Body Talk: Conversations on Transgender Cinema with Caden Gardner: Part Three

Body Talk is an ongoing series of conversations between Caden Gardner and I about Transgender Cinema as we prepare to write a book on the subject. This installment is on Kimberly Pierce’s Oscar Winning feature Boys Don’t Cry (1999). 

Trigger Warning: Rape, Murder, Discussions of Sexual Assault 

Caden Gardner: For our discussion series with Body Talk and our book, our focus is the representation of transgender people in cinema. Our last couple of discussions have been looking back at depictions that have long been associated with the trans image, and the positive and negative connotations those images brought to the trans community at large and our own experiences with those images (some that arguably buck consensus). But overall, we want to get into why some of these depictions have succeeded or failed in presentingwhat it is like to be a transgender body on-screen. Due to the long history of negative imagery of trans people on-screen, nuance is usually out the window. It seemed that real life trans people, in a lot of instances, came first, and then films and other visual media played catch-up by depicting these lives, which for the most part have been quite bad. Ignorance is not a one-way street for bigots and transphobics, even the well-meaning people pushing recent depictions who want to tell trans stories fall into similar trappings, partly due to them not being the best people to tell these stories This brings us to the 1999 Kimberly Peirce film, Boys Don’t Cry, that is still today, nearly 20 years since its release, the most mainstream portrayal of a transman on-screen. The film is based on the 1993 rape and murder of Brandon Teena in Humboldt County, Nebraska. One can argue it is a true crime treatment of the story (with much dramatic license of the details in the crime), so for me, as a transman, it has long been troubling that this film remains the placeholder as the go-to film of transmen in cinema. Willow, this is one of these films where I feel like when I mention I hate it, there is some level of surprise from people. I will go into details about my various experiences and initial exposure to it, but when did you first watch it and what was your initial reaction to it? Has it changed over time?

Willow Maclay: In 1999 I wasn’t really paying attention to movies beyond whatever was happening with Pokemon (Not a great movie) or Sailor Moon (truly great movie). I wasn’t likely to have caught wind of this narrative around the time when it was coming out or receiving Oscar buzz and later awards so I don’t have the context of being around the film at the time like I have with representations of transness afterward which also received awards recognition like Felicity Huffman in Transamerica (garbage), Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club (garbage) or most recently Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl (garbage), I can imagine it was the same types of discussion we normally have around these movies and performances, but with a much quieter transgender presence in that voice. When I first heard about Boys Don’t Cry it was post-cinephilia and I was browsing late night programming on the Independent Film Channel or IFC, and I stumbled across this program about censorship in movies with the MPAA. That movie was called This Film Is Not Yet Rated. In that film Kimberly Peirce discussed how hard it was to get Boys Don’t Cry released with an R rating, because of the sex in the movie (the ratings board had no problem with the murder). If I recall correctly it was Chloe Sevigny’s orgasm they protested. Which is fucked, but totally enlightening on what kind of images about queer people are accepted within the mainstream and which ones aren’t. Boys Don’t Cry piqued my interest because it was a queer film and in my early days of cinephilia (2007 or 2008) I hadn’t seen a lot of queer films, let alone movies about trans people so Boys Don’t Cry was immediately appealing, and I’ll be honest enough to admit that I liked the film at the time, because it made me cry and it felt “important”. If a movie affected me during those early years of cinephilia in a way that moved me to tears, whether exploitative or not, I thought it was remarkable. I didn’t have the knowledge as a cinephile or as a queer person to distinguish images or narrative on a deeper level at the time. When revisiting the film much later, I had a different reaction, and it was one of sickening disgust. This was after I became used to the single minded approach around transgender people in the mainstream: that we’re only worth caring for if we’re six feet under ground. Boys Don’t Cry is only unique in that trans men haven’t had a pattern of mainstream narratives. This is one of the only examples. When did you learn about this movie or watch it, Caden?

 CG: The term ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ was in the ether for me before I had watched the film. Whether it was just the turn of phrase (men are taught to be hardened and strong, not vulnerable), The Cure song (Editor’s note: Great Song), or the movie. I did watch it when I was up much too late on a late Friday night, early Saturday morning channel-surfing and found the film. I was about ten or eleven, not yet in puberty, and being labeled a ‘tomboy’ for my more masculine expression when I knew there was something more there to that, but did not have the words. I was aware that Hillary Swank won an Oscar earlier but did not know it was for playing a real-life transman. It was mid-movie, when Brandon is already in Humboldt County (Peirce treats the Nebraskan setting like a bumfuck nightmare to the point where it is so over the top that the logical conclusion can only be death) and is passing until shit hits the fan, and the male friends Tom (Brendan Sexton III) and John (Peter Sarsgaard, contemporary cinema’s most punchable face) turn on Brandon, and expose him to Brandon’s girlfriend Lana (Chloe Sevigny) to see his anatomy not being of the male sex. It is a scene and image that stuck with me years later. I kept watching and just felt a sense of dread not because the movie was successful, but that it felt like I was being singled out by a movie in that moment. “That could be me,” I thought. It was an early recognition that I was feeling something at odds with many norms and had no idea how or who to talk to about it, but the film itself still felt on the outside looking into Brandon’s life. I just see a transman getting raped, murdered, harassed, and these are by people who he claimed as part of his tribe. 

When I revisited it later on in college, thinking that perhaps that this film was still important for its place in a rare mainstream film on a trans life, I thought that perhaps I was giving it an unfair shake. I had issues with a cis woman playing the role and the fact that I was viewing it with members of my college’s gay, bisexual, and lesbian community, with one particular viewer who seemed stuck on speaking about Brandon Teena in female pronouns (that I repeatedly corrected her on in the post-film discussion), was not helping. I was closeted then, there was no trans presence on my college campus (I only talked to a counselor and a few friends about my trans identity in college despite living in an LGBTQ house). The film got worse for me and the fact it is begging for catharsis in its final images of Brandon, in a voice-over stating a letter, while Lana takes the road to leave a murder scene and Falls City while Peirce presents in text both Brandon’s name and his dead name in tandem with his birth year and death just rang so hollow for me. There is something about the way Peirce presents Brandon’s life leading up to his death, where it’s just a succession of events that present an individual’s impulses, and intertwining his history of lying, criminality, and deception with his trans identity that always made me uncomfortable. Now, Brandon Teena did have a criminal history, was an impulsive person, and a transman who did these outsized gestures to women he liked that also caused him to steal in order to be the best boyfriend in the world in his eyes. But as far as wanting to know what his images were in presenting masculine (that also was clearly psychological) why he went stealth, how he came onto discovering what we now call gender dysphoria and why it seemed to click for him in ways his family could never understand, feels absent. We just see a boy trapped in the wrong town and the wrong time, and strangely an onus that looms heavily over his behavior that led to that moment. That this still remains the most visible trans male portrayal in American cinema and mainstream cinema is frustrating.

WM:  I can’t imagine watching this film with an LGBT group and being on the outside looking in to their experiences. Did it feel like watching it with those people crystalized issues for you that this is essentially a transgender movie made for straight and gay cisgender people alike?

CG: In my experiences the few times where the concept of transness came up were rare and when they did come up, I did want to disassociate from people about it by ignoring it or not talking about it. One example that I can give is that my freshman roommate was pretty grossed out by talking about transwomen, when I once heard her referencing something she saw on some daytime talk show and the disgusted face that she made. Never interacted much with her after that in college, for multiple reasons, but knowing that she would have been like Lana Tisdel’s mother in this film if she knew this about me, was enough of a reason to not talk to her further. In my later years in college while being at an LGBTQ house, really stretching my closeteted presentation of a trans ally to its limits, I did feel like I was with a lot of people still coming to terms with their sexuality and identities, and they were not fully immersed in queer culture. New Queer Cinema was something most of my friends, the queer people on campus, even people who I took film classes with, were not aware of, so I didn’t have a lot of people besides professors to talk to about Todd Haynes, to give one example. But Boys Don’t Cry was selected by a housemate to curate for my idea of giving my college’s house more of an imprint on campus by doing an LGBTQ film series. Boys Don’t Cry was the most mainstream of the bunch. It won Oscars, but it was also produced by New Queer Cinema icon Christine Vachon, who earlier in the decade broke through with films by Gregg Araki and Todd Haynes’ [SAFE], among others, pushing films and filmmakers that cultivated cinema on the periphery, made in response to the mainstream, thumbing noses at the respectability politics that formed around the gay & lesbian community after the height of the AIDS crisis. Boys Don’t Cry was not really deep or something you can confuse for academic scholarship or the work of a prankster, but a linear narrative film. It was a broad, true crime paperback of a movie and not really the kind that interrogates the audience’s own prejudices, misconceptions, or assumptions towards transmen. My viewing party was pretty bummed out by it. Some people left during the rape scene. I do not really blame them. You are just watching somebody suffer (the shooting script of the Boy Don’t Cry screenplay that I read had the alternative title, the groaner, Take It Like a Man).

