Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Gender Fixations

I don't remember who pointed me at Princesa (2001, directed by Henrique Goldman)--it was probably one of my friends on the IMDB, but I'm not sure--but I hope they aren't offended if I stop taking recommendations for transgender-themed movies from my cisgender friends. The movies themselves keep pissing me off. This is yet another dire examination of the life of a transsexual prostitute. What is it about European films about transsexuals? Do European transsexuals not pursue other professions? Surely they must. Anyway, Fernanda, the title character is from Brazil, but works the streets in Milan in order to save money for her operation. She initially lives with fellow trans prostitute Charlo (who is not transsexual, per se), and works for transsexual madame, Karin, who fancies her. For the most part, Fernanda treats the people around her pretty poorly, especially Karin, but none of these people is exactly sympathetic. One of her Johns, Gianni, is so smitten with her that he offers to leave his wife, take her in, and pay for her operation. She treats Gianni pretty poorly, too. The poor guy doesn't have any idea of why Fernanda does anything that she does. I doubt that a non-trans audience would understand why she would object to a partner who is a bottom and the movie doesn't explain it. When she's confronted by Gianni's pregnant ex-wife, she leaves him and heads back to Karin to reclaim her spot on the street.

So, given the opportunity to escape life on the street, she finds that living as a "normal" housewife is a suffocating set of gender roles and then goes back to the streets where "she feels like she belongs." What a load of happy horseshit. I mean, I "get" the point. The life of a housewife is oppressive, the film seems to opine, blah, blah, blah. It further opines that the life of a pregnant cisgender woman is more valuable than the life of a transgender woman (and has that transgender woman acquiesce to this notion). And it offers the noxious idea that trans women would choose sex work over another kind of life. Clearly, the filmmakers don't know what the fuck they're talking about. Oh, they throw Charlo at the audience, who develops AIDS and heads back home to her parents, but that's not really held as criticism. This is a film that really is slotting a life of desperate exploitation as superior for our heroine to a life of bourgeoisie comfort. Really? Give me a break.

In any event, it's all deeply offensive.

There's something chilly and clinical about the early going in XXY (2007, directed by Lucía Puenzo), the first film I think I've ever seen about an intersex person. The characters--at least initially--seem like specimens under the microscope of the filmmakers. This isn't helped by the austere backdrop of coastal Uruguay, filmed by director Lucía Puenzo in a cold, blue light. The story in this film concerns Alex, who was born with both male and female sex organs but lives as a girl, and her parents, who are at a loss as to how to help her through puberty and the awakening of her sexuality. This material has the potential to be exploitation or to be the equivalent of an after-school special (which is another kind of exploitation). The filmmakers feel the tug, I'm sure, but for the most part avoid this trap.

As far as the plot goes, Suli, Alex's mother, has brought a renowned plastic surgeon and his family to visit in the hopes that they will push Alex one way or another. Their son, Alvaro, has his own struggles with sexuality and with a father who is indifferent to him. It's a nice contrast that speaks to the notion that everyone has issues with their parents and their sexuality, not just gender variant children. Alvaro and Alex are drawn to each other, and each exacerbates the other's loneliness.

The film thaws considerably in its last third, as Alex's marine biologist father looks into options for Alex on his own. This leads him to meet another intersexed man who was assigned a female identity at birth, but disagreed and changed it, and their conversation injects an unexpected warmth into the film. There's also a cautionary tale embedded here, as Alex is assaulted by a group of boys on a beach who want to "see it." She is, after all, a freak in their eyes and they feel an entitlement to gaze upon the freak regardless of her own desires even though they will never really understand her. The end of the movie pulls a neat trick: it's the "normal" Alvaro whose relationship with his parents is destructive rather than Alex. In one of the film's last images, Alex puts her father's arm over her shoulder as they walk. I almost wish the entire movie was as warm as this image, but nothing makes a thing stand out like its opposite, I guess.

