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

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. The fourth installment is on Jonathan Glazer’s Science-Fiction film, Under the Skin (2013).

Willow Maclay: There was something in the air with Jonathan Glazer’s, “Under the Skin“. When the film initially premiered it had a kind of aura around it that I was drawn to in the still images and the words film critics had written. It felt like a film that I was going to respond towards strongly, but I had no real inclination of what I was truly in for when I watched the film for the first time. What I saw was a film that so fundamentally understood the plight I was going through having recently come out as a trans woman that it was staggering. The fact that everything I connected to was incidental didn’t matter. Jonathan Glazer didn’t intend to make one of the best films ever made about transness, but he did, and the proof is in the fact that its become a talking point for transgender film obsessives. We claimed it. It’s our film, but you’ve sometimes got to do that when there’s nothing there in the first place. We’ll get to my essay on the film in a moment, but first I wanted to ask when you came to the film and what did you initially think of it upon viewing? Did you have an epiphany like I did? Did it unsheathe something primal and real at your core?

Caden Gardner: I had the privilege of seeing Under The Skin’s North American premiere at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival. It was my first time at TIFF. I had heard about the initial reception at the Venice Film Festival’s world premiere of the film. It was polarizing. There were boos, and word spread that the festival’s main slate jury had a lot of skeptics towards the film (per director Pablo Larrain, who stated he was a lonely dissenter in loving the film and later paid it forward by hiring Under The Skin’s composer Mica Levi to compose an equally unique aural nightmare for his biopic, Jackie). Under the Skin received no festival prizes from Venice. The stills and clips that were going around the Internet for that movie helped me retain my optimism. I dug Sexy Beast and thought Birth was a masterpiece. Jonathan Glazer returns with a film starring Scarlett ‘ScarJo’ Johansson in that black wig and she’s playing an alien? I’m in! Early reviews had compared it to Lynne Ramsay, particularly to Morvern Callar, and Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. But to actually see the film, with my mother sitting next to me no less, was quite a disarming experience. I was sucked in from the moment ScarJo undresses a corpse and sets as alien siren for these scores of men who follow her to their dooms. We’ll get into the specifics of the film, but I surrendered to this film and felt seen by it in ways that felt like a trans experience. It was quite difficult to bottle that up at the time, being closeted and all, in trying to articulate my excitement and love of the movie. My mother hated the movie and she seemed perplexed why I liked it and what made me so attached to this movie that to her was a creepy, cruel art house exercise. My mother is not a plebe and frankly, she has a few people in film criticism that would agree with her. But to go back to the trans community claiming Under The Skin based on its allegorical and metaphorical ties to transness, for me it was all there from watching it the very first time. We are aliens. We observe so much behavior that other people just do not pay as much mind to. This film is not purposely coded in the way people read queer movies or movies with gay subtext. So it is quite something that so many of us, without any review to present or read it as such when it was released, all read this film as being about our experiences and embracing it as such. Not because it is a positive representation or a cis-friendly character- ScarJo’s alien is an accessory to many men dying and meets her own doom- but because it captures something that feels so similar to the innate nature of being trans and feeling apart of yourself reconciling the inner with the outer.