Boys Don’t Cry is a film where I do not feel like it can be watched except to remark on the central performance being ‘so brave’. You know those kinds of roles. They always afford some strong film critic plaudits of those exact words. Hillary Swank as Brandon Teena is very much in the realm of other queer cinema martyrs, Jared Leto in The Dallas Buyers Club, Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. I include names of the performers because it turns into the performers themselves being seen as the martyrs just for undertaking the role. These people suffered for their art! Give them an award! The two of the three that I mention are cis men playing transwomen. Swank is to me similarly in the realm of, ‘This is not a role for you to play’. Brandon Teena could not medically transition due to lack of funds and having no access, but it was something he kept promising girlfriends that he was doing and had the intentions of doing so at some point, as per documentary The Brandon Teena Story. But here is the thing, and something that is perhaps lost on our cis allies, that in this case would include Kimberly Peirce: To be trans and to have a gender identity is something that is so psychological and innate. It is not an article of clothing and it is not mere expression. Identity can certainly be in conversation with presentation and inform our expressions and look as trans people, but they are not interchangeable. There are different aspects of what it is like to be trans but identity is the focal point. So when Kimberly Peirce posits that she has some knowledge or insight into a dead transman’s identity (Peirce had access to Brandon Teena’s diaries as research- as though everything we put out there on the page is the whole story and keep in mind, Brandon never makes these declarations, these are merely Peirce’s theories), whom she never met, I am deeply troubled by that, especially when due to directing this film, Peirce is often called upon to discuss trans issues.

 WM: In hearing Kimberly Peirce talk about this movie I get frustrated with the lens in which she sees transness. Frequently in interviews she’ll slip in and out of pronouns for Brandon and say things like we couldn’t have known who he would have ended up as in the future. I think Boys Don’t Cry is almost like a Grimm’s Fairy Tale for her and I think that’s only magnified with how she shoots this movie. The blue skies of Nebraska are open and endless and they whoosh past like a millennium falcon entering light speed. Almost everything is magic hour or lit by headlights. It’s under the cover of darkness, but I think she wants us to feel this open ended magic of the area and of the time and of Brandon, but I think the film fundamentally doesn’t understand who he is or how Trans Men live. What do you think?

CG: I definitely think Peirce and other cisgender people in the LGBTQ community (most notably cis women) miss things. It is easier for them to be attached to aspects of masculine expression because androgyny among women has long been more socially acceptable than feminine androgyny for men. Queer women and masculine expression have their own various communities and sub-sets. But again that is different from identity. 

Peirce claims that Brandon’s impulses to live as a trans man were on a whim with no previous reference points to go out and live this way. I’m assuming this is based on her reading of his diaries, but I call bullshit. The viewer does not see any visual aids for what may have inspired or informed Brandon’s identity, what informed his masculine expression that even despite not being on hormones did help him pass. I just find that difficult to believe that Kimberly Peirce could not find a thing to use. I absolutely saw and observed behaviors not because I wanted to pass or deceive others, but because I observed and absorbed things because seeing the way another man carried himself was something I felt was part of me. I liked it. It was so me. Over time, I became aware of those movements and aspects of my personality long before I was on hormones as being more than just a phase. I was always trans. In terms of being an observer, aside from looking at Lana, I do not see Brandon as the type of trans person who keeps in mind how people look at him. Brandon has a couple of mirror scenes, one of which, while bound up and in some really sad looking boxer briefs he cracks a smile to say, ‘I’m such an asshole!’ What does that mean? I still do not know! I would hope it is not about how he passes or what he is getting away with and yet the text and portrayal of events just makes me think it is that. But I am unable to get a read of Brandon, whose life is unfortunately defined by murder.

 WM: I wrote a piece not too long ago called “Defining my Girlhood”, and in that piece I considered how I became myself without a foundation of passed down femininity or given a torch to be a woman within my own family tree and live in their bonds of womanhood. In that piece I proclaimed that my own girlhood was observational and I took things from other women and made them my own. One of these examples was Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth. I felt a kind of deep connection to her, and I’ve been learning about who I am through movies or through other women in my own life ever since. I think, because transgender people, for the most part, are not given a childhood in which they can live out their gender identity, we react strongly to others and practice in our own time. Even without the language or the concept of transness we latch onto these things and it informs the type of person we become later. I took everything I ever could from my mom and other childhood girlfriends. That’s how I learned to construct myself out of nothingness and make the internal feelings I was having of gender rise to the surface on my external body, along with hormone therapy later. I bring this up because Kimberly Peirce insists that Brandon became a man through his “imagination” and I think that’s such bullshit. We always have a foundation even without direct images or familial lessons. 

It’s something that for the most part cisgender people don’t really consider. I think the majority of cisgender people are uncomfortable by transness, and in the case of trans men struggle to understand it at all, because there’s even fewer mainstream outlets for you to present yourselves. It’s why it’s still okay to ask Daniel Ortberg, who just came out ,if he felt like was joining the other side, “the enemy”, and get away with it, as if there isn’t something already innate. It’s never a moment where a flip is switched on and suddenly you have to transition. It’s something that bubbles to the surface. In Brandon’s case there is everything in his life that we know of that points to his own transgender identity like the fact that he was stealth for the most part, went by male names constantly and looked into sex reassigment surgeries. That Kimberly Peirce in interviews always seems to put a little distance between Brandon’s identity, and his reality is damning. In Boys Don’t Cry the narrative is framed with Peirce’s understanding of transness, which is limited at best, and comes across not as a story of transness, but of queer women. I think this is present in the form, Swank’s performance and in the overall tone of the film. The entire movie is a misgendering, because of how Peirce interprets his real life narrative through her own lens. It’s telling that when we eventually get to the end of the movie they dead name him, as if he had a dual identity. It’s the last little cherry on top of an already unfortunate movie, but I think it ultimately points to why there needs to be more transgender directors making films about transgender people. I’m getting ahead of myself here, but it’s impossible to talk about this movie without talking about death, because it’s the entire reason the movie exists. The death image is more valuable in a cinematic sense than one of life among transgender bodies. It’s a real shame it’s the only image of transgender men in mainstream cinema.

 CG: It is accurate to say we, as trans, do construct and put together things that we can get from what we want. Some of those things are minimized so that we can only get a little of at the start but over time everything works out. We see things, observe and absorb- figuring out what we like and do not. I personally knew a lot of what I did not like first because I was raised to be female and encouraged to be feminine. Even in getting the breadcrumbs of wearing jeans (and other masculine clothing), playing sports, being in a predominantly male friend group for a lot of my adolescence, there was still something missing. People around me noticed, but could not put their finger on why. My father was always bemused by why I kept asking him what he would have named me were I a boy. My mother hated how I would walk and sit down, often slouched with my legs spread, and felt I was at a distance from her because I had rejected a lot of feminine things that she wanted me to do and be. 

I am sure there are people who will read this, mainly cis queer people, get what we are both saying, relate to some of it, but stop at the identity part. I think Peirce is a queer woman trying to make connections. She portrays Brandon in a classic archetype (and arguably a queer one) as an outsider running on id and going for some high, risking it all, like some daredevil wanderer along the frontiers and highways of rural Nebraska (the reality is that Brandon never left the state but pretended to be from someplace else with a place to soon go, wooing Lana to join him). There is something romantic in how she shoots Brandon driving in close-up. Peirce’s attachment to the character that she dramatized for the screen is undeniable and in a way understandable, as it was her first feature film, but I do think she is attached to her interpretation and presentation of somebody she knows from interviews, research, and a diary rather than a real person. Her Brandon Teena is a construct but not a construct that works as a trans male character. Dysphoria is not really made to feel like the everyday, but we get the most extreme sexual trauma and violence, not to mention an outing. There is not a scene where I can really claim that Brandon is defending himself or his gender. He just goes quiet being found out in public. Swank is high-pitched in her voice in those scenes where he gets outed by his circle of friends. It is a choice and that pitch stays when the character is raped. Her vision and Peirce’s of an impulsive, eager to please man “with a secret” is one that always feels like a hyperactive child unable to sit still, willing to fib if it gets strangers to like him. I can get why that the interpretation exists, because Brandon Teena was always framed as boyish and eager to please, but the only backstory we are given of Brandon is somebody with a history of criminal activity who was later sent to a mental institution by his mother (the documentary notes that he told family members that is where he finally was able to finally find the words to connect himself to a trans identity). The way that is revealed still makes me bristle, it is photos of Swank as Teena when presenting as a cis woman. The “secret past”, because we know of his trans identity from the start, as revealed by the film just feels like something to pull the rug out for the audience and I am not really sure why that choice is made. Cautionary tale? Peirce seems completely okay with criminality and passing to be intertwined in this story without presenting a counter point of why. This is a story of an outsider who was pushed into this (somewhat surprising, queer cinema and general queer narratives have plenty of stories like Genet’s The Thief’s Journal that present a multi-faceted life of being queer when you are a deemed and treated like a criminal for that, then of course you will behave like one) due to lack of means, access, and a better support system. Instead, Brandon to her is somebody who imagined his life and acted on by any means necessary, which crazily lets society off the hook in not thinking that Brandon’s actions and choices he made were informed by a lack of support and general intolerance by society. This movie is a real mess, and frankly, it would not take much of a film about a trans man to knock it off its pedestal for me, personally.

 WM: As a Trans Woman, I’ve got a little bit more to pick from in appreciating movies that are directly about transgender characters, but I sympathize, because it’s not like there’s a great deal of depth to choose from on my side of things either. We’re kind of fucked either way, but from your perspective it is worse. 

I’m going to talk about dysphoria for a moment and the film’s odd relationship with mirrors. The most obvious of these is the scene you mentioned briefly earlier where Brandon tapes his breasts and gets dressed for the day. This is shot in a way where audiences can interpret Swank’s body (which is something I’ll get to a minute), and there are these gentle reminders of how this body is made. I’ve said previously in this series that Transgender Cinema has to be a cinema of bodies, but this isn’t what I’m talking about. This is cis gaze, and a total misunderstanding of transgender bodies and how we navigate being inside our own skin pre-transition. The most damning image of these is the close-up on Swank’s crotch. It’s only there to show how flat her genitalia is in underwear. There is no penis. The image lingers, but we fucking don’t do this sort of thing. During Pre-transition mirrors are like this horrific thing. It’s something to flee and yet there’s this moment where Brandon is almost vogeuing and modeling, and I find that really bankrupt. There’s no reconciliation moment where Brandon comes to terms with his body and then checks himself out. No, it’s just this moment of titilation, and I find it really gross. You could perhaps argue the “I’m such a jerk” comment is his reconcilation, with his body, but again, I don’t know what those words mean in the context of this movie. It makes little sense. 

