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. 

Existing: Transgender Representation in Sense8

It’s easy to say representation doesn’t matter when you have all of filmed media to choose from. White boys grow up knowing they can be anything and do anything, because film and television lets them know that they are the heroes and makers of their own stories. They can go out and achieve whatever dreams they want, because the entire world is at their grasp as long as they work hard or in some cases luck into it, but that isn’t the case for everyone else. When characters on television and film represent some sort of cultural identity and definition, especially in the case of minority persons, the few characters that actually end up having their stories told become of utmost importance to those with little or no representation. It’s even rarer when one of those characters is created by someone adjacent to the lived experiences of that minority character. More often those narratives and characters are constructed by the same white men who grew up wanting to be writers, and that isn’t to say they cannot create great characters that aren’t of their own lived experience, but it can be revelatory to see that character in the hands of someone who truly knows the ins and outs of a lived experience another person may only have tertiary knowledge of. In the case of Sense8, Lana Wachowski has given trans women a character so wholly different from the normal palette of transgender women in film and television that she feels like a springboard moment in what is hopefully more respectful and understood characterization of an often completely botched segment of people in film narratives.

The history of transgender female representation in movies and television is a constricted, damaging, limited, and completely toxic presentation of our lives with only a few bright spotlights throughout the last 100 or so years of movie making. Before the advent of Netflix’s transgender duo (Nomi in Sense8 and Sophia in Orange is the New Black) there wasn’t a significant role for transgender women where they could play a character who wanted to be more than a corpse (CSI, Dallas Buyer’s Club) , a murderer (Dressed to Kill), a joke (Family Guy, Ace Ventura) or a sex worker whose life decisions were damned by whoever was writing the character (Law and Order). There wasn’t an opportunity for us to exist beyond these confines so preconceived notions of who we are formulated in the minds of those without any direct relation to transgender people. It painted a portrait of a non-existent humanity, something (not someone) to be feared, mocked or pitied for having decided to become a deviant.

Even well meaning liberal motion pictures like TransAmerica and Dallas Buyer’s Club reek of allyship and an understanding that our bodies are constructed through maleness, rough exterior, and a kind of damaged femininity that is more akin to clown make-up and dress-up rather than an internal sense of womanhood. In those pictures we cannot escape a body that came to being through an assumed male socialization, because in these pictures transgender women are not women, but men to be pitied for having taken on the guise of womanhood which is in and of itself a deeply misogynistic line of thought that completely undermines who we are, how we got to be, who we are, and how our bodies are structured. Notice how transgender women are almost always portrayed by cisgender men, because in the opinion of Hollywood there is no way we can achieve a body capable or close to the cisgender female beauty standard placed upon all women by society at large so instead of showing real transgender bodies Jared Leto, Jeffrey Tambor and Eddie Redmayne occupy our space and define our place as women through masculinity. When they do write transgender women as beautiful characters or love interests for men it’s never enough to actually give them a happy ending and romance, but instead our bodies are upended by a reveal that categorizes us as male by focusing on a phallus. The man in the relationship has been tricked, and the entire relationship has been an affront to his sexuality. Take for instance the scene in Family Guy where characters vomit upon knowing they’ve slept with a transgender woman, only to have creator Seth MacFarlane say this is the natural reaction of men afterward. This both distances the narrative away from a transgender woman and focuses on a misogynistic, male viewpoint and a token punchline in a joke that our bodies are vessels of disgust. When dissecting that idea even further one finds that our humanity is then weighed on our attractiveness and our ability to please men, which goes beyond just a transmisogynistic idea of our standing in culture, but women as a whole, because if women’s narratives in film or television are only there to be attached to the pleasures of one man then this is wish fulfillment instead of reality, and strips all women of anything resembling character, cis or trans.

This is obviously a problem, and becomes exhausting when looking for anything resembling direct text relating to transgender lifestyle. Personally, I have always looked for subtextual readings of motion pictures where I could find something genuinely relatable to my own life experiences. I wrote about this earlier this year when I analyzed Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin as a transgender narrative, and while that film means a monumental amount to me it’s closeness towards transgender themes are something created by accident and completely in the realm of subtext. Girls like me don’t exist in the pictures is something I used to say to myself. I’m a young woman, and I look like these girls on the screen, but they don’t have my dysphoria or the problems present in my life. I didn’t find a single relatable character to my own personal existence until I watched Paris is Burning and found a closeness with Venus Xtravaganza who wanted nothing more than to live a normal life, and make her body complete in her eyes by having vaginoplasty, but in the final moments of the movie her body is disposed of, cutting short a life that was in it’s earliest chapters and extinguishing the chance she had at feeling home in her own skin some day. It’s devastating, it’s documented, and it’s real. I was left aghast at the brutality of the world, and wondered if I’d ever make promise on completing my own body or if someone would take that chance from me someday. It’s uncertain, because we aren’t safe even 25 years later. Paris is Burning is the greatest piece of transgender art that has ever been created, because it offers a glimpse into the lifestyle, bodies and humanity we have to offer this world. We are completely driven by the same desires and goal oriented ideas about career-making, family and creating a lasting effect on this world that all humans are even if our time is shorter. I fully believe we can change the ideas presented about our worth of life, and in the last few years there have been significant strides in the mainstream media regarding our lives, but things still have an exceedingly long way to go, but the trickle effect of gaining agency on our own narratives is beginning.

