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Trans people in films

February 4, 2015

I get quite amused when I read earnest knowledgeable texts from earnest knowledgeable people, insisting that transgenderism and transvestism are different, dammit, and transvestism is again different to cross dressing. Is it? I may be wrong, but I think a good proportion of public, self-identified transvestites would take issue with the idea that transvestism is for the purposes of a “sexual kick”, as opposed to a mere clothing preference. Let’s face it, the word transvestite is, compared to the dowdy label “cross dresser”, très chic.

I’m reading a book on sexuality right now by a sex psychologist, which necessarily expands on gender identity. While I appreciate the author’s obviously careful attempt to explore all parts of the sexuality on the gender continuum, he suffers from the old scientists’ problem of false categorisation. In my experience, cross dressing and transexuality aren’t light years away from each other, they are interchangeable, compatible, scrambled states of being.

These books and articles tend to be written from the point of view of the out-group. Your average psychologist or sexologist isn’t trans, so (s)he sings from the same sheet music as every other progressive or liberal-minded cisgendered (non-transgendered) person with any basic education on sexuality and gender. This is based off of some research and questionnaires, but often ignores occasional forays into more unusual circles, where everyone’s behaviour changes, and which are entirely relevant to the question of what we are, what we think and what we get up to. This approach also disregards common usage definitions of trans-culture words, such as the lack of distinction between transvestite and cross dresser I mentioned earlier. It does so, not intentionally, but because these well-meaning observers have no on-the-ground experience of transgender life.

I have been “on the scene”, that is to say in LGBT circles (with increasing emphasis on the T) on and off for about five years now. And I can tell you that this wish to try to set transgenderism at the same level of simplicity as we perceive cisgenderism is fundamentally misguided. You see, I contest the idea that cisgenderism describes man and woman and transgenderism describes everything else, or that these are two different categories at people.

I predict that the future will show an increasing tendency for people who do not identify as transgendered to question gender assumptions and stereotypes, to the point where it becomes quite ludicrous to have a specific term for someone who wears clothes traditionally associated with “the opposite gender”. Take a and trip around the more alternative areas of London or Brighton if you want to see how irrelevant that distinction is already starting to become. People in Bohemia have always been more fluid, and I see that expanding; there will usually be one Goth, punk or whatever wearing full make-up at a standard party. A few decades ago, these people would have been hidden away in shady bars. These days, we barely consider men who wear make-up beyond the fringe of normality, understanding as we do that “normal” incorporates a range of quite different harmless behaviours.

Transgendered people tend to perceive this more than cisgendered people. So, in a way we are liberated from the idea that gender follows a binary or prescribed pattern. That couldn’t make our views more different to the popular perceptions of cisgendered people, who are forever writing whole books on the differences between men and women and the inevitability of a crazed handbag-versus-motorbike gender war. Attempting to explain patiently to other cisgendered people that trans people are “normal, just like you” is a bit of an insult to us, because that isn’t a normality we’re particularly interested in.

This same scientist used the example of the Rocky Horror Picture Show as a film that raised concerns about its depiction of trans people, mixing up transvestism with transsexualism with pansexuality and all that jazz. The problem with that observation is that in my experience, transvestism and transsexualism and pansexuality are mixed up. Within a group of people liberated from fixed ideas of gender, what changes might occur? If you’ve realised that you’re transsexual, you might then also think you’ve nothing to lose from wearing whatever you like, even if it doesn’t now “fit” with your newly acquired gender identity. To hell with it,we didn’t go through all the hormones, surgery and ostracism just to compromise ourselves by getting twisted up in knots over a yearning to don a pair of high heeled boots.

Similarly, if you’ve gone through the Forest of Gender Confusion and come out on the other side with twigs in your hair having met a few handsome strangers in the shrubs, you might also feel that sexuality is a lot more fluid than you were led to believe. The more time you spend around people whose gender identity and representation is muddled and perpetually changing, the less you care about “what” people are, compared to who they are underneath all the sex organs and lingerie. This is the essence of pansexuality (gender blindness in relation to attraction).

In case you wonder how scrambled trans identity is, I give you the case example of a friend of mine from a few years back, who was a transman (born female, turned to male), wanted to be a drag queen by night (dressed in exaggerated feminine style) but androgynous by day (identifiably neither male or female), while voicing the opinion that when one sees an attractive man on the street, it is difficult to tell “whether you want to hit that, or be that.” He was attracted to women and transmen, as well as cis-men, making him not pansexual but polysexual (attracted to more than two genders, where trans-X is counted as an alternative gender to man / woman). Not a thought I’m convinced is unique to him, seeing as we seem frequently to merge admiration with sexual attachment, especially during puberty – and he was going through a second puberty at the time. I’ve also had to marvel at the number of people who have taken partners so physically similar to them, they could be siblings.