There’s also this throwaway scene earlier in the movie where Brandon gets his period, and I’m not sure why that’s in there other than to remind audiences of Brandon’s biology. It isn’t a catalyst for a moment of dysphoria or any depth other than raising the stakes of someone discovering a tampon in the house he’s currently residing. It’s totally useless, and the film has a handful of these moment that only echo the same sentiment. We’re constantly being told Brandon isn’t who he says he is in these useless scenes, because the film has no conviction to argue for Brandon’s affirmation of gender. 

And regarding Swank’s body. Swank is often earmarked for this performance when people discuss the greatest best actress winners of the last twenty years or so, but I don’t think she has an understanding of how we coexist in our own skin. She reportedly lived as a man for a month, but I’m not sure what that would entail? I’m assuming it’s cross dressing, binding the breasts, and other superficial things. I’m not suggesting she take testosterone, but I don’t think there’s any real way for her to understand dysphoria or how trans men lived without significant research, and by that I mean really talking to us. Going method isn’t necessary. Just understand where we’re coming from. She never carries her body in a way that felt real to me. Brandon passed in real life, because he had the confidence and the know how to amplify how he was presenting himself so he would be as safe as he could be while also being able to live as a man. It’s a tight rope, but we figure out how to publicly present. Swank’s demeanor is jittery and like she’s constantly scared of being found out. Passing is 75% confidence. Swank has none of that, and I’m supposed to buy that this character passes? I don’t. Swank only ever feels comfortable in this role when she’s being humiliated or punished.

 CG: The shot of Swank’s was what I meant about the saddest looking boxer briefs in cinema. It is so baggy. I went through a massive weight loss and my boxer briefs never looked that baggy. But it is there in the film and it looks ridiculous. You are right about the horror of mirrors. You feel at odds with what you have outside versus how you feel on the inside. Brandon gets a haircut at the beginning and apparently that is all it took for him to step out and present. As somebody who had his hair long for an extended period of time even after I started transitioning, haircuts are crucial but there were ways that I passed in spaces with longer hair. The real Brandon Teena photos are interesting to look at as he has a bit of a bouffant and a baby mullet- versus Swank’s more traditionally masculine crew-cut- that for the time period seem like either gender could have pulled that off. But it is about confidence above all else and it takes a lot of it to do what Brandon does. 

And hell yes that menstrual period scene being played for nothing when I would say for most trans men in my position, the moment you stop having periods while on hormones is one of the biggest reliefs. I cannot imagine Brandon, an active dater who concealed his biology for as long as he could in relationships, did not feel like that having a period was only a mere inconvenience, especially while dating women. It’s devastating. There are too many visual reminders that Brandon is ‘not like other guys’ that feel like these pokes from the outside and they are for the cis audience and not trans people. 

I go back to this assumption that due to decades and centuries of androgyny for women to present as more masculine in expression that there is this assumption that cis woman can get away with and pull off portraying a man or passing as a man more so than cis men pulling off playing trans women. Again, it does not help that cis people will argue that Brandon never medically transitioned (as though he truly had a choice when even with health insurance, it can be costly especially in the 90s) that it is okay for a cis actress like Swank to portray him and that her presenting a masculine expression is enough. She does not pass for me and it is mostly because of lack of effort than looks (although how she’s shot by Peirce, who wants to remind people that Brandon is laboring a lot on passing in every gesture, puts her at a disadvantage). The gestures feel labored, and yeah, jittery like he is getting away with something. It’s closer to the three little boys in BoJack Horseman passing as Vincent Adultman and answering all questions about their life with, “I did a business”. I get angry that this performance is considered good or something where if I ever disclose my trans status to people that their first image and popular culture associations are going to be this. Trans women likely get this a lot with a lot of negative images too (editor’s note: shout out to Buffalo Bill). I am not sure how widely acceptable those associations are now thanks to more trans women being visible. But Boys Don’t Cry was probably one of the most mainstream depictions of trans-related media where it was the focal point, and not some third act reveal of a trans character a la, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Soapdish, Dressed To Kill, or to some extent what became of The Crying Game’s sensational marketing campaign. It had respectability and prestige, but that does not mean a liberal film with good intentions does not still fail or fundamentally fail in casting. Boy Don’t Cry failed. The Brandon Teena doc is giving us insight of who he was beyond a boy with secrets, and also what drove him to be take the steps to risk who he wanted to be, and for a certain period of time, through confidence and hustle, was able to live that way. Swank plays Teena too meek for me based on what I know about Teena. 

Brandon Teena and Lana Tisdell

CG Cont: I cannot say a transman immediately could have improved the material or done this story right. Honestly, it is strange for me to approach this as a transman’s story. As is I feel nothing in the performance and presentation where I am truly seeing a transman’s story on-screen. It is the end of somebody’s life that I am seeing but I feel like I am missing a lot of crucial aspects while also feeling emotionally and psychologically bludgeoned by violence and hateful attitudes depicted on-screen. I can only say if a trans man was portraying Teena or was directly involved in the script and direction, that I think I would have seen a different movie. Not necessarily a better one, but something where I could see not only expression, but also identity.

WM:  It’s interesting, because in our previous installment on Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean we praised Karen Black, which is a cisgender performance of a transgender character. So what’s the difference? For me there are two main differences between Swank and Karen Black and why I think one performance works and the other doesn’t. The first of these is simple, and it’s that Karen Black is a cis woman playing a trans woman, which I think is more palatable, even if cis women by and large don’t understand the mindset of transgender women. A transgender woman can be physically no different than a cisgender woman in almost every way. We share fundamental aspects of living with a feminine gendered body that we both understand. A cisgender man cannot look like or understand a trans woman on that level. That’s mostly a superficial reason, but one I’ll personally admit to getting hung up on. It immediately takes me out of the movie. The second reason why Karen Black’s performance works and Swank’s doesn’t is that Black intuitively understands the mindset of her character, her history, and imbues that character with a lived in backstory through gesture, movement and body language. I don’t know shit about Hillary Swank’s Brandon Teena. From what I can gather from The Brandon Teena Story documentary Brandon was a ladies man, who made big gestures and his dream woman was fucking Cher (Speaking of Five and Dime), but in Boys Don’t Cry all we know is that he’s unsure, scared, heterosexual, maybe in love and then he dies. Brandon’s a prop. We’ve said before it’s just a death narrative, but it bears repeating. 

I’m frustrated that this movie doesn’t work, because I do think Kimberly Pierce is capable of being a good director. I’m fond of her Carrie remake, which ironically is a better trans movie than this one simply through its understanding of body horror. Additionally, I think she totally understands how to shoot sex from a place of queerness, and she comprehends the weight of a woman’s body in the image. That’s where she essentially fumbles with Brandon. The one aspect of this movie that I do like is Chloe Sevigny’s portrayal of Lana Tisdell. I think Chloe is the only person who gets away unscathed in this movie. Her character feels real to me and she sells that woozy, overwhelming feeling of love very well, but then again Chloe Sevigny was unstoppable in the late 90s. 

On a totally separate point I also think the scenes involving rape are appropriately handled, because they’re completely psychologically damaging in a way that feels so totally devastating that it’s physically difficult to watch. It’s an atomic bomb, where Brandon’s sense of self is completely taken away, and I feel that’s accurate and appropriate being a survivor myself. It has weight and consideration of how evil this act is that a lot of movies gloss over. Having said that the film doesn’t have enough earlier moments where Brandon feels like an actual human being to offset that scene’s brutality. to offset its brutality. 
I ask myself rather frequently if this movie should have ever even been made. Brandon’s death along with Matthews Shepard’s had already created some long lasting change in how hate crimes were processed in courts and in laws so to recreate this movie feels like vulture cinema to me in the worst way, I almost believe True Crime, as a recreated drama is a vicious inhumane act in and of itself. It always rubs me the wrong way. 

 CG: If you take into consideration the lack of trans male narratives with this much mainstream attention before and after. You can clearly see that its human interest story had little to do with seeing a trans body on screen. The film received major attention by critics and audiences alike because it starred a group of up and coming actors with growing clout at a certain time in American independent film. The trans male narrative was merely coincidental and a curiosity. It was the true crime nature which surely drew Peirce and everyone else into Brandon’s narrative and with all the gory details of a maligned, misunderstood minority getting tortured, raped, and killed in what many people would dispose of being some hick town (much like Laramie, Wyoming) far away from their more forward thinking environs it was sure to be a success. It is being invested in a story without feeling any responsibility for who killed Brandon Teena and why. There have been enough trans stories and narratives to know it just does not happen in ‘flyover country’but in the red state-blue state phenomenon that took over American culture around this time and after. There were side effects where gross-generalizations of regions and the people took hold. White Falls would seem hostile and the lack of access Brandon had in any part of Nebraska at the time has been documented that he would have close to nothing, but that is not really explored in the film. Yet, aside from Lana (and I do not think she is enough, as much as I think Sevigny is fine in her role), there is nothing in the film for me to think Brandon should have hung out with those people. From the start, Sarsgaard’s performance as John Lotter is so high-strung, violent, and over the top, that every thing is telegraphed and you are just left to wait for the clock to hit zero and the bomb to go off as an audience member. Peirce makes everybody in the audience see it, but somehow Brandon cannot. Peirce portrays Lana as ‘the one’, noting one suitor for Brandon at the start of the film that erodes because he was found out, but is she one worth Brandon’s life being endangered? It simply could have been wrong place, wrong crowd, wrong time, but Peirce really does romanticize the pairing, she keys in on Brandon’s grand gestures for Lana when what we know is that was his modus operandi with other women he dated. Lana was just the last. Peirce seems to want to piece together perhaps why he wanted to stay, but there is such grotesquerie in Brandon’s surroundings from the start and it is just is untenable for me just watching it as a viewer. It leaves me with dread.

