. Another of my absolute favorite movies, Casablanca, makes me cringe when Isla, a young white woman, refers to Sam, a middle aged African-American man, as a "boy." Movies are a product of their time and this sort of joke was okay in 1996. Thankfully we seem to be moving away from that now.

When I was sixteen and watching this for the first time, my internal transieness perked up during this scene. Like any media that presented a transgender element, this interested me. At that age I was still insanely confused about what it meant to be cis or trans or gay or straight, but I knew I identified with and enjoyed male-to-female elements in media, even if they were rarely positive. This scene made me think "hey, crossdressing in this film! That's so cool." Plus I thought the transgirl's stockings were cool. I'd like to write about how this scene reinforced my own internalized shame at feeling transgender, but I don't remember it doing that. Mostly, I think, at sixteen I just thought it was cool that there was a transgender element in the movie at all.

At age thirty-six this scene affected me rather differently. I had braved a nor'easter with pouring rain and 70mph wind gusts (not exaggerating) to get to the theater after work. I was soaked, my wig was blown around and I felt and looked like crap. I was sure I didn't pass. But, I took a quick trip to the bathroom to clean up and I felt a little better. Still didn't feel super passable but at least I no longer looked like something the cat dragged in. 

Watching this scene on film in a crowded theater really made me feel like I stood out to everyone in the audience. As though I might have blended in before the movie but that scene put the idea of transwomen in the audience's heads. Now when they saw me they would be in transgirl-spotting mode.I felt like that scene put the idea that transwomen are bad into people's heads and it might have made them view me as a joke, like I was some ridiculous person. It was like a spotlight shone on me and it made me uncomfortable. Thankfully it's not a long scene.

Like I said, I still enjoyed the movie a great deal. It's still one of my absolute favorite movies and I'll watch it again and again. I'll see the sequel on opening day. Trainspotting is a good enough movie that I'll forgive it this scene. Unlike say, Breakfast at Tiffany's which is not a good enough movie for me to forgive its racism. Movies are products of their time and for great movies like Trainspotting, I'm still willing to enjoy it and enjoy the heck out of it, even if it does have a small bit of 1996-era transphobia in it. 

Oh, and there was one other reaction that I had as a transgender girl watching Trainspotting. Diane's dress in the Volcano Club scene. Damn! That look redefined the very concept of sexy for me. Damn, When I was sixteen I wished I had that dress and could look that good in it. And now at age 36 I still wish I had that dress and looked that good in it.

Damn. Damn. Damn. Rock it, Kelly MacDonald!

What girl doesn't want to look good in silver. Well, even as I was getting some screen-grabs for this blog (two days after watching this movie in the theater again), my first thought was, dang, I totally want to watch Trainspotting again. So I think I will. And let's hope T2 is good too.