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AND NOW, A GUEST POST: Second Chances… To Reinforce Some Really Obnoxious Stereotypes, That Is!

NOTE: I, Sady, have been begging C.L. Minou – who runs the excellent, must-add-to-RSS-feed blog The Second Awakening – to write a guest post for Tiger Beatdown since approximately forever. Today is the day my dreams – and yours, reader – come true!

Trans people can get pretty jaded about our representation in the media–whether it’s Transgeneration (excellent!), Sex Change Hospital (um…) or Transamerica (the pain, make it stop) , after a while you notice the invariable repitition of certain themes, especially in that most infamous of genres, the transgender documentary. (In fact, there are even drinking games where you can find out how many shots you’re supposed to down if somebody says “a woman trapped in a man’s body” or tries on bras on camera.)

Recently the New York Times put a short documentary on their website as part of a new feature called Second Chances–and you guessed it, the first film is about a transsexual named Terry Cummings. It’s actually a touching little piece that is very sweet and definitely well-intentioned. But it struck me immediately how even something well-intentioned could manage to pack inside of it so many typical trans-doco-cliches.

And then I realized, that not only are those cliches subtly disparaging to trans people, they’re also (no!) not-so-subtly misogynist–allow me to demonstrate:

:30 We kick things off with that most venerable of tropes, the trans woman putting on makeup; I think there must be some FCC requirement for it or something. Such scenes are annoying not just because they are repetitive, but because they make the woman’s identity seem artificial, cosmetic, just a deceptive coating around the real person.

Not much different, of course, from the standard lady-hating vibe about how women need to wear makeup, since their attractiveness to men is held up as their most important single characteristic; but trans women especially are held in a double-bind–either wear makeup to look more feminine and be accused of only being interested in the trappings of womanhood, or don’t wear makeup and either be told you “look like a guy” or worse, mystify people as to why you’d want to be a woman, since you don’t want to look like one.

1:20-1:47 A quick sequence of scenes of Terry on the phone, talking about clothes, cuddling a cat, and telling someone on the phone “Welcome to a woman’s world.”

The clothes conversation feeds into one of the more damning things thrown at trans women–that we’re just in it for the outfits–as if people decide to upend their whole life, spend most of their life’s savings, and in general make things a whole lot more difficult for them just so they could wear a skirt. And again, it’s a double-bind: don’t express interest in clothes, and people wonder why you want to transition; but do worry about what you wear (something that happens especially often to trans people just starting to present as their desired gender) and you’re hit with charges of superficiality.

Nevertheless it sure sends out messages about being a woman, like women talk about clothes, or cuddle animals, unlike men who don’t have time for appearances or nurturing.

Maybe it’s because I take things too seriously, but the way the “welcome to a woman’s world” scene unfolds bothers me. I mean, it seems divorced of context–was she saying it in a rueful or sarcastic way, as I often have? (I usually refer to the paperwork I had to fill out to start hormones: “I signed the release.”) As a way to sympathize with another woman? Both of those seem more likely; but the way it’s shot seems to show her issuing the statement authoritatively, which opens up all kinds of nasty questions about the assumption of privilege that frequently (and especially) dog trans women.

It’s not really what she said; given how little control a film subject has over the final result, I hold Terry absolutely blameless here. But the way it’s presented seems to send out subtle messages, none of them particularly good, about being a trans person.

1:50 Shopping (drink!). If it’s not makeup, it’s got to be shopping. Once again, trans women are only in it for the clothes, the superficial trappings of femininity. And shoes! (Why did it have to be shoes?)

I suppose I should be happy that trans women get damned with these accusations; after all, it makes us just like the rest of women, who are told (and believed) to be obsessed with appearances and fashion–though trans women get the added burden of generally being shown as not only obsessed with these things, but not being very good at them. (Fortunately not an issue in Terry’s case, but I sometimes think that the makers of these documentaries purposely seek out women who struggle with their female presentations, to reinforce precisely this point.)