WM:  It leaves me with dread as well, and there is a kind of foreshadowing spread throughout the entirety of this film. Roger Ebert said in his review that Brandon is this person who “flew too close to the flame“, and while I’m not totally here for beating a dead horse on language not being up to date or people misunderstanding trans issues before we were ever really out in full force in the mainstream, I do think he nails why this film feels awkward for us and is engaging for cisgender viewers. And it’s the same story we’ve seen repeated in patterns about transgender characters. It’s the Tranny Martyr complex. This situation where this queer defined person is destroyed by people or circumstances that were completely out of their control and this story is repeated ad naseum in attempt to give weight to our stories, but only ever paints us as this tragic man or woman who tried to change biological destiny (a term cis people tend to throw around). In their mindset, and within something we call the cisgender gaze this trans character is belittled, crushed and ultimately made nonexistent in an attempt to foster sympathy. I think these films are only useful from our perspective as a cosigning on how we already feel surrounded by cisgender people. In Brandon’s unfortunate case his story is stripped of anything except the murder, in both of his cinematic representations (the doc isn’t much better) 

I think it does make sense that within the context of this movie that Brandon would invest in relationships that would reaffirm his gender in a social setting, which is why he maybe chased bad people and wanted to get married so badly, but to me these are cries for help rather than a diagnosis on why he was murdered. The why isn’t important, because it was his transenss that got him killed, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in a red state or a blue state it’s still dangerous to be transgender in the United States of America to this day. I don’t think movies are the be all end all for social change or anything of the sort, but there’s certainly something symptomatic in the American psyche where for the most part the only times we’ve been on screen are to be murdered, turned into a joke, or a tragedy of failed transition. The mainstream isn’t interested in our livelihood or our goals. It’s a lost highway of corpses, fools and monsters. There’s no space for us, and we both know there’s even less for trans men. There’s still issues of invisibility on your end of things and I don’t think Boys Don’t Cry‘s wishy-washy position on Brandon’s identity and transness help matters 

 CG: Him flying too close to the sun is a perfect description of Brandon’s behavior through Peirce’s eyes. He seemed to go from station to station in his story in some game of passing that felt like Russian roulette; Brandon would either not have a figurative bullet to his head or he would with his actions. There is an onus on trans people being murdered, in real life and in fictional portrayal in film and television, that death looms closely to them and it will consume them in the end because they took steps to be who they are that flies in the face of conventions and social norms. You would think with the pushback the queer community had as far as gay, lesbian, and bisexual representation, a post-The Celluloid Closet look at queerness on-screen, that people would learn and know better not to let trans people also fall into these tropes on-screen. Instead, in the case of Boys Don’t Cry, we have those very same people who bristled at straight people telling their stories with these harmful stereotypes and well-meaning depictions of martyrdom still being quite negative for people within the community, doing the same thing to trans people. They are part of the gaze who looks into our community. Despite out common ties and some of us in the trans community also belonging to those communities, there is still a distance and misunderstanding that happened and continues to happen. 

I have personally felt, and I know a few other trans men who have confided and spoken to me about this very thing, resentment from women and queer women for being a trans man. It was as though I had betrayed their values system, like a punk band that signed to a major label that I had sold out to the patriarchy. They do not understand that I did not transition to reap the benefits and privileges of men. I and trans men all over the world transition because we are affirming an identity that is within all of us and are ourselves as individuals. We are not doing it to get ahead, we are doing it because we are trying to live and save ourselves. What my identity is versus a cis woman or queer woman’s identities are vastly different. That is not always understood and I think that’s where there is friction, resentment, and misunderstanding. You can tell me all you want that what I did somehow offended your feminism and worldview, but the dysphoria and suicidal thoughts and self-harm that loomed over me for years had to be dealt with and I would not be talking with you today had I not done it. 

What I just said is perhaps eye opening for people and that is due to the paucity of trans narratives, let alone trans male narratives in film. We still lack a space and a forum to really present and champion our voices, but those artists are out there. There are trans filmmakers out there but still what usually happens first is trans actors getting exposure by way of cis filmmakers, like Sean Baker’s Tangerine and going way back to the likes of Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, and Jackie Curtis in those Warhol and Paul Morrissey films. But let us talk about a rare trans male film that was made as Boy Don’t Cry was released, the 2001 film, By Hook or By Crook by Harry Dowd (best known as being writer Maggie Nelson’s partner, who featured prominently in her book, The Argonauts) and Silas Howard (who would later direct episodes of Transparent and has made features, web series, and shorts since). A rare trans male film written and directed by trans men.

Harry Dowd and Silas Howard

WM: By Hook or By Crook has such a loose, punk rock freewheling nature to it that I immediately gravitated towards. It’s almost groundbreaking, because as trans people what sort of cinema are we going to sculpt when there’s no roadmap on how to make these narratives? When there’s no language I guess you can do anything, and I get that vibe in By Hook or By Crook. A real, “fuck it, lets make a movie” attitude with swagger and real lived in transness that’s just there on its sleeves in a really refreshing way. I keep chuckling to myself about Silas Howard’s opening line of “I’m like Dorothy, but with biceps and no dog” or something to that effect. That’s real shit. I described myself in an email once as being like Cher Horowitz, but I didn’t need the heels to be six feet tall (I’m 5’10, but who’s counting?)

CG:  By Hook Or By Crook definitely felt like a continual extension of American indies from the 90s as Indiewood was emerging and the more idiosyncratic voices graduated to prestige awards film. It definitely has DIY punk elements to it that are charming in ways where the shaggy qualities and occasional loss of plot, I can forgive. Both Howard and Dodge came from queer spaces of punk and art, part of why the punk elements of it feel so right. They are clearly intelligent individuals, both of whom I believe came from the working class but were never as down on the luck as their characters. There’s no tragic quality to this. It’s comic while noting that due to their situation of their gender dysphoria being treated like a pathology that they fell into this path of crime and wander around looking for a community. The nods to The Wizard of Oz, searching for a home and a tribe, feel true. And the conversations of Dodge and Howard’s characters feel revolutionary to me. It is treated as a matter of fact in the really deep, and often traumatic details of their life that they are airing out, but they are telling it to another person with a similar life experience so it is said with a level of understanding that many trans men so often search for. And then the imagery of this film just won me over. It’s filmic grain gives it a timelessness and that there is an image of Silas Howard in a denim sherpa jacket walking in the open spaces of the Midwest made me ‘feel seen’ in a way that I have rarely experienced in cinemas. I have that haircut, I walk like that, I have that damn jacket!

By Hook or By Crook (2001)

WM: I think the conversational aspects of the movie are some of the more incredible parts about it, because like you, I recognize a truthfulness in that, and I’ve had hours long conversations with trans men and trans women about childhood, aspirations, growing up, dysphoria, how stupid gender is and everything else and By Hook or By Crook totally has that same reality running through its dna. I think it’s a cut above most films made by trans people because I do think it understands our experiences, but also has the benefit of being directed in a manner that amplifies its DIY and underground roots. It feels like you can pinpoint the connective tissue of that movie to the queer cinema movement of the 90s and the punk rock movements of the Pacific North West in this really fascinating way while also carving a totally new path, because it’s made by these two transgender men. The film is shaggy and imperfect, but I like those flaws. I like that it doesn’t try to make these big social change aspirations. It’s just a fucking movie that these two trans guys made, and I think their personalities totally come across in a way that feels authentic to me. It’s rare. It’s something for us, and that might be why it’s buried underneath countless other movies about LGBT people that are worthless. As trans people we’ve got to start sculpting our own canon. The movies that are indirectly about transness, the body horror films, the documentary realism and the movies made by trans people. Watching By Hook or By Crook and singing its praises is a good start. It’s on Vimeo. Everyone should watch it.

CG:  It feels so authentic and as you said, it thumbs it nose at respectability politics (much like its New Queer Cinema forefathers and foremothers) and also is not about making discussions of gender straight out of academic scholarship that I think seems to be the expectation certain circles have about films on trans people and the spectrum of gender identity. You feel like these are characters talking about their experiences that are informed by the lives of their co-writer-directors. 

I wish I had seen this when I was younger but am grateful that a film that predated something like Tangerine, existed as a kind of buddy film in finding somebody just like you out there (something pre-social media, pre-internet really taking off). I was often anti-social and isolated for feeling like I was alone until I connected with people like you and others. It is so very important to find your space and your tribe, even if it is just one person that can be so major and vital to keeping that person alive. 

 And yes, people should absolutely watch By Hook Or By Crook. It’s on Harry Dodge’s Vimeo page so he is encouraging people to check out his and Howard’s work, in addition to his shorts that I am interested in watching. We do need to start looking into our artists to build and mold a cannon that’s more than just exceptional, rare cases of the mainstream getting it right and the allegorical, while also building out of what we have. Construct out of nothingness was the term you used, and it applies not just to our lives as trans individuals but to whatever becomes of the trans film canon.