 WM: To see that film during its North American premiere must have been special. I remember it getting a rather cool reception with the exception of the handful of critic friends I had at the time who all seemed to love it to varying degrees. For me, I didn’t end up seeing the movie until the summer of 2014. I watched it on my second day in Philadelphia after moving away from home. Philadelphia is where I fled to become to myself. I was out as a trans woman since late 2011, but I didn’t start presenting until I moved to Philly. Watching this movie in my bad makeup , loose fitting bra and low cut blouse was something almost ethereal. Here was this character coming into life as an adult and constructing herself with her perception of femininity, not as something passed down, but something observed. I was doing the same thing. It’s not a pretty portrait, but being trans isn’t peaches and cream and being a woman isn’t either. It left a huge impact on me in a way that I couldn’t quite put together into words, until I started talking to my friend Erin about it and I realized that this film affected me so deeply, because it was symbolic of everything I was going through at the time. I obviously wasn’t tantalizing men into their deaths, but I was struggling with my body, ramming up against the limitations forced on me after going through a puberty built on testosterone and wanting to reverse all of it. So, I wrote my friend Sara Elizabeth about an essay idea I had on the film for her website The Vulgar Cinema. I had begun writing for that website under her tutelage and I had published essays on John Carpenter and Johnnie To, but this would be something different. What followed was one of the hardest essays I’ve ever had to write, and she was there with me the entire way. It received plaudits from websites like Slant Magazine, Indiewire and RogerEbert.com. It kickstarted my writing career and the rest is history. I put into words why this trans allegorical science fiction movie moved me and I couldn’t have done with without Erin and Sara Elizabeth. They were very important in making that happen. Ever since, the piece has become synonymous with my name following me around everywhere I write, and I don’t mind, because I feel like after I wrote that piece it was impossible to talk about Under the Skin without paying mind to its place in something resembling a transgender canon. To this day it’s the most meaningful essay I’ve ever written, even if I think I’ve published better work since.

CG:  I had been mentioning that there was this movie Under The Skin playing in theaters to my friends that I had brief reunions with after college. They were the few people who knew I was trans and knew how deeply unhappy I was in keeping up the appearance of having to dress up in feminine clothing to present as female and how much I hated the abusive, toxic work environment I was in. I would have been miserable there without being trans but the added twist of not feeling quite in place, in a way alien, and disassociating, often isolated in a poorly lit office, answering a phone that never rang, and doing errands in the backwoods counties in Upstate New York felt like purgatory and that I had made a terrible mistake in my life. I had a skeleton of a plan on how to keep saving money to begin my process and give me a monetary safety net if shit hit the fan, but I had also begun drinking heavily to self-medicate because of how unhappy I was and going into some dark places as a result. I only had movies but even my job was cutting in to any time I had on new releases. I actually did not see Under The Skin in theaters after TIFF, but I kept telling people about it. To get back to my friends, because they knew I was trans, I was able to tell them exactly why I saw the film as a trans film. They found that fascinating and found me persuasive in my interpretation. Still, even when I had more freedom and an outlet to express these opinions on social media, I was mum about this point on Under The Skin. Mainly because for many years people did not know my identity, I did not disclose I was trans for a very long time and was seen as an enigma (I can say this because somebody who I met in real life, and is quite lovely, did once casually refer to my online presence as enigmatic and I have no hard feelings over that). So when I read your piece on Under The Skin, I felt so excited and happy that somebody else got it and it was somebody like me who understood. We had been following each other long enough that I felt comfortable dropping into your mentions and thanking you for writing it. I also felt comfortable enough that at that time I could disclose to you that I was trans. This movie is for more than one reason why we are doing this series and the book, it was, and forgive me for speaking for both of us, what connected us beyond just being people similar interests in film. It was much deeper than that.

WM:  I remember when you came out to me shortly after I published the piece. We had already become fast friends over on the more LGBT version of film twitter (by far the best version of film twitter), but after you came out to me we had a deeper understanding of one another. You were one of the first trans guys I was ever friends with, and I was rooting for you to get to a point where you could disclose and transition from afar. I’m proud of you for getting there Caden. Let’s dive into the content of the film. 

