Wednesday, June 20, 2012


This is part of the Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs.

Transgender people have featured in exploitation films since at least the 1930s. There's a hermaphrodite in the circus in Tod Browning's Freaks, though ze doesn't play a prominent role in the film. There's also a genderqueer element to James Whale's horror comedy, The Old Dark House, in which the patriarch of the film's looney family is played by a woman in old man drag. Whale liked to tweak gender norms in his movies sometimes. The golden era of transgender exploitation began in the 1950s, though, when Christine Jorgensen's gender surgery became a seven day wonder. One of the first films to take on the subject of transgenderism was Ed Wood's legendarily bad Glen or Glenda (1953, aka: I Changed My Sex). It's easy to mock Wood and Glen or Glenda, what with its weird assemblage of stock footage and with Bela Lugosi playing a god who composes boys and girls out of snips and snails and sugar and spice, to say nothing of its litany of angora sweaters and grossly misinformed pronouncements on the causes of transgenderism. Hell, you can even play the transgender documentary drinking game while watching it (Glen or Glenda is a documentary of sorts, after all).

What's that? Transgender documentary drinking game? Oh, yes. The tropes of the trans documentary are so calcified that you can get good and sloshed if you follow along with alcohol. The original version was authored by Gwendolyn Ann Smith, and you can read it here. Others have added to it over the years.


Glen or Glenda is bad--I won't deny it--but I have a lot of affection for it that goes beyond the dubious pleasures of mocking the film for its badness. I have two reasons for this. First: for all its incompetence, its heart is in the right place. Glen or Glenda is possibly the very first film to treat transsexuality and other transgender identities with anything like sympathy and understanding. This is directly related to my second reason: Glen or Glenda is the first film I know of that was made by a trans person speaking for themselves. Ed Wood was partially famous for his crossdressing, after all. Trans people utilizing the bully pulpit of the cinema is virtually unknown until the rise of new media, so Wood is someone to celebrate, however dubious his accomplishments may be.

The other major transgender documentary from the exploitation sector is Doris Wishman's Let Me Die a Woman (1977), a film notorious for its surgical footage and its clinical examination of transsexuals as objects of study rather than as human beings. Wishman's film has a sex doctor pointing out the salient anatomical features of a pre-operative transsexual using a nude transsexual as a model (rather than using a diagram or a photograph). The various pronouncements on transsexuality are only marginally more informed than what one finds in Glen or Glenda. The exploitation elements of the film are risible. Scattered between the documentary footage are “re-creations” of the lives of transsexuals, mostly pornographic in nature. Wishman made her name making “nudie” films, after all, so this isn't out of character for her. What we see in this film is a prototype for shemale porn, and the pornographic segments of the film run through a number of tropes familiar from other transgender depictions, like the trans person as “trap” and the trans person as sex worker. The weird thing about Let Me Die a Woman, though, is that amid all of the schlock that surrounds it, there's actually a sympathetic voice that emerges from the film. One of the film's principle subjects is a trans woman who speaks about her life directly to the camera. Wishman isn't able to co-opt this for a salacious purpose, perhaps because the essential humanity this woman expresses gives her the cover she needs to engage in more unsavory and morally dubious material. The fact that the material provided by the filmmakers themselves tends to view trans people as, well, meat, is first among the film's many failings.

I think the line between exploitation and legitimate documentary is hazy at best when it comes to non-fiction films about transgender people. Subtract the raw meat from Let Me Die a Woman and you have a film that looks a lot like Lee Grant's 1985 documentary, What Sex Am I? which, despite it's pedigree as a “serious” documentary, can't help but provide footage of a transsexual stripper at work. “Not a person in the audience would suspect that “Cathy” is a man,” the narration informs us. The filmmakers then quiz her about “fooling” every man in the house, all the while showing us “Cathy's” naked form dancing for the camera. Still, I suppose that it could be worse. On the whole, What Sex am I? is sensitive toward its subjects, but it just can't help itself sometimes. And that's a problem.