In any event, as a statement of self-determination in matters of gender identity, XXY is pretty enlightened. It's certainly light-years beyond other transgender movies that still fall into the stereotypes of gender variance as defined by a cissexual (cissexist) dominant culture.

In keeping with the theme of this post, one of the major villains of Chocolate (2008, directed by Prachya Pinkaew) is a transgender gangster who keeps among her henchmen a group of transgender thugs. Far-fetched, I know, but considerably less offensive than the crap in Princesa. Beyond that, though, this is an old fashioned martial arts movie, in so far as the plot and characters don't really matter. All that matters is jaw-dropping action, and, as in director Prachya Pinkaew's collaborations with Tony Jaa, this delivers on that count in spades. The story, such as it is, follows Zen, an autistic girl who is also a kind of savant when it comes to martial arts. When she sees martial arts--on television or in real life--she can duplicate it. A useful thing when your mother used to be a gangster's girlfriend who is owed a lot of money by mobsters, especially when said mother develops cancer and needs someone to collect those debts. This film has been described as Rain Man meets Iron Monkey, and I don't disagree with that. JeeJa Yanin, who plays our heroine, has awesome martial arts moves, and the copious ass-kicking lets her show it all off in increasingly complex fight choreographies, culminating in a 20 minute blaze of glory at the end of the film. This is one of those movies like the early 1980s Jackie Chan movies in which the viewer watches the insane stunts and thinks: "Oooh! That HAD to hurt." Like those films, there are copious outtakes at the end, showing that, yes indeed, it DID hurt. These people are crazy. In any event, this is a gas.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Fascinating reading--I hadn't heard of any of these films. While I would fall into the cisgender category (another new term to me, I'm afraid), I would have a hard time considering myself enlightened enough to hold up a transgender work as something that "gets it," especially to someone who would after all know better. I wonder if anyone ever told a gay friend, "You should really see 'I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry'! It's hilarious!" Though I can see where something that's *meant* to be a serious consideration but falls into the same traps would be even more offensive than a brainless, tactless comedy.

Anyway, not sure I have a point, but there it is. :P

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hey, Vicar! Thanks for the comment. For the most part, I'm down with depictions of trans people as villains or psychos in preference to depictions as whores, though I think all of those depictions have bad real-world consequences. I'd love to see a trans person in a movie who is an engineer or a computer animator or an accountant, but the movies aren't interested in those professions generally, so I'm not holding my breath. Anyway, the we all know what paves the road to hell...

DeAnna said...

I haven't seen the first film you discuss here, but it does make me wonder whether the filmmaker is of the school of thought that believes that sexwork is an enlightened career choice for women who don't fit the norm. Although, showing my own superior enlightenment (smirk), I had never questioned the widely held cultural belief that girls who were boys don't have many career paths and thus prostitution is the obvious answer for many to make enough cash to get on the the world. Hopefully, no trans folks today think this way, but like young attractive gay men who turn to hustling, I bet there are still some who do.

I really loved XXY. It showed so much compassion for all of the characters and I loved the decision to contrast Alex's sometimes misguided parents with Alverez's father who didn't seem to be capable to raising a child who is at all different from his own ideas of normal. Tis a shame this one never really received a theatrical release.

And Chocolate what somethin. I still cannot decide whether it was just too offensive to take away any pleasure from, or too over the top to truly be offensive. I was constantly aghast at every plot twist.

Jaye Schmus said...

I have Chocolate in my Netflix instant viewing queue. I'll have to give it a look once my 360 is reconnected to the net.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I watched Chocolate last night and immediately thought "Dr. M must have seen this one." It was pretty awesome. I wonder if the lady boy hit squad was made up of loyal "employees" who had out-aged their usefulness in the skin-trade, and like the pirates of old were repaid with new duties? They were not particularly effective against Zen, but then who was? It does make some sense, as your average enemy might underestimate a forty year-old man in a dress.

While in the real world I would despise a villain like the main baddie, in a movie he was awesome. "Losing a toe will change your life" was one of the greatest bits of cinematic evil I have yet to see.