By Hook or By Crook (2001)

Additional reading
** Ren Jender’s 15 year retrospective piece on By Hook or By Crook for The Village Voice    
**Caden’s piece on Moonlight, which briefly discusses Boys Don’t Cry 
**Interview with Silas Howard about working on Transparent  

Dedicated to the Memory of:
Lisa Lambert
Phillip DeVine
Brandon Teena

Body Talk: Conversations on Transgender Cinema with Caden Gardner: Part Two

Body Talk is an ongoing series of conversations between Caden Gardner and I about Transgender Cinema as we prepare to write a book on the subject. Part two is on the 1982 Robert Altman film, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

CADEN GARDNER: Robert Altman’s 1982 film Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (an adaptation of a short-lived play by Ed Graczyk that Altman directed and most of the film’s original cast were in) was always intriguing to me as a title before I even saw it. I remember seeing a preview of it on the old version of AMC, when they were competing with Turner Classic Movies as a classic movie channel. I knew it was about a group of friends who loved James Dean and that Cher was in it. Those were the things I knew before Robert Altman, Karen Black, or Sandy Dennis officially being in my orbit as a cinephile. I was a James Dean fan first but never got around to watching it. That was before DVR and Tivo, but it’s a title (likely a play off of William Inge’s play Come Back Little Sheba) that stuck in my mind. Willow, how did you come across this film? For me, personally, even once I realize Altman directed this film, I still wasn’t urgent to check this out before say, McCabe & Mrs. Miller or The Long Goodbye.
Willow Maclay: I came to cinema through the internet for the most part by cutting my teeth on various film forums. The first of these was the now defunct Rotten Tomatoes message board. Over time that place became toxic and the majority of the members on that website who posted in social chat threads moved on to splinter forums of splinter forums, but throughout my entire time there I’ve been in contact with a handful of people for more than a decade now who have influenced my taste in movies to one degree or another. One of those people was film critic, Justine Smith. I immediately gravitated towards her taste in movies, because it felt parallel to my own interests as a cinephile. When I was younger I learned a lot about movies simply by looking up to people who I felt knew more than me, and over the years I’ve followed Justine’s writing, which I’ve always respected. I bring her up, because she’s vital in bringing the film to my attention. She wrote an essay for Sound on Sight (now popoptiq) that originally drew my attention to the film. It was the words “contextually sympathetic portrayal of a transgender character” that caught my eye. I had to watch this movie, because at the time I didn’t think I had seen much in the way of positive representations of transgender characters in cinema. It was Justine who initially brought the film to my attention through her writing and luckily I like the film and the character a lot more than she did.

CG:  I too caught wind of the fact that Karen Black was portraying a transgender character before actually watching the film. By then I had acclimated myself into more works by Robert Altman, the major ones he had in the 1970s such as Nashville, 3 Women, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. I had been curious about how the character would be treated and also guarded. A director that was emerging as a favorite of mine was approaching this subject matter and character that has and still is under-represented. I haven’t watched Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons for reasons that amount to: I love Fassbinder, and I could see where he could be attracted to the subject matter of a trans woman. but I am not rushing to seek it out. I am skeptical, and afraid of feeling like I will not take to it, and that he may misfired on the subject matter and character. But Five & Dime was somewhat of an improvement for not portraying a trans woman as a man in drag, but instead having Black a cisgender woman play the role of a post-op trans woman.I had heard mixed word of the characterizations of Black, herself becoming a favorite of mine as I watched her turns in Five Easy Pieces and Nashville, being “exaggerated” but also heard that she played the character of Joanne with dignity. But it amounted to me finally seeing it and I was knocked out. Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is an ensemble film that wears its play roots proudly in staging and conceit, with the past and the then present, 1955 and 1975, in conversation with one another among a group of friends who have changed, have not changed, are facing disappointment, denial of reality, and trauma in different forms. It’s a film very much about womanhood and while there are a lot of knots in the conceit around Joanne that I do want to pick apart, I do want to say, I think the fact the film treats her journey and story with the same seriousness and being right alongside the stories of these other women for its time was impressive and refreshing.

 WM: Come Back to the Five and Dime also wasn’t my first Robert Altman film. Not even close. I watched Nashville, 3 Women, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and even lesser movies like Thieves Like Us and Popeye before checking out 5 and Dime. If I had heard about Karen Black playing a trans woman earlier I likely would have gotten around to watching the film sooner, but I think coming to the movie later actually helped me appreciate it more, because I knew what to expect from a Robert Altman film. You’re absolutely right about the film wearing its stage play leanings right on its sleeve. When I watched the movie for the first time I was completely blown away by the image of Sandy Dennis’ character Mona reminiscing about old times while holding an old photograph of the Jimmy Dean Disciples and behind her through a mirror the moment that picture was taken plays out in real time. As if she’s bringing this memory to life. It’s a moment, and an image that still makes me cry to this day if I’m watching the movie. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and a pure cinematic conjuring of what I think this movie is ultimately going for in its winding narrative(s) and theater background.

I think what makes your final point so strong, and this movie in general, especially with regards to its place in something resembling a transgender canon, is that there is an equality in her struggles. She isn’t a sideshow or a sidekick narrative. It isn’t there for shock value or anything repulsive (which is fucking incredible for 1982). She’s there, because she was always a part of this sorority, and the film understands that while she has changed, and her relationship to these people has morphed into something different, there is still an essential familial connection that brings these people together despite their differences. To put it very bluntly she’s just one of the girls. Another woman in a narrative comprised entirely of them with the lone exception being the metaphysical ghost of James Dean.

CG: I definitely would have gotten to this movie earlier had I known about Karen Black’s character too. I keep thinking back to those old AMC promos that were promoting it in the early 2000s and thinking how none of it that, something that takes over the second-half of the film, is teased nor indicated. I remember looking at older reviews of the film and found the overly dismissive Vincent Canby review (that’s redundant) and he called Joanne’s ‘secret’ to be ‘the film’s biggest antclimax’. I’d like to know what the hell a climax is for Vincent Canby, but perhaps what surprised him was because the character of Joanne is not made out to be a joke or tragic figure or, as other transgender roles have been treated, a misunderstood martyr.

This is not to say Joanne is not misunderstood. The film does present her before being out as a trans woman and before transitioning as Joe (Mark Patton), who takes a lot of abuse from men and women for behavior that were these little steps Joanne made towards who she ultimately got to live her life as in full. In the flashbacks of Joe, known as the lone boy of the group at the time and wears nothing but overalls in the Texas heat- with the exception of The Disciples of James Dean red windbreaker that all the club members wear- cross-dressing is mentioned, name-calling that amount to referring to Joe as a woman are mentioned, and the fact Joe is in a group with Sandy Dennis’ Mona and Cher’s Sissy as a trio who perform songs of The McGuire Sisters, an all girl trio. Patton, best known as the lead in the cult classic and homoerotic A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, is not just simply a placeholder for Karen Black’s character to emerge from a shell. His body language and movements for the character of Joe are in conversation with Karen Black’s Joanne. Joe is not just a sissy but somebody with a lot of heart, pent up frustration, and hurt over being attacked and ostracized, and that does turn violent. Joe has had enough but not without trying to reach out to Mona, somebody who was protective of Joe (she says something to the effect that if God does not believe in Joe then she cannot believe in God). But her heart is with James Dean, who in the flashbacks is announced to be filming Giant in a town nearby the film’s setting of McCarthy, Texas and Mona desperately wants to be an extra on the film. 

WM:  You bring up Mark Patton and I want to talk about him a little bit. I got to know the actor first through A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, which is also a performance of anxieties surrounding a latent queerness the character is hiding within, and I was really struck by that performance. On top of being a great final girl, with a scream that could rip the paint off of a wall, he’s really great at conveying this deeply traumatic interior self due to real world circumstances of something he can’t really hide. As an actor, I think he’s brilliant in these two roles and I think they’re within the same ballpark and are strong for some of the same reasons. In A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 his anxieties surrounding his own queerness manifest itself through the body horror of becoming Freddy Krueger. Which is a brilliant play on internalized homophobia and the trauma of growing up queer. I’m not sure if the film has been reclaimed as a horror classic yet, but I think we’re definitely getting there and so much of that has to do with Mark Patton. It’s a great performance. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

 CG: To return back to the subject of martyrdom, James Dean is the ultimate martyr as a Christ-like figure for the story. There’s a cutout of him from Giant, not actually in the film, but in the promo stills, (a film that opened when Dean was already dead from a car accident) that hangs in the Five & Dime like Christ on a cross. Altman two decades earlier did The James Dean Story, an experimental documentary that dealt with James Dean’s instant fame and posthumous legend that surrounded him. That documentary, in fact, opens with the solemn film premiere of Giant where fans of Dean were gathered to see him one last time on-screen. With that, Altman was the perfect director to tap into this specific piece of fanaticism and cult figure/folk hero of James Dean that’s present in this play and film. Sandy Dennis’ Mona is teasingly referred to as Mona Magdalene by Cher’s Sissy for the fact that Sandy Dennis claimed to have mothered James Dean’s son, Jimmy Dean (who we never see). Her level of worship is something of a pathology that I do liken to a Tennessee Williams heroine and it is slowly revealed that she is in denial about Jimmy Dean’s parentage and quite possibly has denied her son, a son she claims to be mentally retarded, any agency as Sissy declares that the boy is normal and Mona mistreats him because the truth is, her Jimmy Dean is not the son of James Dean. 