Another, similar documentary, Metamorphosis: Man into Woman, made for PBS in 1990, follows three years in the life of a trans woman and while it's mostly sympathetic—moreso than its predecessors in any event—it still finds a way to stumble over its own preconceptions. In one scene in particular, Gabi, the woman the film has been following, shows up to a Halloween party for her support group dressed in a maid's uniform. The pull quote from this scene has her telling the members of the group that she's happy with her transition to date because she no longer looks like a “man in a dress.” This is the bad old days when passing as a criterion for surgery approval was paramount, but even without that sword hanging over her, she's expressing a lot of internalized transphobia.

While things have improved in the last twenty years, these tropes still resurface in well-meaning television specials and even some otherwise excellent theatrical documentaries. As a result, you still have shots of trans women putting on make-up or trans men binding their chests or shooting testosterone, or narration that says things like “Kimberly, who was once Greg,” or the friends and family of trans people saying things like “David will always be Diane to us.” There's a consistent pattern of misgendering and invalidation in trans-themed documentaries, even ones that are ostensibly sympathetic.

The trans documentary is the natural habitat of the pathetic transsexual archetype. While a film like Paris is Burning (1990) or The Brandon Teena Story (1998) may have a great deal of empathy for their subjects, there's also a certain amount of condescension, too, as if the motivating factor for the filmmakers themselves is liberal guilt more than any intent to understand trans people. The ending of Paris is Burning, in particular, has a eulogizing tone that turns it into a cautionary tale, perhaps in spite of the filmmakers' intentions. The Brandon Teena Story is part of the subgenre of transgender true crime stories, which are depressingly common. The fascination with these stories by cis filmmakers is demonstrated by the fact that both The Brandon Teena Story and Trained in the Ways of Men (about the murder of Gwen Araujo) served as the basis for fictional accounts. Again, there's a cautionary note struck by these films, possibly in spite of the intentions of the filmmakers.

The best transgender documentaries are made by trans people themselves, but even these are not immune to some of the tropes of past years. Kimberly Reed's excellent Prodigal Sons still includes copious footage of the football star she used to be in high school, for one example, in spite of the fact that it doesn't really add to the central narrative of the movie. It's expected, I guess. Reed herself dismantles this trope later in the movie when she rages at her brother for showing off pictures of what she used to look like. It's a queasy balance. Recent trans-themed documentaries show the influence of Capturing the Friedmans, in which there's a shocking intimacy in the way they document the way transgender identities fit into the faultlines of overall family relationships. You can see this in Gwen Haworth's She's a Boy I Knew and in Red Without Blue, as well (in spite of its cis filmmakers).

Gwen Haworth's She's a Boy I Knew represents a direct challenge to the way transgender documentaries are usually framed. Two of the most important tropes lampooned by the transgender documentary drinking game are these: "Take a drink every time a trans woman is shown putting on make-up" and "Take a drink every time a trans man is shown wearing or putting on a binder." Trans documentaries are mostly about reifying cis notions of what it means to be trans and, to a more subtle extent, about enforcing cis/hetero norms of what constitutes masculinity and (especially) femininity. She's a Boy I Knew completely demolishes that, given that Haworth's identity is butch lesbian. Her film embraces the idea the there's no right or wrong way to be "feminine," there's no litmus test of stereotypical behavior that defines gender identity, and there's no singular trans narrative. Other filmmakers could take lessons from this.


Caroline said...

An excellent overview of transgender documentary tropes! I love this post, it's really insightful and as yet is the first in the blogathon to look at non-fiction films. I also have a deep affection for Glen or Glenda and was considering reviewing it this year. It's so fascinating how many different ways there are to tell the so-called "truth." I'm glad there's been at least some progress, however minute it may be.

Erin said...

Excellent post. Do you have an article up already about documentaries that aren't as exploitative? Are there any "good" ones besides Prodigal Son and She's a Boy I Knew?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Erin,

I don't think I've written a general post about trans documentaries before (though I've been kinda sorta writing a long history of trans imagery on film with the aim of publishing it as a book--that stuff isn't public yet). I think Red Without Blue was pretty good. So was Riot Acts, which I didn't mention in this post, but probably should have. I have some problems with it, but the TransGeneration series that ran on the Sundance channel was decent. I think it's still streaming on Netflix.

It's really hard for me to address this, actually, because I have such a vested interest in the subject that I probably hold trans-themed docs to an impossibly high standard.