Body Talk: Conversaions on Transgender Cinema with Caden Gardner: Part Eight

Body Talk is an ongoing series of transcribed conversations on Transgender Cinema as the two of us prepare to write a book on the subject. This installment of Body Talk is on the trap narrative in genre cinema.

Willow Maclay: If I were ever in a situation where I had to start dating again I would fear for my life, because I’m perceived as a cisgender woman by society at large, but I am not one. I’m an actual living late plot twist, and if someone wanted to murder me for this reason they likely wouldn’t face jail time. I would have it coming, because I was a liar. I was scary. I pushed him too far by saying I was something that, let’s be real, no one considers you are, unless you’ve had surgery, and I haven’t had surgery. That’s still some time away, and it could always be pushed back again, so I live as a late act twist that never had to be revealed, because I’ve been fortunate enough to fall in love with a man who loved me for me, and wasn’t threatened by the inbetween-ness of my genitals.

This is not the case for most people. I am not the majority, and I am lucky.

In a larger cultural sense it all started with Psycho (1960). It was the late act reveal that a character wasn’t who they were supposed to be, and it was the demonic femininity of men in dresses and lace that became the lasting image. Yes, she was stabbed in the shower and the music pierced us all, but the killer behind the blade was a man who thought he was a woman, and genre filmmaking have been milking this for all its worth ever since.

This doesn’t happen in real life, but the closest image we have to the manic tranny with a blade between her legs is that of actual transgender women. We are the broken and the damned and worse than that, we might just be psychotic. We might just kill you. There are more instances of trans woman appearing as murderers in movies than there are good films featuring actual trans women in meaty, acceptable, dense roles that approach their humanity with something resembling respect for the difficulty it takes to be trans. The murderer has persisted. We haven’t.

In this segment of Body Talk we’re going to be discussing that plot device. Caden, when did you first see a movie that used this narrative trope?

Caden Gardner: We’ve talked about this in the previous installment of Body Talk that primarily dealt with cis actors in trans roles. That conversation also spilled over into cheap third act reveals of characters who, ‘Are not what they appear to be’. Some of that ranged from The Crying Game to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. These characters are not murderers, but unstable and in the latter’s case a villain, with the comedic effect of the reveal played for gross-out laughs and showing how normalized the trope had become. I remember the ongoing gag in the Austin Powers series of removing a wig from a character who appeared to be a woman with Austin exclaiming, ‘It’s a man, baby!’ So I saw the jokes first, how situationally, the panic and anxiety was normalized by the status quo and how the ugly stereotypes within those fears became the punchline. Then I got into the fear and panic at the heart of earlier films than those comedies.

Now I had seen Psycho but I always found Norman Bates an incredibly sympathetic, tic-filled, ball of anxiety. Anthony Perkins gave Norman depth, layers, and even humanity, where you can retroactively, after the twist, realize how at war he is with himself. Hitchcock allowed you to root for him when he was covering up Marion Crane’s murder by sinking the car. I had seen Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake which sexualized Norman’s voyeurism. Van Sant opted for a shot for shot remake so the contemporary knowledge of this twist informs everything Norman does, and after so many Psycho knock-offs where transness is at the forefront and tied explicitly to the twist it becomes an entirely different experience, and not a better one. To move away from Psycho, slightly, one such example of this trope that I came to know very early in my life was Robert Hiltzik’s 1983 slasher Sleepaway Camp.

I’d like you to get into that, but before I do, Willow, as I think you eloquently stated your position on that film and twist in Cleo a few years back.

WM: I similarly don’t have many problems with Psycho, even if I think the last ten minutes is an unnecessary and ultimately clumsy act of explanation. What separates Psycho from many of the films we are going to be discussing in this installment of Body Talk is that it is not fundamentally hinged upon the twist ending. There’s a lot going on in Psycho and cinephiles, at least, remember much much more than Norman’s cross-dressing and murdering. The craft in that movie is maybe the zenith of Alfred Hitchcock’s career. If one wants to argue that Hitchcock was a master of control then Psycho is the last movie where that is easily apparent. I find his period after Psycho fascinating, because he loses grip of his movies, but that’s another conversation. Psycho is a totem for a reason and I love it, even if it unintentionally spawned many poorer copy-cat films.

One of these is Sleepaway Camp , which you brought up. I’ve seen that movie a half-dozen times for one reason or another. The only movie I outright hate that holds that distinction. I wrote about it for Cleo Journal, but the gist of my problem with Sleepaway Camp is that it intentionally makes the reveal horrific and the movie only works as a late act plot twist. Everything beforehand is slop to say the least. If it weren’t for the fact that these filmmakers wanted to show a girl with a dick the movie wouldn’t be remembered. One could argue that final scene is useful in pointing out how cisgender people view transgender bodies. I don’t think that’s a bad idea, but I think it’s a cynical one, that doesn’t carry as much weight when placed against the brunt of that characters struggles to deal with her own body. Angela isn’t trans, but her body is how cis people perceive transgender bodies and the co-signing this film has for the horror of the onlookers is damning. It’s a horrifying image to have Angela slack jawed, completely nude, caught in mid-scream, heaving like a demon. It is even worse that those onlookers react with total disgust of her body. They don’t find her murders horrific, but she has a dick? That’s the scariest shit ever. There’s no covering that up and reclaiming the image. It’s the only image people talk about with Sleepaway Camp, because the movie is otherwise shit. It’s canonized, because of that image. An image that doesn’t have the cultural staying power of Buffalo Bill tucking in his genitals, but it is nevertheless synonymous with the phrase “chick with a dick”. Being one myself, I can tell you, it’s not all that tantalizing. It’s boring, mentally arduous on a personal level, and tucked away all of the time, but that doesn’t sell. Flaccid never does.

CG:  Sleepaway Camp makes Angela (Felissa Rose) a timid creature (and I do mean creature, the film is too trashy and low-brow for any humanity in anybody, but especially her) that then becomes a dehumanized monster by the end. It dates back to her crazy aunt that the audience gets doses of through flashback. Angela is forced-femmed (for lack of a better word) by that aunt, her history rooted in a trauma to a horrific accident that claims members of her family, that includes her sister, the real Angela, that is shown in the flashback that begins the film. So Angela is living as a woman and being socialized as a young feminine girl. This was not her choice or inherently innate to her. She never outright states that she saw herself as a woman. I recall that people treat Sleepaway Camp’s twist as a surprise but the film does leave clues that honestly have the subtleties of anvils. Angela is confronted by girl bullies for her timidity, sniffing her out like she has something to hide from the get-go. She doesn’t go swimming, she doesn’t take her clothes off, and she does not shower in the presence of others. As if saying to the audience “What’s up with that?” and these bullies will not quit trying to figure her out. What is disturbing about this film for me is that it emboldens the suspicions of those wretched characters by having that twist with Angela exist. The film, unintentionally, almost predicts gender gatekeepers who want to harass any ‘not normal-looking’ person who goes to their preferred bathroom or dressing room of fucking Target in Anytown, USA that can then extend into law with not so enforceable anti-trans bathroom bills and ordinances in those areas of the country. I think there could have been many films where the version would be to humanize Angela, or give her depth, a sense of who she is or how she relates to her body in being socialized female when she has this whole history about her. But she lives by the twist and dies by the twist in that image that is haunting not for the body count she leaves, but in how the film can treat that character type, thinly drawn mind you, with such animosity and inhumanity.

People can be quick to dismiss any concerns about this film as, ‘It’s only a movie’ or ‘It’s just a cheap slasher’, but for me we have gone through a lot of genre films that explore the body and gender in fascinating ways and also see how even when seeing real monsters like Jame Gumb in The Silence of The Lambs, that there can be moments of humanity in seeing pain and confusion and not just a cheap twist, thrills, and kills.

WM: As a diehard fan of the genre I’m typically more forgiving of horror films for being uncaring, but I think Sleepaway Camp is merciless in a way that isn’t fun to watch at all. I’ve heard better things about the sequels, in that, they have a sense of humour about the subject matter, but I haven’t watched any of them to date. I know Laura Jane Grace (Against Me!) is a big fan of Sleepaway Camp, but I don’t see the value in reclaiming it unless you take up an entire fuck the world attitude, which I wouldn’t begrudge any trans person for having, but that isn’t me. Moreso than being offended, I find the entire affair just catastrophically boring, even for the relatively conservative structure behind slasher films. My main issue with Sleepaway Camp, beyond the obvious, is that if they were going to go with that ending why not lean all the way into it and make it so completely offensive all the way through, negating the twist, and basking in the glow of being a fucked up movie instead of half-assing it by sweeping the big reveal under the rug? It’s just annoying, and it’s not the only movie of this type to exist. In a larger cultural sense though, it’s probably the most famous example in the horror genre of this trope outside of Psycho. Sleepaway Camp definitely has more cultural staying power than something like Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, which annoys me all the more, because at least Dressed to Kill has the common decency to be well made. De Palma, as much as he annoys me sometimes, was never asleep behind the wheel. He always directed something 100%, but Sleepaway Camp? It’s barely a movie, but in the horror community it has been canonized. Their opinion being that It’s worth getting through the slog, because you’ll get to the girl with the dick. The only image in the movie.

CG: The early 1980s Slashers, basically Friday The 13th (speaking of a Psycho rehash) and after, had a habit of being in conversation with the genre by responding to one movie’s ridiculousness- be it kills or twists- and outdoing it. Resulting horror films were in conversation with Friday the 13th , because it was a huge success, and even Friday the 13th itself was in conversation with Psycho and Halloween (1978). They took the twists and the formula and embellished it in their own mold, but the results, were as you state, half-baked and cheap. I probably do read like a moralist, I actually do love a lot of the horror films from that era, even some that are well, not exactly expertly made cinema and have a nihilist streak about humanity, but I find the canonization of that film to be a mistake in taste. I am sure some of the appeal is the sleaziness and trash, the lowbrow of it all that horror nerds can embrace in ways cineastes and more mainstream audiences do not.

This brings up Brian De Palma. His cinema is sleazy and trashy, but well-done in a way where his commanding scope and playfulness in artifice gave him a lot of respectability (his fans ranged from Pauline Kael to Quentin Tarantino) and currency that still endures today with a lot of cinephiles and film critics in our age-group. He recently had a birthday which on social media seems to give an opportunity for cinephiles that I follow to rank his films. Unsurprisingly, even if I am left quite disappointed, Dressed To Kill seemed to come up frequently as a favorite of people who profess their love of De Palma. I always have an impulse whenever I see it come up in conversation to explore why people like it and reconcile that with the fact that it is definitively a transphobic film.

To be clear, I do not want to #CancelBrianDePalma or act like there’s a moral failing on the part of these people, some of whom I do consider good friends, for liking the movie or finding something to like in the film. I have curiously heard people who have written books that feature Dressed To Kill, state that it is not about transness but goodness. But I bring you this: from the maestro himself who was informed entirely about the film’s transwoman killer from real-life trans woman Nancy Hunt whose story from Phil Donahue he places into the narrative of his film. It is an unsubtle wink and clue of the twist that still angers me upon reflection.

WM: I’ll start by being very upfront that Brian De Palma and I have a complicated relationship as filmmaker and viewer. I adore some of his films and consider them to be all time favourites, like Carrie, which we’ve both praised, and Blow-Out, which is without a doubt one of the best films of the 1980s. My issues with De Palma, and these issues are only mine, is that I’m annoyed by his treatment of women. I get frustrated that, without fail, especially in this period, they seem to be killed in exceedingly gruesome ways after their sexual usefulness has been wrung dry. De Palma’s a very horny director, which is fine, but I don’t get a huge thrill out of watching him have an obvious hard-on for the women in his movies. Does this make me a prude? Probably. Does it make me a hypocrite, because I love Dario Argento, who does basically the same things? Also probably. We’re made of contradictions. I’m allowed to have mine, but with Dressed to Kill it is a different issue entirely, and that’s one where I think he runs into this gigantic problem of mixing the absurdity of the late act plot twist in Psycho with real life problems transgender people have. Psycho is not a relatable target in any estimation, but Dressed to Kill certainly is for two reasons. First the inclusion of Nancy Hunt and also due to the discussion of sex reassignment surgery which is a mirroring scene explaining transness, poorly I might add, that is an homage to Psycho’s transvestite explanation. Norman was never a transvestite in Psycho, but Robert Elliott is canonically transgender and De Palma uses that as a crutch for his worst tendencies as a director towards things like castration anxiety, the femme fatale and domination.

The problem is that all of these autuerist tics are only noticeable in the form if you’ve seen half a dozen Brian De Palma movies, but if you’re coming to Dressed to Kill as a new viewer it just looks like a blanket “psycho tranny killed women because she couldn’t be one herself” story. I’m not saying movies have to reflect reality and every movie about a trans character has to be nice. Far from it; what I am saying is that it becomes a problem when something that works on an individual level becomes a pattern, and the murderous tranny is definitely a pattern. I have much less problems with these movies compared to the issues I have with the trope. I think Dressed to Kill, in particular, is a really well made film, but when you’ve seen this story more than a dozen times it becomes boring, and it doesn’t really do transgender people any favours in real life that our entire cinematic language hinges on a late act twist.

Did I ever tell you the story of when I came out for the first time on a film forum back in 2011? Well, one person commented, and I’m still friends with this person, “what a twist!”. If that isn’t transness at the intersection of movies I don’t know what is, and the shame of it all is that we could be a lot more if given additional narrative space.

CG:  You never told me about that! I felt similarly that when I came out online- and I admit to being pretty guarded about my online anonymity for a very long time- that there were days of reverberations where some responses were akin to it being a twist ending. Not all gave this commentary of ‘I didn’t have a clue’ or ‘I didn’t see that coming’, but many did see it as a narrative of sorts, as though I had planted and stunted this as a plot thread when in actuality, I was in a very bad place mentally. I felt helpless and it felt was necessary that I come out because it was an election year and one side was absolutely more hostile and transphobic than the other (hint: it wasn’t the Democrats). I have mixed feelings about how I went about it- but that was mostly because I was also in an alcoholic fog and my nerves and mode of behaviors operated differently then as opposed to now, which hey, now I actually am open, out, and have a lot more control because I am transitioning and not trapped in hostility, shame, and the closet.

Now back to Dressed To Kill, I looked back on the way the film was seen then and now, constantly feeling disappointed that nobody who seems to want to champion the film can really ever confront ‘the twist’. It can often just be mentioned in a sentence, admitting to trans woman serial killer as ‘cartoonishly stigmatizing’ as The New Republic did a few years back but at the same time declare that critics should surrender their prudish sides and embrace DePalma’s ‘pure cinema’. Or you can talk around it, in the name of spoilers I suppose, and just use catch-all phrases as ‘sleazy’ or ‘bizarre’ in the twists the film has. Some do not so much dismiss the transphobia but label it as pulp treatment of something real. Then you have a little more problematic readings, some of which I think unconsciously white-wash the transphobia of the maker, by labeling Robert Elliott/Bobbi as schizophrenic and pretending that was DePalma’s intention when he admits he crafted and was inspired by trans women and then linking it to Jekyll & Hyde ‘two sides’ of a person who switches upon sexual stimulation. Now, of course DePalma’s knowledge of transness is off as he only sees the surface but he made a deliberate choice to insert Nancy Hunt’s own image in his movie. He uses clips but if you look up Nancy Hunt, you would also know that she similarly rejects trans as trauma and trans as pathology, viewing the mental health community as hostile towards trans people rather than helpful to her and many people in her position. Hunt lives forever in certain transgender archives but she is used ghoulishly in a film where the director laughs and chuckles like the Keith Gordon character about the idea of a trans woman.

Keith Phipps, to his credit, did confront the transphobia of the film when Dressed To Kill was released on the popular arthouse label The Criterion Collection. But he appears to be an anomaly to cinephiles and critics that probably do not really see the problem of the movie in the way that you and I do. As far as De Palma himself, it perhaps comes off like I hate him. I hate this film, although I find it revealing in ways that he may have not intended, even beyond the transphobia. But I like a lot of his work and quite a bit of it is built within his sense of cinematic language and artifice. However, as Kam Austin Collins succinctly put it in his Letterboxd log, you may love that Museum of Modern Art set-piece, the split diopters, and unreal quality of the moviemaking of fake outs upon fake outs but, “The transphobia is real”.

WM: I love Kam (read him at Vanity Fair). For my money he’s the best working film critic right now, and he’s absolutely right. Dressed to Kill does have an unreal quality of moviemaking that lays on top of this pretty vile center. Isn’t it frustrating that Brian De Palma may have more natural talent as a director than maybe anyone who has ever stepped behind the camera and he mostly uses it to worry about his dick? As far as just pure fucking cinema there are few directors with more skill or have made movies that are as luxurious to watch as De Palma. However, more often than not he almost always does something that creates distance in my ability to fully appreciate his works, and that’s most readily apparent in Dressed to Kill, which is a movie I championed before I came out, but afterwards was hesitant towards showering praise upon. I could more easily ignore the shitty political nature of the movie before I came out, because I was foolish enough to think that wasn’t me, but now I just find it annoying. I’m not even offended by its clumsy handling of gender politics, I just find it dull. Like, by the end it’s, “oh this is obviously a riff on Psycho. I don’t give a shit”. De Palma was like his dad, Alfred Hitchcock, in his ability to completely control all aspects of technical filmmaking, but De Palma’s career is without the same barriers Hitchcock had which negated some of Alfred’s worst tendencies toward women. As a stanch supporter of Marnie, I’d be wary of calling this a bad thing, but it certainly makes me wonder what Brian De Palma could have done in a system where some of his decisions were checked a little more often, because Dressed to Kill is almost embarrassingly a copycat of things better than that movie: Psycho, and giallo plotting. Even the films best scene: the elevator murder is lifted almost directly from the climax of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, even down to the outfit Bobbi is wearing.

CG: “Isn’t it frustrating that Brian De Palma may have more natural talent as a director than maybe anyone who has ever stepped behind the camera and he mostly uses it to worry about his dick?” That is a pretty inescapable route to take for even his admirers, as the Jake Paltrow-Noah Baumbach documentary on De Palma shows (and I would recommend watching in relation to some of his films and again, De Palma’s unconscious revelations and confessions about his own relationships to his work, other films, and his personal life). When Pauline Kael, notoriously anti-Hitchcock but pro-De Palma, gave a write-up on Dressed To Kill, she wrote that De Palma has a self-awareness that makes his films have a vein of humor due to how open De Palma is open about his id, “What makes it funny is that it’s permeated with the distilled essence of impure thoughts. De Palma has perfected a near-surreal poetic voyeurism—the stylized expression of a blissfully dirty mind,” believing that Dressed To Kill is a great example about the inherent voyeuristic nature of movies. And I get that appeal and how uninhibited De Palma is, but it is also why I find Dressed To Kill narrow. He was in therapy at the time, but seems to hate psychological readings of the sexual stimulation of a beautiful woman when aimed at himself or his characters.. And of course this male gaze has a certain preferred image of a woman. It is a cisgender woman, not women like Nancy Hunt as he clearly does not consider trans women to be women at all. The uninhibited nature of his work that exists in Body Double, such as the ‘Relax’ sequence, does feel more genuine and not as isolating as opposed to Dressed To Kill where the authorial voice of the film finds people like myself to be disgusting and something to laugh at, or consequentially, nightmare fuel. Dressed to Kill notoriously opens with an insert of a naked woman in the shower that is supposed to be Angie Dickinson’s character- but is so obviously not and De Palma knows it- and if that’s what turns the guy on, then good for him, but he clearly sees trans women as men clothed head to toe in wigs passing through and absolutely not wanting to explore anything beyond the surface. It always frustrates me that when a bad boy director is celebrated for liberation and rebellion , but ends up showing there are actually lines drawn in what they find acceptable and that the ideas of other kinds of people existing beyond their ideal, coveted image of femininity go ‘too far’ for them.

While De Palma’s biggest fans that I know are straight men, I do know plenty of queer people and cis women who also think he’s great, but this film was enough to keep me at a distance. What’s not to like about De Palma?’ was something I’ve heard. Hell, when I read a recent piece on Dressed To Kill it said verbatim, ‘If you don’t like this [Dressed To Kill], then you don’t like movies.’ I know that people often are in the mood to rehabilitate Dressed To Kill as, like William Friedkin’s serial killer film Cruising, it had protests and vocal dissenters for the movie at the time (not for the transphobia to be clear, but for the violence against women in the film— at the hands of the transgender serial killer). It was a film that in De Palma’s own words did good business. Yes, it got Razzie nominations (I mean, so did Kubrick’s The Shining) but I think the canonization and reclamation of Dressed To Kill for the canon missed more points of view along the way in terms of looking at it now and its cultural significance. But it is a lot more attractive to treat the film as an object of buried treasure or hidden gem which Dressed To Kill is treated as than it is to listen to a dissenting opinion.