This revelation in other hands would probably be the most grotesque thing, but with Dennis’ the stuttering and bipolarity of the character feels real, sad, and tragic. Karen Black gives one of the great turns in all of film, but Dennis is just as good. Cher as Sissy is a strong-willed woman but has a lot of insecurities and disappointments that happen to her body and in her relationship with a lost lover. Like most of Cher’s on-screen roles, she’s tough and good-humored, but Cher always makes sure to slowly open up her vulnerabilities in a natural way. It arguably goes against the more theatrical and melodramatic arcs and performances of Dennis and Black, but for me it all works. There are so many shots of Cher just laying on a table absorbing the drama and tension that pervade the Five & Dime store, and it feels just right and true. Altman’s always been a great director of actresses and it makes sense that even though the play with this cast failed on stage that he believed in it enough to film them. These close-ups of Black, Dennis, and Cher just stick in my mind so much.

WM: I think you’re absolutely right here about the casting. There’s no one they could have hired who would have been better in these roles than Karen Black, Cher and Sandy Dennis. 

I’m struck by Mark Patton’s turn in this film as well, as the earliest incarnation of Joanne. She is stricken with this very powerful sense of femininity that the character is unsure of engaging with on the same level as her friends. She knows that there’s this real struggle within herself to accommodate the belief systems of small town Bible Belt Texas with how she’s feeling herself. She’s the town queer and everyone knows it. Cis people know before we do sometimes. When I was in middle school I went by the name Chris, because my middle name used to be Christopher, and I was called Christine all the time and bullied endlessly for my own femininity. I think of the Laura Jane Grace lyric “they hold their breath not to catch your sick” on Transgender Dysphoria Blues and Patton is exemplary at locking into that mindset. I think he fundamentally understands that as an LGBT person himself. Joe’s really comfortable around other women, because the character Patton’s playing is one, but there’s also the weight of societal impositions holding Joe back, because it’s blatantly disgusting in the eyes of just about everybody in the 1950s to have been gay or transgender. Growing up in similar circumstances I can see a lot of myself in the characterization, but I don’t think it’s only great because of relatability. It’s wonderful, because there’s depth to what Patton is doing as an actor as it relates to his surroundings and the mindset of this young woman whose body and life are in chaos. I get that, and I think it’s a really potent idea with depth relating to transgender cinema specifically. 

You bring up the fact that Patton and Karen are working together in unison. That’s a tremendous point, because in rewatching the film recently I got the sense that there was no disconnect between the two women I was seeing portrayed on screen. The body language is the same, the hesitation is identical and the shadow cast by Texas, time and trauma hangs over both in this very specific way that they both understand. Karen’s characterization is really beaten down by the years, but Patton’s is too. The thing about trans people is they’re born adults for better or worse stripped of a childhood in some cases, but more often than not aware of a problem within their body at a young age that works as a cross that no child should ever have to bear. I think both actors understand this somehow, because it’s very visible in the body language of their performances. Who would have thought a movie could have 2 good cisgender performances of transgender characters??? That’s almost unheard of. 

 CG: I remember trying to research the choices behind the casting of Joe and Joanne in the play and in the film. In the supplements of the film’s American BluRay, the writer Ed Graczyk is interviewed. He does not really go into why he wrote on a trans character but noted the casting process specified Joe was to be played by a man and Joanne would be played by a woman, with Altman and Graczyk both saying no to actress Sally Kellerman’s suggestion that she, up for the role of Joanne, could play both roles (this often is the norm for cis men in playing transwomen but later in 1986, there was that time Vanessa Redgrave in that TV movie on trans tennis player Renne Richards called Second Serve played Richards prior to transitioning and after). And, unfortunately, that is where my research dried up. The play and film did not really get enough exposure in its time to really hear more in-depth from both Patton and Black about their choices, any research Altman and Graczyk did, or if there was any assistance from trans women in the work. 

I was always really struck with the understanding that both Patton and Black had about using their body and sense of alienation to really capture the trans experience, often posited as being defined by the transition. To transition medically is costly and is not available to a lot of trans people immediately. I myself am very lucky to have a job that won’t fire me for being trans and health insurance that helps pay for some but not all of my transition, but I had to save for years to be able to afford to do this. That’s not without sacrifice and feeling that in a lot of situations and opportunities that I had to make decisions out of survival and caution, holding back. Joanne is able to transition because she lucked out on her mother’s death giving her an inheritance of insurance money. It’s something that helped her medically transition and also saved her life, leave town and get away from people who only saw her as an object of scorn. 

WM: I couldn’t really find anything either of these actors said about their roles in this film either or what went into their preparation or even why they wanted to play a transgender character. One unfortunate side effect of how slow general acceptance of transgender people has been is that Karen Black died before we were ever really a topic of discussion in the mainstream media. It’s a shame, because I think now is the time to reclaim 5 and Dime as a masterpiece and specifically her performance, but she won’t be here to see that happen. It’s really depressing. 

CG:  Let’s get into Joanne and Karen Black. What I love about Karen Black’s entrance in this film is her walking back into the Five & Dime, in a way, testing if she can be recognized. How stealth she is to this group, Mona later on projecting the image of Joe on Joanne. I think you asked me once about going stealth as far as simply presenting as male without my trans status known. I never answered you directly but it’s a complicated situation for me where, due to my circumstances of finances and certain securities that I do have, I have to stay where I am and that situation usually results in people who have known me for years see me going through ‘the change’. I’ve never gone through the level of trauma that Joanne has and know how lucky I am, but when I was beginning my transition and the coming out process there was this impulse that I had in grappling with, that if shit hits the fan, should I leave and could I leave my surroundings? That is often a trans narrative, and one I was privileged enough to work around, but has its continuous hiccups. I have friends and family who are slippery on pronouns and name, just like Joanne’s friends are with her in this film. We give those folks leeway because it’s not out of malice, and they are people we love and care about. Joanne is the same, she gives her friends some rope and is able to forgive, with the exceptions of a snicker of ‘Sister or Mister?’ query by Sissy where she gives a very controlled response of, ‘Sister!’ and when Kathy Bates’ Stella Mae makes invasive questions about whether or not, Joanne’s half-man/half-woman like she saw on TV (editor’s note: gotta love trans rep on tv!), Joanne, again, so cool and collected, states plainly, ‘Just tell them I’m a freak. They know what that is.’

 WM: I think the thing I love the most about Karen Black’s performance, and I do think it’s the best ever given by a cisgender person playing a transgender role, is that she fundamentally understands the mindset of her character as it relates to her situation and her body. You’re absolutely right that she’s testing just how far she can go in terms of being “stealth”. Stealth for those of you who don’t know is a term we use when a person can function in society and be perceived as cisgender 100% of the time and for the most part rarely has to deal with the burdens of being transgender. I love her entrance, because she’s trampling through her old stomping ground and they can’t quite put their finger on why this woman feels familiar, but they immediately recognize her as a woman, and that’s very telling. They gender her correctly 100% of the time, and It only becomes more complicated in their eyes when she outs herself to them. I want to note that I love the way she does this with a wry little “surprise!”. This is hypothetically exactly the way I would out myself to old high school friends at a reunion if I were given the chance. That felt real as hell to me and definitely connected to transness in a way that few movies ever do about the subject. With her body I think she conveys these very specific notes and intricacies of our experiences. Notice the way she’s completely covered up despite having a body to die for. That’s left over internalized transphobia and body hatred. She only uses her body as a tool when she’s absolutely comfortable in the situation, and she knows that she can do that, but otherwise her flesh is guarded by cloth. I always like to note the scene where she’s posing by the jukebox and performing a kind of seductive burlesque as she tells a story about running into her abuser years later. The way she sashays her hips and runs her hands up her body is the flipside of this where she feels she has total control over her skin. That’s rare for a trans person, but not completely out of the question, but there’s a kind of unprecedented joy in knowing she has this power over herself she previously didn’t have at all. I love that. I’ve felt that myself after coming into my body. 

I’m fortunate in the sense that I could go stealth, like Joanne, if I wanted to, and for all intents and purposes I am in day to day life. I’m perceived as a cisgender woman without fail, but I’m similar to Joanne in the sense that I got the fuck out of dodge and left my hometown in the dust. I also experienced a lot of really unfortunate instances of abuse by people back home so leaving was necessary. The Canadian healthcare system gave me easy, affordable access to hormones at an early age and I am grateful for the benefits I have up north, but I do recognize most folks do not have this option. I’m always curious about how my old hometown would feel walking in my own shoes with my perception now. Could I walk in front of family or friends and they have no idea who I am? Could I exist as a woman in a space I otherwise couldn’t earlier in my life? Could I have control where I couldn’t earlier in life? Joanne testing the waters of how she’s perceived where she grew up is the same thing. It’s a really interesting thought process and totally tied into how we’re perceived and what kinds of bodies are considered acceptable by society (being seen as cis gives us an extreme amount or privilege) and that in and of itself is extremely rare in cinema, especially about transgender people oddly enough. The question of transgender cinema, if you’re going to make a film about us, has to be centered around bodies. It’s the entire basis of why we’re different in the first place. That’s where transgender cinema has to go through, both in the perception of transgender people and the interiority of living with a transgender body.

 CG: The, “surprise!” line is so amazing. Even just the first image of her looking into the window of the Five & Dime, with her sunglasses at the end of her nose to peek in is just a striking image. I joke it’s a, ‘Surprise, bitch!’ gesture but her purpose to be there is for the 20th anniversary re-congregation of The Disciples of James Dean, her one sense of community that she had and what we are led to guess from her expositions about life after McCarthy, Texas, her only real sense of community, for better and worse. 