We also see Terry’s daughter, who seems like a very nice person, talking about her struggles with what to call her. This isn’t a laughing matter; it’s very tough for family members to deal with. But in the hit and run way it’s dealt with in this documentary, it only continues to reinforce the idea that Terry is really still her male parent. Biology is still destiny.

2:25 Terry at her basement workbench. “This was what my life was like…” she says–that is, interested in traditionally male hobbies.

Which manages to be both misogynist and transphobic: that is, she couldn’t be interested in them now, because she’s a woman, and ladies don’t do woodwork or other manly stuff! And also it’s a subtle reminder of where she’s come from, a continued destabilization and devaluation of her as a woman.

Let me state once again that this isn’t a criticism of Terry: people’s interests do change often during transtion (I started blogging, for example, and mostly stopped knitting.) It’s not Terry’s life I’m criticizing, it’s how her life is being forced into the Standard Transsexual Narrative template, in a way that (surprise!) is subtly transphobic and misogynistic, despite it’s good intentions.

2:40 The goddamn photograph of Terry before she transitioned. (Drink triple-shots: it’s in black and white, and from her wedding.) I for one am heartily sick of being shown pictures of trans people pre-transition. Or publishing their former names. Or making a big effing deal about being trans, period. Because there’s really no way of doing it that doesn’t leave people feeling that the old name and gender are the real gender. And that just reinforces all the old ideas about gender essentialisms, the very thing feminists have struggled against since…oh, since the Agricultural Revolution.

And speaking of gender essentialism, we come to…

3:00–4:25 The surgery. I mean, The Surgery. I mean, The Surgery. It wouldn’t, couldn’t, be a trans documentary without the surgery. And certainly the largest single portion of the film has to be about the surgery. I think that’s actually a law. Of nature.

Shocking but true: the surgery isn’t always central to a trans person’s life. For one thing, the surgery for trans men is expensive, difficult, and frequently less than satisfactory, so beyond a masectomy many of them never have any genital surgery. Secondly, there is a whole segment of trans women who never have GRS (genital/gender reassignment/reconstructive surgery; the phrasing depends on who you ask), and are perfectly happy and living perfectly ordinary women’s lives.

And finally, for a lot of people, GRS isn’t that big a deal. Major surgery, yes, but not something that will magically change everything in your life.

That isn’t to demean trans women for whom GRS is a big deal–just to point out that for most trans women, it’s less about making them into something than it is relieving them of their dysphoria.

And in any case, whether you are trans or a feminist (or maybe even both!), you simply can’t accept that you equal your genitals. That biology is destiny. If anything, trans narratives should destroy that idea, rather than being used to reinforce it.

Now, the best part of all this? All the stuff that was left out and only visible on the comments page. Like, did you know that Terry is a lawyer? That might have been interesting to find out. Or that she considers the surgery to be a “rite of passage,” but “it would not change her life.” That might have been a sort of fresh direction for a film like this to take.

But should we be surprised, that a woman, of any history, has her work erased? That a woman’s feelings of her own life are forced into a culturally-determined narrative? That a woman’s appearance is stereotyped, or her body pathologized?

That the best thing you can say about most trans documentaries is that they treat their subjects like women, that is, misogynistically?

And in the end, if trans women get singled out for expressing their gender, it’s still with the same refrains of oppression as other women.

14 Comments

  1. C. L. Minou wrote:

    Thank you so much, Sady, for letting me drop by here–it's a pleasure and an honor.

    Also, sorry I couldn't embed the video, but the Times doesn't seem to want to play by the rules of Teh Intarweb.

    Monday, June 22, 2009 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  2. snobographer wrote:

    I was surprised when you said you didn't like Transamerica, but now that I actually think about it, Transsamerica employs all the sexist, essentialist stereotypings and cliches you're talking about here.
    I thought everyone was supposed to like that movie. Now I don't feel so bad for finding it boring and immemorable.