WM: I know plenty of trans women who love Dressed to Kill, as well as Sleepaway Camp, and I find no problem with this even if I have my own issues with these movies, but I would genuinely love to hear what it is about those two in particular that speaks to them. Maybe it’s a level of honesty from cisgender voices of how we’re actually viewed without the semblance of political correctness bearing tolerance of our own gender? Or it could be as simple as thinking Dressed to Kill has stellar camerawork and Sleepaway Camp is too goofy to take seriously, and again, these are good enough reasons to like a film, but I have larger culturally specific reasons why these movies in particular rub me the wrong way. One major issue I have with Brian De Palma protesting to psychological readings of his movies is that if we were to push away at these things then I’m unsure what depth De Palma has other than as a sexual charlatan or his admittedly, fantastic camera work, which again, is fine, but I find that lacking in girth. De Palma is most interesting to me when I’m trying to figure out how he feels about women in his movies, because that’s absolutely his central hang-up. The Fuck and Kill mentality. Marriage never really comes into the equation. I can see on some level why cisgender women like De Palma’s women and his eroticism, because it’s brutish, tough, and these women are generally arsenic and don’t give a fuck and there’s definitely something appealing in that, but his treatment of transgender women is completely fucking different. We’re the great American nightmare. The total destruction of the male body. The malleability of our flesh into that of a woman’s is horrifying to him or at least perversely interesting, which might be more honest than not, but when I watch Dressed to Kill I get the sense that he finds bodies like mine absolutely disgusting (disclaimer: I’m closer to Michelle Pfieffer than Michael Caine, sorry Brian).

Part of me wonders if Brian De Palma could potentially have bedded a trans woman by mistake and then felt his heterosexuality capsize as a result. I don’t think that’s an insane thing to think, no? Pure speculation on my part, but he has this strange mixture of self-hatred and lust when talking about or engaging with transness. In the cinema of De Palma if the body of a woman is the ultimate act of cinematic ecstasy then the body of a trans woman is the total destruction of orgasm. A trans woman is castration, and therein lies his greatest anxieties. Dressed to Kill is fascinating for these reasons. It’s the kind of movie you could talk about all day in the context of De Palma’s work. Where it’s more boring is in the greater landscape of trap narratives in movies where it’s mostly the same old thing.

CG: Yes, we are not seeking to bury and ban Dressed To Kill, but the film’s significance is tied to a trope that, as we noted, involves revelation or a twist that’s tied to transness in this negative way. And I totally get your speculation on the root of where this came from (De Palma insists it was just from seeing Nancy Hunt he also grew up in a New York City where the Warhol Superstars were in the same film underground he started in the late 1960s, I find it unbelievable if he did not find himself in the same space- if by pure incident- with cross-dressers or trans women at some factory party to watch independent films), as I often speculate why does there exist moments in movies where a pickup of a trans woman for sex leads to a shocking revelation and male outburst for being ‘tricked’ (think Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting). Even on a more intellectual level, I wonder what is Jesse Singal’s deal (and I am not alone) over his obsession with trans women in his writing. But to get back to our mining through this narrative, I want to return to Psycho as the genesis even if it is not dealing with cross-dressing or gender dysphoria. We have of course talked about the riffs and knock-offs but what is fascinating is how quickly the knock-offs also produced the connection of this reveal to the villain or killer ‘not being who we think they are’ as far their gender and done so in genre-film, B-movie fashion.

WM: There are so many throwaway scenes of cis men fucking trans women and throwing a fit that give absolutely nothing back to the movie it would be impossible to count them all. This goes doubly for throwaway scenes where cis guys clock a trans woman and make fun of her. This even happens in Zodiac (2007) of all things, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why that scene in particular exists. Is it to reaffirm we’re in San Fransisco and cops are jerks? Seems pretty fucking basic considering Fincher, but that scene has also stuck out to me as a microcosm of  issues of transness depicted on screen, and in a larger macro level when that scene is pulled out to its fullest length that’s when you get things like Dressed to Kill. I don’t think cis people get how fucking exhausting that is and how much you have to reconcile to watch movies and realize that these things are just going to happen. Or even, god’s inferior child, Television. For example, There is not a sitcom that exists that won’t take a jab at trans people, and we don’t even worry about these things, because there’s bigger fish to fry with our own issues. Like our passports being denied and the living hell that is the current government of the United States.

CG:  William Castle’s 1961 Psycho knock-off Homicidal is a doozy and laughably trashy in its twists and turns. Its killer is a double-role for Jean Arliss (a pseudonym for Hal Ashby’s wife Joan Marshall) who plays Warren and Emily. So the twist is that the audience sees Emily commit murders and she notably, despite being described as Warren’s fiancee, is never in the same room as her groom-to-be. In the dialed-up, pure William Castle, 3rd act Emily is revealed as Warren, complete with a classic wig removal. Then, much like that awful psychologist explaining it all in Psycho, we get an explanation. Warren was socialized male but- and this is where it really gets crazy- he was biologically born female. His father wanted a son and his mother insisted to keep up the stunt (that apparently worked in ways that are a little unclear— I don’t think Castle and company thought all of this through but complaining about plot-holes from William Castle is just barking up the wrong tree) that included the county clerk marking the birth certificate male. I think there was far more work done to Warren in this ‘forced masc’ tale as we get an allusion to Christine Jorgensen’s sex-change operation by the line, “Then Helga took Warren to Denmark. What happened there, we don’t know”, as the American Jorgensen in the 1950s got her operation in Denmark (similarly, Ed Wood’s 1953 film Glen or Glenda was inspired and marketed as being connected to Jorgensen’s story that caught global public attention). Warren became Emily, fully living, socializing, and possibly getting the medical assistance in hormones and operations but returns home to collect inheritance money, having to return to Warren, a life full of trauma, confusion, and haunted by ghosts and figures of her past. The film is silly and as I speak to the characterization of Warren/Emily deeply problematic, but I see this as necessary to point to the fact that the evolution of the Psycho narrative is more than just Ed Gein (who also inspired The Silence of The Lambs). Clearly, this narrative has been a point of entry into some of the biggest tropes and misconceptions about transgender characters.

WM: I find William Castle’s capitalist urges really earnest. He was a the filmmaker equivalent of a big tent ring leader of the wackiest carnival that ever came to home and there’s something appealing about that kind of salesman. It’s hard to be offended by someone who made The Tingler and whose sole interest in life seemed to be scaring teenagers right at the point where they started to make out during his terrible movies. Homicidal isn’t really any different than the other movies he made, but of interest to us, because of some gender fucker-y. Earlier in this installment of Body Talk I said I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with Sleepaway Camp if it knew how to lean into the absurdity of its source material. Well, this is exactly what I’m referring to when I say lean into your batshit insane idea. So, it’s more fun than harmful. It’s difficult to raise your pitchforks over something this silly, but let’s get into something that is silly on paper, but isn’t in execution.

Caden I want to know what you think of Sion Sono’s Strange Circus, because it flips the gender on the opposite spectrum of this typical trope, which more directly effects you.

CG: I’m admittedly not well-versed on Sion Sono’s cinema and Strange Circus was, to my knowledge, the first film of his that I’ve watched. It is fascinating as it does go back to you mentioning the exhaustion of viewing media as a trans person, where these movies constantly clock or misgender their characters. The character, Yuji (Issei Ishida) is gender fluid but believed to be male assigned at birth assistant to our protagonist. Yuji is constantly peppered with uncomfortable questions about his ‘asexual’ appearance. For a film that is full of sex, rape, and trauma, Yuji at first appears like a sissy stereotype for his long hair (in being trans male, it is admittedly difficult to ‘pass’ with long hair, although Yuji’s hair veers close to David Bowie in Labyrinth) and lanky physical appearance. Basically, Sono’s rude, invasive characters who quiz Yuji about his look are proven right with Yuji admitting that he was actually a female assigned at birth and that his traumas and mental illness inform his identity which to that point, then becomes synonymous with his trans identity. How predictable, how boring.

What is disappointing is Sono desperately wants to be among the misfits and outsiders, with Strange Circus having a kind of cabaret pretension, as this is where the film starts and ends, the film’s named after this club of cross-dressers and drag queens. The extremity that Sono likes to fashion that he is doing though, much like De Palma’s limited uninhibitedness in Dressed To Kill, falls short with the ‘tranny as killer’ trope. Yuji is unstable and in a circle of rebels with piercings and body modifications that symbolize their identity that are remarkable changes in their physical appearance, when Yuji reveals to them his ‘secret’ these exhibitionists are now shown mouth agape. Hypocrites. Yuji is seen as going ‘too far’. I’m reminded of Dressed To Kill of the lead character being haunted by Yuji in her dreams much like Robert Elliott/Bobbi haunts Nancy Allen. It is the flip side, so this is to say, trans men, although not as frequently, also take it on the chin in the trap narrative, which for every banal shot taken at androgyny and transness in something like a square family sitcom the trap narrative also finds its way into certified “cool” film directors like De Palma or Sono.

WM: So many of Sono’s films seem desperate to me, and while I like some of them, like Love Exposure and Suicide Club, I find his tics really aggressively on the nose. He’s working in a similar mode as Takashi Miike where he tries to follow these outsiders and misfits, but fails to capitalize on his freaks. Miike on the other hand sympathizes, pointing to a cultural reason for “why” these characters are outcasts, and emphasizes their own humanity, even if they turn out to be evil characters. Miike makes sure his characters are heard, even if they’re wrong. Sono on the other hand just points and asks the audience to “look”. Strange Circus is the worst film of his I’ve seen, because it so desperately wants to be trangressive and taboo in a really intellectual way, but what does it have to say about gender at all really? I can’t think of anything, even in the context of Japan’s more easygoing nature towards drag queens and cross-dressing in their entertainment. In Japan these representations are typically played for laughs, but like a trojan horse they emphasize the faults and struggles these characters face, which honestly gives them more depth. That’s key in genre cinema anywhere on any subject you want to tackle, but with Sono I typically don’t see depth and that is never worse than in Strange Circus. I don’t get why anyone would want to check out this movie when Visitor Q exists. That film is complicated, uncomfortable, formally daring but has guts in what it’s actually trying to convey about gender, family units and violence. The only new wrinkle in Strange Circus is that the gender of the typical trap trope is reversed, which is maybe meta, but it’s certainly thin.

CG: I thought a lot about the cultural context in Japan with Strange Circus and just found that I got a lot more out of twisted Oedipus Rex snapshot of ‘gay boy’ culture in Japan from Toshio Matsumoto’s 1969 masterpiece Funeral Parade of Roses as far as transness, and outsider narratives go. I similarly feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with Miike but I definitely agree with you that I sense he gives his characters a better chance for the audience to understand and even empathize with their extremities and peculiarities. It really can make a difference as far as saying ‘pay attention’ to the audience rather than insist on the audience give a gawking ‘look’ when it comes to portraying trans people in film.

And to go back to misfits vein that Sono strives for but falls into the trap narrative trope, I think about Tetsuro Takeuchi’s Wild Zero where a character is revealed to be trans and while the male protagonist becomes incredibly anxious and put off initially about this revelation Takeuchi has the film’s Greek Chorus, the J-rock band Guitar Wolf, tell the lead character Ace that love has “no boundaries, nationalities, or genders” and that he should get over that hang-up and follow his heart, which has him be in love with the trans woman, Tobio. Wild Zero does not really subvert the trap narrative (the body reveal happens), it confronts the anxieties around initial stigma in being trans and in love and falling in love with a somebody trans and then just goes with it in a pretty sweet if simplistic way amid the backdrop of an apocalyptic zombie invasion (there are just bigger fish to fry!). I dig Wild Zero for many reasons but it being a respite to the trap narrative goes a long way for me.

WM: I think with films like Wild Zero, various work from Takashi Miike, and even aspects of Homicidal we can see an “other side of the coin” effect with how to handle transness and typical tropes in genre cinema. Whereas some of the other films we’ve discussed like Sleepaway Camp and Dressed to Kill fail in various ways. I don’t think the intention we ever had here is to say that genre cinema is bad from a moral perspective, but that it needs to be smarter about applied tropes. I think there is a good film to be made about the trap narrative in genre cinema by subverting it and shifting the positional power therein but I haven’t seen one that quite fits what I’d want yet. I don’t need an empowerment movie necessarily, but one that understands the game, and by and large these directors who work primarily in genre cinema that we’ve discussed thus far, struggle with these things, and it comes back to needing more trans people involved in cinema. When our perspective gets heard. maybe then the narrative will shift from the trans woman who is a trap and in turn a murderer to the trans woman whose trans status is revealed and more likely to be killed, because that’s the reality underneath the trans trope. We’re the ones that suffer both in cinematic representation and in reality where we face the danger of being killed just for being trans. That’s what cinema has to learn.

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

Dante “Tex” Gill
Body Talk is an ongoing series of conversations about Transgender Cinema as we prepare to write our book “Corpses, Fools and Monsters: An Examination of Transgender Cinema:. This installment is on the question of Cisgender actors playing Transgender characters.

WILLOW MACLAY : Caden, it was about three weeks ago when news dropped that Scarlett Johansson was going to play Dante “Tex” Gillin a movie about his life entitled, “Rub and Tug” and for the most part cisgender people seemed surprised that there was a controversy. This is just the latest example of a cisgender actor playing a transgender person in a movie through outdated cross-gender casting, but the major difference here is that Scarlett actually stepped down from the role, but the film sadly, doesn’t seem to be going forward.I’ll admit that I was dubious of Rupert Sanders being allowed to make anything that could be considered a motion picture again, but it’s frustrating that this movie has just proven that for mainstream Hollywood it’s either cis actors playing trans characters or nothing at all. Typically, it’s cis men playing trans women, the legacy of which has been nothing short of damning, but this would have realistically been the first mainstream film about a trans man since Boys Don’t Cry, which we’ve already crucified. Rub and Tuglikely would’ve been compromised under any circumstances due to Sanders complete lack of talent, but I want to hear your thoughts on this issue, and later in this discussion we’ll get into the history of cisgender actors playing transgender characters.

CADEN GARDNER: The Rub & Tugpress release initially seemed to be dubious about Dante “Tex” Gill’s life story being a trans one. Tex Gill identified as a man,It appeared that those working on the film saw it as an Albert Nobbs situation where a cis woman disguises herself as a man for societal reasons rather than the root cause of gender dysphoria. There was an instant ferocity in the internet blowback after the film was announced, to which Johansson foolishly said: Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment”. This statement is essentially a defence built around the status quo of cis actors in these roles, and the ways in which they’ve been accepted by prestigious film and television voting boards. It is interesting that Johansson never mentioned an instance of a trans man role. She only brings up Huffman, a cis woman playing a trans woman, and Tambor and Leto, cis men, both playing trans women. It was incredibly tone-deaf. Johansson and her people definitely were leaning on the fact that Hollywood has given permission for her and other cis actors to take these roles like masks and costumes and bypass hiring a trans actor for the role. Honestly, when I got wind of Lukas Dhont’s Award winning film at Cannes, Girl,I found myself slightly taken aback by that film being cis actor in a trans role. I thought we were past this. I thought A Fantastic Woman and Tangerinewere signifiers: films that got critical plaudits and made noise on the Hollywood industry radar. I thought that cross-gender casting was becoming something of the past and that we were going to be getting more trans stories as played with trans actors. I felt so naïve to have thought that. So when this announcement happened, I was hurt by the news of the casting , but even moreso by how Johansson handled our criticism. I wanted the project to sink once she made that statement and frankly, I am glad it is gone. Then of course, through this whole controversy, I heard from cis people who seemed confused, as you said, by why this would be controversy. It was after all, ‘just acting’, according to them. I had many arguments over this casting dating back to Girl mostly on the conceit of casting and this continued with Rub & Tug, going from trans women as the target of this mis-casting to trans men. It was exhausting, and frankly, I felt even less heard and understood (Editor’s note: Take a look at how many trans women, including myself, who were asked to cover this issue compared to trans men). I felt many cis people, consciously or not, showed their true colors in reacting to this debacle. They seem mad that I wanted this project to sink given the circumstances. I’ll just repeat for this piece my reasons that I restated over and over: I do not know a trans man, myself included, who wants their life story told from the perspective of a woman. I do not know a trans woman that wants their life story portrayed by a man.

I do not think this is at all difficult to understand but what I am noticing is the power of telling stories on the screen, be it television and film, is that cis people do not want to abdicate a sliver of control. They are interested in our stories but on their terms. This was just another case. It died, but I doubt it will be the last time.

WM: You nailed it with that last paragraph. I, similarly, thought we were past this with the release of both Tangerine and A Fantastic Woman. I don’t like AFW, but that’s not because of Daniela Vega, who is excellent, but because the film is only interested in her oppression through redemption. I thought there would be a shift where we slowly chipped away at preconceptions of transness on screen, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in mainstream Hollywood. Television is a little bit different, and we’ll get to that later, but when there’s money on the line they only want big money stars. I found that to be an awkward excuse as well, where cis people would say things like “it can’t get made unless it has a big star attached and there are no trans stars that an average person wants to watch” I saw that excuse a lot and it was mildly humorous because they pointed out the problem without realizing it. There are no trans stars and the reason for that is they won’t fucking cast people like us. You can’t become a star if you’re not even given the chance to compete. There has to be a starting point, somewhere, in mainstream movies. We’re still waiting for that to happen.

A Fantastic Woman (2017)

wm cont: I was asked by the CBC to be a guest on their film program for Q Radio on this very topic, and there was 100s of comments in my mentions afterwards like “I guess superheroes can only play superheroes” or whatever, but if they had actually taken the time to listen to me they would have known my reasoning that I’ll repeat now: “if you would find it ridiculous for Colin Firth to play the Queen of England in cross-gender casting or any other man playing a woman, why make an exception for transgender people? If it’s because you don’t actually see us as who we are then that’s a problem you have to fix.” Cis people know in their heart of hearts if they REALLY consider us as who we say we are, and this whole ordeal has pointed me in the direction of a lot of people who don’t see us as the gender we are, but the one we were assigned at birth. Hollywood thinks that way.

CG: Yeah, and cis people really gave us no solution when they essentially asked us to wait our turn. When is that happening? What exactly is your idea of progress for our community? They do not answer because they do not know or they do not care. When there is this opportunity available to tell a trans story, why should we not speak out and protest this when there are actors in our community who could play Tex Gill? Again, they will just say it is acting, and then mention things like ‘I don’t need an actor having cancer to play a character with cancer’ because I totally like my gender dysphoria compared to a deadly disease, truly. There are no trans stars but there can be if given the opportunity. I would rather see some Hollywood player, be it a major Hollywood producer, or an actor, actress, or director with cachet push to tell these stories. If it means, loading the cast with known names but in the service of also raising the profile of the trans actor at the center with their story being told, I can support that. Instead it is more or less stuff like the ScarJo controversy and something similarly with her Avengers co-star Mark Ruffalo producing an independent film called Anything about a trans woman sex worker played by…. Matt Bomer. Ruffalo assured us he got woke” when pushback to his film’s casting led him to watch one trans web series, but the casting and movie still happened. It is just so ridiculous but I suppose I should be thrilled that people were aware about the controversy and pushing back, but it also just seemed like this was people attuned to ScarJo stepping into shit once more in their eyes rather than just focusing on the casting problem itself. At least that was how I saw it and why I fear this will still happen again in the future.

It’s really rare for Hollywood to tell a transgender story or even feature a transgender character. They need to recalibrate. All of these performances are going to look offensive in one hundred years. The industry is having another kind of identity crisis with their current filmmaking models. There exist only two modes and no in-betweens. You have the big studio action tentpoles for the spring and summer and the others are prestige films, the so-called “Oscar bait” dramas that give the studios their air of respectability in the fall and winter. It’s there where we see transgender stories. This decade we have seen a wave of prestige films that included trans people as a major part of the narrative, if not the very center of the film. But, as you mentioned, these films were the compromised versions of a trans story. I am talking about The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyer’s Cluband the performances given by Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto. I should be unsurprised that people seem to think that the culture at large- or rather, the extremely narrow and privileged sect of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences- rewarding these performances was a signifier of the supposed quality and authenticity in these performances, but they were deeply surprised to find out that trans people hated these performances.