WM cont: The very first sequences in the movie are set in this blindingly white room with this feminine figure (Johannson) undressing another woman and taking her identity. The camera holds on this girl for a bit and you can visibly see her crying and if you look at the alien in contrast she’s devoid of reaction. Putting on these clothes and leaving this woman stranded in this white place is of no concern to her. It separates her from the human, but I also think there’s something interesting going on in this first scene where she’s learning external gender immediately through clothing and look. Shortly after that scene the alien goes to a mall and buys makeup, boots, a fur lined coat and a basic pink top. These are not the same clothes worn by the girl so she’s already cultivating a “style”. This is not dissimilar from early out trans women going to a dead end thrift store and trying to find themselves on the discount rack, but this film is deeper than merely presenting gender as something constructed (though that does have a part in everything) it’s also something felt. Scattered throughout this sequence in the mall, there’s a montage of women applying makeup and talking with one another, and because we see everything through the alien’s point of view we are supposed to interpret these images and these women through her eyes, and there’s something lost in these images. She’s fundamentally at odds with these normal women, and she knows she’s different. The film brilliantly drives this home with a cut to the alien applying her makeup in the van. She bought everything and got out. She didn’t linger. She retreated into a solitary action. Her femininity is internal and external but stripped of communion, because she’s afraid of being seen as something she’s not. This works on both a transgender spectrum and Glazer’s intended effect of alienation from humans. I love it and that’s only the tip of the iceberg and the first instance of something on a transgender spectrum happening in the film.

 CG: The mall scene is so important in Under The Skin. What I find fascinating, as the most stylish aspects of the film have become so iconic and been directly lifted by other works (Stranger Things among the most notable and frankly the closest to being plagiarism) is the film itself balances that style and science fiction other worldliness with a very cinema verite, documentary style in the film as observation of alien versus human behavior. The point of view can often shift between Glazer looking at the Alien but also capture her own point of view and observances, that do become a little interchangeable. She serves as our prism throughout the film. When she looks around the mall and browses as she sees all of these women as consumers, she is cultivating a style, not just simply ‘passing’, and keying in on visual detail, but finding an image that suits her. An image that coincides with her role as a siren-like figure of desire. There is also the way she talks. One of the first sounds we hear from Johansson’s character is her enunciating, teaching herself to speak in this one language to fit into her surroundings. Johansson, an American, gives her an Alien a posh British accent. She was in Scotland. Now you can say, that is simply a lot more possible for Johansson to do as an actress than a Scottish one, but it feels like a choice that the Alien chose because she liked it. And it is an alluring one, an exotic one but not too exotic, something that can draw the men as a means of seduction. 

I do think about how often the voice, when we transition, is among the first and most crucial tools to pass. For me, being on T meant my voice went down decibels, plural, and even I had to catch up to that. It helped me pass and studying my own voice, something that even before I transitioned I always pitched at a lower key, had me do the enunciating, vocal exercises not dissimilar to ScarJo’s alien. But to return to her voice and how it plays into her initial primary function in the movie, the film starts at predator and prey. It is quite fascinating how the gaze works, as it starts as something subversive and ends with what we normally find to be the cruel reality. That montage of the Alien looking at the men she passes around town is fascinating. It’s detached yet it has a purpose of somebody scanning and searching to find ‘the right one’, in the Alien’s case, a man to collect. She is in a van, she has the power, so often we hear those horror stories of evil men in vans, but it is a posh woman in fur driving around town looking for a place to go while offering men a ride. I would say ScarJo’s Alien is not all-knowing in the gender dynamics or of the world she sees, we often see her picking up things afterward and feeling the impact and ramifications of her actions (I am talking about that infamous baby by the beach scene), but she knows how to do her job. She flirts with these men, asking non-probing, simple questions to reel them in. I have to think she observed women doing this to men and in settings where the power was not as imbalanced as it was favorably to her in the van, but again, she is taking cues and cultivating a modus operandi that also reveals itself to be very much the human identity of her own than a cold function.

WM:  Your comments about the opening sequencing where she is training her voice for Glasgow are fascinating in the context of transness, because you’re absolutely right about our voice being one of the first things we make ours or try to shift into something closer to what we want. I had the good fortune of my voice never dropping during puberty so my voice has always been in a higher octave, but finding a tone and lilt that felt comfortable to me took time. I’ll also openly admit during times of my worst gender dysphoria I’d often to go to fast food joints and order something so I could get gendered correctly because the person hearing my voice assumed I was a cisgender woman. I got mercilessly mocked because of my voice growing up, but it’s been a blessing later in life.  I haven’t had to do much work, but I can remember training it even as a child and trying to speak like a woman in an old Hollywood movie in front of a mirror with my hair up in a towel. I wanted to be Lauren Bacall. Ironically, my voice never ended up as deep as hers. 

Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944)

WM Cont: I think there’s a lot of interesting material regarding her predatory instincts as it pertains to this plot in relation to the gender dynamics. That’s essentially the linear, direct narrative of the movie, but it’s also something significant in the lives of trans people, especially trans women. I learned very quickly how my presence was now more vulnerable after I started presenting and taking hormones, but it was totally an issue of trial and error. I knew it was more dangerous to be out alone or at night by myself, but I didn’t learn that firsthand until a guy followed me to a grocery store trying to get in my pants in the entire time. This has been a more frequent occurrence for me now. The essential point I’m trying to make here is that so much of gender is societal, and learned. That’s not a new idea, but with transness it’s important to state these things from our perspective, because when we do talk about things like sexual assault, cat-calling or male predatory behaviour we’re often left out in the cold. Not part of the discussion and it’s essential we should be. I’ve had to learn survival techniques hat I didn’t have to worry about previously before I came out. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true. Under the Skin is one of the more honest films about not only transness, but gender in the public space for this reason. 

When the Alien picks up these men she kills them, but with every new man she ensnares in her dark place she becomes more sympathetic to humans and unsure of what she’s doing. Like when she gets blood on her hands after pricking herself on a rose, or more severely the screaming child and the primal need to protect those you love at the beach. But there’s one man in particular I find interesting. He’s played by the wonderful Adam Pearson, and has a facial disorder that causes him to grow tumors. He’s the first man she spares and the first man she connects to, because she can see that he’s different too. He’s like her. I know you want to talk about this character in particular, so I’ll give you the floor with him. I think their moment in the van is one of the only touching moments in the movie.

 CG: We see the Alien become aware of how gendered the dynamics of our world are for her and how her position of power is quite exceptional. She takes in the random cat-call from a car that speeds away, a group of blokes become cavemen-like in harassing her by jumping on her van, and most interestingly she is taken away, by the momentum of these group of women who mistake her for another woman to join them for a party. She immediately becomes ‘one of the girls’ to them. For the Alien things start to click and she is no longer seeing people simply as these figures to take away from but be part of. There is that gorgeous montage of these overlapping shots of woman after woman that Alien sees that than takes on a golden like glow. Glazer inserts a close-up of ScarJo’s Alien that becomes a golden orb. It is really the moment for her when she has embraced womanhood in a way that takes over her narrative and trajectory of the film. 

But something else happens, and you mentioned it. It is when she stops becoming the predator. She sees a man, credited as the Deformed Man, played by Adam Pearson, a non-actor who has a condition where he has tumors all over his face. I remember Jonathan Glazer, looking exhausted when taking in questions at TIFF. When introducing the film, he implored audiences to look at ScarJo as a prism, as that seemed something not quite understood at earlier screenings),  It was agonizing to sit through, like all Q&As, but what I remember was a questioner asking about Adam Pearson’s character, thinking it was CGI or makeup that gave the character that appearance. Glazer answered brusquely that Adam Pearson, like all of the male passengers in the film, were real people, Pearson had a condition and those were not prosthetics. I remember some gasps and a bit of a hush from certain people I was sitting around. Perhaps because it fits so perfectly in the film to have her connect with one of society’s ‘monsters’ and be sympathetic towards him, set him free, and change her ways. What the scene immediately calls to mind is James Whales’ The Bride of Frankenstein with the Monster and the blind man, where judgment and fear is removed for once in this Monster’s reanimated existence. It is not a clean comparison, as both the Deformed Man and the Alien share attributes of both of those figures. The Alien as the outsider like the Monster but also a type of blind justice who is open to a stranger like the blind man, while Deformed Man is an outcast, like the Monster, but has the loneliness, and yearning for connection like the blind man. It’s a classic horror scene with the misunderstood “monster” making an appearance and changing the way our lead character sees the world and society.
 

