Saturday, April 09, 2011

This Transamerican Life

I was invited to speak on a panel at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri this week. The subject of the panel was transgender imagery in film. The event was organized by a couple of film students for a class on Film and Social Justice. The movie they chose to show for the event was Transamerica (2005), a movie I've been consciously avoiding writing about since its release. I have a lot of friends who love it in a way that makes subjecting it to criticism seem like I'm criticizing them, which I don't mean to do. I also correspond now and then with people who were involved with the movie itself. So the fact that I don't like it much is...awkward.

At its core, this is a buddy road movie, a la Planes, Trains, and Automobiles or Midnight Run. You can hang a lot of things on the format, and this one hangs the story of Bree, a transsexual on the verge of her reassignment surgery, coming to grips with her past by putting her in the company of Toby, the son she never knew she had. Toby, a street hustler, accompanies her from New York to LA, where he hopes to get a job in gay porn. Bree, for her part, doesn't want any part of her son, but her therapist insists before she'll sign Bree's letter for her surgery. She doesn't disclose her identity to Toby, instead posing as a Christian missionary. Bree spends the early part of the movie looking for a way to unload Toby, and contrives to drive him to his stepfather's home in Kentucky. That goes disastrously awry, given that the stepfather turns out to be a molester and abuser. They're stuck with each other the whole way. They stop in Dallas at a safe house for transsexuals, where the cracks in Bree's masquerade begin to show. Shortly afterward, Toby discovers Bree's gender identity and begins to deride her. They get as far as New Mexico before their car is stolen by a hitchhiker (who claims to be a peyote shaman). They're rescued by an amiable rancher who seems sweet on Bree. He takes them as far as Phoenix, where Bree's parents live. There, the secrets are revealed.

As someone who has had to engage the process of transition herself, it's always fun watching movies get the details wrong. I won't go into the specifics of what it gets wrong, because, ultimately, it's a movie and movies do that with everything. My brother is a lawyer, and he hates lawyer shows. I imagine doctors don't particularly care for doctor shows, either. Same thing. But the ways it uses some of those details trouble me. For the most part, this is an R-Rated version of an After School Special. It wants to be sympathetic. It certainly likes Bree. It doesn't exactly judge her as a person, which is good. In fact, it goes out of its way to show that she's essentially a good person with problems, and that's certainly a noble depiction. But it just can't help but engage in "othering" when it comes to Bree's gender identity, and it does it in very pernicious ways.

When we first see her, she's watching a voice lesson and trying to feminize her voice. Unsuccessfully. Felicity Huffman, who won a Golden Globe for playing Bree and who was Oscar-nominated for the role, affects a particularly difficult voice for the character, and it's a voice of such artifice that it's difficult to see past it. Artifice is a big part of how Bree is presented in the film. We'll come to that, but it's the little details like this that probably seem alien to a straight, cisgender audience. You get more of this at the transsexual party in Dallas, in which a newly minted transsexual shows off pictures of her new vagina and the medical stents--devices that are largely glass dildos--to the gathered attendees. The movie makes a bit of a mistake in this scene, because it contrasts Huffman's construction of a transsexual persona against a group of real transsexuals. Apart from the party activity, there is no artifice here, and it amplifies the fact that Bree is a stereotype that doesn't necessarily match reality in any particular. I'll give the movie this much, though: it uses this scene to puncture the notion that there's some universal standard of gender expression. When Bree points out one attendee as being completely unpassable, her hostess punctures it by telling her that the object of her pity is a "GG," meaning "genuine girl." Props for having an awareness that there's no right or wrong way to be female. But it's a fleeting moment.