The Danish Girl
 

WM: I think there’s this notion that we should be happy we’re served a meal, even if it’s fried dog shit. That’s what it feels like to me when these movies come out. They cloak themselves in respectability politics or messages and position themselves as important movies for our cause, but any lasting positive impact almost never happens. Images inform culture and if the only image of trans womanhood is a guy in drag then that’s all we’re going to be, but my body flies in the direct face of these notions. I have the hormone levels of a cis woman, breasts that grew from my body through estrogen, same as any cis woman, a pair of XX chromosomes, because I’m intersex, no adam’s apple to speak of and if I may be vain for a moment, absolutely killer legs. But even if I didn’t pass and didn’t have these things I still wouldn’t have a body like Eddie Redmayne’s or Jared Leto’s. My body is different. Our bodies are different. Trans women aren’t built like cis men and Trans men aren’t built like cis women, but I think some cis people are a little surprised by that truth, and have been very slow to learn. We’re still getting articles about the shock and awe of trans women being able to breast feed for example,when we’ve been doing this for a long time.

I want to get into the nuts and bolts of these performances and why they don’t work. Let’s start with Eddie Redmayne, who plays trans woman, Lili Elbe. Redmayne plays her like an alcoholic with sensory disorder and a paraphilia for things like stockings and lingerie. Redmayne’s conception of womanhood is ORGASMIC, with heaving exterior moans and blurred vision. A trans woman if she were on the verge of climax at the very notion of womanhood. Like a fictionmania fetish story made real, and Tom Hooper directs it with cinematic form that feels like dried semen on hosery. It’s a gross movie, and Redmayne’s gigantic expressive acting shutters any way to understand the interior of Elbe’s life or who she was as a person. The portrait of Elbe is one of an insane fetishist who died reaching for the perfect orgasm to meet her fetish of surface level womanhood. It’s telling that the final image of the movie restructures her as a piece of fabric that gets blown away in the wind. I suppose one could argue that is a happy ending if you’re sadistic and only watch these movies out of sheer exhibitionist curiosity, but in truth it’s offensive. I’m not sure any actor could have saved this movie as it was conceived, but the end product is maybe the worst possible depiction of transness I’ve ever seen and Redmayne’s performance somehow tops Leto’s mid-crucifixion martyr with a death wish and a perfect bikini wax in the equally bad, but somehow not as awful, Dallas Buyer’s Club.

The Danish Girl
 

CG: Redmayne’s idea of gender dysphoria is so indicating and contorting in ways that feels like a bad 1960s sci-fi TV serial. The trembling his character has in reaching down below her waist, particularly in that scene where Lili goes to a peep show and mimics the cis women performer, is so laughable and infuriating all at once. The film treats the character’s male presentation and female presentation like two separate identities and womanhood for Lili in this film is getting an uncomfortable proposition from Ben Whishaw (Editor’s note: Poor Ben Whishaw) or wearing an androgynous pantsuit out in the park trailed by two gawking men straight out of a Tex Avery cartoon. Then there is the central relationship of Lili and her wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander) where the triggering moment that sets this whole “journey” in motion is Gerda making Lili pose with a dress for her painting. I should note that even if the casting was done better, The Danish Girl is a truly reductive portrait of two famous artists. The film manages to trivialize their relationship and turn these two real-life Bohemians into neurotic messes who want to play house, but a very constrained conservative one. There are several bedroom scenes of Lili assuming more femininity with Gerda, and is treated like a fetish object. Again, back to the 60s sci-fi TV camp that is happening with this performance, Redmayne treats contact with the dress like a mad scientist who gets exposed to his deadly formula that now spreads disease through the body. It is all so preformative and exaggerated, dialed up into something that by the end renders Lili Elbe as someone so glum and upsetting in a really reductive, useless way. She’s Icarus flying too closely to the sun, but that’s most films about trans people made by cis filmmakers.

Martyrdom and transness are interlinked in these films and that extends to Jared Leto as Rayon. Where Lili Elbe was a real person, albeit The Danish Girl was speculative fiction by a writer and the adaptation even further twists a lot of facts, Dallas Buyer’s Club made a fictional composite character of Rayon. According to screenwriter Craig Borten, the creation of that character came from research in interviewing trans AIDS activists. And yet, the leaked script that I saw of Dallas Buyer’s Club constantly spoke of Rayon in male pronouns and referred to the character as a cross-dresser.Even if the final product presented a trans woman you have the fact that Rayon is misgendered and deadnamed constantly, even referred by McConaughey’s protagonist as ‘Mr. Man’. You can say that is the product of the time but with the exception of one moment, Rayon almost never pushes back or reacts in a way of hurt in being dehumanized this way. Additionally, the film hardly ever explores her story. We get bedroom décor of T. Rex and glam rock (my kingdom for a Todd Haynes trans movie), assuming that’s her connection to queer life. She frequents gay bars of Texas that are apparently chill with trans women. And what of Rayon’s life? Well, she puts on a full male presentation, an ill-fitting suit, to ask her father for money. Rayon left a charmed life and that moment is treated like a cheap revelation that is only in the service of the central protagonist’s story. Rayon returned to Ray (Matthew McConaughey) to get her father to give her money from her life insurance policy to pay off her debts with her homophobe turned friend and business partner Ron. Rayon’s story is treated so superficially: a series of various wigs, cheap makeup, faux fur coats, and mirror shots. Cis people love showing us looking in mirrors, particularly in giving ourselves a pep talk about our looks but it is best to see us completely exposed. Except you know, Redmayne and Leto do not have trans bodies. It is a man in a dress and every mirror shot underlines that over and over. Those mirror shots confirm for me I am watching bullshit but apparently for cis people it’s revelatory, but in truth, they are looking at something that is not us by their own design. It’s their conception of transness, not our reality.

Dallas Buyers Club
 

WM: It’s a dissection, piece by piece, an outfit, something to construct rather than something inherent. To show a trans woman with real breasts would be to say that this isn’t an act. Rayon is built, rather than someone who is. And Leto did absolutely nothing to dispel these notions with his waxing comments and general method acting macho swagger of playing woman. A fake woman, but that’s trans women at the movies. These movies aren’t even about trans women. They’re about tragic men who died because they followed a foolish notion that they could become women. These movies for a second don’t treat these characters as women. Not at all. I’m not sure any of the films we are discussing during this series does, but some of our other examples we will get to like Dog Day Afternoon, at least have a current of decency throughout.

I want to get to your mirrors comment now, because that’s the resolute language of transness in the cinema as conceived by cis people. It’s a model of vanity, a reflection of who these people “truly” are, and a way in which to try and slam together something resembling a metaphor image, even with no real depth. It isn’t just trans women who get this treatment either. We’ve brought Boys Don’t Cry up before, but the scene where Hillary Swank as Brandon Teena poses in front of full length mirror so we can see the full dimensions of Swank’s body is one of the most dangerous ever put in cinema with regards to transness, because it unravels identity and points a giant fucking arrow in visual language to Swank’s dickless briefs. It’s genitals as destiny, forever and ever amen. On the opposite side of things there’s a scene that is almost identical to Swank’s in Under the Skin, a film we both love, and it has completely different intent. In that scene it’s a realization that the alien’s (Scarlett Johansson) body is hers, warts and all, and how she can find an identity in herself. It isn’t directly saying there’s anything wrong with her body or something is amiss. It’s just hers, bathed in amber lighting as Mica Levi’s music swells to something resembling warmth for the first time in the film. The visual language of that scene is acceptance. The visual language of Boys Don’t Cry, Dallas Buyer’s Club and others is political posturing and genital hysteria.

Boys Don’t Cry
Under the Skin

CG: I want to get back to your comment about Jared Leto and method acting. I absolutely think the whole ‘living as a different gender’ (and let me note that is not what gender dysphoria is, gender dysphoria is being at odds with the sex you are assigned at birth) concept and conceit is something that absolutely appeals to actors in the same way that playing an athlete or packing on a lot of weight does. They want their Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull moment but to me it just comes off as Robert Downey Jr’s performance of Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder. They are suffering for their craft and want the plaudits and the credit for playing us, but they do not seem to care about how offensive it is and that it is not their role to play. What they are doing is something in the Hollywood tradition of a different kind that is closer to red face, yellow face, and black face. They are crafting something based in makeup and appearance- through their lens, of course- all on a surface level in playing somebody they are not innate nor inherently. It is something that Hollywood allowed and gives them permission to do until consumers back off and then it suddenly is acknowledged how bad it is and was, and only then does it get condemned. It did not suddenly become that but was built on years and decades of mistreatment and misrepresentation that included dangerous stereotypes and even well-meaning portrayals in prestigious films of the time period that were trying to get awards. These are problems and particular errors in casting that are entrenched in Hollywood history and there is a certain level of complicity to be found in actors not really understanding the trans experience. Laverne Cox and Trace Lysette are out there, but are actively ignored in favour of cis men looking to make their name. They see it as a challenge to ‘lose themselves’ in the role and in their day to day life through method acting. Joke’s on them, I only saw fucking Jared Leto in a dress.

Laverne Cox and Trace Lysette are out there, but are actively ignored in favour of cis men looking to make their name. They see it as a challenge to ‘lose themselves’ in the role and in their day to day life through method acting. Joke’s on them, I only saw fucking Jared Leto in a dress.

 
Laverne Cox
Trace Lysette
 

WM: It’s frustrating to say the least. When Dallas Buyer’s Club was initially released I had been out as a trans woman for a couple years, but I was still living at home with my parents. My mom wanted to see the movie, because she was a rabid fan of all things Matthew McConaughey. He’s one of her thirst actors, but her rental of this movie worried me, because I knew there’d be questions afterwards that I’d have to answer. My parents knew I was transgender and here they were watching this movie which co-signed all their anxieties about who I was, and frequently when we’d get into fights my Dad would dangle Rayon in front of me as “that faggot in the movie”. That was their image of transness. These things stick, and I’m not sure cis people 100% realize when that happens. Culturally, when you bring up transness you’re still likely to get comments about Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, and while we both like that movie you cannot deny that the image has stuck.

CG: Now to return this discussion on mirrors, Swank’s bagging briefs in Boys Don’t Cry still makes me wince on memory. Most of the rare occurrences of trans men in movies have images like that one. BDC is genesis. The films I bring up in this case are 3 Generations by Gaby Dellal and 52 Tuesdaysby Sophie Hyde. Like Boys Don’t Cry these movies are about trans men and are directed by cis women and well, I could definitely tell these were by people outside of my life experiences. The trans men in these movies are, Elle Fanning playing a trans teen in 3 Generations, and Del Herbert-Jane as a trans man who is dealing with transitioning amid having the worst teenage daughter (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) in human existence. The funny thing about these two movies are that they check off every conceivable box of a trans narrative: there are many mirror shots and body shots of these actresses getting masc, by leaning in on the revelation and transitioning as the entire story. Boys Don’t Cry made the choice of a cis woman in a trans man role because Brandon Teena was by reports too poor to go on hormones and these films also have cheats in their fictional narratives in justifying cis actress in a trans man role and keeping her around during the whole damn movie.

3 Generations makes the entire conflict around Ray (Elle Fanning) getting a consent form signed by both of his parents to start hormones. His mother (Naomi Watts) supports him, but remains conflicted, and his distant father (Tate Donovan) does not whatsoever. Every instance of physical transition happens offscreen. Elle Fanning is so lost in trying to convey maleness, masculinity, and expressing something about having a trans body, and there’s the obligatory mirror shots and a dramatic haircut you’d find in movies of this type.

3 Generations
 

52 Tuesdays was more infuriating. I will admit that I have an age disconnect to trans men of a certain age, some of whom went through motherhood before transitioning, and that made me wonder if I ever had a chance of liking this movie. However, this film thought it could pull a fast one and had a Deus Ex Masc-hina. They outright refuse to have this character transition, because James (Del Herbert-Jane) has a rare condition. The character stops taking testosterone so you don’t see him develop any more masculine traits that you see and hear early on, like his voice dropping or putting on muscle mass. This is why I hate transition narratives. They never ring true and yes, it is a dramatic experience of changes it is not just the only story or the only form of transition that we do when we come out. Physical transition is just one part of it and despite films keying in on that, they all seem to fail. It never feels real, just contrivances looking from the outside and never feeling that somebody like us has a grip on these narratives. Brandon Teena passed before hormone replacement therapy to the point where he had girlfriends, but we don’t focus on how that happened. That isn’t physical. That’s something else altogether.

52 Tuesdays
 
 

WM: Oh my god, I love you for coming up with Dues Ex Masc-hina. Can we just use that forever? The thing that always blows my mind about these movies is that these characters have next to nothing in terms of an interior self, and isn’t that supposed to be one of the things an actor looks for in a role? As of late these performances are just gymnastics, showy, mastubratory acting that has no depth whatsoever. It’s like saying “look at my abs, it took so much work!” and Leto has always done this sort of performance. Somehow he’s worse in Chapter 27. Somehow he’s worse in Suicide Squad. The fact that we’ve let him stick around is the greatest sin of the millennial goths who popularized 30 Seconds to Mars in the first place.

I admittedly, haven’t seen these movies about trans men, but your description of them sounds painful. One thing that has always bothered me is the logical fallacy of cross gender casting when it comes to trans people. If we absolutely must show the entire transitional process in the movie or have flashbacks then wouldn’t it make the most sense to let the trans actor play the previous version of themselves? Because realistically if a cis man can play a trans woman in a movie then wouldn’t that same line of thinking apply for trans women playing a more masculine version of themselves pre-transition? Because if this is all about transformation then why does it not apply to us? We’re the masters of that shit, aren’t we? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: mainstream transgender depiction is vulture cinema for cisgender actors to make their name. It doesn’t matter if a real life trans person died, a cis person will be there to pick up their mantle and tell it like it is. Barf. And It has only gotten worse in the last 5 years with increased visibility. We’re in the mainstream now, so we can be sold. Not art by us, but art sold to us by cis people. We’re just another demographic, but we don’t watch these movies. We hate these movies. So how do we fix that problem? I honestly don’t think they care. It was better in the 60s, 70s and 80s for trans depiction than it is now in some respects and that’s absurd. In 2018 Candy Darling would not get to play a cis woman in anything, but that happened in the late 60s. Hypothetically, if all things were perfect and there was job equality in the field I wouldn’t have a problem with a cisgender woman playing a transgender woman or a cisgender man playing a transgender man. My issue is when you put a man in front of me and call him a woman. Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining. That’s when you lose me in this day and age.

Candy Darling
Stephen Dorff in I Shot Andy Warhol
 
 

CG: It raises the question (and I think we know the answer) that Hollywood has no clue what the difference is at all between somebody trans versus some dude who puts on a dress to play trans. Granted words have changed over time and what people considered cross-dressers, drag queens, and transvestites were and are trans women. I question how the late Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling could have made a mark in culture in transcending the films they were in and rubbing shoulders with A-listers at clubs, but film then has this dead period of nobody from the mainstream or the underground to take their place and follow in their footsteps. Even when the likes of a Mya Taylor come along she and many other trans actresses get pushed aside for men to play these roles, sometimes in the very stories of these figures. Stephen Dorff played Candy Darling in I Shot Andy Warhol,which is still wild to me. Given Candy’s whole relationship to hormone replacement therapy that casting is something I doubt she would have given approval.

WM: Stephen Dorff playing Candy has always bothered me. In a piece I wrote on Women in Revolt I talked bout this a little bit, but every single cinematic portrait of her has characterized her as a man, and she detested that completely. It’s even more tragic if you consider the lyrics to the Velvet Underground song “Candy Says”, specifically the stanza that asks “I’d like to know completely, what others so discretely talk about, what do you think I’d see if I could walk away from me?”. The answer to that question in terms of Hollywood is that they saw her as a man at worst and a drag queen at best. That’s the real truth of the matter at hand: to cross-gender cast in these roles is to cosign societal notions that our gender is fake. We aren’t who we say we are.

CG: It does become clear that it seems the rare ways for a trans movie to get what it is doing right is not just hire a trans consultant or a trans coach, but also have creative pull, beyond the role of a consultant. The Danish Girl and Transamerica had trans consultants, but spare me if you think those films are about our community. For me Tangerine worked because the actresses had some say. Even if there is well-meaning intent in telling a trans story, having us absent leaves some major probability that things will be amiss and just flat-out wrong. This can even happen when telling a true story like Dog Day Afternoon, a film that I love, and still a film where I do find it admirable on certain levels for even engaging with a trans love story, and having a character talk about having gender dysphoria. But you know, screenwriter Frank Pierson and director Sidney Lumet preferred going with Chris Sarandon for the trans role (John Waters player and trans woman Elizabeth Coffey did try out for the part but did not get it, supposedly for being seen as too feminine) and they saw the character as being closer to transvestite than transsexual despite well, the whole plot of the bank robbery being set in motion was to pay for the character’s sex change. Despite all of this I feel like that is a product of the time and that it was still significant and important that the details of the story were not completely white washed even if some of it in hindsight is now awkwardly presented. I am also not the biggest fan of Chris Sarandon’s whole body language in the film, constantly clutching his robe, although the character’s major tell-off about Pacino’s character whining that ‘he’s dying’ when he is the architect of his problems and the problems of others showed the movie wanting its audience to side with the trans character. That’s powerful. Sure, when her trans status is revealed a cop tries and fails to hold back a laugh, it is still a product of its time in many ways. My trans therapist told me that many trans people, himself included, in that time could see that film, while having some healthy criticisms of the performance, presenting their life experience on screen without animus.

Dog Day Afternoon
Elizabeth Coffey
 
 

WM: I really want to dive into Dog Day Afternoonnow, because I think it’s the only film we’re talking about in this segment that we actually both love a lot. Despite loving that film, I do have some criticisms. I, too, am not particularly fond of Chris Sarandon’s robe clutching, woman on the verge of collapse at any given second neurotic wife. I don’t love that, and think that Elizabeth Coffey would have likely been better in the role, because she would have cut through what little bullshit there is in that film. I find it depressing that Coffey was turned down because she was too pretty, and that, if anything, should be our obvious entry point into the image of trans women in mainstream cinema. Coffey isn’t the only trans actor who has run into the “you’re too pretty to be trans”problem. They don’t want a pretty trans woman, because they see us as men and if we appear like any other woman on screen that disrupts the narrative, even if that is the truth. That’s where they keep us at a distance.

All this being said, I think Dog Day Afternoonis a near masterpiece, Sarandon’s wonky body language and the frustrating 5 o’ clock shadow aside. It’s a shook up 2 litter bottle of pop ready to burst at any second and its centre is a man (Al Pacino) who is going to any lengths to get surgery for the woman he loves, because the world has fucked them over and it costs too much for any poor person to afford. That’s real. I appreciate Lumet including the title card for Elizabeth Eden stating she’s “now a woman”. The language is old, but the sentiment is there, and it is a happy ending in cinematic terms.

I do think there’s a scene in the movie that honestly mirrors our experiences with trans casting and it’s with John Cazale’s character insisting he isn’t a homosexual when that is announced on TV. He protests, but there it is on TV, something he asserts is wrong, but that is now the narrative. With us, we can look at the screen and say “that’s not us” with cross-gender casting, we can look like cis people, and in Candy Darling’s case look like a fucking supermodel and they’re still going to run back into the arms of the men in dresses trope.

CG: Lumet’s direction to Sarandon, after going through many bad casting auditions for the character of Leon(the character’s name in the movie. The real life woman was Elizabeth Eden) saw the character as a full-blown neurotic, tragic Tennessee Williams heroine(Editor’s note: Tennessee Williams cast Candy Darling as the lead in one of his play, Small Craft). Lumet wanted the characterplayed as an exasperated housewife. The results are Chris Sarandon being closer to sitcom matriarchs like Edith Bunker or Weezy Jefferson, but I think Lumet’s note was not a bad one. You do still feel these two- Pacino and Sarandon’s characters- have a very domesticated relationship and they are not playing dress up, it is real and so are their arguments, miscommunications, and doomed quality. It is normative but does not strive for, ‘They’re just like us!’ type of pleading to the audience. Lumet and Pierson were extremely aware of the need to still be delicate in telling this story that had the potential to not be taken seriously. Lumet was furious about how audience test-screenings took the relationship and the images of the “gay” wedding in the film’s newscast segments. But they were showing these two people getting married and one of them has committed this crime on behalf of the other, even if she did not want him to do this for her. Those were the facts of the case and they were put on-screen, that while still imperfect, are at the center of a truly excellent film.