This, I think, explains why trans people, far from shrinking back from Rocky Horror in, well, horror, gravitate towards it with delight. I have a copy of it on my own shelves and it’s the strangest, campiest movie up there by a long shot, surrounded on all sides by much more reserved and serious films filled with silent weeping and decay. When I was in Brighton, there was an organised Rocky Horror dress-up and meet-up on the sea front, with people doing the Time Warp. Only last year, my university’s Transgender Awareness Week included a cinema trip to Rocky Horror. It is shown, late at night, all over the place and I dare to suggest that this is not for the benefit of heterosexual, cisgendered people.

It’s the question of the in-group versus the out-group again. I can’t be certain that Rocky Horror is the brain child of someone from my in-group, but the point is that it feels like it is; it’s mad, it’s strange, it’s camp, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and above all, it’s fun. Fun is what’s missing from representations of trans people, peppered as we are with negative portrayals of transgenderism.

When I say negative, I don’t mean prejudiced. A negative portrayal is anything which, whatever the film-makers’ opinion about trans people, represents our situation negatively. This can include pessimism, politicisation, shock tactics, or didacticism. These films are too obviously made for cisgendered, heterosexual people first and foremost; with the best of intentions, lecturing them on the perils of being trans in this cold, bigoted world. As a result, people like our friend the sex psychologist forget that not every single film is made for heterosexual, cisgendered people and as such, liberal minded people are not owed, by every trans-depicting piece of media they consume, a straightforward, sober, educational, fair-minded, respectful representation of transgenderism.

“But Drain! Nasty rednecks aren’t taking you seriously! They must be educated!”

Taken seriously? Me? Heaven forbid. My wisest words, yes, my very being, no. If being taken seriously means being dramatic and depressed and bored all the time, forget it.

Think of the bubble of media from inside the gay circle – features Russell T. Davies, for example – that seem to mock both society and their own heroes. Someone who is very worried about discrimination and hate speech might without knowledge misinterpret this as outright prejudice, or else frown disapprovingly at the flagrant perpetuation of stereotypes. But separating mockery of a group and mockery of society is not a distinction of genre but a fracturing of two halves. The two are quite commonly connected, if not necessarily so; we are society, so when we make fun of society, we must also make fun of ourselves.

To drain all the comedy from a program every time the lens turns on an LGBT person hardly does us any favours. It makes it seem like the important parts of our lives – our hobbies, trivial worries, awkward moments and relationship troubles – aren’t worth as much as the exact same content in relation to non-LGBT people. When tolerant society worries too much about the content of comedy and forgets to look at the intent behind it, it runs the risk of censoring the very people whose voices that tolerant people would like to make louder.

Being part of an alternative culture, chosen or ascribed, affects your perception of your group. You will be frustrated by them, endeared by them, dependent on them, attached to them, and sometimes desperate to get away from them. LGBT media of standard quality expresses these ideas and from the outside, it looks like mockery or laziness. In reality, it’s a slight exaggeration of a different world, just as films from the heterosexual world display an exaggerated reality, with a healthy dose of escapism.

The idea that mocking society and mocking oneself ought to be mutually exclusive is, frankly, a bit mad. It will never be the case. The sitcom Vicious, whatever you think about its humour content, comes at least in part from the in-group, as does the side-splittingly ridiculous film But I’m a Cheerleader. Try as I may, I can’t pin down the point at which self-mockery ends and society mockery begins.

Mockery and self-effacing are tools of self-acceptance and societal acceptance, but more than that, they are fun and they are positive. I can’t think of many depictions of trans people that are positive, that is to say, focusing on the liberation of accepting one’s identity and taking pro-active steps to build it up further. Fiction where this does occur won’t dwell too long on the subject, presumably because the writers fear (probably rightly) that if they do, they will eventually trip themselves up and get something wrong.

After all, more or less everyone does, especially for transmen. I was watching the C4 police procedural drama Suspects the other day and one of the detectives pulled a giant great barrel of testosterone out from underneath someone’s sink, and declared that the user was “going for a sex change”. I LoLd, as the kids say. Going for a sex change? Not with that, they weren’t. You wouldn’t inject that much testosterone into a transsexual elephant going for gold in Olympic weight lifting.

