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:
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.
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.
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?)
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.
And speaking of gender essentialism, we come to…
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.
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.
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.