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

  CG cont: But Glazer does not make the scene go down that smoothly, as nothing we have seen before can make us think it is going to be pat. He makes sure Mica Levi’s score plays up the tension by repeating the theme of previous doomed men before him. The audience is made to wonder if the Alien can even fully distinguish why Pearson feels like such an outcast and if the Alien and the enigmatic motorist would be prejudiced or finicky about the which bodies they harvest. Is the flirtation genuine? I think it is. Her Alien does not know, she does not harbor anything he has felt, seen, or heard so many times before, and she wants to know about why Pearson’s Deformed Man walks alone at night. ‘People light me up!’ he says. She asks, ‘Why?’ ‘They’re ignorant’ he curtly responds. He is given a space to be able to tell his story and struggles. I think about how often I have to negotiate in my head the time and places I can even go to do what I want without feeling like I am under a gaze, a target for harassment and other unpleasantness. Pearson is gazed upon with what we have to assume is pity, curiosity, ignorance, and malice. He has to be under the cover of night to do basic functions like going to the store, because he hates being in the gaze that often feel like being in the crosshairs. His condition while not the same does bring to mind John Merrick’s The Elephant Man and the David Lynch film of the same name with that great John Hurt performance. Critic Serge Daney described that film as unique in that, “… it is the monster who is afraid.” Indeed that character is looked upon in a way where he will always be misunderstood and salvation, in finding understanding and also love, remains elusive. Lynch supposes that Merrick’s salvation is found in reconnecting with the spirit of his mother, goodness and love in the afterlife. In a way, Pearson’s character, briefly (as even when she spares him, he does get taken away by the motorist), finds that salvation and bliss. The alien makes sure she can put him in a trance so he can get away, and that is more attentive than how she treated all of the other men. The meeting gives her a switch, as though she grew moral fiber in that interaction. It completely changes the course of the film.

The Elephant Man (1980)

 WM: You bring up gaze and how characters can feel the oppression of gawkers everywhere. People who don’t have the common decency to look away and leave the other person alone. We’ve brought up the cisgender gaze before as something we can recognize in our own lives, but more frequently in that being the lens in which most movies about transgender people are made. I do think that there’s a parallel situation that goes on when considering films about transgender people and films about disfigurement, and we’ve seen that cycle slowly evolve through cinema during the history of transgender characters. We started as freaks, something to shock, a carnivalesque sideshow, a grotesquerie. That same gaze has now evolved into a state of pity with more recent films like A Fantastic Woman. We’ve yet to get to a point of empathy, understanding or independence and I’m unsure when/if that will happen.  

The film does change course after the scene we discussed above. Right before she frees the man she connected to she stops in a mirror and examines her own face and I’ve always been struck by that moment. Mirrors in some way shape or form have to play a role in films about transness because we gaze at ourselves in hopes of understanding our bodies or we avoid the gaze entirely so that we don’t disrupt an internal image of self. In that specific moment she stops and Glazer holds the camera before pushing in slightly and she’s taken aback. It’s left vague as to why, but I think in a literal sense it’s a mixture of guilt and sympathy for having sent this man, who she felt close towards to that place, while also finally realizing she too possessed a body and it wasn’t a normal one. So it’s both sympathetic of the man and a moment where she internalizes her own differences as something resembling self-hatred.