I’m forever grateful of what netflix is allowing to happen on their network, because they’ve finally given me a mirror in a fictional narrative of someone who I can finally say is like myself. When Nomi is introduced on Sense8 she’s having sex, her body is there for the entire world to see, and it’s not sorrowful to gaze upon her flesh, because it’s like mine. It belongs to a woman, not a man acting. Her sexuality is treated as belonging to her, and it’s her orgasm that the show is intent on capturing. This is agency, and the reveal of her girlfriend using a dildo on her afterward presents this as a narrative that won’t end with her feeling betrayed at knowing her body completely, because she loves every inch of her. They embrace, and their queerness is beloved by this show. Their warmth goes beyond the bedroom as well, and in a later scene at a pride gathering Nomi is confronted by a trans exclusionary radical feminist who refers to her as a colonizing male. This visibly upsets Nomi, but something remarkable happens just moments later when her girlfriend defends her place as a woman and in the LGBTQ community. Nomi is crying and then simply says to her girlfriend “No one has ever defended me before”. That is love. I know it because, the same thing happened to me just 24 hours earlier to me when my boyfriend called out some people for using the word “Tranny” when I was visibly upset by it. The parallel example of these two things happening alongside one another really hit home that this is my show. This is the truth. This is made for me and not for cisgender people. Nomi belongs to people like me, and after 23 years of existence I have someone. I guess girls like me do exist in the movies after all.

True Trans: In Celebration of Transgender and Gender Variant People

Laura Jane Grace
One woman sits in an abandoned studio strumming gently on a guitar. She wears black clothing, her nail polished is a little chipped, and her hair obscures her face, She isn’t singing, but these sounds emitting from her guitar provide background for a chorus of voices that were muted in a past life.
The chorus of voices is what makes Laura Jane Grace’s True Trans a radically important online series. The transgender narrative is oftentimes sculpted outside of our hands. Whenever you see documentaries about transgender people they discuss surgery in ominous tones, they linger on childhood photos and present these bodies as science fair projects or worse side show attractions for those curious in seeing a before and after. It’s damaging when we can’t speak for ourselves, but Grace is turning the trans documentary on it’s head and making it a celebration instead of a curiosity. Her goal was to meet transgender and gender variant people on the road to connect in some way, and what she has done is bring to light a true narrative from those individuals she interviewed instead of the type of linear transition story that usually sits underneath the transgender documentary category.
What strikes me personally about this show is how often these narratives intersect with my own. I can remember the first time I ever saw a transgender person on television, and just seeing that there were other options was a staggeringly emotional experience. I was always too afraid to confront those feelings head on, because of my religious upbringing and parents who were ultimately difficult after my coming out, but I always knew in the back of my mind that was where I would eventually be. Our Lady J mentions at the end of episode Four that in one moment of thought she considered what she would do if she was on a desert island and how she would imagine herself, and she saw herself as a Woman. This isn’t entirely different from my near constant wishing I would wake up in a body that aligned with how I saw myself.
There’s also the consideration of realization of dysphoria which I can remember vividly in my own life. I was only three or four years old. I went to bed like any other night, but my mind sent me off into what was essentially an alternate version of my life. Everything was just as mundane, and there was nothing of note in this dream except for one small change. In this dream I was a girl. A reflection looked back at me in a flowery dress and pigtails and I couldn’t have been more disappointed when I woke up and saw a boy staring back instead of that girl that I knew I really was. For Grace that moment came when she was just as young as I when she saw Madonna perform on television. That’s who she wanted to be, and she mentions the disappointment of knowing that it wasn’t quite feasible. There are other things that link these stories like drug use, suicide attempts, and music as an outlet, but the one unifying theme is dysphoria. Blue (another transgender interviewee) mentions that it varies from person to person, but in some cases it’s a living hell.
Paris is Burning
Dysphoria is in many cases the key to all of these feelings. It’s why we want to change our bodies to align with how we see ourselves, and it is demoralizing to see our true selves unrepresented in mirrors every day of our lives. “It’s as important as the air your breathe” is one phrase used to describe the necessity of having a comfortable body. The entire discussion centered around dysphoria in episode 2 subtly deconstructs the myth that trans healthcare is based around cosmetic procedures, and it’s all done through letting transgender people speak up about their own lives, and in the context of the documentary I don’t think it’s been handled this well since Paris is Burning, and even then that film wasn’t 100% about our lives.
True Trans isn’t as formally ambitious as that documentary either, but they share a similar celebratory tone around their subjects as well as performance being a key part of identity. Paris is Burningfocuses on ball culture while True Transshifts it’s lens towards punk rock. Laura Jane Grace got into punk rock in the first place due to it being about “smashing gender roles”, and others discuss how glam rock punks of the 70s featured many bands where gender roles were challenged. In essence art seems to have opened up the doors for an older generation of transgender people featured in this doc as an outlet. They didn’t have the internet and no one was talking about gender variant people on television so these punk rock bands in some way slightly cracked open the doors even if they weren’t actually transgender. At least they were questioning gender in the first place.
I believe art has the power to shape our world views and challenge what we see as normal. It can be a radical unseating of systematic power,, and it can get people thinking. I also believe in the personal as political theory. What makes True Transmore than just a fascinating documentary on lifestyle is how those two things intersect to make something that comes off as an important work of art. It isn’t necessarily cinematic with it’s 60 minutes style talking heads documentary style filmmaking, but it transcends it’s own formal limitations by allowing voices to be heard that were once stamped down by a society that wouldn’t listen. I go back to those days when I watched transgender documentaries on the discovery channel when my parents were in bed hoping to see another person like myself on television if only for a moment. I craved that visibility because I didn’t want to be alone in this world, and it’s not like I knew anyone who was transgender. Ten years later this show is now available for all those out there questioning or curious. Something this celebratory is going to have a positive impact for those who need it, and those who view it curiously not even knowing what a transgender person is like will see our humanity. If it changes one mind or helps out one person who really needed it then it’s powerful in all the ways art can sometimes be. I know it will help others out, because it’s already made me feel like a stronger person for having viewed it.