Monday, November 19, 2007

Roxie's Watching: Trans Films

First off a big thanks and a face lick to Queering the Apparatus for twisting our paws and insisting that Roxie’s World be a part of its very first queer film blog-a-thon. We are delighted to be included in the festivities. We’d also like to extend a hearty welcome to new visitors to Roxie’s World who came here by way of the blog-a-thon. We are America’s favorite dog blog devoted to politics, pop culture, and basketball. When we host our first blog-a-thon, it will probably focus on Canine Stars of Stage and Screen – Asta! Lassie! Pongo! Toto! Snoopy! Eddie! – but for this shindig we’ll rely on the expertise of Moose, one of my two moms and an English prof who happens to be teaching a course on trans lit this semester. She’s doing a number of films in the class, so I’ll play the silent Siskel to her chatty Ebert as she takes us on a guided tour of some recent trans films. Take it away, Moose!

Thanks, Roxie, and thanks again to qta for inviting us to the party. Being an English prof, I should first explain my use of the term “trans film.” The broadness is purposeful. I’m using it to refer to films that focus on characters who exhibit a range of variations from conventional gender identities and expressions. I’m interested in stories that run the gamut from gender-queerness (drag queens and kings, butches and nellies) to transsexualism involving chemical and/or surgical modification of the body.

If we limit our discussion to films of the last ten years – which puts Belgian director Alain Berliner’s poignant story of a beautiful, resourceful boy-girl, Ma vie en rose (1997), at the head of the line I am drawing -- two things immediately stand out. One is that we’re seeing a lot more trans characters, and two is that we’re seeing such characters depicted with greater nuance and performing a much wider variety of narrative roles than we saw in the past. We’ve come a long way from the bad old days when trans characters in film were viewed almost exclusively through the frames of camp or pathology. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) are fun and fabulous films, but their marvelous accessories do not include a lot of emotional depth or complexity. Dressed to Kill (1980) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) are gripping films, but both feature trans characters who are serial killers. Films are under no obligation to offer “positive” images of members of any minority community. Nonetheless, Roxie’s World says paws up to the spate of trans films in the past decade that avoid or demolish stereotypes and depict complex trans characters in richly woven stories. Even the campiest of the recent films, John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), a wild homage to 80s glam rock and the song stylings of Toni Tennille and Anne Murray, tells a trans story as a way of raising serious questions about where gender “lives” – i.e., in the body, the mind, or a social/political world as divided into “male” and “female” as the Berlin of Hedwig’s childhood was divided into “east” and “west.”

To what do we owe the new variety and sensitivity of trans representations in film? Much of the credit has to go to a vocal, visible trans community that has protested the narrow and often damaging terms of previous representations and raised awareness about transphobic violence. In the U.S., the brutal murders of Brandon Teena (in 1993) and Matthew Shepard (in 1998) sparked a movement to expand federal hate-crime laws to include crimes motivated by bias against a person’s perceived gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Both of those murders also became the subjects of films and/or plays that were both critically and popularly acclaimed. For the purposes of this discussion, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999) is the most important of those projects because it offered a sustained example of what queer theorist Judith Halberstam has termed the “transgender look” in a film that reached mainstream audiences and earned Hollywood approval in the form of a Best Actress Oscar for Hilary Swank, who played the role of Brandon Teena. Halberstam’s concept, which explores a dynamic of looking with transgender characters rather than at them, is crucial to understanding the politics of representation shaping many more recent trans films. Boys Don’t Cry depicts a trans character as the victim rather than the agent of horrific violence, but even more importantly, in Halberstam’s account, in key moments the film shows shots from Brandon’s point of view that confirm his masculinity and give viewers access to an alternative vision of time, space, and bodies that survives the character’s physical death.

Documentary films have been powerful vehicles for bringing viewers “inside” trans experiences by allowing the subjects of the films to tell their stories in their own voices and from their points of view. Sundance Channels’s 8-part series on four transsexual college students, TransGeneration (2005), is a significant achievement in this regard, as it follows four protagonists (two born-male, two born-female, of varied race/ethnic and class backgrounds) on their journey through gender identity and higher ed. The audience readily feels for protagonists who are so young, in some ways so uncertain and in others so fierce, so impressively determined to fight for their dignity. They offer eloquent testimony to the violences of compulsory, binary gendering, but in their resilience and their mostly satisfying outcomes they demonstrate that resistance is not futile. Other powerful trans documentaries include Gabrielle Baur’s exploration of the world of drag kings, Venus Boyz (2002), and Kate Davis’s recording of the last year in the life of female-to-male transsexual dying of ovarian cancer, Southern Comfort (2001).

We’ll end this brief tour of recent trans films with Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica (2005), a feature film that starred Felicity Huffman as a pre-op male-to-female transsexual who learns she has a son a week before she is scheduled to have sex-reassignment surgery. Though in some ways undeniably sentimental, as Mod Fab points out today, Transamerica can also be viewed as a comedic/utopian exploration of trans possibilities. Tucker’s use of the road trip as a narrative framework and his panoramic cinematography evoke the grand American traditions of road films, Westerns, buddy films, and outlaw flicks. Those evocations also remind us that the road can easily become a landscape of profound threat for certain kinds of outlaws – Thelma and Louise as well as Brandon Teena come quickly to mind. Transamerica consciously echoes both Thelma and Louise and Boys Don’t Cry, yet it lovingly delivers its pretty-in-pink protagonist from murder or a fateful plunge off the edge of the world. Bree Osbourne survives her road trip. She reaches home in time for her surgery and thus reaches what she sees as the home of her proper gender. At the same time, as the final credits roll, Dolly Parton’s Oscar-nominated song “Travelin’ Thru” moves away from the comforts of home in offering a rollicking celebration of flux, mobility, drift, and uncertainty. “Well I can’t tell you where I’m going, I’m not sure of where I’ve been,” the voice declares, “But I know I must keep travelin’ till my road comes to an end.” She calls upon the lord for protection and direction, but you get the sense that the speaker is delighted to be in transit, intoxicated by the possibilities of “travelin’ thru.” The journey itself is the destination, which seems as good a “place” as any to conclude this mini-survey of trans films.

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