    Monday, June 22, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  3. Cait wrote:

    Brava, C.L. – good takedown, and well-worthy of Tiger Beatdown's high standards.

    You went past some of the other essentials: she's not young (because, of course, someone transitioning younger is much less titillating, and frequently offers fewer chances for snickering at the attempts to "pass"). She's white (because all POC who transition are, of course, sex workers, as everyone knows). She's obviously middle or upper-middle class. She was heterosexual in her former role, and married with children.

    She is, in other words, carefully chosen to reflect as close to NYT's target audience (mainstream straight white cis men) as can be, so they can identify more with who she seemed to be, and be more shocked by who she's become.

    Good choice, Sady, and well done C.L.!

    Monday, June 22, 2009 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  4. Cait wrote:

    snobographer, it's one of those things that happens to trans people. Because there are so few windows onto our lives, it's just sort of assumed that we will a) see and b) love any movie which isn't completely horrible to us.

    I haven't seen Transamerica. I don't intend to see it. I've not seen Boys Don't Cry, or Soldier's Girl, or any of the other trans-focused movies out there.

    I've lived it, why do I need to see the Trans-101 course in fictional form? Either they get it all melodramatic and wrong, or they are all full of stereotypes and cliches as C.L. so beautifully illustrates. I don't need external validation of my life as necessary to my enjoyment of it. :)

    Monday, June 22, 2009 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  5. Sady wrote:

    @Cait, @snobographer: Yeah, and there's also the thing whereby trans people don't get cast as leads in movies like this. In Transamerica, it's Felicity Huffman, and (from the portions of the movie I've seen) she's playing what Julia Serano calls the "pathetic trans woman" stereotype: her makeup is poorly applied, she has trouble "acting" feminine, etc. And the actress is a cis lady. In "Boys Don't Cry," which (if I recall) was a bit less insulting, it's another cis lady, this time playing a trans man. Yet, I've read accounts of trans women (of color, if I remember right) working as actresses and only getting parts as sex workers. When a trans person is the hero or heroine of her own story, we can't hire a trans person to play him or her? But we can hire trans folks (of color, no less) to play stereotypical roles in which their existence is typically the punchline of a joke? That is FUCKED UP, right there.

    Monday, June 22, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  6. ChelseaWantsOut wrote:

    Yeah, I somehow ended up owning Transamerica. I have no idea where it came from, but it is on my shelf. It's really not good. I gave it to Half Price Books and got a couple bucks for it, so hooray!

    "…or don't wear makeup and either be told you 'look like a guy" or worse, mystify people as to why you'd want to be a woman, since you don't want to look like one."

    This bothers me so much! As a cis woman, I am totally free (to a certain extent, you know, depending on the setting and other circumstances) to wear whatever the hell I want and not wear make-up and have an abundance of body hair and very small boobs (which I make no effort to elevate or augment), and not have anyone (audibly) question my desire to be a woman (sometimes anonymous people question, from passing cars, whether I am a dude or a chick, or helpfully inform me that what I am wearing is "not a fashion," whatever that means). I have a friend who is a trans man who removes all his body hair, keeps his eyebrows studiously maintained, paints his fingernails and occaisionally wears eye make-up, however, and he gets more shit than f'in' BATHROOMS or something. Pisses me off.

    I so wish we could just learn not to make snap judgments based on piddly little whatnot, develop respectful gender-neutral pronouns for interactions with strangers (people one passes on the street, sales clerks, etc.), and just freaking ASK people we're meeting for the first time what pronouns they prefer. Hello, I'm Chelsea and I prefer female pronouns. Maybe it takes a little more effort to remember, but we can use the untapped brainpower people in the distant past used to expend memorizing phone numbers. Problem solved (in a totally original and simple to implement manner that no one has ever thought of before ever), no need to thank me.