And I love that the title card at the end of the movie as you said, places the real Elizabeth Eden in a much better place, especially compared to everyone else in the movie. She has moved on, her romantic partner went to jail, Sonny’s ex-wife, who he does not care about at all, are in the welfare system to raise her children. You come off with the impression that the ‘freak’ that some characters and even some of the audience previously snickered at by the end has her life together much more together than one expects or is conditioned to assume with trans characters, based on so many tropes. And a lot of those tropes that you and I have seen came after Dog Day Afternoon.

Elizabeth Eden
 
 

WM: It’s strange to me, that Dog Day had little effect in reshaping how we see transgender cinema. There wasn’t a huge call for Hollywood to shift afterward. Where changes did happen to some degree, and DDA had some effect, was in pretty broad interpretations of queer cinema involving gay men. Cruising, I think is a bastard son of DDA in some respects.

I love that phone call between the two. Lumet just moves back and forth between close-up and for a moment the heist element slips away. It’s just two people talking, like they always have, and sharing a language and rhythm of their own. Pacino is excellent, but if there is an argument to be made for Sarandon it’s in this scene. It gives us a window into their relationship, and “why” he’s doing this for her. They have a rhythm that he and his ex-wife do not. It’s theirs, warts and all, and he wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t something between them. Elizabeth Eden sadly passed away from AIDS in the 1980s, and even if Sarandon looks nothing like her she at least gets that note at the end of the movie and Sonny did use his money that he got from the film to pay for her sex change surgery. It’s an epic love story, a total fucking anomaly in cinema with transgender elements and one of the only films with cross-gender casting I’ll go to bat for, even with some minor complaints here and there. I love Dog Day Afternoon, and a lot of it would still even be radical to this day, but Hollywood would never make this movie now. It’s too complicated, messy and real. That, and the fact that Disney controls everything now.

CG: Dog Day Afternoon would not be made by a major studio today. It would not be made with the level of talent in front of and behind the camera as it did in 1975. That would not happen. I think 1970s America cinema, despite so many of my favourite films coming from that era, were admittedly heavily hetero-masculine. Dog Day Afternoon even feels like an anomaly as far as having one of the biggest stars in an explicit LGBTQ relationship. There may have been international cinema (Fassbinder) and underground cinema with LGBTQ characters getting more attention, but what took over were stuff for the masses that pushed aside that level of visibility for our community. After Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood became heavily invested in monoculture and as a result were less audacious in telling narratives of characters off the beaten path. Trans figures like Candy Darling (although she passed in 1974), Holly Woodlawn, and even a trans punk rock singer like Jayne County was emerging (who would appear in films, like the incredibly great German queer film, City of Lost Souls) may have had presence in the culture as far as being photographed, subjects of visual art and music, but they were not really breaking out in feature films that were beyond the underground cinema. What can we conclude over why this happened? Well, Hollywood’s ultimate 1970s downer ending was the 1980s. Ronald Reagan was elected and there was conforming to this ideal of the lost nuclear family from decades ago. Hollywood was not Ronald Reagan conservative, but they still had to placate to conservative audiences and a universal culture, but LGBT people were not part of that, and you’d be hard-pressed to say we are today. There were still thriving pockets of culture in the LGBT community at the time- as we see in Paris Is Burning- but it was subterranean, not the type of visibility available at your neighborhood multiplex. If you were gay or trans, well, then film treatments of you at that time by Hollywood were pretty retrograde. Afterwards you had the HIV/AIDS crisis and hysteria based on prejudice and ignorance from mainstream society. Not to mention drug epidemics that was met with ineffectual, ‘Just Say No’ campaigns. Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis died, and so did many like her. To be different then meant the possibility of the world turning their back on you and that also included a lot of visual media. The gap of suddenly having very little visual media looking into the trans experience brought further ignorance and misunderstanding. It is really an indictment on American popular culture that the only times there could be anything remotely close to a trans presence in pop culture was by appearing on Phil Donahue and not really being seen as a person, but as some anthropological subject. Come see the bearded lady.

John Lithgow in The World According to Garp
 
 

WM: To chart transgender cinema in Hollywood is difficult, because there are these gigantic gaps where there is nothing. You’d get an occasional film here and there like The World According to Garp(which I like), but Lithgow’s portrayal isn’t the main plot line in that movie or anything. Lithgow took the role with dignity and had no foolish aspirations towards becoming acting royalty through transness, which is appreciated. He is fine in context of the period and the practices of the 1980s. He does not touch Karen Black in 5 and Dime, but who does?

I like that you mention Phil Donahue, because I think it was around the mid-80s when the trap narrative, or GOTCHA, reveal started popping up in movies, and we’re going to get to that in our next instalment in Body Talk, but it became such an overbearing presentation of transness. It was a trick. You never even had a character like Sarandon’s in DDA who was openly trans from the start but these later examinations of transness in post, and that was popularized to some degree by Psycho, but really came into fruition with The Crying Gamewhose revel overpowered the rest of the movie in a cultural sense later being spoofed by Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, WWF Monday Night Rawand Family Guy while also giving reason for Jerry Springer’s entire existence. It’s hard to talk about that movie without its cultural placement as THE trap film, but Jaye Davidson isn’t horrendous as Dil. It’s one of the more put together characterizations of a trans woman being played by a cis man. She’s very much her own woman. I just wish a trans woman could have been given the right to make her name off of a movie that was about to be wildly popular, even if its popularity and staying power are dubious in context.

CG: I love The World According To Garp. What’s significant about that is the film is playing in this wild, quirky key a la Harold & Maudewas that everybody from George Roy Hill to Robin Williams to Glenn Close to Lithgow were all so game into adapting the John Irving novel to the big screen. The Irving novel states that Roberta is a trans woman and provides her a biography as an ex-football player whose knowledge of the game gets ignored for her decision to transition and cannot get a job announcing football games. She is not this distrusting character with a secret. She’s open and Irving posits her as somebody the reader the audience should like because, ‘Garp loved her’, in Irving’s own prose. There are so many insane things that happen in the film as far as plot and character arcs that Roberta just is a character among the chaos. As far as Lithgow’s casting, the character is funny but Lithgow does not make Roberta a joke, but a funny character with feelings and ambitions, more than a device for the more central characters and more than a quirky ornament for the film. It’s casting for the time, but given what we have seen about trans military service members it is not unheard of that trans women can come from hyper-masculine environments and sure, I do like to imagine how that casting would have looked like with a real trans woman but Lithgow is pretty good. That said let’s not get this twisted. One good characterization does not open the doors for so many terrible ones before and after, especially after.

WM: The fact that Roberta even has a dream is note-worthy, because that’s rare in portraits of trans women. In Tangerine, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) wants to become a singer, but beyond her can you think of any other examples? I can’t. In these movies trans women seem to want to just file into line as a stereotype, which is not the case. Yes, I want to be a wife and mother, but I also want to be known as a writer my entire life. I have dreams to keep challenging myself to get better. What does Redmayne’s Lili Elbe want to do in The Danish Girl? She wants to be a girl and sell clothes. She doesn’t have to paint anymore! (p.s. that’s sexist)

 
Mya Taylor in Tangerine
 
 

CG: In a culture that birthed Jerry Springer, ‘A chick with a dick’ type of retrograde presentations of transness offricially become a revulsion and a joke. Livelihoods become plot twists, secrets and marks of those individuals being untrustworthy. Even before The Crying Gameand Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, there was the otherwise very junk food comedy Soapdishthat spoofed soap operas with a top of the line ensemble cast. In that movie, the third act includes revealing Cathy Moriarty’s plotting, backstabbing villain to have be a trans woman leading to Garry Marshall’s television executive character to exclaim, ‘She’s a boy’ and Robert Downey Jr.’s character, who was sexually involved with Moriarty’s character being on the verge of vomiting- quite similar to how Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura reacted to finding out Sean Young’s character was previously the vindictive ex-Miami Dolphins place kicker and Stephen Rea’s Fergus in The Crying Game finding out Dil is a trans woman. Gosh, a lot of men throwing up over this type of revelation.

The Crying Game’swhole plot takes a while to reveal itself but then takes over the whole movie, and there is no way to talk around it. Then it just became a Miramax (fuck Harvey Weinstein) pushed commercial phenomenon and there was a lot of critical complicity. I found out the twist of this movie before seeing it, and a lot of that film got its mileage from critics like Roger Ebert writing these coy reveals and winking to their readers with a, ‘Trust me. You’ll want to see this and tell your friends to see this but make sure to let them go in cold about that twist’. I cannot really say Neil Jordan’s film transcends that trapping as in the script of the film, it does make the revelation pretty much a conflict for Dil and Fergus and the script does write the scene as a, ‘She is really a man’ type of hushed tone but with an explosive revelation. I think Jaye Davidson gives the character a lot of dignity and depth but feels very at odds with the writing. Dil defends herself from Rea’s simultaneous initial rejection and allured fascination over her. Still, the film does something similar in having Dil in male form and that is when it gets maybe even more infuriating than the genitals reveal. I know of trans people put in that unfortunate position of having to wear clothing of the gender they were assigned at birth even as they identify trans, but here it is taken as a, ‘Well, she can live this double agent type of femme fatale because she’s really only wearing different clothing’. The character loses a lot of power towards the end and even her living, not dying like a martyr, is based on Fergus stopping her from offing herself, and frankly, it getting to that point in the film where Dil is suddenly a shifty, suicidal, mentally unstable person feels so uncharacteristic and an 180 degree switch from the sultry, seductive, confident, independent woman that viewers fir saw. That is not really on Davidson but unfortunate writing built off of several misunderstandings and misrepresentations.

 
The Crying Game
 
 

WM: The Crying Game is frustrating, because there’s a version of that movie they could have realistically written, and chose not to where the character was this sultry femme fatale. In those terms Dil stands on her own in this characterization, because it’s not like you can point to other examples where trans women played these types of characters. The writing undoes a lot of the good will established earlier on though like you said, and I’m in complete agreement with your other statement that these performances that have existed in the past and are contextually acceptable doesn’t mean that it’s okay to walk back down this path again today. Trans people have always been acting and for transgender cinema to truly feel lived in and authentic we have to actually be here don’t we?

I want to shift gears slightly to what film looks like when we are present by talking about a couple movies and a few recent television shows. I have not seen Pose yet, because acquiring FX in Canada is tricky and expensive, but I have watched Sense8, which was spearheaded by The Wachowski sisters and there are transgender actors playing transgender characters. I was really drawn into Jamie Clayton’s character Nomi and wrote about her briefly on Curtsies and Hand Grenades as a kind of revelation to finally see someone with a body and a history like mine on the screen. I cannot undersell the magnitude in which it affected me to see her in that role. I could only describe it as feeling like a blanket. Nomi’s character went through some shit with her parents so she felt real to me, but it was also this realization where I came to grips with the fact that it was possible to no longer be invisible. It had a profound meaning for me similar to Laura Jane Grace coming out and being mentioned on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. These were early moments in my own history as a transgender woman that I’ll never forget. I never realized how important it was to see myself on screen, because it had never happened with me before, but I finally felt that with Jamie Clayton in Sense8 and I think she’s great in the role. A totally perfect fit for The Wachowskis world of underdogs and connected human experiences.

CG: Pose is incredibly important remedy for the previously billed- by the mainstream entertainment press and not by the trans community, to be clear- ‘groundbreaking’ television series for trans people, Transparent. Despite that show giving exposure to various kinds of trans actresses, it was always still based on compromise in casting Jeffrey Tambor (editor’s note: Fuck Jeffrey Tambor) as Maura. Poseis unique and remarkable for doing a few things that on paper seem so simple. It centers trans people in front of the camera and that is boosted by the quality of writing and directing by trans people behind the camera (previously mentioned in Body Talk Silas Howard, who directed an episode, while Lady J wrote episodes, and Janet Mock did both). Posecarries a lot of responsibility in covering the 1980s ballroom scene in giving an incredible amount of visibility that most people can only reference Paris Is Burning, if they even saw that at all. And then of course it is carrying the responsibility of opening doors for trans actresses and trans talent in our presence. I knew of Mock, Lady J, and Howard before this show, although that doesn’t mean the entire Pose audience did and I hope that means more opportunities, and I hope this means more talent behind and in front of the camera get to be part of projects in production. I know of a few other shows that have a trans actor or even a trans person on their writing staff, but I would like to see those experiences centred like Pose. I do not want Pose to be the only game in town because at some point, it is not going to be on. Then what?

 
Pose
 
 

I will also note that yes, Sense8also existed and luckily, despite being short-lived got a proper sendoff recently. The Wachowskis are so earnest and both Lana and Lily definitely used their experiences in their trans identity to inform Jamie Clayton’s character. That whole argument she gets prodded into by a TERF-like figure, calling her a ‘colonizer’ on her gender feels like something that only we usually experience online and off-line in certain spaces. I felt similarly with Pose where multiple characters had anxiety about being misgendered even in supposedly ‘open-minded’ places or feeling the wrath of their family members who harbor disdain for them transitioning. It goes a long way to have characters on-screen and know that what they are doing and saying works because they not only get you,they are you.

We are real. I do think sometimes these discussions reveal that they don’t actually see us. We are treated like an abstract concept sometimes and so I thought it was important for our community to put our foot down on the ScarJo matter. I still felt like some people were not convinced and just think we were selfish for protesting this and I also felt like trans men in media still feel under-served. Netflix’s Queer Eye notably had a trans man makeover and while it had its bumps and was imperfect, I really felt like Skyler, the trans man, having his journey and story in plain view on Netflix was a good antidote to a lot of the bullshit that surrounded Rub & Tug. Still, not everybody has Netflix and it is clear that some people still do not get trans stories. It makes sense since they are spoon-fed some terrible, undercooked, inauthentic, and very much harmful narratives about our experiences.

Sense8
 
 

WM: I think that’s our most important point. SEE US. LISTEN TO US. It is not incredibly hard. If 50,000 trans people say this casting is fucked maybe we know what we’re talking about? I think you hit the nail on the head by saying that cisgender people sometimes think of us as abstract concepts. There was a poll recently where a high percentage of people said they didn’t know a transgender person firsthand. I find these results unsurprising, but illuminating in how they view us. How can they possibly care if we’re not real? The truth of the matter is that we’re flesh and blood just like everyone else. We have wants and desires and needs. Our place in the world is informed by our experiences that we’ve had with gender, dysphoria and presentation and we have interesting stories to tell about lives that are sorely under-served. It’s hard to imagine a transgender life going into old age, because no such image exists. It’s hard to even exist as a trans person, because there’s little format or structure for how to get there without direct help, because there’s little cultural awareness of our issues. We only exist in the past tense in art. Our unique experiences are going to influence the kind of cinema that gets made about people like us, but Cinema also has a chance to shift the narrative. The ball is in their court on this one and if they continue to play dirty we’re going to speak up. We’ll stop when they start actually listening to us. We’re still waiting….

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

Ginger Snaps (2000)

Body Talk is an ongoing series of transcribed conversations on Transgender Cinema as we prepare to write a book on the subject. This part is on the horror subgenre of “body horror”. 

WILLOW MACLAY: Alyssa Heflin tweeted not too long ago upon the occasion of the release of Lukas Dhon’ts cis wet dream “Girl” that as it existed Cinematic language couldn’t tell or interpret transgender stories in a suitable way. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, especially as it pertains to our general thesis of “What is transgender cinema?” and I’ve come to the conclusion that I think she’s right. Transgender Cinema as it is understood by cisgender filmmakers is exterior forces and changes, but we understand transness as an internal, textural, abstract energy. Especially in the case of dysphoria. What cisgender filmmakers typically do not understand is that for us, the internal becomes external, not the other way around. Dysphoria manifests itself in real exterior ways, but it originates from an internal place. In order to accomplish something resembling a real transgender cinema cisgender filmmakers (and transgender ones too) need to work from the inside out and they shouldn’t be afraid to obscure or unsettle the image, because as trans people our experience of being alive is something that is never going to be 100% right. Of course you have to write the character with the full intentions of giving them scope and life, but transness touches everything for us, and we perceive the world in that way. This is why I think body horror is the closest thing mainstream cinema has to transgender cinema in terms of cinematic language. In body horror you get characters who are often unfairly stricken with something they had no control over until it begins to eat at them completely until they become at one with their own sickness and come to grips with their own monstrous qualities or fall by the hand of society or their own hand. The genre is rich in transgender stories, because it’s a mode of storytelling which fundamentally concerns itself with bodies, and as trans people we can never remove ourselves from the knowledge that we’re inside of our own skin. It’s always present and in body horror it’s present too, even if it is often about nightmarish monstrosities like flies, werewolves or the undead. 
CADEN GARDNER:  The transgender allegory found in the body horror sub-genre is connected to our own trans experiences in dysphoria, something that is not exactly predicated on time or controlled like some common pain like a headache or a head cold. It is chaotic. Cis people don’t really pick up on it, but sometimes in the most extreme cases, side effects of dysphoria are visible, be it self-harm or certain eye-catching images based on anxiety and stress. I will put myself out there and say that for years I developed a compulsion to scratch my arms in dysphoric episodes. It was not self-harm but there was a sense of helplessness from my unconscious signals about my issues- that for years I never had the courage to say out loud- were there in plain sight, until I realized I had to conceal my arms. I was embarrassed because this thing I could barely internalize any longer was starting to show itself. That trans experience is not uncommon. Have I seen that trans experience on-screen? No. I can’t say I have. Generally speaking, interiority can be difficult to convey in cinematic language but it often feels like cisgender filmmakers just see the exterior changes as a crutch and a fulcrum for the entire existence of these stories without delving deeper. There’s nothing layered in how their trans subject relate to the world, their place, and whatand how their gender dysphoria manifests itself as. In that regard, Lukas Dhont stating he wanted to make a universal experience about a trans character is immediately off. He is hardly alone in wanting to connect trans characters to some universal ideal, as that type of art seems encouraged by liberals as an antidote to reactionary conservatism. But it misses the point. Trans people have had decades of misunderstanding by cisgender filmmakers and to now go off into thinking we are all one is an incredibly insincere pivot. To course correct from decades of filmmaking that misunderstood trans people, we need to start with why we are different while grappling with no longer being an other. What does it mean to have a transgender body? We are not served that on film, so we go look to where trans people are usually conditioned to find their most common representation: the villain, the outsider, and the other.
Science fiction and horror were built from the foundation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The monster was created from a scientist playing God and a text about a body that had no control over their reanimation. Once undead, he becomes aware of the world around him and the society that is afraid of his very existence- he hides and seeks a partner, as he is alone. Issues of identity and control of the mind and body are all there in Frankenstein and continued forward. Over time, those genres of sci-fi and horror grew and expanded into more stories and perspectives. Horrors of transforming, mutating, and deteriorating due to various forces, some of which came from within or something elusive. There was no antidote or cure in some cases, but an existential question never to be solved. The body as a vessel for chaos and the horror of that lack of control is a trans story. Not the only story, of course, but an essential text that makes up part of our narrative 
Frankenstein (1931)
 