WM: 

The film becomes completely obsessed with mirrors after that moment and the alien returns to gaze at her own body again and again, sometimes in approval and other times in disgust, and I’ll get to these moments later, but right now. I just want to talk about how the second half of the film is where some latent transness is emphasized by the narrative trajectory and structuring of science fiction and gender. I tweeted not long ago that to find the best films about transness it’s better to look towards science fiction and specifically movies about aliens, robots and synthetic beings than to investigate actual films about transgender characters. The argument is essentially that these films ask questions about what it’s like to be in a body, which should be the root problem of any film about transness, because the body is everything. These films are internal examinations of understanding human identities through our construction of things like gender, societal norms and disabilities, and they get at central issues rather than external problems. The internal is everything is transgender cinema and the second half of Under the Skin is essentially about one woman’s reckoning with her own body’s limitations and her internal struggles to come to grips with these things. That’s why it initially moved me as a trans woman and why it still floors me to this day.

The other significant piece I’ve written on transness as a genre of synthetic bodies is on Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell. Ironically, Scarlett Johansson’s plays the lead in the lesser American remake. There isn’t such a colossal connection to transness as there is with Under the Skin present in that movie, but there’s certainly signifiers where characters construct bodies ,and thus identities, through technological advancements. You can erase or become anything you want to be. It’s a post-humanist idea, but directly in tune with our connections to bodies as something we desire to control rather than be imprisoned within. Hormone replacement therapy and plastic surgery are advancements that would have seemed absurd to consider even one hundred years ago, but here we are, and it is not too foolish to think science could push us even further into bodily modification and cinema, as a result has to consider these things beyond just science fiction. By tapping into science fiction’s probing philosophy on human bodies, gender and robotics it can be a gateway toward a more physical transgender cinema. Under the Skin is very likely the best film ever made about this specific topic.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

 CG:  I have long connected to science fiction and body horror because the disconnect with having a human body, feeling like there has been a mistake and an entrapment, and just the disgust that all entails, seemed only present in those films. Even more so than films that I had seen with trans subjects. It is interesting how those works can feel in conversation with contemporary realities be it when there was an AIDS crisis in the 1980s or transgender bodies through the decades. There is this progress but not without misunderstanding. That completely bullshit opinion that pops up among cisgender people that being trans is simply exterior presentation when it is so much beyond surface. It is reconciling your interior feelings and psychological with the help of modern medicine and science. Under The Skin is brilliant in the unique depiction of an Alien who came to Earth and rebelled from her original purpose to become a body in our world, her psychology and mind followed, and developed as she saw the world around her. It takes a mind and a body, they are intertwined and often at war with each other, but then there can be peace found when there is a realization of who we really are.

In the second half she really begins to grapple with her own gender. She examines her full naked body in the mirror, she wants to experience pleasure, and she takes off her furs in a hot pink dress. As noted, the film becomes about how she is seen and her awareness in suddenly being seen after so often feeling like an outsider looking in at the world and playing a role. She then transcends her role to become a person in this world, but Under The Skin presents a lot about the futility of the human instinct (it often goes poorly!) and the cruelty of humanity that can swallow the lightness and kindness that being human affords. The Alien sticks out as a beautiful woman under-dressed in the cold weather that gets patronizing attention from men and also becomes an object of desire. It becomes very animalistic, a film of a black room and a van returns back to heart of nature in a forest for the Alien to meet her end, after becoming the prey from rebuking a man’s sexual advances. That ending knocked me out. I was silent and absolutely needed that Glazer Q&A to recover.

It is not just that I saw a character played by a beautiful actress get destroyed and literally skinned. I saw that character achieve a kind of self-discovery and was on a journey cut short. And perhaps that conclusion can tie up why it felt so close to our community. The feeling that these discoveries of transness and living your truest life do not reach to full realization because of external forces, society and a patriarchal structure that asserts a lot of ignorance about who we are, can cut us down in different ways both as systems and as individuals. We can have full control of our body and have so much self-love of our expression, but there is this lingering threat that permeates our existence. We can become a statistic at any point. The ending hits me in that way because the Alien, despite seeing the growing gender differences that surround her and being part of it, just discovers this too late. It’s something of a dramatic irony. I feel like women in the audience knew but so do trans people, both men and women, at the fact that even if there is a sense of bliss, it can be short-term. An anvil will drop.