The most vexing element of the way it presents Bree is that she's simultaneously an avatar of the pathetic transsexual stereotype and the hyperfeminine fallacy. There's an element of desperation in the way Bree tells her therapist "Tell me what you want to hear," when she refuses to sign her surgery letter. She's shown throughout to be friendless and sad. ("Do you have any friends," she's asked. "I'm very close to my therapist," she responds). This is her lot in life. She has no support and only her determination to get her surgery drives her forward. I imagine that the dramatic arc of the movie is intended to reconcile Bree with Toby, but from my perspective, it's just more heartache. The hyperfeminine fallacy is all over Bree's gender presentation. She dresses in a series of largely affected outfits that are simply trying too hard. Her continuing difficulty in walking in heels is emblematic: men can't walk in heels, ipso facto Bree is really a man. Nevermind that if she's where she is in her process, walking in heels would be old hat. Worse, it LEAVES her in heels in situations that are ridiculously inappropriate. Out in the woods, for instance. I hesitate to see what kind of shape her feet would be in at the end of the movie. Not pretty, methinks. The movie also presents Bree as a character who trowels on the make-up:

In addition to repeated shots like this one, the movie calls attention to make-up by filming Bree such that there's always a sheen of sweat visible. She's always slightly shiny. This is something that no film would do to a female character. It's a tic compounded by the film's insistence on filming Huffman's face in close-up using very short lenses, which project her features into space to make them look craggy. Again: artifice. All of this is the paraphernalia of a constructed identity that is fundamentally inauthentic. It's a cisgender idea of what a "tranny" looks like, and, frankly, it's offensive.

And then there's the film's promotional material, including this:

Images like this one piss me off no end. Bathrooms are the main instrument of the oppression of trans people. The spectre of a "man in a dress" invading the women's room is a hysteria that the religious right raises like clockwork whenever the issue of protecting trans people from discrimination comes up in legislature, whether it's germane or not. There's a (largely toothless) non-discrimination bill before the Maryland legislature as I write this that omits access to public accommodation (a class of services that also includes restaurants and--scarily--hospitals). The promoters of the bill omitted this in the hopes of avoiding the "bathroom bill" hysteria. They failed. And images like this one DO. NOT. HELP. It's even more annoying because the movie never once suggests that Bree is confused about her identity (or which bathroom she should use). It's a senselessly "othering" image.

Almost as bad is the way this was released on DVD. The initial release had one of those prismatic covers that shows one picture at one angle and another picture at a different angle. In this case, one picture was of Bree, the other was a headshot of Felicity Huffman without the impedimenta of the character. Huffman is very attractive, so this presentation both calls attention to the fact that she's playing ugly in the best tradition of Oscar bait and to the fact that Bree is essentially an artificial construction. I know plenty of trans women who are as attractive as Huffman--a couple of them are in the movie--so the decision to present the character this way is yet another way to clue the audience into the fact that Bree is a fraud. You can see the the headshot of Huffman if you click the Amazon link below.

This movie won a GLAAD Media Award, and in retrospect, I want to smack them upside the head for it. Let's leave aside Bree for the nonce and look at Toby. Toby's story is ALSO constructed of sterotypes and misconceptions about gay people, and it is equally pernicious. Toby is a drug user, a prostitute, and an abuse survivor. It's almost as if the filmmakers had gone down a checklist of the American Family Association's enumeration of the personal dissolution caused by the "homosexual lifestyle." There's an unspoken assumption in the way this is presented that Toby was "made" into a homosexual by his abusive stepfather, and that there's some hope of him being changed back after seeing him respond to the girl at the truck stop. An anti-gay activist might look at this film and use it as an argument for putting both of its lead characters into a conversion therapy-based program to pray the gay out of them. It's all very irritating.

The one bright spot in the movie for me is Graham Green's character, Calvin the Rancher. The notion that there are people out there that see past the artifice and the checkered past Bree carries around with her is very gratifying. One wishes that the film would have thrown its main thrust over the side at this point, because during Green's scenes with Huffman, the movie actually finds a sliver of authenticity that could have carried a movie unto itself.

Anyway, I spoke about some of these issues in the panel discussion after the movie. I pretty much confined my comments to issues of media presentation, both in this movie and others. I focused on the main stereotypes in trans-themed cinema. The other members of the panel generally offered their experiences as transsexuals, which is probably a valuable perspective for a cis audience to hear. There's a tremendous variety of experiences in the transgender community. My own experience doesn't make for good drama, frankly. Fortunately, none of us actually had to defend our humanity to the audience, and I didn't feel like an exhibit in a zoo. That's always a risk with these kinds of events. On the whole, I think it went well. Next time I do one of these, though, I hope they pick a better movie.


Natasha said...