WM: This conversation is going to lean so heavily on dysphoria that I feel like it’s important we talk about how it manifested itself in each of us. One thing that Lukas Dhont immediately got wrong out of the gate was trying to make his film a universal experience like you said, because transness is very specific and something like dysphoria can vary from person to person in severity. For me, dysphoria was something that I immediately felt in my life. I didn’t know the word for it, but I felt ashamed of my own body because it wasn’t like other little girls and then I grew up and things got exponentially worse until I couldn’t handle it anymore. From an outsider’s eye my dysphoria probably looked like depression. I shut myself off entirely and stayed hidden in my bedroom because going out meant other people would see my body and I couldn’t deal with that, but internally it felt like my brain was poisoned. I’d punch certain parts of my body as hard as I could to the point where I’d bruise myself because I hated myself. And I’d avoid mirrors like the plague. My dysphoria has lessened tremendously over the past few years through transitioning but I still find myself hating my body and calling myself terrible names and hurting myself every now and then even today. Dysphoria lingers, even if it lessens over time. We never fully disengage ourselves from the root point of why we needed to transition in the first place. It’s something that’s just in the air of our reality.
To pull this back to cinema though, it’s going to vary from filmmaker to filmmaker in how something like body horror is expressed. We talked in the Under the Skin entryabout how science fiction and synthetic bodies grappled with questions of transness incidentally, and that’s the case here too. To my knowledge there aren’t any direct representations of transness as body horror in cinema where it’s literally about dysphoria, but there are films where girls go through puberty and turn into werewolves and hate every fucking second of it, to name one example. Something like that is close enough in my understanding of dysphoria that I can point the screen and say I recognize what that character is going through. Dysphoria is so individual and unique from person to person you’d likely get a different example from every single person you ask when you bring up the question, “what does dysphoria look like in movies?” For me, it’s that puberty is hell, but the puberty you never asked for is deadly. 
CG: You indirectly brought up Ginger Snaps and the moment that stuck out for me in that film was when Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) reveals to her sister Bridgette (Emily Perkins) her scars from the wounds she received from the werewolf. It’s not just on her chest, but the scars are growing hairs. ‘I don’t want a hairy chest!’. Ginger confides to Bridgette with absolute disgust. It is so striking. Ginger Snaps consciously builds its puberty metaphor, within the text, as menstruation is explicitly mentioned for sisters Bridgette and Ginger. I remember going through puberty and while I knew nobody would understand why, and I did not have the words, I would say this out loud, just moments of exasperation in the realm of, ‘I don’t want this!’ I can recall a parent, or a family member telling me, ‘All girls go through it’, but if you never saw yourself as a girl, well, tough luck. Pretty much every trans guy in my position can understand why that would be difficult. It just feels like such a disturbance to your body that reoccurs over and over as though to remind you of your differences, undercutting any sense of worth you might have for yourself. Ginger had a disturbance too, but in the form of a creature who attacked and bit her, but she does her best to negotiate her now fractured self (one who is now a sexually active young woman and the other who is a werewolf) but it ultimately does weigh her down. She’s been infected with something that she cannot undo and it is helpless. I can understand that and so can you. 
Ginger Snaps (2000)
 WM: That’s exactly it! It’s something happening to your body that you so completely reject. I’m fortunate in some sense because I’m intersex, and because of that puberty was never this thing that felt completely irreversible. I feel for anyone who is in that boat, as there are many. I didn’t have loads of body hair but what I did have felt like the end of the world. Another big moment in Ginger Snaps for me is when Ginger is trying to hide the fact that she’s grown a tail over night, and her immediate reaction is to cut it off. That scene could so easily be placed alongside a trans girl tucking, doing everything in power to get rid of this thing that’s between her legs which basically ruins her mindset 24/7. It’s the same vibe. Puberty was a fucking nightmare for me as soon as I was told about the birds and the bees and how my body would be developing. I’d become a man (editor’s note: she did not), and nothing seemed worse to me than that fate. I spiralled and everything got so much worse for me, and if we link that back to Ginger Snaps we have Ginger who is 16 and hasn’t had her period yet and after she is attacked by a werewolf she starts menstruating and turning into a lycanthrope, and once her change begins there’s no undoing the side effects. The filmmaking really taps into the bodily dysphoria and the interiority too. The hiding away in the bedrooms, the panic, the fact that the film isn’t afraid to show bodies going through change or gore. It’s all metaphorically the destruction of a body at the onset of puberty in addition to being an allegory for being a teenage girl and growing into an adult. It’s a dense movie. One I’ve always liked and one I’ve come back to again and again since figuring out why I’m attached to it in the first place.
CG: A major one for me was Brian DePalma’s Carrie. That gym shower scene, where Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) gets her period, is horrifying, grotesque and the way the other girls treat her is unbelievable. DePalma plays on how subjective that sense of shame is versus reality, putting into question how much of Carrie’s insecurities are mental versus the actual severity of the bullying she faces. Sometimes he plays too heavily into his usual artifice, but that sense of shame in feeling like a freak, however, is incredibly relatable thanks to Stephen King’s text. Everyone is laughing at her as she’s going through this change and it feels like she is being punished for something she never asked for. That was me- to the degree that my first period happened in school and well, I guess I should be happy it wasn’t in the gym showers. It might as well have been as my embarrassment from the incident painted this target on my back in much the same way. To return to the film, Carrie is othered despite her ethereal exteriority. She seems blank to the other kids, unable to really shape her own identity due to her domestic circumstances. That makes her vulnerable and innocent, but it also makes her perfect prey to attack. In the wake of her menstruation Carrie feels like the telekinesis she develops as a result is an affliction and her mother hovers over her, threatening her with eternal damnation for wanting to try to pass off as a normal girl. It goes badly. Carrie gets her revenge but has to be taken down too, because her type of story ending that way is the logical conclusion. I mean, thank God I never went to prom. 
WM: I never went to prom either. Does any trans person ever truly go to prom? Realistically I think we should hold an adults prom for us only. That would be more than swell. But yeah, Carrie is this really intensely tactile film, and I can 100% understand relating to her horror at getting her first period. In that scene De Palma shoots all these other women as if it’s like this garden of nymphs, and here’s Carrie White, fundamentally different from the rest in her own mind and in theirs. It’s incidentally De Palma’s only film of consequence in terms of transness, because we both know he’s a blithering idiot on the subject. I love that one though and a lot of it has to do with the way Spacek plays the part and the way we’re foregrounded in her point of view pretty frequently. We’re asked to empathize with her, and as a trans person I think we can, because typically we are bullied, and in addition to that we’re dealing with the horrors of our own bodies in similar fashion. 
Carrie (1976)
 CG: Thankfully there’s a generation after ours that’s coming out and transitioning at a younger age who perhaps get to experience prom (I am sure there exists that story that makes allies happy about one school having a trans homecoming king or queen that gets passed around and shared on Facebook), although who knows if they’re in the safest, most comfortable environment in their high school. Schools have changed from my health class where transness never came up but that doesn’t correct every misunderstanding and ignorant thought about our community whether they are coming from students, teachers, or parents.
I would say before puberty I was much more gregarious and I had a very diverse friend group. Some of whom would later come out, but after puberty most of my male friends stopped talking to me. It got more polarized and gendered. I could not identify with a lot of the girls at my school and they seemed to have an idea that I was different on some level. I honestly never heard the term ‘tranny’ or any trans slur at any point in school (that may be the only benefit of the trans erasure), but they knew how to get under my skin. I was bullied and harassed, it’s not very unusual, but that doesn’t mean it somehow made the harassment and bullying feel normal or something I could escape. I had to go to school. I carried so much anxiety and pain for the fact that I knew I was different. and I could not express myself or attain any idea of who I was in my teenage years. The words eluded me and the images I could connect with were unavailable beyond internet searches that I could only get after school. Often during school I disassociated, to the point where there are no memories beyond what I have only spoken about. I was that good at disassociating. It made me become invisible and frankly, I’d rather have that than catch hell all the time.
As a result, my middle school and high school experiences were extremely interior and isolated. Some of that converged with me literally going into a room where I could be by myself. I could hide from the world. What could I do? I mean, I would watch movies but sometimes the disassociating would be so severe that I’d lock myself in spaces. Coming out of those spells was beyond difficult. I felt threatened by the outside world but what was there for me to show any sort of growth when I didn’t feel like I could express my problems? I did not watch the film until college but the Todd Haynes film [SAFE] may be the only film to convey that sense of isolation and disconnect of my body and mind, and the side effects of that. It is a body horror movie, and one that is unsettling in the sense that confronting the problem by the main character Carol White (Julianne Moore) eludes her, she can only play a part to barely survive and it is literally eating away at her. 
[SAFE] (1995)
 
WM: I think you know my high school story, and if you don’t I’ll very briefly give you the gracenotes of an otherwise blank period in my life. When I was younger I still felt dysphoria, though I didn’t have a word for it, but not to the point where I couldn’t live my life. I could go to school, make good grades and hang out with other girls, and boys. It wasn’t a millstone tied around my neck at that point, but after puberty I started to make myself throw up before school started so I wouldn’t have to go, because I was that terrified of being seen, and it was around the time when I completely checked out. I was homeschooled after that and no one knew what was wrong with me, including myself. I didn’t know the words “transgender” or “gender dysphoria” but if I would have I could have pinpointed what was wrong with me. 
During all of this time, I also isolated myself and shut the world out. The internet became my home, along with my bedroom, and our local cinema. The cinema was the only place I felt comfortable going because I was going to be shrouded in darkness. No one would see me.
When I came across the films of Chantal Akerman, and to a lesser extent Sofia Coppola, I immediately made a connection, because she’s this very interior director. She’s patient. She’ll let a shot sit for an absurd lengths so that we can feel the time, but for me, stasis felt like home. In The Meetings of Anna she frequently shoots her lead character Anna (Aurore Clement) staring out windows watching the world instead of being in it herself, and almost all of her films have moments like that among other things I’d gravitate towards. I think of Je, Tu, Il, Elleand the opening passage where Chantal sits in a room with no furniture for upwards of 40 minutes writing in a diary and eating sugar. It felt like cinema that fundamentally understood me and SAFEis an extension of that. Haynes, and much of the new queer cinema group of the early 90s, conisdering they were disciples of Chantal Akerman in a stylistic and thematic sense. 
Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974)
 
CG: When I was a teenager, I had some idea about the New Queer Cinema movement. There was Gregg Araki, who had just put out Mysterious Skin and I was interested in watching more Todd Haynes after coming across Far From Heaven, I’m Not There., and Velvet Goldmine. However, it was Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story that made me think he was a filmmaker who I wanted to follow for the rest of my life. Haynes had an understanding of what it is to be a person who was a prisoner of an identity. In the case of Karen Carpenter (recast as a Barbie doll) it was an exterior, that was effected by her internalization of the absurdly high beauty standards expected of a pop star like herself. Most notably stemming from the widely circulated, notorious comment, that the eating disorder that took her life was based from somebody calling her fat. Haynes understands his characters are on the margins of society. Some of the harshest conditions that can take control of a human body come from an exterior place, that then influence their interior selves but also reveals and informs that interior side that has long been there, unsatisfied. That is [SAFE] and for me, it hits on a trans-allegorical level even if it is something people would not immediately be drawn into perceiving.
I like that you bring up Akerman, as her film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels is a clear influence on [SAFE]. Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) goes through a series of routines that she must do over and over as a housewife and mother to an ungrateful son (Jan Decorte). She is framed dead-center as audiences watch her prepare meat loaf and peel potatoes in real time. Her routines wear her down and she reaches a breaking point while internalizing her feelings of unfulfilment. It ends badly with the cataclysmic breaking of routine. We feel tha due to Akerman’s patience and insistence that we watch this woman and perceive her thought process. We begin to see ennui become more visible and she’s worn down from playing by these rules that she so closely followed. [SAFE]’s Carol White never has a handle or any real ownership of herself in the same way Jeanne Dielman does, but we watch her in a similar way with a focus on her failed attempts to fall into a routine to gain some sense of self worth. But the problem with Carol White, and why I connect with her on such a deep level, is that she has no identity or really anything to claim as her own. Her home is her husband’s money, she cannot nurture her stepson because she did not give birth to him, and the domestic roles to keep the home nice are done by others because Carol’s husband has money. Her attempts at doing simple jobs like ordering a couch or just her attempting to look ultra-feminine backfire. The moment where Carol gets a perm is her cataclysmic event. Those events expose her to chemicals that reveal she is a sufferer of environmental illness, a real life illness, that is tied to her trying to assert her femininity and identity. Julianne Moore as Carol gives a full bodied performance that I still cannot shake. Her performance is criticised sometimes as being merely a cipher, but listen to her airy, high register voice that feels like it wants to leave her body. Aside from her performance there’s also intricate detail in the costuming. Look at the gauche 80s clothing that she wears, and how her wardrobe becomes washed out and blank as she gets sicker. She’s a blank slate and still unable to connect to something that can unlock her illness. She’s goes to Wrenwood, a New Age community that is all about positive affirmations but a community that avoids confronting their problems. These issues stem from their place in society. The world doesn’t know what to do with them, let alone the medical community. There isn’t a word for what they’re experiencing and their place in the world is fractured because there isn’t a language to discuss their problems. Sound familiar? 
[SAFE] was made after the height of the AIDS/HIV crisis and serves as a conscious allegory of it by a queer filmmaker that correctly presented how society did treat people with AIDS/HIV at the time. If you did not die from the disease, that did not mean society understood or willing to help you. You may seek out communities but getting actual help in confronting your illness beyond positive affirmation was a serious issue. It’s something that films people want to retroactively assign an AIDS/HIV allegory miss. What could you do if you had AIDS/HIV, environmental illness, or gender dysphoria when there were no words or a dialogue happening about it? Carol White sought out empty spaces, be it an empty room, or an empty car garage. I sought an empty room in some of my dysphoric episodes too. I still do that sometimes, but I also need to have help and people to talk to rather than sink into my shell.


[SAFE]
WM: I think one of the most brilliant aspects of [SAFE] is Julianne Moore’s performance and it absolutely wouldn’t work without her full understanding of who this character is, and her place in the frame. She mentions on the Criterion Collection interview with director Todd Haynes that upon reading the script she was dying to play the character, because she immediately understood that this character didn’t want to take up space anywhere. She wanted to minimize her presence and make herself as small as possible. This ties into your comment about her voice. Notice that she’s not speaking with the full depth of her vocal chords, but merely letting words flutter out. Like she’s speaking at the top of her throat and not from her body, because there’s a disconnect between her brain and her self. Todd Haynes amplifies this by framing her in ways that reduce her physicality to the point of a small dot in the larger scope of a room or space. And we do that as trans people. We blend in, but even more than that we make ourselves invisible, especially when dysphoric. Is it a life when you flee from everything that makes life worth living? That’s a question I pretty frequently asked myself when I was a teenager, and I realize now that it wasn’t necessarily my fault for retreating in the same way Carol does in this film. I had an illness that couldn’t be treated, and damn sure wasn’t understood considering this was pre-mainstream trans presence age. I felt like if I actually spoke up about what was wrong with me I wouldn’t be believed, and I wasn’t when I eventually did talk about what was wrong with me. Carol wasn’t believed either. She was second guessed and at absolute worst even gaslighted about what she was going through in this movie. Haynes positions all of this as an AIDS allegory of sorts, but it works on multiple levels like you said, and it’s an easily identifiable film in something resembling a transgender canon even though it doesn’t directly represent transness or talk about it at all.
I think as trans people when we talk about transness we have to widen the scope of what is transgender cinema, because the literal texts so often miss the point. It’s also why queer cinema has to move beyond just what pertains to sexuality. Sexuality is important and so are stories that are literally about transgender people, but as an art form cinema can handle topics of a wider scale in different ways than direct representation. It’s intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise. 
[SAFE]
 CG: Precisely. As a physical being Carol White is at the margins of her own story, the very frames of the film. She is so uncomfortable in her own skin and no matter how much she wants to assure people in her life that she is getting better, her body tells you otherwise. It is such a tough movie to watch. You’re seeing somebody never getting better because the chaos and unknown elude her. The choices she makes in trying to accept a level of culpability in being in her situation in the guise of self-help to be ‘safe’ are heartbreaking. There is a tip-off by Haynes early on that one of the few things that Carol connects to and feels like she has some level of interest in is gardening and walking around in her garden at night. She connects to nature, but a nature that contains the same chemicals that she has been advised are attacking her body. That dichotomy represents the general chaos of existing and having a body in the world. It’s quite devastating that she retreats. 
To talk about queer cinema as far as dealing with bodies, the AIDS crisis did provide an interesting link in presenting a sense of dysphoria on-screen. Characters no longer had control of their bodies. To have had AIDS in the 80s was for a disturbingly long time, an unknown and widely misunderstood condition that was alienating and isolating, and society at large didn’t care. They were more ready to place blame on those with the disease for their lifestyle choices than to actually look at ways in which to help these people. That it’s still hard to this day to present AIDS in cinema as something gripping, real and a distinct period that completely reshaped the world due to conscience negligence is damning. It feels like they’ve swept it under the rug and don’t want to recognize it and stare it point blank right in the eyes. To get into other body horror films is to approach some of the films made during the time period. I mentioned how I am a bit guarded about being so insistent on assigning some of these movies as AIDS allegories, as some of them do make the host of the disease and condition that riddle through these films a complete monster, inhuman, de-personalized, and making society the victims, when that is not the AIDS story at all. But there was one that stood out for me and it is perhaps because the filmmaker had an understanding of the frailty of the human body and daringly empathized as much as one could with a person who took on such a debilitating condition. I am talking about David Cronenberg’s The Fly. In its own way and throughout his career, Cronenberg really seemed to get how much of a personal terror it is to not feel like you’re present in your own body, with your skin morphing and deteriorating in such gross, disturbing ways. Dysphoria was not as gross as a Cronenberg film to me, but boy it can feel that way. 
The Fly (1986)
 WM: A friend of mine once said that “Long Live the New Flesh” (the final, iconic line from Videodrome) works as both a monument to Cronenberg as a director and to his place as a filmmaker who unintentionally made a half dozen or so films that could easily be placed alongside words like “body dysphoria”, and I think that just about perfectly sums him up. I think your insistence that The Fly is his best is spot-on, even if I love quite a few of his films. Cronenberg always had a tendency towards playing in his own goop, but it’s that very essence that I think aligns him to a cinema we can understand. It’s a cinema of bodies in disarray first and foremost, almost in a state of decay from the onset with characters fighting against that feeling. It’s a kind of Canadian disposition of surviving winter and living with the cold of death hovering around everywhere, but I think it’s something we can understand fundamentally too because in a sense we have to kill our past self to bring a newer version of us into existence. We are our own ghosts and Cronenberg’s characters are of a similar disposition. But I want to hear more from you about The Fly. It’s one of my favourites and I’ll get to it in a second, but I’d like to hear you elaborate first. 
CG: What I like about Cronenberg is that there are, as you said, bodies in complete disarray and characters grappling with various levels of control with their bodies. Some of these characters know and have a certain level of agency over how they are treating themselves that is mostly out of step with society’s norms. There’s a sense of reckless abandonment, like Videodrome, in being so disconnected and seeking out something more experiential than what society is giving you, but I don’t sense a moralist streak in Cronenberg. It’s quite queer, and Crash is the best example of that sense of bucking society’s norms on a sexual and identity level played in hypertext. But to hit on The Fly, Cronenberg’s more mainstream and major studio works showed more of a relationship to normative society existing around these characters. The earlier works, Shivers, Rabid, Scanners, and Videodrome are still playing within a level of their own logic that the audience is dropped into and needs to be acclimated to rather than our common, normative world setting the rules. Cronenberg’s remake of the Kurt Neumann’s The Fly from the 1950s has its entry point be Geena Davis’ Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Quaife following and then engaging in a relationship with Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle. Brundle is cast immediately as an eccentric and somebody who wants to please Veronica by having his work impress her. He’s insecure and it clouds his judgment, his experiment on teleportation becomes tainted, that then leads him to take on the characteristics of a fly. It is a deterioration that is quite devastating but initially Seth’s results show that he becomes an ideal partner to Veronica on a physical level, and he credits his teleportation. But his changes become more negative, violent, and averse, he transforms into a monster, but even before he goes full-blown monster, he ceases to be the man that Veronica once knew, and was in love with. He is dehumanized and has his humanity removed. That does not mean Veronica completely recoils and rejects him despite gaining her own trauma due to the fact that she gets impregnated by him and has nightmares of giving birth to a creature (probably the biggest connection to the AIDS allegory is the fear and anxiety of having a condition transmitted sexually). She wants to care for him and save Seth but does not know how, but does grants Seth his wish of being shot with a gun to kill him and end his misery. The deteriorating body that isolates and alienates, a monstrous sight at a man who wanted to play God and self-improve in order to be somebody more than an eccentric nerd. That’s how I see The Fly. The idea of trying and it turns into a self-inflicted wound, a cause for more disarray, chaos, and dysphoria in the body. You look like shit and you cannot really seek help for that. 
Crash (1996)

Rabid (1977)
 
WM: I think the idea of playing god is also present in our general makeup which also makes The Flymore resonant. What could possibly be more like playing god than changing your entire body and some pre-supposed destiny into something entirely different? Brundle dies for this, but what essentially separates itself from other tragic martyr tropes is that the film is never played for it’s melodramatic reveal. It never unlatches itself from its own DNA in horror and because the film is ambivalent in a moral sense I don’t think Cronenberg asks us to weep for Brundle even if we may. In a narrative context his failed science experiment is not inherently different from the people who died transitioning when surgeries were brand new and doctors didn’t know what they could and couldn’t do. It’s an Icarus syndrome and it’s inherent in us.
Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of getting across the internal scars of what’s happening between them. Geena is the onlooker not understanding what’s happening to this person she had initially fallen for while Goldblum has to grapple with his body becoming inhuman. Goldblum spends a lot of time in mirrors staring at his rotting flesh while the work of brilliant special effects artist Chris Walas, does its job in getting across how horrific he views his external self while his soul is still clamouring for the life he once had. He doesn’t immediately shut down and decide to die, but it’s a slow, agonizing process where there’s nothing left. He accepts his death, because he lets who he is drift off to sea, never to be seen again. You can’t be a human if you’re so different from everyone else that no one else can understand, and that’s lateral to our issues as transgender people.
Even beyond The Fly I think Cronenberg has a rich visual catalogue of images that feel blatantly transsexual, even if they don’t have further context. I think of James Woods, shirtless, appearing to be a man in all ways, except for the cleft that resembles a vulva on his chest in Videodrome. He panicks, reaches in and finds a gun. Is that a suicide image? His own latent anxiety at what’s happening and his mind summoning a gun? One could argue. There’s also the image of Roy Scheider in Naked Lunch revealing himself to be living underneath the skin of a very normal looking cis woman only to be a bare chested, hairy son of a gun with a cigar in his mouth. That one’s more punk rock. But I think of these images, often, and there’s certainly more than those two.