Going back to hearing original feedback of Black’s performance as Joanne being “exaggerated”, I get a little annoyed. I agree with you that for me she is in complete control of her body. She’s drunk at points in the film, so of course she’ll act a little looser but you feel this is a woman with poise, confidence, and some incredible inner-strength in coming back with a purpose in being accepted again by her tribe without compromise. And she is welcomed back. They love her. They have verbal spats and spars, but it does feel that Joanne is being entrapped by her own nostalgia. We know and can feel the pain and hurt that reverberates as she walks around the place and finds herself at odds with Mona’s mania, Juanita’s prejudices, and Sissy’s blind eye when talking about past events that involved her. You can argue she is hostile with Juanita in calling her dead husband a drunk, but her reasons and hurt are not unfounded. She is not without empathy towards the other women, she cries for Mona in realizing how delusional she is after witnessing that long-winded monologue of meeting James Dean and conceiving her son and she does cry again for Sissy’s own painful personal body revelations. Joanne is not the only story at play, yet she is central and intertwined equally with these other women because her story is a woman’s story. 

 CG cont. :I was thinking about this film a lot in relation to ever returning to reunions for college, my fifth reunion passed last year. While I have a few friends who know, a lot of people, people who I have admittedly let go of as I was experiencing this because it felt too complicated to let too many people in on, do not know. If I do ever return for a reunion, I expect I am going to think about Joanne. Hell, there are restaurants that I have returned to since transitioning and I keep wondering if I’ll be recognized or not, and I will think, ‘What would Joanne do?’ Joanne is just a character that will always be on my mind. One thing that is key for me in Black’s performance and in Altman’s directorial choices was the sense of the gaze being put on her. She can see Mona looking at her and seeing only Joe, and frankly, it gives her a headache. Ultimately that gaze and literal projection is no longer there. Joanne can look in the mirror, an effect that Altman uses to literally look into the past, and always see Joanne while others around her are still catching up. 

 This play and film gets some grief in feeling like a rehash of Tennessee Williams and William Inge (playwrights I adore, so of course I was going to love the shit out of this), characters full of trauma, mania, reflecting of mistakes, and the sense of ‘passing through’ melodramas that are Midwest and Southern regionally specific. I think perhaps a large part of the cis audience can miss what we find in this. Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean manages to treat the perceptions characters have on trans people and how a trans person reacts without feeling persecuted or bending to compromise honestly and realistically. Performance is key, of course, with Karen Black and Mark Patton serving Joanne and Joe so well as characters that are not two characters but of one whole person. They portray the rare trans character on-screen that, as a trans man, I strongly responded to in ways where so many other films with trans characters have failed. I also just want to say, I am sad Karen Black couldn’t live to see this movie get more attention. There’s a part of me that always wished I could thank her for this performance. I did notice Five & Dime was playing in Los Angeles during an Altman retrospective and I still feel like this film is ripe for discovery to so many people. It is a film that has many merits beyond the character of Joanne, but for me that character is the heart of the film and does deserve more attention for striking a rare and impressive sweet spot (and again, this was somehow in 1982).

WM:  The film is absolutely about more than Joanne, but you’re right that she’s the focal point. I think everything hinges upon her return and reveal. The entire conversation and mood shifts around her, but the great thing about this movie is that even with Joanne as a centralizing figure where everything kind of runs through her we do get to know all of these other women so fully and intently. It’s a great women’s picture in the aftermath of new hollywood where masculinity kind of cleaved everything else away. I mentioned earlier that the best way to access something resembling successful transgender cinema is to make a film with bodies in mind, but in addition to that I think you need the fully fleshed out writing. A movie won’t be transphobic if the character is written well. I’m a firm believer in that notion and Joanne is absolutely stellar. As are her cisgender sisters, Mona, Sissy, Stella, Edna. All of them really. I think in this movie we fundamentally know all of these women in and out and how they function, and the actors to their credit are so instantly keyed in to these people that it feels like a hangout movie. A tense, oftentimes aggressive hangout movie, but time and unhealed wounds will do that to you. 

Time and memory is what I wanted to bring up next. The film obviously, beautifully, conveys this nostalgic glow for a time of the past where things were maybe a little less complicated, for all but Joanne at least. What I love is that we can feel the passage of time through these characters, and with Altman’s filming techniques here we get this really harrowing sense of what exactly has damaged these people and how they do their best to recover and live through their own struggles. 

 The passage of time is this vital ingredient to transness. Sometimes we focus too much on a before and after, but in that time frame we come into ourselves and become the person we are. It’s like a shroud lifting. The complicated thing about this is that everything beforehand doesn’t just go away, and in this movie that’s reflected through memory and how these characters react to Joanne now considering the memories they have of her in the past. It’s this interesting dynamic where our lives in some respects don’t really start until transition, so there’s this wasted time and regrets of not having a fullness of life. At some point that has to be reconciled with some sort of observed or considered childhood even if it was compromised. I think Joanne accepts her life before she transitioned for what it was, but has regrets that it had to be life she had to live, and she had to leave the only family she ever knew. That’s a nuanced, complicated feeling that’s specific to our struggles and I think Karen Black absolutely nails it. I think this is what she’s referring to when she talks about “regrets” in the movie. Not that she transitioned, but that she was powerless to do anything about her situation beforehand. What do you think? What’s your interpretation of that thorny scene?

 CG: When Joanne arrives in town and is just a stranger to Mona, she states, ‘Time is such a nebulous state to wait for’ to which Mona replies, ‘And patience, they say, is a virtue’. I am firmly in Joanne’s mindset. It can feel like such a haze to be in as far as trans experience. So often we see our stories fragmented as a before and after, that we have been corrected by certain therapies and procedures. But that is simplistic. We still carry parts of our past with us even if those past lives had a dissatisfaction and sense of feeling not whole. When I reached my understanding and was able to confront being trans, I felt like there was a sense of relief, but also a feeling that I am running behind (trans time is totally real) and have a lot of catching up to do in life. Time is such a nebulous state to wait for, and at a certain point you cannot wait, you gotta act and Joanne acts to be who she truly is. 

You are referring to a scene where I believe Sissy asks if she regret transitioning and her response is a quick, ‘Only when I think about it.’ I’m sure there will be some trans people and cis allies who will have alarm bells go off in their brains during that scene, but for me that was a loaded question met with a loaded answer (and also Graczyk is a cis man, so it can be as simply true to just say he fumbled this a little and the rest of the text contradicts it). Joanne gets more and more comfortable being herself and it is clear she is of herself in a way that the many of the other women are not. Sissy has lost a lot and Mona has lost her mind and is possibly abusing and repressing her son. I would say of the trio, Joanne is in the best place. She came back to McCarthy in a goddamn yellow Porsche! But to answer your question directly, I think it is about the fact that what she had to lose and has regrets over that, even if I think Altman and Graczyk acknowledge that there is no way Joanne could have survived another moment in McCarthy. But I think about that last moment Joanne has with Mona, in being romantically rejected and that Mona began insisting the child they conceived together was instead a dead movie star’s child. That is rough and heartbreaking. To have a dead symbol favored over yourself and you were already psychologically struggling. I never experienced anything close to that in my life but I have a lot of regrets of people and opportunities that I have lost along the way because I was internalizing a lot of shame and embarrassment for identifying trans but feeling like I had nobody to turn to, even if the optics of my surroundings would lead people to believe the opposite. I cannot imagine being put into the position of answering people’s questions on my decisions and my gender identity, but people are nosy and curious. And we see Joanne has limits too, but that line about regrets is revealing. Joanne knows this wasn’t an all-curing experience and has complicated feelings. For her to be able to afford this, her mother died. She lost somebody who understood her, or at least a major part of her, and she lost her tribe, because to stay in McCarthy risked its own death sentence for her. So, the power she attains comes at a price, but she had no power prior. Joanne understands this, and seems to be introspective, and in constant meditation over it, another reason why I love her and relate to her.

 WM: I think it’s vital to say that transitioning doesn’t fix everything, and I think that also ties into her line about “regrets”, because I know that the consideration with that line is a concern among some viewers, but I think hearing it within the whole context of the film it becomes more complicated than a simple answer would supply. You have to dig deeper. To transition is to save yourself at all costs, but along the way you’ll lose things as well. In my case I lost my hometown and my entire family. These are not easy things to deal with and it’s positively unfair. Like Joanne I knew that staying meant death for me, and I knew I was going to lose everything except myself. I’m fortunate because I’ve blossomed since then with my body nearly being where I want it to be and various other benefits, but I still carry around the scars of trauma and loss from my childhood. Joanne certainly does too. To me she feels like the most lived in transgender character I’ve ever seen portrayed on screen acted by a cis person OR a trans person. There’s something so pinpoint about her while also giving off this tremendous wellspring of gestures with her body and moments of clarity in her dialogue. I think one of the most beautiful things about this movie is that when she comes back things aren’t easy, and they’ve changed, but by the end of the movie it feels like she’s just one of the girls like it always has been. They don’t know how to talk to her because the language isn’t there, but the spirit is. She’s just one of them, and I find that really touching despite all the hell they go through in this haunted chamber piece of ghosts and memory. I think it’s really telling that even Juanita, who thumps her bible proud, refers to her as “miss” when all is said and done.