WM:

You mention the mirror scene very briefly above and I think that moment coupled with a sex scene directly afterward are immensely important to the narrative argument I make for a transgender allegory. Previously, almost everything in this movie is overcast, drained of colour and stricken with a lack of vibrancy. Maybe that’s inherent to Glasgow, as much of Lynne Ramsay’s films look the same. This is probably why so many compared it to her work, but that lack of colour is contrasted by this one scene where the alien stands in front of a mirror observing her body. She observes her soft curves, the natural curve her back makes and the supple warmth of her skin. This scene is lit through a space heater and it makes the room pop with this creamy golden red colour. It’s so startlingly different from the colours previously in the movie that it emphasizes the importance of this scene. Mica Levi’s score swells for the first time too instead of piercing the viewer. All in all this is a warm moment. At this point in the film she accepts her body. She embraces her womanhood and becomes herself. What I love about this scene is that it’s immediately followed by a reminder that her body isn’t capable of giving her that peace of mind due to a failed sexual encounter with a man (Dave Acton) she’s been staying with recently. During this sex scene he tries to penetrate her, but something is wrong. We’re not given much context here whether her vagina rejects the penis, like her body rejected the cake, or if her genitals were merely for show rather than function. She takes this lamp and peers down between her legs and when she raises her head back up she has a look of grief on her face. That look of grief has stuck with me in a major way ever since first viewing the movie. Her body will not allow her to do what she wants it to do, and furthermore she’s locked out of a sexual encounter that she wanted to experience. She can’t have pleasure. She can’t have kids. None of this is possible.

I know exactly what this feels like. The warmth in her face beforehand scrubbed clean of anything but a hollow realization that she isn’t who she thinks she is ruins me in a way I’m all too familiar with. Being a pre-operative transgender woman means that my body is complicated and stuck in a mode I’m uncomfortable with 24/7. The mental and psychological toll of having genitals you reject entirely is mammoth. If I’m not tucked 24/7 my dysphoria is unbearable to the point where doing anything other than lying in bed is impossible. Sex is tricky, and something I have to navigate with total mental control lest I fall down into my own personal hell. I desperately want the right genitals. I want nothing more in my life. The fact that I have to wait at least another year is psychologically damaging and on worse days devastating to my own personal well being. The fact that Under the Skin is the only movie I’ve ever seen that has justly replicated this feeling is something I hold onto when things become overwhelming. I don’t take that lightly. After this scene she retreats into herself, removing herself from the outside world and hibernating in a forest so she can be alone. She lies down and turns herself off, because there’s nothing else to do. To me, this is gender dysphoria.


CG:  In Lynne Ramsay’s films she has characters in her worlds on the periphery looking out serving as prisms for the audience, but these characters are themselves black sheep. Something has happened to them, be it a trauma that has changed the course of their life, carrying the weight of withholding information that they cannot really articulate out to the world, or feeling at loss with what is normal, unable to reconnect despite wanting to return because their differences disturbed their flow of life. Her critics may say her films are just ciphers, given she often adapts books, that is an incredible easy criticism, but I think that is a mistake (just like I think critics of Under The Skin made similar mistakes with simply not exploring what else there is to the Alien than deliberate blankness that changes halfway through the film). Ramsay presents her protagonists as alien, which is why I get beyond the setting in Scotland there were immediate comparisons drawn with Glazer’s very liberal treatment Michel Faber’s novel (I did read the novel, it is quite different, more a work of action than a mood as there are literal explosives at the center of the book’s plot). Under The Skin’s Alien is a character who we know to be different from the very start; she wants to become part of the world, but the differences, that the audiences immediately see and can assume what makes her different are felt in these very dramatic ways by her because she is denied pleasure by her alien body.