Naked Lunch (1991)
Videodrome (1983)
CG: That image in Naked Lunch is incredible. I recall Cronenberg saying that he
believes everyone has control, with varying degrees of complete grip, over
their identities. This makes sense to me. He is not really casting a judgmental eye but showing people going through self-discovery that it can sometimes be trial and error, wear and tear, and can doom them, but that is more Cronenberg presenting human fallibility than damnation. And his stories make sense as far as seeing these bodies in disarray and these choices being made because Cronenberg’s worlds make sense. The images are surreal, subversive, but the characters are very real, sometimes even operating in very traditional film archetypes. But of course there is a level of transgressiveness in his work that makes his films challenging for people. He knows his characters are not normal based on the rules and understanding of modern society but there is no dictating of norms and rules within his work. That makes his films extremely easy and freeing to watch as a trans person. Even his most classically made work, A Dangerous Method, a play adaptation that’s based on the real life psychoanalysts in Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Sabina Spielrein, offers something for me as a trans person through Keira Knightley’s deeply rich, and extremely misunderstood, performance of Spielrein. It’s a full bodied performance, incredibly physical, unhinged jaws and body contortions that make her feel diametrically opposed to Julianne Moore’s Carol White. But Spielrein goes from a patient, considered emotionally unstable, to somebody who confronts her trauma of her past life and is able to finds words of what has eaten away at her. She improves and takes an interest in psychology, becoming a student and then ultimately, one of the first female psychoanalysts. It’s so simple and may be shrugged off as spotlighting a simple feminist strain of a major figure in her field, but I find that Cronenberg shows amid the disarray of his characters and their bodies, there can be a confrontation with the problem and that can be tied to an identity, a trauma, something that had been elusive and hard to explain and that can lead to finding peace. Spielrein in A Dangerous Method is a body horror story, that includes a confrontation in the form of BDSM in her sessions with Jung, that can have a happy ending (well, happy to the extent of Spielrein’s success as her real-life had its own unfortunate end due to being a Jew, her religious identity used against her, in World War II). 
WM:  The most interesting thing to me in A Dangerous Method is Keira’s performance. It’s full body acting and unleashes a kind of torrent inside of her in terms of the physical horrors she’s manifesting through acting. It’s a great performance and everything that Cronenberg does with Body Horror, but on a theoretical level instead of one reliant upon special effects. All the terror is completely inside of Knightly’s own process. 

A Dangerous Method (2011)
WM CONT: You mention the word “trauma” above and I want to get into that a little too, specifically the works of a handful of actors and directors. This isn’t necessarily connected to transgender cinema literally either, but in the ways these things can intersect. Rob Zombie’s films really hammer things home for me in this regard, and I’ve written about them extensively. In The Lords of SalemSherri Moon Zombie plays a woman who is essentially cursed, a daughter of Salem unfairly brought into a centuries old blood pact which leads her to spiral into a mess of trauma, relapsed drug use and hallucinations. Hallucinations in particular are what I want to gravitate towards, because they take the real world and make it strange, and I think that’s how we perceive things, even if it isn’t as loudly stated as bugs ripping into your flesh or vomiting black sludge. The main point is that something is amiss and dysphoria can tangle the world into a poisonous vine of self destruction. This abstracted imagery due to trauma is also strongly present in movies like Jack Garfein’s “Something Wild”, the filmography of David Lynch and in the work of Hideaki Anno’s epochal, Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
 CG: Part of being trans and then telling people about it is how seriously they take you. A lot of that can result in years of internalization for fear of being misunderstood and not taken seriously at all. Telling someone you’re trans shifts their image of you, and that can take its own toll on us, because we have no idea how someone is going to react. If you have no trans health providers or health insurance or find yourself isolated, what can you do? Even with those privileges that I have had, in my period of not being able to tell anyone, I disassociated which has me operating with just periods of my life that are blank for myself despite people recalling me in an image that I was disconnected from in those timeframes. That disassociation came as a reaction to trauma and torment in addition to dysphoria that festered into just more inner-turmoil. When I got older, I was self-medicating my problem, even as I was becoming increasingly aware that I was trans, by drinking alcohol. I am a recovering alcoholic. I am upfront about it because at this point I feel like I have nothing to hide. And I feel like, unfortunately, based on the numbers and studies of trans employment, suicide rates, uninsured, and other surveys done, that we are not really alone in having traumas in addition to our gender dysphoria. I can see a film about an alcoholic or even somebody feeling like their memory has been manipulated in a way where I see a film on trauma and disassociation and connect with those works. I echo your sentiments on the films of David Lynch, Garfein’s Something Wild and would include Lynne Ramsay’s recent You Were Never Really Here as well as Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight as far as achieving trauma, disassociation, and feeling off-centered. That feels right at home for me.
Films gravitating toward body horror that understand the frailties and fallibility of the human body, feel like the closest depiction to our issues I can imagine on-screen even if it isn’t direct text, just shrouded in allegory. Cronenberg did to a trans film called M. Butterfly but that is Cronenberg’s worst film because it betrays a lot of what makes him great. The trans character of Song Liling (based on the real-life opera singer turned spy Shi Pei Pu that “fooled” a French diplomat in identifying as a woman when was just a male performer posing as a woman) just feels at such a distance and enigma who is never interrogated and has that eye-roller of a scene where John Lone strips naked of his character’s ‘true self’ as revelation. That film is perhaps more of a failure of the pre-existing text of the widely known David Henry Hwang play, but it is quite ironic that Cronenberg’s allegories that you can connect to transness feel easier to connect with as a viewer than his film about an actual trans person. That was somehow between Naked Lunch and Crash. I felt like I had a better idea and grasp of the characters turned on by being in car crashes than a trans character ‘pretending’. 
WM: I feel you in a major way. It’s true that telling people you’re trans automatically alters that image of you. It’s like a small death, and it’s on us, perhaps unfairly, to reaffirm to that person that this other thing is the real version of ourselves. It all comes back to images doesn’t it? How we view ourselves. How we’re perceived by others. No wonder we’re so obsessed with cinema considering the image is everything. What is so stirring about body horror is that through it’s broad abstracted images on the human body in a state of disarray it somehow comes close to touching on something resembling cinematic language that is actually functional with transness. Melding body horror into realistic human drama is perhaps how to achieve a true transgender cinema. Something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in fiction filmmaking. We’ll chase that and keep creating until it exists, and we’ll keep talking about it. Talking about transenss and getting it out in the open is why we, as a community, have made strides so far in the past five or six years, and that’s no small feat in and of itself. Maybe a transgender cinema can exist. 
Inland Empire (2006)
 


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


Body Talk is an ongoing series of transcribed conversations on Transgender Cinema as we prepare to write a book on the subject. This part is on Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary, Paris is Burning.

 

WILLOW MACLAY : God, please just let us celebrate while we’re here. Let us dance and open up the world to one another.”That’s what I wrote in my letterboxd blurb hours after having first watched Paris is Burning in 2014, and after revisiting the film a few days ago, in 2018, not much has changed. To watch Paris is Burningas a transgender person is completely overwhelming. It’s the cinematic equivalent of someone dying of thirst suddenly having a waterfall dropped on top of them. Underneath the cracks, hidden in a back alley, on an abandoned street away from the eyes of the world there’s life, bristling and bursting with pride, beauty, vanity and love for one another. Our brothers and sisters and everyone else inbetween can grasp at something that’s real. A reality where we can exist, and not press up against the limitations of flesh, but grab hold of a dream and christen it as us. In this building, a true safe space, where dance, music, sex and identity collide into one we’re the stars of the universe without the undue burden of a racist, sexist, transphobic society that wishes to plunge us and everyone like us back down into the earth. The Ball Culture in Paris is Burning is an overpowering experience, because it’s like an alternate reality where we can flourish on our own terms and gives dignity to the transgender body as not only something valid, but something beautiful while also not bullshitting us about the struggle it takes to merely make it to your next day as a trans person. You and I are cloaked in an armour of whiteness which gives us distance to the folks in this movie while also protecting us from a lot of the danger and difficulties present in this movie that’s made up almost entirely of LGBT persons of colour, but their struggles, happiness and desires are lateral to our own. We want what they want. There’s a unifying theme in being trans that connects all of us through dysphoria and desire, and Paris is Burning understands this by presenting that idea as a matter of objective fact while letting QTPOC hold the frame and own the film, and thus their story. I think Paris is Burning is to this day the greatest film ever made about transness, and I’m curious if you feel the same way Caden. 

 
CADEN GARDNER: Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning was one of those docs that I always heard about, but its currency and legacy was more in the words than the images, and despite its popularity and box office success it’s shamefully not on home video. I knew a little about Ballroom culture and I obviously knew about drag, but I had no idea how much it intersected as this mosaic of time and place with Paris Is Burning, particularly about trans people. I saw it around college and was floored. We see these matriarchal houses (the leaders of the houses, regardless of sex and gender are referred to as ‘Mother’) of performers thriving at the ballrooms and many have dreams that expand far beyond the ballroom floor. We see Octavia St. Laurent and Venus Xtravaganza talk about what they want as trans women. They talk about gaining superstardom or even just security like many women of their time wanted, while they also share their struggles with the limitations of their body and social status. They both lay on bedrooms when talking to Livingston, formally this is like a shot/reverse shot, and in their testimonials, they are literally laying down in the place of dreams, but when we see them on the streets and on the ballroom floor, they have star quality. You cannot teach that.

Even if their lives as trans women of color (and in Venus’ case as a sex worker) are far different from my experience as you said, they want what you want and what I want. One of the first things Venus talks about is getting gender affirming surgery and talking about her current differences, but saying it so matter of fact, without shame. Non-fiction films are the rare outlets for trans people to have control of their narrative and their voice in ways fictional films cannot and have not allowed. There has never been a fictional film about transness like Paris is Burning and for me it is the gold standard, the North Star in a lot of ways to transness on film. The effortless simplicity of merely letting these trans women talk, and, of course why wouldn’t Livingston do that? After all, she is talking to stars. 




 WM: I was a little bit older than college age coming around to this film the first time. I had been out a couple years up to that point, but I admittedly didn’t know a lot about transgender history and I hadn’t seen much in the way of LGBT cinema. I was under the same roof as my parents and if they ever caught me watching a movie like Paris is Burning there would have been consequences. That didn’t mean I didn’t sneak around and watch things like the HBO series, Six Feet Under or even something like Brokeback Mountain, but transness? Forget about it. I don’t even think I learned about the film until I saw fellow, transgender film critic, Alice Stoehr write about it on letterboxd and that’s when it sort of entered into my headspace. I haven’t seen anything quite like it since. There have certainly been a lot of films to follow in its footsteps like The Aggressives, Kiki and the more recent, Shakedown, but Paris is Burning is certainly the first of these observational documentaries about trans people to truly leave an imprint on cinema. There’s pre-stonewall documentaries floating around like The Queen, but that film never made nearly 4 million dollars at the box office and formally doesn’t approach Paris is Burning in terms of pure craft. You can certainly see the visual and structural influence that followed.

Paris is Burning shines brighter than all the rest, because its heart is in truly cinematic images, and it’s not merely Livingston’s touch which brings this out, but the trans women and drag queens themselves. These people are bigger than life and damn sure wanted viewers to know it.Their hearts are in the movies, like there’s that scene where house mother Dorian Corey talks about how the balls begged for participants to model themselves after movie stars like Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe and for a later generation that shifted to the models that graced the pages of fashion magazines like Vogue. So there was already an innate cinematic quality to the bodies on screen (which is bittersweet considering cinema doesn’t recognize these bodies as valid), but Livingston sprinkled in a lot of other little formal wrinkles which makes the film feel different from your standard documentary. Frederick Wiseman’s name is in the thank you credits so his observational techniques seem like they mattered to Livingston, but even when she does things like talking heads segments there’s a lived in quality surrounding the people when they’re discussing their lives, because we see them sewing while they talk, or sitting on the beach, or smoking in their den. It’s vastly different from the fussy, empty rooms and uptight interview segments you normally see in documentary filmmaking, so even when the film goes for more traditional storytelling elements seen in the documentary film Livingston does something different, and she hardly deserves all the credit because she isn’t the one sewing, making up their face or decorating their living room. It’s life in every corner of the frame, and that’s the touch of the trans people and drag queens who were interviewed, not hers. 



CG: The testimonials are so essential and there is not a single patronizing moment from Livingston in how she employs formal qualities. Most documentaries on trans folks are guilty of partaking in that very thing, even if they are doing us a solid in presenting our lives (I’m talking about Southern Comfort and which, you know, that title still makes me eye-roll despite how much I love who the subject is). There is that moment where Octavia St. Laurent is walking among the Ford Models and we get Eileen Ford herself talking about womanhood and trying to reconcile that with the feminist movement and how Octavia’s presence on the periphery of that scene just shows how much there is to go and how much consideration still needs to be paid to let her and others in to the world where they are as valid as any supermodel for Ford Models. Livingston says nothing beyond getting that footage. Octavia is not listening in on that interview by the TV journalist and Eileen Ford, she’s just there to meet and greet her idols. But the moment is still so perfect. Octavia’s difference is invisible and there whether she was trans or cis, she passes in a way that flies completely under the radar. It’s a complicated, daring image of differences that we know as an audience and as she knows, but the public doesn’t, and isn’t her invisibility among a crowd of women something of an end goal in our own wants and desires? Some cis people get so confident that they can pick all trans people out of a line-up, but Octavia flies in the face of that. I think Livingston does understand that and that was why she kept that footage and in that presentation in that particular way. 



 WM: Desire is so important. Octavia wants to be like any other model. Any other woman, but also something more extraordinary. My own desire is enough to confirm my feelings of gender. It didn’t matter so much if I didn’t ovulate, because my desire to be a woman was so overpowering that I gave up everything to become myself or a version of myself that I wanted to see brought into existence. To remake my body in my own image. That’s what Venus is talking about when she references wanting to have vaginoplasty, and when those words are spoken aloud in this movie it is really overpowering. It’s like you said earlier, this is not comparable in narrative filmmaking where putting that desire to image has probably never been achieved. The documentary realism of films like Paris is Burning open up about innate desires and needs and gives their characters room to speak about “why” this is important to them. It’s a rather low bar to clear to merely state “I want to fix my body“, but the light behind her eyes when she’s resting on her bed and the dream of knowing that this is what she’s aiming for is undeniable. The sad matter of fact is that being trans is also a constant struggle of not getting what you want, and sometimes we have absolutely no control over that whatsoever. And that’s Venus’s story. She’s only one of many LGBT persons of colour in this movie, and I like that Livingston gives you the full scope. Not everyone in this movie is trans, but the gay drag queens, the butch lesbians, and the gay men vogue all alongside each other, because ultimately we’re the only other people we’ve got. The only people that really really care about us are us. And I wish we’d be wise enough to try and mend whatever problems we’ve had as a community that have divided us over the years, especially between drag queens and trans women, because in this movie they have each others back in a way that only family can. 

 
CG: Paris Is Burning reflected the late 1980s New York ballroom scene that was in-between the bankrupt, sleazy New York and the Giuliani-era 1990s clean-up and Disney-fication of Times Square. It’s a real snapshot of a time and it is really fascinating to look at people in that period who are both informed by their surrounding culture but also seeking out this scene because they are not getting their fill from the outside world. Paris is Burning was shot amid the AIDS crisis and it is acknowledged in the film multiple times (notably, Venus mentions that a man recoils at her when he finds out she has a penis and immediately just assumes she has AIDS). The viewer is seeing an underground sub-culture and the sub-cultures within that sub-culture deal with an American presidential administration that ignored the AIDS crisis for long as they could and a culture at large that was getting increasingly more conservative with the rise of evangelical Christianity. We see people maligned by society, a lot of them running away from hostile situations, to New York and finding their tribe in Houses. These matriarchal Houses, of performers, artists, and models that we see are also support systems of elders, friends, brothers, sisters, teachers, and students of the scene. But there is always reality lingering, such as Angie Xtravaganza, the Mother of the House of Xtrvaganza, reflecting on Venus’ murder (she had to identify her corpse). Angie’s reaction is fascinating, and our friend Carol Grant noted itin her Letterboxd review, that she is not crying, histrionic, or in any high key. She is very solemn and resigned all while being so eloquent and missing somebody important in her life. But death is the reality of her daughters in the House of Xtrvaganza and to any trans woman in New York. Being transgender involves a lot of risk and a lot of danger. It’s a game of survival, and the deck is stacked in particular against transgender people who are not white. Not every one leaves the ballroom with a breakout. In fact, many of the performers and figures featured in Paris is Burning are dead. I remember somebody on Twitter noting this fact that most of the people in Paris Is Burning are dead and how their own reaction was shock but so were the responses to it. And part of me wanted to just say, ‘And why are you people surprised?’ Trans people get targeted all of the time, and are at a much higher risk for violence, and to bring back up the AIDS crisis, QTPOC were at the low-end of the totem pole for an era that already dehumanized, shunned, and were ashamed of people with AIDS. 



 
WM: It’s vitally important to look at Paris is Burningfrom the perspective of a specific time period, and also of our own history as transgender people. In all the discussion that there has been recently about a transgender moment or with some level of exposure being put on our lives there’s been a near total neglect of what came before, and even trans people are not great in honouring history in our pursuit to keep our language and ideas on gender updated. But we’ve almost always been around, and likewise so has the ball culture in various forms throughout history. Morgan Page is something of a modern day transgender historian and her podcast on the subject, “One From the Vaults”, is necessary listening for anyone with a passing interest in transgender history. We’re oftentimes taken from this life too early for reasons that are as wide ranging as transphobic violence, suicide or AIDS, and we need to do better to honour our history and those who came before us. Paris is Burning is essential in this regard, because these images last. I think about Venus Xtravaganza twirling her hair by a boombox and and a Carmen frolicking on a beach before stating “I AM MY OWN CREATION!” so frequently. That’s eternity, and that’s what cinema can offer, and what it so rarely has for people like us.

I almost believe that documentary is the only way to directly address transness in cinema. When filmmakers have tried to directly make movies about transness they have more often than not failed. Something like The Danish Girl ignores dysphoria for fetishization, TransAmerica is a family carnival, and even recently, A Fantastic Woman is an exercise in sympathy via punishment. Even when transgender people make their own films it is oftentimes too soft a presentation of what is essentially a hard life. It can be good, but there has to be a flipside otherwise the film is dishonest. Where are the moments of “I AM MY OWN CREATION!“? I’m not sure there are any, but I think of the ingenuity of the trans people in Frederick Wiseman’s, “In Jackson Heights”, and the sensuality of the trans women in “Hookers on Davie“, and the vibrancy of everyone at the ball in “Paris is Burning”, and those people stick out to me. If we’re going to have a new transgender cinema and a new language in live action then we have to learn to apply these images and characters to narrative filmmaking. 



CG: I love that moment with Carmen and Brooke at the beach singing that verse from ‘I Am What I Am’/’We Are What We Are’ from La Cage Aux Folles. That musical and A Chorus Line were really the first Broadway musicals to center around gay characters that made their sexuality part of the identity, and in La Cage’s case, drag queens are at the center of the story. It’s so spur of the moment and something you can absolutely imagine them doing off-camera to each other, and that’s what’s fictional films. Sure, there is always some level of artificiality in fictional filmmaking but most trans movies rooted in original storytelling are missing the part you bring up. Something that feels like it does not have to be about respectability, martyrdom, polemic, or an object of fascination for cis viewers with only a surface level interest in our lives. For cis viewers the fascination is the trans part and nothing more. Venus, Octavia, and Angie are fascinating to me because they have so much confidence, dreams, philosophies, insights, and self-worth that you can form a full person for each of them. All of the subjects in Paris Is Burning are that way. Even the MC at the Ballroom contests with just his diction and mic work is amazing. You feel like you are hearing all of their stories and learning something without it feeling like homework.