    Monday, June 22, 2009 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  7. C. L. Minou wrote:

    @snobographer: Sady & Cait said what I wanted to say about Transamerica with greater brevity than I could; let's just say that both Bree the character and Huffman's performance both seem to be deliberately othering…or, just go back and compare Bree/Huffman to the actual transpeople in the movie, and tell me if Bree seems very realistic.

    @Cait: I deliberately avoided the class and race implications involved in most trans-docos, but you're absolutely correct in noticing them; I just thought that they needed to be treated at greater length, as it's a problem with a lot of representations of women/feminism. (That's one of the reasons Transgeneration was so good, as it included people of color in the mix of subjects.)

    Monday, June 22, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  8. snobographer wrote:

    I did like Boys Don't Cry and Soldier's Girl, but that is messed up they don't have trans actors playing trans characters in serious roles. And then when the cis actors play trans people there's this big buzz about how 'courageous' they were for doing it – male actors for being feminized [HORRORS!] and female actors for cutting their hair short.

    Monday, June 22, 2009 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  9. starblydsneetch wrote:

    Where are the documentaries about the *people* and their lives?? Exactly! Thankyou for this post. I can't believe they didn't even mention her career!! Being a lawyer could help a lot, also is she involved in the trans community, is she not, how does she deal with the oppression and victimisation (which she MUST recieve??!)
    Thanks so much for this post, I have just discovered Second Awakening and am a big fan!!!

    Monday, June 22, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  10. Cait wrote:

    @C.L.: Yah, I initially typed "forgot to include", but then realised (given the quality and depth of analysis) that you'd probably left it out apurpose. :)

    Maybe that's something I'll tackle soon at Twice Immigrant. :D

    Monday, June 22, 2009 at 6:52 pm | Permalink
  11. Rikibeth wrote:

    I will say this for the Obligatory Makeup Sequences: they've made me, a cisgendered woman, reflect on how much femininity is a matter of performance for me and for women in general. For me, they work as the opposite of othering, and promote identification: if I want to look like a Decent, Respectable, Professional Woman, I have to go through the same rituals with control undergarments and cosmetics and all the rigamarole. If I go out without those preparations, my gender identity isn't in question, but my perceived social importance DEFINITELY drops. So I have something to hang a sense of identification on.

    They also remind me of the "battle dress" opening sequence of Dangerous Liaisons. Of course, there, the preparations are being carried out by both genders. But the message of "obligatory artifice" and appearance-as-performace are very much there.

    Monday, June 22, 2009 at 8:46 pm | Permalink
  12. kaninchen wrote:

    I think the cis-identifying-people playing trans roles is an analogue of straight-identifying-men playing gay roles. They're lauded for their courage in taking on such a 'risky' role while remaining entirely safe in their identified gender and sexuality. Transamerica made me uncomfortable as hell. How many stereotypes can you put in a goddamn movie anyway? There's one shining moment where we get to see actual trans folk playing themselves; they are happy, cheerful, normal. Bree is a miserable wreck (not that it isn't possible for trans people to be miserable wrecks, but at least for me most of the miserable wreckitude was before I started transitioning. She finally looks comfortable after having surgery which is just…

    Agh, I have not the words. Suffice to say I found Bree as uncomfortable as I did Wandain the "Doll's House" arc of Sandman. She seemed largely to embody a cis-man's castration anxieties more than a trans woman's ambiguous feelings towards her body.

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 7:39 am | Permalink
  13. Katherine wrote:

    I haven't seen many of the transgender films…saw "Boys Don't Cry" in the theater and the story broke my heart, but that was back in the day before I really spent time on political and feminist issues.

    I'm curious whether anyone has seen "Southern Comfort," about Robert Eads? He ended up dying of ovarian cancer, unable to find a doctor who would treat him.

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 7:55 am | Permalink
  14. Cait wrote:

    I put up a link to this article (and blog generally), btw. :)

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 3:52 pm | Permalink