It’s this huge reconciliation and ultimately a hopeful moment for Joanne, and there’s not a lot of moments like that in other films about transgender characters where usually we come to the end of a film in a body bag or humiliated for the sake of gaining sympathy from cisgender viewers. It’s not a movie where it’s as simple as saying it’s a nice portrayal, because this is a messy, complicated movie, but it’s also compassionate and with a master like Altman at the helm it’s so finely attuned to detail and people. And that’s all we really want to be in movies is just people. Not a thing or a trope or an idea so you can pat your back for having liberal politics, but a person. A human being.

CG: I love that final interaction with Juanita. We see Joanne reach for Juanita in a small prayer, but rejected (it’s so subtle and Cher is talking during this moment, so your attention veers towards Cher but it happens and it feels so true, honest, and sad all at once). But she gets affirmed from Juanita in being called “Miss” while at the same time, Juanita still not able to extend her hand too far. She is God-fearing woman who once feared Joanne to be a communist and yet when faced with her in the now, she does begrudgingly accept her in her own stubborn way with still some ways to go. Yet, as you mentioned, Joanne is accepted by these women, who have not seen her in 20 years. Mostly because she is more of the fully formed, more vibrant version of the person they had always loved. We as the audience feel that and understand that because of masterful approach in direction and performance. The interpersonal dynamics in this have touches of melodrama and theatricality, tied to its play origins, and yet, for me it does feel lived in. You feel like these characters are carrying regrets and belief systems that have been damaged and adjusted over time while also carrying those same stubborn thoughts that they had in 1955. This film as you noted is a hangout movie with hostilities but they are hostilities that come with people you know and love, and with a trans woman at the center it was a Robert Altman film in the 1980s that had an opening space to see a character that we transgender people can identify with, one that was treated like a real person, and played with understanding and nuance that should not be rare, but with that rarity, I treasure it even more.

For additional reading you can check out Caden’s piece on the film, James Dean and Giant here 

Under the Skin’s Transgender Allegory

Originally posted in 2014 at The Vulgar Cinema

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a vague science fiction picture loaded with images both abstract and very blunt. The content of those images twists around many different ideas, but my reading of this picture is specifically about what it means to be a transgender woman in a society that doesn’t see that as normative behaviour. There is a distinct lack of straightforward representation of Transgender Women in media so we often search for subtext within art, and Under the Skin is packed with themes on Gender Identity. It comes eerily close to evoking a similar tone to those feelings of alienation, dysphoria, and reconciliation that come with being a transgender woman. It all functions through the allegorical storytelling of finding out what it means to be human, but inside of that narrative Glazer stumbled upon what it’s like to be transgender.

The opening scene of Under the Skin is a birth. She’s not a child, but a fully grown individual. In that sense she did not have a childhood. She came into this world as an adult and had to live her life as a young woman. There is no learning experience for Scarlett Johannson’s character (who I am going to call Amy for brevity sake since she is nameless throughout the film) that she can fall back on coming into womanhood. It is a blank slate as evidenced by the pure whiteness of the colour scheme in the scene. She exists alone and she walks into a world where she is both an alien not understanding how to be human and a woman not knowing how to be perceived as every other woman. In the scope of transgender idealogy there is often a feeling of death and rebirth when coming out. For many individuals (myself included) childhood doesn’t go as planned and when you’re finally ready to be yourself and be a woman you walk into a world that you have to relearn. You’re born as an adult much like Amy without enough of the basic knowledge that comes with being given a cisgender girlhood. 

Glazer follows her birth with another scene typical to transgender experiences. Shopping. Amy finds herself in a new world and like many trans women she sees what other women around her are doing and tries to adapt. Glazer punctuates this scene with banal images of women trying on make up and looking at clothes so Amy does the same thing. She turns over a simple pink top and examines lipstick. What’s wonderful about this scene is how he plays it for both it’s mundane-ness and it’s exploration. As trans women the idea of shopping as yourself for the first time for clothing is often times wrought with confusion. I know that I bought the first things that I saw that fit well enough and got in and out as fast as I could, because it was an alien experience. It was an entirely new world. One that I felt like I should have always been a part of, but new and scary nonetheless. It’s a really simplistic scene but captures those feelings of unsureness remarkably well. He closes this moment with Amy putting on lipstick just like all the women she saw in the store. It’s her first learned behaviour in adapting to what society thinks a woman should do, and those same lessons are learned from trans women who do the similar things for safety.

The prospects of dating while trans are quite frankly horrifying. The danger of male violence is around every possible romantic interaction, and while this is also true of cisgender women transgender women are sometimes murdered before and after sex just for not having the right equipment (something I’ll get into later). What is seen as a larger Predator-Prey narrative can be dissolved into a metaphor on failed romantic relationships. The first few men she encounters in this film fall prey to this darkened room and disappear into a void. Oftentimes read as a Black Widow narrative I think it lines up with struggling to find someone who will see you as you see yourself instead. These men are lured by Amy but when sex comes up things turn disastrous. Glazer flips the point of view from Amy to that of the men in these scenes. I think in their mind they do not see Amy as normal in the way they would most women and their “deaths” are moments of panic over sexuality. Amy is left to search for a real romantic interest and these trysts with men leave no lasting impact on her. They just further her otherness and her alienation as she retreats back to her van, her safe place and falls back into introversion. It comes as no real surprise when she makes her first real connection with another person he has also been ostracized by society for having neurofibromatosis. They connect in a way that she cannot with those other men, because they don’t understand her being an outcast. He does, and their short moment together is one of the more tender moments in the film showing great empathy on Glazer’s part for those on the fringes of society due to things they cannot control.

The transgender themes only intensify in the second half of the film when Glazer becomes obsessed with mirrors and body. When Amy finds herself in the home of a man she feels secure with she finally starts to get the feeling that she can comfortably be herself. She’s been in pursuit of some inclination of a connection previously and she seems to have found one here. She also becomes hyper aware of her body and for the first time in the movie it doesn’t feel like something she’s carrying around, but rather a home. There is one scene in particular that is striking and plays differently from every other scene in Under the Skin. Amy stands nude in her room bathed richly in warm colours like red and yellow instead of the normal blacks and washed out greys of Scotland. Her body shines in the presence of this room and she walks slowly to a mirror to examine herself. She twists in front of the mirror and looks at her form and it feels right. The music swells slightly as she turns around and looks at her soft back tracing down into softer curves. Her body has always been pale and ghostly, something of a mystery up until this point where it breaks through like the sun. Amy appears to be on the verge of tears at times in this scene, because she is happy with the way she looks. This plays directly into the feelings many transgender women eventually have with their own bodies. Society is constantly telling us through various outlets that our bodies are disgusting, to be made fun of and not desirable and that builds up into a mammoth wave of self hatred that takes years to undo. There are moments though where everything is peaceful inside of ourselves and things shimmer if only for brief moments and like Amy it feels like the sun is shining through us. These moments may only last for a few minutes, but in a lifetime of haze and grey the sun feels like the best thing in the world, and Glazer taps into that feeling really strongly in that scene.

However, as I mentioned above those moments are often fleeting and can be capsized by moments of dysphoria at any second. Under the Skin’s examination of gender dysphoria becomes especially apparent in the scene when Amy opens herself up to sex with this man, and realizes she cannot do it the way she wants to, because her genitals do not match up with her body. She’s locked out of a pleasure in a way that only transgender women who have dysphoria around genital discomfort experience. The scene is one of Scarlett Johannson’s finest moments in the picture and her discomforted stare out of a window after she realizes she cannot have sex echoes pain. The film would go back to those feelings of alienation and dysphoria as soon as she realizes that as much as she sees herself as a woman she doesn’t check off every category that could make her cisgender. It’s very hard to display dysphoria  well in cinema and it’s rarely been attempted. In my own personal experience it’s like a fog that runs over my entire body and mind and keeps me from being able to do anything. I avoid mirrors and feel internal sense of loss over things I cannot change. I avoid my body as much as I can and wait for the buzzing in the back of my head to calm down long enough so I can return to normal functionality. Glazer taps into some of that in the last third of his movie. Amy has been introverted and withdrawn for the entire film, but it intensifies when she realizes her genitals do not work, and that’s a very transgender specific problem.

The greatest fear I have as a Transgender Woman is being murdered for existing as myself. It seems like every week I read about an assault or a death to a fellow sister just trying to live her truth, and it’s something that’s always in the back of my mind when I go out in public. Will someone see me as an imposter and punish me for trying to be myself? Will they cut short or damage a life that has only really just begun? The final scene of Under the Skin shows what happens to some women who aren’t seen as normative, and it’s gut wrenching to see a real life concern I have reflected in this tale of an alien in human skin. Amy is burned alive at the end of Under the Skin for not appearing to be who she says she is by a man who was going to rape her. She cradles herself in her final moments. She didn’t get to live long and there’s a hollow sadness to this scene. I’ve read about it in news reports all the time about women like me facing the consequences of existing, but I’ve never seen it so bluntly reflected in cinema. I don’t think it’s a cautionary tale or a warning to blend in better, but instead a mirror to horror that should be examined and changed within the world. What makes this even more horrifying is that this isn’t just fantasy for trans women. This ending is a reality. A Trans Woman was burned to death last month in an event that too closely resembles the final moments of this movie.

I’m at once repelled and drawn to Under the Skin, because it so closely resembles a mindset that I live with as a Trans Woman. It’s not a pretty portrait of being trans, but it’s one that I feel is accurate as an allegorical telling of our place in this world for a society that doesn’t want us. It’s repulsive, but stunning in how easily it slips into a truth about living as a woman who is not like everybody else. We don’t all burn, but at any moment we could and it sticks to us like glue every day as we navigate the world as aliens in the eyes of most cisgender individuals, through it all we’ll always be grasping for that moment where we feel the sun inside of us.