There is an anthropological quality a la Wiseman in dropping in on a world from the outside- yet still maintaining a populist streak in feeling open, educational only in this is not using academia for validation of these subjects and lives. I think an LGBTQ person from that world would have made a different type of documentary in that respect, and who is to say how different or better, worse that would have been. Livingston does not really check her privilege in the documentary, prefers invisibility, but she has no interest in making subjects of this documentary people reacting to her subjects which I think other documentarians trip up on that when dealing with similar subject matter. Who would want to hear cops or the Johns or the gawkers who get their heads turned or the Giuliani types that made political promises to ‘clean up’ Manhattan and Times Square from these ‘freaks’ or, my favorite moral panic term, ‘sodomites’. No need to dignify or check in on the outside world, as if anything, they more than have had their time in the culture and places of power. 



WM: Right. I think one of the most beautiful things about Paris is Burning is that Livingston doesn’t chase leads in the way a lot of documentaries about LGBTQ people do. She doesn’t go ask the parents of the performers questions like “when did you know your child was different? etc, etc”. Most films about transgender people are obsessed with details like that, and it’s purely a cisgender curiosity. One of the more interesting formal qualities are the instances where one character is out in public, outside of the safe space of a ball and Livingston catches in frame an onlooker. She never lingers on the images of cisgender heterosexual, white people looking in, but makes sure to point out in the image that their presence still condenses the world into their mold. And that’s even present in the Dorian Corey testimonial we mentioned earlier where she discussed dressing up like Marlene Dietrich. Beauty, and an accepted idea of what is womanhood by the public at large is white and cisgender. It effects everything. You need look no further than Madonna taking Vogue from everyone here and turning it into her thing. Culture is shifting slowly and slightly in this regard where there is more people to look at as a model of hope whether that be cis black women like Beyonce and Rihanna or in the transgender scope of things with women like Carmen Carerra and Laverne Cox. There are more images appearing, even if it is slower than we’d all like. 

 
CG: It is fascinating again how the legacy of the film, not so much the film itself but the testimonials of those figures from that scene, hit mainstream culture. It wasn’t images but in language, terminology, and, of course, dancing. Those who refer to voguing or even the terms shade, realness, reading, etc. would have no idea where it came from first. I heard the term ‘throwing shade’ recently on one of the most red meat, masculine, straight cis male platforms there is: sports talk radio. Perhaps that accelerated with RuPaul’s Drag Race and how internet culture, and especially in memes, have run with those terms. Fragments in Paris Is Burning have probably been seen by millions in GIF form in all likelihood. It is a little frustrating in that sense, as Livingston presented and those performers gave so many memorable moments of movement and in words, but people are sharing images of Drag Queens and trans women without name or credit of who they are and what work they’re sourcing. Twitter now just has a GIF search engine where getting a GIF from Paris Is Burning does not even mean you have to type in Paris Is Burning. At risk of sounding overly serious, I do find that a problem as far as losing history. People have their own ways to discover transgender identity and drag, but just having things unattributed can lead to a lot of future confusion and even people getting history flat out wrong. One of my problems with even the way this film is shown is that it is often in college classrooms and instead instructors wanting to mine through more of this underground, hear more of these people, learn more about their ways of life, they just would rather give the class reading material of bell hooks and Judith Butler coming from different sides of this film. I have a liberal arts degree but I think making this film part of academia misses the point of who Paris is Burning is about and who it is for. It’s for people like those two young gay street kids with infectious smiles despite being in an almost modern Dickensian situation. Ultimately, the film wants its audience to be as open as its subjects are. I think that is what true populist art is. Paris Is Burning’s audience is mostly white liberal students and academics when it should be broader and the broad audience are getting fragments of Paris Is Burning without even knowing it. And that is frustrating, as you mention how seeing images of trans people or people in a scene can be validating and even life-saving for any person, anywhere. I think there is slightly more visibility but it still comes with certain gawking and fascination as a cultural object than a three-dimensional person. That’s no knock on women like Laverne Cox or Janet Mock, but more about the dominant society’s slow-footedness.



WM: I think you can chart your original point of the film being populist art and needing to be taken out of the classrooms and out of gender studies courses to my original experience of not having heard about the film until I was already out. The thing about art about outsiders and minority groups is that it usually ends up out of our reach, and with the death of the video store and homogenization of streaming options with Netflix’s near monopoly it gets even dicier, unless you’re torrenting your own history. To give you an idea of my own personal experiences with movie theaters I’d have to take you to small town rural Kentucky where there’s just as many churches as people living there. I’m only barely exaggerating. But the cinema that I grew up with had 4 screens and was strictly limited to whatever Bruce Willis, Johnny Depp or Arnold Schwarzeneggar was blowing up that week. When I grew up and had access to a car I was still 4 + hours away from any independent cinema and growing up poor meant that wasn’t an option. Now that I’ve grown up and moved to Newfoundland to both chase my dreams and live with the man I love I find myself in a similar tricky position with cinema where there just isn’t that much to offer. If I’m going to a rep screening it’s probably for something like Michael Mann’s HEAT. It’s not going to be a film starring the Chelsea Girls y’know? But I think we need to ask ourselves questions about access to movies and how these are shown. Paris is Burning and movies about LGBT people need to be shown EVERYWHERE. We’ve seen the kind of impact something as nice and easygoing as Love, Simon has had in mainstream cinemas recently, but there’s got to be more, and in the case of trans people where we are not even close to being a mainstream commodity for studio filmmaking a movie like Paris is Burning becomes even more vital and important. Watching something like Paris is Burning is so overwhelmingly life-affirming, even when it is depressing, that it would likely be an important moment for anybody who was questioning their gender. There’s more to cinema than relatability but there’s sheer fucking power in seeing someone saying something and you immediately recognize yourself in the image. It makes it seem like we actually can make it out here on our own. We don’t have to die by our own hand, because we came into life under difficult circumstances. 

 
Love, Simon has me thinking about mainstream progress, and what that even means and how it’s hijacked by some level of conformity. For LGBTQ people progress has always been slow and when it has come it’s been breadcrumbs. Even if we look at this in terms of cinema trans people certainly existed as long as cinema has, but in the 100 plus years people have been making movies there just hasn’t been that much we can gravitate towards that isn’t in some way rooted in societies fears over transgender people. We can even see this in Paris. Venus is killed because she’s transgender, because she has a non normative body in the eyes of cisgender society and I find that tragic beyond words, because that fear of being expunged by some random person in society is real for us. The only real problem I have with Paris is Burning is that it ends on her death, because even in the negative moments of the film and the unfortunate circumstances of life there was always this affirmative, positive, glowing quality surrounding everything. I think if a trans person makes the movie it probably ends with a glow rather than an obituary. But even with that complaint and the controversy surrounding the payment issues and later fame (and I side with the performers on this, not Livingston) I think this is the best movie about transness ever made. It functionally shows us, warts and all, as a people, how we come together as family and survive and live the best we can, even when we know society would watch us die and turn a blind eye to our bodies. They always have. 



CG: Even though I grew up in a blue state, where marriage equality was law before SCOTUS, and not in a place hostile with people transitioning in its laws a la North Carolina, I grew up around people who didn’t erase LGBTQ lives, but barely acknowledge them. I only had Jerry Springer type-shows, reality shows, and an occasional National Geographic special to see trans people, and that is itself a mixed bag. The cliffnotes version of my high school is Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon but for the Trump era. I was queer and disassociating. It was mostly a blur with very little worth holding onto.

My high school was full of people who made AIDS jokes on the regular, were hostile towards gay men, and in health class, transness was never spoken about and homosexual sexual activity was not even touched, despite there being an after school special that my health class watched about AIDS with Harvey Fucking Fierstein in a supporting role about how straight can get HIV/AIDS too! The closest gay bar was a 30 minute drive on a good night, and most of the queens there were just the same tired lip-sync act of ‘And I’m Telling You’ from Dreamgirls (the only difference being if the queen chose Jennifer Holliday or Jennifer Hudson) complete a dramatic, “cathartic” wig removal finale. With the exception of me seeing a Todd Haynes film in a theater as far as watching ‘a gay movie’, I mostly used the internet and TV to check out New Queer Cinema of the recent past with Gregg Araki and even kitsch pastiche like Charles Busch filling my interest. I look back at what stuff I used to get my fill with mixed feelings because I wonder if my liking of the things were because I was that desperate for anything to validate my experience (I am afraid to revisit Hedwig & The Angry Inch). But as noted in the Boys Don’t Cry Body Talk, I still feel like I am searching for myself on-screen that is not covered with dread and an air of tragedy. It took me more than half of my life to discover that something like By Hook Or By Crook existed, a true indie, that was hiding in plain sight with the internet. It is one of those films that I wished I watched as a teenager. 



WM: I feel like to I’m still looking for a single movie where I feel seen in a way that feels validating rather than fatalistic. I think, because of my past history with childhood sexual abuse and my upbringing as a transgender person I gravitate towards films where the main character dies in some form or fashion or is shattered by a traumatic event. I like severe art because my mental health is fucked and sometimes that can be the only thing that feels like an antidote to a poison that runs through my veins, because of things in the past I had no control over. I write poems to Laura Palmer and bury myself in the body of the alien from Under the Skin, because at one point in my life their fate felt inevitable, and those characters and movies certainly help me, but I do wonder how I’d respond to a trans woman version of Cher Horowitz (Clueless) me on my best day, the brighter side of my life. I have no way of knowing, because no such film exists, and I’m not expecting to see something that feels real and magical in the way my life sometimes is now. It’s something I’m tired of waiting for, and I know other trans women are too. I’m tired of watching the movie about transphobia or the movie about transition. What I want to see is a movie about a transgender person. Person being the important word. 

 
CG: I honestly do not know how a mainstream trans story by Hollywood would look like. And I am morbidly curious about the reaction. I think about Paris Is Burning with Willi Ninja, how his voguing got associated- many still decry co-opted- with Madonna and her dancers (many of whom were from that ballroom scene) with ‘Vogue’. Even the mainstream, polished version of that scrappy but glamorous sub-culture, now with the avatar of one of the biggest pop stars in the world making this underground dance (that had been a staple in black and Hispanic parts of New York City for decades before) her signature, had a lot of the mainstream in a culture war. There was panic and foaming at the mouth. Madonna’s dancers had to face off against pastors for making out, talking frank about sex, and their scandalizing dancing from the Blonde Ambition Tour and the documentary Truth or Dare. That seems to still be how the media operates, which does concern me. 



WM: Things haven’t really changed that much since then either. There’s definitely been some drawback to our increased visibility. The murder rate is up, new legislation seems to be introduced almost daily to keep trans people out of bathrooms and sexual assault centers. The two of us specialize in understanding media and art, but as trans people we have to learn about things like legislation. Within the United States government things like employment protection, legislation and basic human rights are things we’re always lagging behind compared to our cis counterparts. I don’t think cisgender people take us seriously most of the time. They want to be seen as progressive and forward thinking, but won’t actually take the time to listen or care about us, and that goes for cis gays as well. We struggle to find our place in the world and it can feel downright debilitating to feel like you’re out here on your own, and this is coming from a small town girl who didn’t have anybody. I was branded the queer of my school almost immediately and it was unbelievably hard at times just to even gather the courage to go to school. I didn’t see a way out for myself, but if I had seen Paris is Burning when I was fourteen or fifteen it would have been nothing short of life-changing, and that’s why I think we have to do better at getting this movie out there to younger people. So they can see themselves, create their own stars, and maybe they won’t feel so alone in the world, because if there’s anything Paris is Burningis about: its family. 

 
CG: I feel like cis people view trans people in the media as something where it is a ‘gotta hear both sides’ attitude of half-brained dialectic that they can’t quit. If I have to see another trans woman have to sit next to right wing transphobic chode Ben Shapiro for another debate about trans people in public life or in popular culture, I am changing the channel. However, I am suspecting that will be the case if there is a mainstream trans film that comes up in the near future. Will it be worth fighting over? Will it be worth the price of admission? We can hope, but the current mainstream Hollywood that is still shaking off some decades-long trans panic but I still think we are stuck in objects of fascination and gawking phase at the moment.

People are probably wondering what we could be complaining about given the progress and gains that our cis allies see. Those people love to retweet our stuff share another trans person’s point of view to show they are woke about us. I want to think they are trying but it can be awkward, as though we are supposed to instruct them and tell them not to just see things at a surface level and that there has to be more done, primarily in understanding us. There are also those who seem to think that one experience made visible represents our own community. My eyes roll out of my head in people thinking that Caitlyn Jenner (editor’s note: she’s the worst!) represents the trans community at large or that Dave Chappelle ignores statistics of violence against trans women of color taking transness as a vanity act just for rich white people, which is the exact opposite of Paris is Burning. And then there are the people who cannot stop telling you how much they love Transparent and are surprised you don’t love it as much as they do. Bless their hearts.

Paris Is Burning remains a monument. That scene, as it was in the late 80s, has disappeared and so have the most of the people in it. But it is a vibrant document of a time in a city where there was a congregation of people putting on a performance while also getting to experiment and be themselves, carving out any space they can to be real. 
ADDITIONAL READING//VIEWING

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

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 

Body Talk: Conversations on Transgender Cinema with Caden Gardner

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 first of these discussions is on the classic Jonathan Demme picture, The Silence of the Lambs, which was just re-released on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection. This is what we had to say:

WILLOW MACLAY: I think I watched The Silence of the Lambs for the first time on cable TV. It was one of those movies that would always be on Sunday afternoons in-between morning and evening church services. The lord was probably pleased that on this sabbath day I was celebrating a movie about a serial killer, but I was totally beguiled by this movie. I felt an immediate connection to Clarice Starling, and considering that this was pre-cinephilia years for me (I was probably around ten) it may have been the first time that I ever noticed the camera doing something to help inform what I was seeing in the image. Blade Runner was the first movie where I thought movies could be more than movies, but Silence was the first one where I saw form. This specifically happened when Clarice is running during that great opening, and eventually heads into the FBI building and boards an elevator where her body is completely overwhelmed in the frame by these bigger guys. It set the tone for the movie and I also think it set the tone for my cinephilia. I even wanted to be an FBI Criminologist at one point because of her, but I didn’t have the stomach for it so I settled for movies. How did you come to view The Silence of the Lambs, Caden?

CADEN GARDNER: I would say being an actual toddler when The Silence of the Lambs was released and then promptly swept the Oscars, that my first connection with the film were in promotional images. The poster for the film is so enduring with the moth covering Jodie Foster’s mouth. I would see the disc at a local Blockbuster and certain references to the film would pop up in my adolescence that I only retroactively get now, but when I saw it for the first time I was around 12. I was into true crime at an early age in watching Unsolved Mysteries re-runs on Lifetime (Robert Stack powah!) and I was pulled in by cases like Jonbenet Ramsey and then the notorious Clutter Family murders that became There Will Be Blood, but I would say I was still uninitiated about serial killers when I first came around to The Silence of the Lambs. I had no idea it was based on a book series and that the killers portrayed were based on real subjects, but I was absolutely enthralled and engaged with the film. I too loved Clarice Starling, I was a major Jodie Foster fan with Freaky Friday and Taxi Driver (yeah, watched that quite young) as my reference points. I just love her character and I would say in your piece you get into why she is so compelling, she’s in a man’s world. We see her character be a green investigator and then solve the case by the end. It’s an arc that can be done so perfunctory but in Jonathan Demme and Tak Fujimoto’s hands the images are so compelling and striking to watch happen.

WM:  It’s funny that you mention the image of the moth covering Jodie Foster’s mouth, because you just reignited a memory from my youth where I was terrified of that image seeing it at my local video store, but also pulled in by its kind of repulsive quality. It struck something in me that I found viscerally terrifying, because I’ve always had this innate fear of bugs. When I was a child I learned that bugs could potentially crawl in your mouth while you sleep and I had nightmares about that for the longest time. I still carry a fear of bugs to this day. 

 Regarding Clarice Starling and how Demme and Tak Fujimoto shoot her. I think there’s this very strong connection to her through the way they frame her and use things like point of view shots to give us as an audience a way into the scenarios she is experiencing. In a physical sense we are right there with her and we’re meant to identify with her, and I think that amplifies any connotation of whatever feminist bent they were going for in making the movie. I’m unsure if I would call The Silence of the Lambs feminist, but I do think Jonathan Demme is a very humane filmmaker. He finds a way to empathize and ground our emotional reactions within a central character. I called this first person humanism in a piece for The Film Stage on either Lambs or Rachel Getting Married. I can’t remember which, but both of these movies have this very strong connection to a central female character as she’s going through these exponentially difficult tasks. The Family reunion at a wedding being much more terrifying than chasing a serial killer in my purview.

 

 CG: I believe it was your Rachel Getting Married piece and yes, that wedding reception is its own unique horror because you are likelier to reunite with a family fuck-up or people you disappointed than a serial killer! But back to The Silence of the Lambs, yes! That poster was terrifying and I was the type of kid who would not look away at things be it tabloid headlines of JonBenet or scary promotional art for serial killer films. But even then, with those images, I had no idea what I was going to see when I first saw it. 

The way Fujimoto and Demme use the close-up, which once I did become a cinephile and dove more into Demme’s work (most of which were in collaboration with Fujimoto) that I would realize this was a calling card. But it’s not a stylistic choice that feels at odds with the content, as you note, this perspective is crucial in having Clarice foregrounded and central to the audience. Sure, we get similar close-ups on Jack Crawford, Dr. Chilton, and Hannibal himself, but Clarice’s differences in gender are always there and are part of the story. There is a fairytale aspect to the innocent but smart as hell and tough as nails young woman going into the unknown and confronting a monster, which is the film’s trajectory. But I agree that Demme does bring a feminist and humanist quality in underlining that Clarice is exceptional and a bit isolated. We have Kasi Lemmons’ Ardelia by her side at certain points, but she is often the only woman in the room and is tasked with confronting multiple serial killers (Hannibal behind bars, catching Buffalo Bill) to catch a killer of women. Clarice is not torching the patriarchy, but the film heightens the viewer’s perceptions in making Clarice’s place at work and her relationships with her colleagues and superiors as places where there is an interesting dynamic going on while she catches the killer.

WM: I think that The Silence of the Lambs is essentially a perfect movie, but if I have one complaint it’s that Kasi Lemmons didn’t have her own arc within the narrative, but I do think it’s excellent that she’s there on her own. It would be completely unrealistic and blunt in this very stupid way if Clarice was the only woman in the picture against these otherwise violent masculine forces. She’d obviously seek out the company of Kasi’s character. It’s a little flourish that improves the movie, even if I do think we should have seen more of her. 

The question of gender in this movie is an interesting one, because I do think that’s the central conflict at play here, either through Gumb, and we’ll get to that landmine in a second, the job itself, or just her position in the world. They made these very intuitive decisions to pinpoint that her gender did effect the way she moves and exists in the world without also making it something she had to overcome. Clarice is a fully fleshed out character. She’s smart, bold, vulnerable, and ravenous to explore the underbelly of human psychosis in the hopes of saving other girls from this murderer. And Jodie Foster is astounding. She’s completely in tune with how Clarice moves, speaks, and carries herself in what is essentially this structural hell as Alice Stoehr points out. I always think back to her first walk up to Hannibal Lector where she’s striding along powerfully, but there’s also an unsure quality about what exactly she’s getting herself into that’s further complicated by the excitement of the moment. The reveal of Lector is great. It’s such a Nosferatu moment. And women have always had complicated relationships with vampires. And considering that Lector does bite into a guy’s neck later I think vampire feels accurate. 


CG: Demme is a curiosity for anybody who looks further back into his career and not just from the 90s onward post-Silence when it was a lot of “prestige” films and documentaries. He comes from the Corman School as in he worked for American International Pictures and Roger Corman (who cameos in this and deemed this film having ‘a perfect script’ when he and Demme spoke about the project) with Crazy Mama and Caged Heat. I bring this up because even films that you can label exploitation, trash, or a simple B-movie, this is where Demme and several of his talented peers cut their teeth. A lot of those films were horror and genre pieces, and Demme’s films all featured women foregrounded. I think Demme transcends a lot of trappings with the genre and source material because he is interested in female characters and also wants this film in conversation with the horror/thriller film genre. I noted before this film has a fairytale quality and Hannibal as the first monster that Clarice meets is built around the viewers’ associations with a lot of movie monsters, like vampires as you said. And there is a question of danger for Clarice when she is with him. It’s stated he won’t go after her but then by the end he’s no longer behind bars, ‘looking for a friend for dinner’! But not to rush to the end and go back to Clarice and Hannibal, there’s a tension in their conversations, Clarice being the audience surrogate of a normal person dropped into this crazy situation and Hannibal being this operatic but controlled know it all who is intimidating and charming all at once. But they develop a rapport. That all said, I’m always shocked by how little Hopkins is in the film. In a way he projects an omnipresence cast all over the film. Now that is a great movie monster!

