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. 


  1. A great insightful analysis of an irrefutable spectacular movie. Very good writing and thought process in linking the trans aspect of the movie and of self. Keep it up.

    1. Thank you so much! I hope to tackle some more movies in the next few months. Thanks for reading!