Thank you for your review of this. Now I don't feel the need to watch it. While I have always been a fan of Mrs. Huffman, I have been avoiding this because I had a feeling it would be exactly as you describe.


Mykal said...

I've seen this film and I see your points, every one. I will say this, though. As a heterosexual with an appallingly mainstream Midwestern history (an ex-girlfriend once used to call me “Super Whitebread-Man”), this film did make me see transsexuals as individuals - as singular human beings dealing with a profoundly complex issue. Coming to the film, I had no pre-existing prejudice, exactly. I just never really thought about transsexuals or the process very much one way or the other or, more accurately, the extremity of the process sort of left me feeling . . . blankly amazed. This film, at the least, made me consider transsexuals, really, for the first time in a very specific way. Ignorance is always broken down when one comes face confront living, breathing individuals.

Clearly, you speak with more authority on the subject than myself, and I can readily see the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) flaws that I missed because of your post. Yet, overall, I remember being moved by much of the film - at how very human and admirable were many of the subjects - and also the families of the subjects - as they all tried to negotiate their lives through a very difficult transition.

GlendaP said...

Oh, good. I thought I was the only one who thought it was crap. I had a feeling it was going to be clueless when they cast a GG as the lead.

Jenn said...

Excellent, excellent stuff, here Morbius. I think you do a great job relating your grievances with this film. I have it in my queue and should likely move it forward.

What particularly resonated with me was your description of Toby. I think MYSTERIOUS SKIN does many of the same things with the gay hustler character that this movie seems to do. All very irritating. You would think something dealing with this subject matter wouldn't be quite so stereotypical.

You conquered writing about this with a great eloquence and that is so awesome.

BTW, I watched FORBIDDEN PLANET last night, and of course, thought of you :)

Mykal said...

Dr. Morbius: Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. What an ass I am. The film I was talking about, and the film I though I was responding to in my comments, was TransGeneration not Transamerica. That's what I get for leaving a comment after only skimming a post without reading carefully. I assumed you were talking specifically about one of the episodes in TransGeneration, finding perhaps the choice of individual profiled too much a stereotype to be representative. I really like TransGeration and jumped too quickly at the chance to say so.

Wow. My apologies. Let me shut up now for a very, very long time.

dr.morbius said...

Hi, Mykal. No problem, though your comments could easily have been applied to Transamerica. It's that kind of movie. TransGeneration is pretty good.

Glenda: Haven't we had a conversation about Transamerica before? You aren't the only other person I know who doesn't like it.

Hi, Jenn. Yay for Forbidden Planet! If I had twenty grand to spend on something totally frivolous, I'd be buying a robot from this guy.

Hannah Swopes said...

Thanks for your thoughts. These are just the kinds of dialogues we ned to be starting.

dr.morbius said...

Hi, Hannah! Thank you all so much for having me. I had a great time. If you have a mind, click the tag for transgender cinema and poke around. I'd be interested in what you think.

Deborah said...

I hated this movie for most of the same reasons you did, and of course I was told that I, as a cis woman, just didn't "get it." Ha! I never believed that! I may be cis, but I know movies, and this one was cliché-ridden to its core.

One of the things I found most false was Bree's lack of support system. I don't know any transpeople who don't have connections in the trans community: Of course, that's a self-fulfilling prophecy, if they don't make connections, how would I know them? But knowing how deeply supportive that community can be, it seems strange and wrong to present Bree as representative. Sure, maybe there's someone like her somewhere, but it still feels like a lie.

One moment that I really loved was Bree confronting her mother about their equivalent pills; it really got to the core, rather elegantly, about the way we (as a culture) lie to ourselves over "real" and "false" gender.

And you're so right about Graham Greene. He made the movie.

dr.morbius said...

Hi, Deborah. I think we've had this conversation before. I think you're totally right about the lack of community Bree seems to exist in. I could understand this if the movie were set in, say, 1990, but in 2006? Ten years AI (after internet)? This is another one of those weird lacunae that is thrown into stark relief by the movie's choice of episodes. The Dallas episode totally shows that there's a community there for her if she wants it. She lives in LA? Oh, please.

(Oh, and I'll be writing about Thunderball in a day or two. I'll be calling it "Dominoes in Drag," with apologies to Van Morrison. I hope you'll stop by for that).