Orphan Black, the inventive Canadian social sci-fi series, had a stab at it too – that is to say, they put a beard on actress Tatiana Maslany. I have to say, tremendous actor as she is, her mannerisms were pretty accurate for a pre-op transman – we have our own way of walking and talking: the affected “gruff-man-boy-manly-shuffle-grunt” we use when we’re afraid that if we stand up straight and talk polysyllabically, we’ll instantly out ourselves – but physically it doesn’t quite work, because of course her figure is feminine and her voice unbroken. When you take T, your voice breaks first and your beard grows last. Still, they made an attempt to be positive about transgenderism, albeit not sticking with the character for long, for obvious practical reasons. The slightly cringeworthy feminist film The Itty Bitty Titty Committee also took a run at a positive representation of a transman, not bad when you consider that radical feminist separatist wings don’t always have kind things to say about us. I wouldn’t say he was exactly a character though, since he said two lines and carried a cup of tea across a room. If there was a Bechdal test for transmen, I’m not sure any film would pass.

Orphan Black is an inoffensive example of an often aggravating tendency to use transgenderism as a plot point. In their case, I forgive it because as a major part of the fiction, they consistently make the point that, if you cloned a person, they might turn out completely different to their original – right down, perhaps, to even their gender identity, that most fundamental of things. Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory is worse, to the extent that my conscience doesn’t twinge a bit about providing a spoiler, if it can be called such a thing; from Banks’ own mouth, The Wasp Factory‘s “twist” wasn’t intended from the start but was just sort of bunged in, and as far as I can tell from reading, he made no attempt to go back through the book and add in references to gender dysphoria. Had he researched the topic, he might eventually have decided against the idea of playing fast-and-loose with his main character’s gender.

On top of that, there are the fiction piece that purposefully mess about with someone’s gender from the offset, like The Skin I Live In, where you feel like the whole reason they used the point of sex and gender is because it’s someone’s nightmare, or horror story or something, to wake up In the Wrong Body (dun dun dunnnn) – not helped by the fact that this is much the simplest way of describing the sensation to non-trans people, and trans people often use it. Personally, I would be more inclined to say “the wrong body and the wrong society”, but that’s tends to lead to a more complicated conversation. I should laugh that someone thinks the idea of being the wrong sex is The Worst Thing That Can Happen To You. I wonder if amputees feel the same way when they watch shock-and-horror movies where someone suddenly loses a limb. It’s not a brilliant experience, I’m sure. You learn to deal with it.

Then there are all the people who apparently dress up as men in order to gain some kind of advantage, often financial. I think of Albert Nobbs, the bleak Unveiled, and yes, even my own darling Mulan. Not only do these plans never turn out how the character intended, but so many times the female counterpart is poorly fleshed out and thus less convincing than the male, despite the fact that the character is actually supposed to be a woman.

By far the oddest of the bunch is the frankly weird trope about transwomen being, not merely unhappy, but frankly psychotic. Ticked off Trannies with Knives must surely score a point, as must Dressed to Kill, a weird film I barely remember except that someone male dresses up as a woman to kill people with razors in lifts, because their doctor refused them a sex change operation. That’s honestly all I remember about it, that, and that he claimed to have been “a bad girl again”, someone had an STI and there was a prostitute involved somewhere. Silence of the Lambs, though, deftly averted this trans trope with a sudden swerve of the steering wheel. He’s not transsexual, you see. He just thinks he is, because he hates his own identity. And let’s not get started on Norman Bates.

Add to this all the films and books about trans people getting beaten up, abused and murdered. Miserable, miserable, miserable, that’s what it is. Who can blame us for looking for the sunny side of what is intended as, and usually works out to be, a positive change in someone’s life? I don’t remember awareness raising for gay issues being quite so miserable, and they had to deal with the AIDS epidemic. One question that people sometimes ask is, what there is to be “proud” of about being gay. I agree, insofar as gay simply refers to one’s exclusive attraction towards the same sex. But it means more than that, culturally it involves being part of a semi-underground queer movement, filled with sequins and glitter.

It is untouched and to some extent untouchable by the heterosexual and cisgendered world, and it does not does not represent the way trans and gay people must behave in this world, in order to be socially excepted. Nearly everyone compromises something of themselves in order to not come off as Just A Bit Weird. The underbelly of gay life provides a place for LGBT people to let all that baggage go, something which poor straight people really don’t have. I’d say that was something to be proud of.

That’s the kind of representation that’s missing from trans films; Rocky Horror has dancing, singing and silliness – and, bizarre as it may first appear to slightly wet cisgendered people who are terribly afraid of bizarre, silly gender confusion because No One Looks Like That or It Might Be Prejudiced, it’s a film that better represents reality than quite a lot of these gritty, realistic looks at trans life. I, for example, have never once been shot in the face. I have, however, done the Time Warp.


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