I remember that sex scene not happening with my audience. There were some chuckles. Not because the scene lent itself to comedy but along with the cake scene, her limitations and differences take on a visceral effect in rejecting. It is quite disruptive for that character and for the audience. Her Alien is still, observant, and also performing in a rhythmic, routine way for much of the course of the film and wants those changes. The audience’s viewing experience also changes because her rhythms as a character were our viewing rhythms. So for the viewer to see this makes those scenes have their own oft-center quality because suddenly we see this character have these swift recognition’s of her differences from humans that I am not sure she had anticipated or had full knowledge of as she experienced them. It is quite devastating in that way.

But you, myself, and other transgender people know of those differences as far as our sex and pleasure being quite different than cisgender people’s pleasure, even as our images of pleasure are still very much dominated by the cis heteronormative imagery of love, sex, and relationships. Being rejected can have a loaded effect on me, as I can only speak for myself in this case, where I am left wondering were I a cisgender man would this have happened.That can put me in a state of dysphoria in feeling at a disadvantage and having what I desire feel out of reach due to those differences. This is not to say I nor other trans man cannot and do not experience pleasure in our own ways, because we absolutely do, but it can feel elusive in finding the people who do see you and your body as desirable. I also am counting my clock to get the corrective surgeries that I can get but also am weighing what is medically possible for me. It can be exhausting and to quote our previous film Come Back To The 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, ‘time is such a nebulous state to wait for’.

WM: Time does a number on you when you’re a trans person. We’ve mentioned this briefly before, but it’s complicated to come into a realization and finally attempt to fix yourself twenty, thirty, forty years into your life, and not feel like you’ve lost those years in a fog of dysphoria, disassociation and bankruptcy. Even when you do come to that realization it can take many more years before hormone replacement therapy has done its job and you’ve gone through the major setbacks of correcting government identification or waiting patiently for wait lists on things like corrective surgeries. It’s all a lot to take in especially considering you’re not guaranteed anything in life. It’s one reason why I’m considering bypassing the wait list altogether and starting a gofundme for sex reassignment surgery, because I’m at a point where I’m done waiting. I’m almost twenty seven years old and I want to say I lived the majority of my life with the body I should have always had. I don’t think cisgender people actually fully consider how difficult living like that must be. It’s a hell, even when you’re doing as best as you can. If they could truly comprehend the nightmare it is to be in a body that’s fundamentally at odds with your mental state we would have far less barriers and more medical options. These surgeries wouldn’t be called “cosmetic”, but rather “life-saving”. It takes a toll on us.


It’s one reason why I reject this notion that films about transgender people or films working in an allegorical sense about trans people need to be respectable, nice and politically correct in all facets of our day to day lives. That would ignore the fact that we’re all pretty fucked up by the circumstances of our own lives. None of us get out of this unscathed or without baggage. That’s got to be present. Not all art about transgender people has to be severe, but it has to be part of the equation, because we don’t lead easy lives. It’s one reason why I react strongly to films like Under the Skin, because she doesn’t get a happy ending. She’s burned alive, because a man can’t deal with who she is, and that has fucking happened to transgender women before. Watching our rights slowly get stripped away by a federal government in the States doesn’t feel awesome either. If I’m living my day to day life hearing Trump appointed a guy who may take away an easier way to self identify on something like passports then I’m not going to want to dance when I get home that day. I process tragedy, small and large, through nightmare imagery. I can’t physically bring myself to engage with feel good art when I feel bad, and when you’re transgender more often than not bad vibes will pop up. I need the darkness so I can navigate my own complicated feelings and mental health in a healthy way that isn’t destructive. I cannot watch a film about transness and see a perfect life, because I know it’s bullshit. You can call me a self-hating transgender person, but I think we all are to some degree. It’d be impossible not to be given the society we live in. It’d be so much easier if we weren’t different, and that’s why I think I like movies about people who are monsters, because I am one too.

Additional Reading
An Interview with Adam Pearson 

This Is What It’s Like to get Picked Up by Scarlett Johansson