WM: It is! And you bring up a great point about Demme initially coming from a place of genre, as if he had been working his way up to making this movie. I think his genesis all comes together here where all of the tools he’s picked up along the way coalesce into this perfect expression of his abilities as a filmmaker, and with the best genre films it is definitively within the confines of the skeleton of the genre while also evolving into something that becomes more than what was before. It’s a before and after movie where it’s very hard to imagine genre cinema without The Silence of the Lambs

And Regarding Lector I think the extreme close-ups of Hopkins make him appear much larger than life. That is not an original observation, but at times his face completely dominates the image, and not just his head, but his face. There’s a difference. It’s an image that’s too close. It’s equal parts seductive and scary. I think with all villains there needs to be something romantic at play where we’re drawn to the character. A natural, elemental evil can work, but the best villains in my estimation have a Luciferian quality where you can see their appeal. This is one reason why everyone is drooling all over Michael B. Jordan’s performance in the recent Black Panther. I think he’s more of an anti-hero, but Coogler loves him, and his body. He lingers. He has swagger. There’s something definitively sexy and appealing about him. There’s also something of that in Lector, which does separate him from Gumb who is treated much differently by the camera.

 CG: Yes, the illusion and manipulation are there in performance and aesthetics with Lector, heightened, just like they are there with Clarice in making her becoming a heroine gaining confidence and emerging as the hero over the course of the film. Clarice is not really a badass in presentation or line delivery, Lector calls out her Appalachian twang, but what is badass is her uncovering things in her case as we watch and are along for the ride with her. Foster is such a great presence to connect with, a character that now often is missing in a lot of genre films. It either has to be an anti-hero that must be bad ass or so corrupt the audience is put in the position to probe than relate. Or it’s just an uninteresting goody two-shoes cipher. Even Hannibal, you note the romanticism and seductive way Demme presents him and how Hopkins plays the role, feels missing from cinema. I think movies & TV feel more in the gray area now, showing that not all good is good and bad is bad. That has its pluses as nothing should be simplified, but it feels like characters in such narratives take a hit in just being ‘is he or she a good guy or bad guy or both’. Plus the deluge of true crime narratives have made way for more realistic villains and serial killers, that is more chill to the bone than engrossing. The Silence of The Lambs is not really social realist despite its source material being based on the real life serial killer Ed Gein (who also inspired Psycho). It’s theatrical, wearing its paperback best seller colors proudly while exploring a lot of territory that makes it the best film of its kind. 

But as far as Gumb, yes, the camera treats him differently and well, there is definitely something to that.

NOTE: We used he/him pronouns for Gumb because it is not clear in the film if the character is definitively a transgender woman

WM: I think you bring up a great point about losing something through what we conceive as “badass” these days and that something is humanity. The problem with this characterization nowadaways, and I’m unsure if Clarice fits other than being a foremother to a kind of brilliancy trope, is a whittling down of personality into an action rather than a life. It’s not human. It’s puppetry. I’m not of the opinion that all these “badass” characterizations are worthless as some are used really interestingly within the narrative context of the films themes like Resident Evil‘s questions of messianic motherhood, which could maybe also be dated back to Aliens. But you’re right in that this does extend to villainy as well, and the seductive qualities are one reason why Mads Mikkelsen worked in the Hannibal Television show, which is nowhere near as good as this movie, but has its positive qualities.

But let’s talk about Gumb. Gumb is different than Lector in many ways. Gumb isn’t seductive, but rather subversive and horrifying through his actions. I think in 1991 audiences could more easily comprehend cannibalism as a root cause for murder rather than a castration fantasy, which I think is what fundamentally makes Gumb horrifying for cisgender audience members, and outside of the context of cinema I think that’s another reason why Transgender people are so misunderstood in the public sphere. Why would anyone want to castrate themselves? That’s not a question that cisgender people understand and The Silence of the Lambs foists that onto viewers. I do think Demme has a sympathetic eye towards Gumb, which is also extremely different for a movie of this type. Gumb’s a monster, but Demme also asks us to understand the why of his situation. But before I go into that any further I want to know what you think of the differences between Lector/Gumb and maybe what you think of Gumb in general.

 CG: Yeah as far as characterization, and while you point to the female action heroine over the decades, my complaint was more about the crime procedural thriller, of the cat and mouse game, chasing the monster variety, a lot of which have defaulted into that old Nietzsche quote, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” The short of it is, I think the film and television crime procedural has suffered ever since nihilism was explained to those makers. 

Yes, let us beginning the dialogue over Jame Gumb aka Buffalo Bill. You noted in how he is shot versus Lector and a lot of that comes from how the audience enters their spaces. Clarice talks to Lector while we see Gumb entrap a female victim and then keep her down in a hole in his closed off home. When Lector talks to Clarice, it’s always at eye-level, the same talk directly to the camera close-up that Clarice has, what Clarice sees and the audience sees. Gumb doesn’t really have that shot, not until I believe Clarice pays a visit. Gumb is shot from the point of view of Brooke Smith’s Catherine Martin, looking up at him from the hole, while in peril. The imbalance and danger could not be more obvious. Gumb and Hannibal are both monsters, but of a different kind. Hannibal is never answering for his crimes, but he is talking about Gumb with Clarice. Notably, he does not deem Gumb as transgender, agreeing with the medical community that denied Gumb getting sex-change surgery. Rather, somebody lost and searching for something elusive. Whether you consider Gumb trans or fall more in line with Lector’s assessment, there is something tragic. As the audience, we never get to directly hear about Gumb’s inner turmoil from Gumb himself to figure out why he identified trans at some point. Yes, he is a murderer and does these terrible, elaborate things that Clarice defensively (I always kind of love how quickly she jumps in to note that transgender people are quite the opposite of violent killers when talking with Lector) notes is not the norm for being trans, so it is not a cause, catalyst, or trigger, but I do agree there is a level of sympathy that Demme gives Gumb. There is something about Ted Levine’s cry of, ‘You don’t know what pain is!’ towards Catherine that sticks with me. It is in such a way to suggest that Gumb has internalized a lot in grappling with himself that, as you said, I think a lot of audiences in 1991 don’t understand. But with that moment Demme puts it out there that, yes, we, well, the rest of the audience who have not identified as trans, do not understand Gumb’s pain at all.

WM: I love you response here, and I agree with almost all of your points. I think some of the more interesting characteristics of Gumb lay in these wrinkles we get into his inner life. He has these feminine urges that are twisted by circumstance. He loves to sew, but in a gendered sense it isn’t acceptable so it becomes tortured and vile. He carries around a very small cute dog, which is coded as feminine, but his gigantic hairy arms kind of upset the stereotypically feminine. He doesn’t know how to engage with his own femininity in a way that isn’t violent because it’s been kept away from him. At one point he did identify as transgender. That is deliberate text within the movie, and doctors did deny him a sex change operation. Which I think is some of the only inner information we get about Gumb. Gumb has a lot of depth as a character, especially as a serial killer. Where we’re usually given these interpretations of evil that are bluntly symptomatic of something wrong within the nature of the soul, and Gumb might have the same issues, but something is amiss and he’s gone out of his way to fix it in the only way he knows how. I think you’re absolutely right about the “you don’t know what pain is!” line which is given with such great ferocity from Levine, who I think is very good in this role.That line reading in particular is probably Gumb’s best moment, because it does open an inner window into his life that he has struggled beyond all recognition to fix a problem and is ferociously angry about it in a way that has completely ruined him. Circumstances. 

wm cont:
I think we have to talk about the elephant in the room though, and that’s the Goodbye Horses scene. I think it’s interesting that Demme used this song previously in Married to the Mob. As an autuerist touch this scene could be read as Gumb’s interaction with music. Demme has a scene like this in all of his movies where a character expresses their love for a song or a band, and in Silence it’s flipped on its head by being this twisted cabaret of tucking and tragic femininity. I think this scene is only horrific in the sense that the public was horrified by what Gumb was doing with his body. I’m not sure there is a context for us to think this is a moment where the act of cross dressing and tucking is horrific in and of itself, but by placing it within that house and everything else we’ve seen it becomes scary, but I don’t think it’s meant to be seen as only scary if you know what I mean. The image of mangled femininity is a powerful one, in a metaphorical sense for dysphoria. I don’t think The Silence of the Lambs has a deep grasp on that essentially, but occasionally comes across this incidental images which contain a lot of power in the context of transness. I also find it curious how transgender audience members can see something resembling their own reality in an image of dysphoria where cisgender audience members only see murder. It’s complicated, because we know how Gumb’s female body is being constructed, but I think we’re supposed to feel some level of sympathy for him reaching towards something he can never have like Icarus. I, at least, find that tragic in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative or evil. As I said earlier, Gumb is obviously a monster and his sex change may not have changed anything. Probably wouldn’t have. But it begs us to ask ourselves why do we frequently keep the agency of transgender and queer bodies out of their own hands? In a way that’s devastating, and it’s something transgender people almost certainly universally relate to in one way or another, even if they despite Gumb or find his place within the film interesting. 

CG: Yeah, Gumb has these touches that are gendered toward feminine while having a six-pack, masculine body, and always presented in public as masculine. Part of that is to just stay alive but also to work out his urges. His m.o. for drawing women is to have a broken arm (a Ted Bundy move) and needing their help to put something in his car, so present as masculine but wounded, crippled to get his prey. But when he is most feminine, it’s within his inner sanctum of his home. It’s privacy. It’s something that I feel myself and many transgender people who are privileged to have a home hold onto dearly in our relationship to a very personal space where we can just be us with no hassle. The “Goodbye Horses” scene starts with the extreme close-up of his lips saying, “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me!”, displaying self-confidence and belief over what he finds most attractive and fulfilling than what anybody else thinks. Then we see him tucked in and dancing along, the audience is only a voyeur and one that can only react as I feel Demme is simply presenting that character’s self-expression. I mean, it is electrifying, but in a way where it is in the performance rather than something evil or scary. Who’s getting hurt in this scene? Nobody. 

CG Cont: 
It is true that the film, even with these certain touches related to Gumb, does not really have a grasp on trans identity and body dysphoria. But I think the whole nightmare of being possibly denied or in just simply having your life determined by the medical and psychological community can hit a trans viewer very hard. Why do I have to have a doctor and psychologist note to do a medical procedure or even have an update to my records in name change or a gender marker? Hell, the whole way they are able to track down Gumb is because of the fact there are so few medical institutions at the time that deal with SRS, so the searching he was doing to seek correction for whatever he was going through gets turned against him. That is tragic. There is that key dialogue between Clarice and Lector about Gumb ‘coveting’. It ultimately digresses into what Lector himself covets but Gumb’s fate is a twisted one where what he covets in his search to try to find himself becomes murder. No, SRS probably would not have fixed him but I do have so much sympathy for the fact that I do think Gumb was failed by a lot of people, or rather, failed by institutions and communities that are supposed to help and then isolated, left to his own devices, with an untold level of damage that is not foreign to transgender people, especially at the time.

 WM: Right. I think it’s a complete lack of empathy and an unwillingness to even grapple with whatever he was going through which ultimately casts him as this tragic, broken figure. The thing about Gumb, is that while he does commit these unspeakable crimes that are totally evil in any definition of the word I think it’s made more complicated by the fact that nobody ever believed him when he urged others there was something wrong internally with himself. It comes back to that scene where Lector and Starling are discussing Bill for the first time and do bring up SRS. That Lector immediately undermines this and rediagnoses him is telling. 

I wanted to ask you what you think separates Gumb’s characterization from other monstrous representations of gendered subversion like Norman Bates in Psycho or in De Palma’s Dressed to Kill or even something like Sleepaway Camp. I think the main difference is Jonathan Demme’s willingness to at least recognize Gumb as a human being, even an objectively bad one, and still has the heart to point out that Gumb does have interests, tried to be proactive in fixing himself and was ultimately denied the ability to exist in his body on something resembling his own terms. Whereas I think something like Dressed to Kill is bottom of the barrel crap exploitation only there to stoke the fires of De Palma’s gigantic erection for Alfred Hitchcock. I don’t think De Palma gives a shit about his characters, but Demme almost certainly does to an uncommon degree. I guess within the trope of transgender monstrosity, and I suppose we have to call it that, Gumb offers a bit more. It’d be nice if Gumb wasn’t a beacon within a trope, considering how horrific he is, but cinema itself has never given us much in the way of characters beyond one’s of this type in the first place so it puts us in a difficult position. 

CG: Let me first say, fuck Dressed To Kill, but also let me say that is probably for another future discussion. 

Now as far as what separates Demme’s depiction of Gumb versus your noted depictions, there is not really a sense of using their character’s inner turmoil and pain as a plot twist. We know the general things about Gumb off the bat, albeit not in great detail beyond how it helps Clarice get to him for the case and also not directly from Gumb himself, and the film is more focused on catching him than giving us an explainer to crack who he is a la that explanation of Norman that absolutely nobody who has ever watched Psycho likes. I also do think that Gumb’s rebellion against the systems who denied him plays a lot into the modern sensibilities has some level of sympathy even if what he does in reaction is horrendous. In Psycho, of course we are supposed to trust the Doctor to explain it all. But in 1991 and today, there is a lot of distrust on institutions. I feel chilly in those moments where Clarice talks to both Crawford and Chilton face to face. They are on her side, but they are so far removed from the idealized image of ‘good guys in the government’ that rotted away over the years up to The Silence of The Lambs that even humanist Demme does cast a cynical air over them, at least to me that is the case. But I think the way the script presents Gumb being somebody who seemed to be set off by being denied has a bit of a workable origins story that goes back to works like Grendel’s mother in Beowulf and older fairy tales. Sometimes the monster is made a monster and not born a monster.

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

 
 WM: That’s a fantastic insight, and I’ll follow your lead on waiting to discuss the differences in depictions of transgender monstrosity on a later volume of our discussions. I love how you point out the structural difference in the movies being that the others rely on a twist, which ties into a kind of pseudo trap narrative, though instead of “tricking” someone into sex it’s to do so with murder. It’s a total reversal of the normal power structures and how these events unfold in real life. If a transgender woman who passes as a cisgender woman, like myself didn’t disclose there’s a chance I could murdered by going on a date, not the other way around. It’s horrific and something that is totally 100% absent in cinema.

The last thing I want to bring up before we close, if you have nothing else you want to talk about, is public perception. When the movie came out it was picketed by LGBT activists for being offensive to the community and there was a boycott of the oscars of that year by LGBT activists. Demme in response said that it was a moment where these voices were finally able to speak up about cinema and speak their displeasure. Which is what the two of us are essentially doing with this book. It’s almost like a call to arms. Demme would go on to make Philadelphia in response, which now seems like a futile gesture, but his heart was in the right place. 

My stance on whether or not the movie is transphobic is complicated. Within the text itself I don’t think the film is transphobic, but the public opinion and the collective gaze of cisgender audience members turned Gumb into a caricature and stripped him of anything resembling humanity. Culturally the character is now nothing more than a tuck scene and Rocky Horror lipstick. Which is a shame, because the film itself isn’t malicious to the character. I think it’s a failure of a mass audience that has made the film a question of transphobia moreso than what the filmmakers and crew presented. Which does in a way make the film transphobic. And I do want to state that I don’t speak for everyone when I say that I don’t think the movie is vile. There are trans people who hate this film and I understand their hatred for it, but I think an argument could be made through formal analysis that The Silence of the Lambs is a lot more complicated than blanket statements, good and evil, and transphobic or not.

Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993)

 CG:  The public perception to these instances of backlash and representation is interesting. With minority groups, visibility and how they present themselves change over time.I remember reading controversies about this film being deemed ‘anti-gay’, in that transgender was seen as so miniscule while gay voices were so dominant in queer communities that ‘gay community’ was the default blanket term. Demme himself did do an apologia with Philadelphia as his follow-up to The Silence of The Lambs which, as you noted, is issue movie 101 that is a sanitized version of dying queer suffering (but also makes me cry like a baby). I think over time Demme more than proved his heart was in the right place and was always open to sharing his film as spaces for people, whether it was casting trans woman and former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Carmen Carrera in Ricki & The Flash or having non-binary, queer people in his frames, always feeling of place in his world. 

The question is how to reclaim the cisgender gaze off of a character that is associated with one of the enduring Hollywood films of the last thirty years. I am sure Jame Gumb was the first time many cis people even came across the notion of being transgender and well, yeah, that is problematic (and to think we were going to go this whole conversation without deeming something problematic!). So its legacy is going to be a transphobic one that if not giving transphobics a charge will cause open-minded people to be judgmental about how the movie handles the subject matter. Gumb is othered and is a monstrosity, but I still would not think of him a figure to cast aside for being a character that gave our community a lot of grief. As you noted, there is split reaction in the trans community about this film and about this character. Laura Jane Grace’s band Against Me! repurposed the imagery the ‘Goodbye Horses’ scene for an LP cover and on merchandise, a trans performer reclaiming a popular, more common imagery of many cis people’s shorthand for trans people. I like that and I think that reflects an age group of trans people who, like you and I, grew up with the images of this movie and have identified with it while also grappling with how this film on transgender people and on Jame Gumb comes across to others. I think there is a fairytale quality to this movie and in some fairytales, I find the heroes to be bland and the monsters to be far more interesting. Here, I love the hero but I feel for the villain, the monster, which I think is a credit to Levine and Demme. It is a complicated relationship that I have with this film in that I did connect with the monster in a way that I am not even sure Demme intended or felt he could ask of his audience. But that is the film for me.

Against Me!’s True Trans EP

 WM: We almost made it without saying the words “problematic” haha 

The last thing I want to say about this film is on images and how transgender people take in these images in terms of people within our specific age group. I can remember the first images of transgender people I saw in media being on the Jerry Springer show where he would ask audience members if this woman was actually a man or something alone those lines. Additionally, there was Ace Ventura’s final reveal that Sean Young’s character was transgender which led to vomiting. You get a little bit older and you learn about the sheer amount of movies about serial killer trans women and you internalize this image of yourself as inauthentic, perverse, and worthy only of contempt. This is what cinema and the televisual image taught me growing up. In the 1990s and even in the early 2000s there wasn’t the language to discuss these things and being transgender was not in the public eye at all.At best you would find a now embarrassing in hindsight documentary on transition on something like the Discovery channel which offered the only real possibility that you weren’t alone and you weren’t a monster. Cinema is not as important as we make it out to be, but in some cases I do think it has this definitive effect on people and self image. When the only image of people who question their gender is a negative one then negative self worth is inevitable. I think it is immensely powerful that Laura Jane Grace sought about reclaiming the image of Bill/Gumb and rechristening it as one of tragic martyrdom instead of pure evil. Like her we are trying to reshape and recontextualize the image for us and hopefully in the future by us as well. Conversations like the one we have just had are a good start.

CG: The transgender experience for me is similar with ‘trash TV’ often being my first outlet and perception. Lana Wachowski got an expose on her in Rolling Stone Magazine in the early 2000s and that was where I first came across pornstar Buck Angel. Frankly, I think Buck Angel may have been the first transgender man that I ever read about or saw that didn’t meet an untimely death. Still, the Wachowski piece is absolutely astonishing to look back at now as I don’t think it would fly today at all. It crosses so many lines in ethics and privacy. I read the letters to the editor in the following issue. There were the usual transphobic, ‘What the hell is this?’ responses. But then I came across Buck Angel’s letter to the editor. It was defiant, with a final kiss-off being a flirt to the author of the piece. I thought that was badass and one of the more unusual moments of life affirmation that I had. This was a real person who was proud and if you had a problem with that, it was on you. It’s hard to really say where the tides have turned beyond more of us being out, but there were always those little embers of representation like the late Alexis Arquette being on reality TV and being treated well by the likes of Florence Henderson. Still, those are outnumbered by negative tropes against trans people, especially trans women where it was seen as a joke to be ‘exposed’ from trying to ‘fool’ others. And then for a long time there was just nothing, invisible. So you feel a little lost in the wilderness despite knowing that something about that is so innate is out of step. Representation in cinema is just one part of the larger puzzle in acceptance and achieving a type of visibility that has lower suicide rates, lower murder rates, lower unemployment rates, and lower homeless rates. But it is necessary to examine a history of images, often so much of them negative, of who we are that has often played a role in our demonization by the mainstream. I too hope these conversations are fruitful for people who want to hear our perspectives, be it to not feel alone or consider our position and place in the culture.