The Representative Body as Plastic, Malleable and Fluid
To pay for her genital reassingment surgery, Ophelia robbed a bank in Virginia, and she was given a 67 year sentence. While incarcerated, Ophelia became a cutter, disfiguring and self-mutilating her own body repeatedly while in solitary confinment, in protest for being punished by being locked in solitary for not doing anything wrong. With no legal assistance, Ophelia brought suit against state of Virginia for failure to recognize that she was being treated prior to incarceration and her case was thrown out of court. Despite repeated attempts at trying to castrate herself to stop the testosterone production in her body, opposing counsel painted Ophelia as mentally ill, as having multiple personality problems that they claimed had nothing to do with being transgender, and went so far as to call her behavior “manipulative”, inferring that she did not deserve any “special privileges”, which judges, courts, prison administrators and the state agreed with. “If I can’t be who I am I’d rather be dead if I have to be in prison, in a body that’s not mine,” said Ophelia.
The way the state of Virginia saw Ophelia’s body, the way Ophelia saw her own body, and the reality of what her body was has much in common with the way scholar and theorist Samuel R. Delany interprets the anatomical drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci, particularly those of the womb, which appear in some cases in the shape of apples, other times in the shape of pears. (“The Rhetoric of Sex, The Discourse
of Desire”, Heterotopia: Postmodern Utopia and the Body Politic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994: p. 229 - 232) People have divergent ideas of what the trans body actually is, and since interpretation always precedes perception, the trans body on film can be seen as a site of contestation and even confusion.
In Almost Myself, Josef starts out as male-to-female transwoman Judy, a consevative, religious, homophobe who thinks that her gender reassignment surgery was a mistake. Reversing the sex change, and undoing the zealous religious indoctrination, Judy becomes Josef, and begins to live, after more than 25 years as a homophobic woman, as a gay man, and this particular narrative further blurs the lines between male and female, yet also shows just how close in proximity we all are to performing the perceived “opposite sex”. The unique story of Josef/Judy proves that anyone can cross the gender border fluidly, and their own perceptions of their bodies can change and be changed just like the variations of Da Vinci’s drawings.
In the same film Holly, who identifies as a “non-operative trans person”, meaning she has not had genital reassignment surgery, says that self-image that is paramount. “Can [people] transcend the form of you? To the extent that people are fixated on your form and so many people are nowadays – theres so much emphasis on your outer trappings – then its very difficult. The form is cut loose and fully redefined. Thats up for grabs, its plastic, its malleable. If youre fixated on form, youre going to stumble.”
An Explosion of Transgender Representation in Modern Fiction Film Mirrors Documentary Interests yet Distorts Reality (as Cinema Often Does); Causing a Genital Panic
The trans “form”, when explored for the screen in popular filmmaking sparks interesting, usually explosive discussions amongst cineastes and the movie-going public. What kinds of trans bodies can you think of that have been nakedly displayed prominently in the pop culture landscape? The act of showing a transgender body, unfettered and real, still feels dangerous. There was trans serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) performing the gender he sees in the mirror to the mirror of the camera (paging Dr. Lacan), but instead of being seen as a moment of intimacy, the infamous scene where he tucks his penis has been treated as yet another transgender expression that is widely mocked and laughed at.
Shown on cable, Solider’s Girl featured some genuinely erotic, naked, frank sex scenes, the only ones of this kind that I observed in a dramatic feature. In these scenes, the biologically male lover of a pre-op male to female transwoman might explore his new partner’s anatomy, but the idea of a transgender love story or romance still feels far off in the distance, just in terms of what mainstream audiences are capable of watching without cruelly laughing at bodies that aren’t the standard or exactly like their own. When men “perform” female gender in film, the only culturally acceptable models still seem to revolve around extremes – these transwomen can be funny or can be the joke; or they can be murdered or psychotics whose jealousy of “real” women makes them want to craft clothing out of the literal skins of murdered women.
Then there’s perhaps the most talked about instance of gender blending in all of cinema history: Dil (played by the Oscar-nominated Jaye Davidson) disrobing for his heterosexual male lover in The Crying Game (Jordan, 1992) to reveal that this gorgeous gal actually has a penis and is not exactly who (or what) we all thought she was. This moment fueled a cultural phenomenon and popular interest (granted, perhaps a rather ghoulish, sensational interest) in the movie. The big spoiler was the reveal of trans genitals and people wanted to see that for whatever reason, and to me, that started a bigger dialog on gender variance and sexuality in film on a grand scale that needs to be recognized, even though in the process there was a lot of transphobic discourse surrounding the film, and also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of homophobia, too.
The intertwinement of transphobia and homophobia is yet another pervasive theme that could be seen as a teased-out after-effect of The Crying Game’s rapacious lampooning of conventional thinking about gender, sex, and sexuality that asked some quite necessarily confrontational questions like what would you do if you were a straight guy and you found out your girlfriend had a penis? Would you fuck her or hit her? What does that make you? Where do you fall on the binary spectrum now? In other words, The Crying Game’s revelatory moment in many ways attacks the very categories that are there to enforce gender boundaries, and heteronormative sexuality, which freaked people out in the worst, most comical and satisfying ways, but it still was looking at the whole issue from a decidely heterosexist point of view. No questions were being asked on behalf of the lady in the relationship, they were all about how the experience affected the man, who was the central character, while Dil was a supporting character despite arguably being the film’s major draw.
The transgender documentaries I chose to look at were more careful to view sexuality as something that is not completely homo or hetero, just as gender itself was neither male nor female, but a vast continuum that was inclusive and not judgemental of body types. Sexuality was as important to those interviewed as it is, I imagine, to all humans.
In Red Without Blue, a coming of age documentary about twins, one a gay male, one a transwoman, sexuality was a prominent theme, or more so the acceptance of one’s own chosen sexuality and sexual acceptance by a loving partner. In these narratives the familial challenges that transgendered people frequently experience, often center (unsurprisingly since I’m looking at only American work for this study) around sex and sexual identity and the general inability of the majority of people to comprehend choices that are non-traditional. Many of the trans interviewees preferred trans partners. Some transmen preferred sex with gay men. Many transwomen are attracted to other women, others like men, some like both.
The biologically-female Annie Sprinkle of Gendernauts has sex with everyone and videotapes it. Now what does that say about the homo/hetero divide that we hear so much about? That it’s trumped up beyond belief, I’d say, and that the divide is connected by the intersecting “dots” of multiple genders and sexualities that are not attracted to the magnetic polar opposite axioms of “male” and “female”. It also indicates that people enjoy sex. How shocking!
One prevailing atitude I encountered in my research was that many Americans still believe that trans people traffic in extremes, performing exagerratedly macho or womanly behaviors, which is totally laughable because if anything, the complete opposite in almost every realm of transgender life, but especially when it came to binary sexualities. There were no rules, as evidenced in Gendernauts.
Set in San Francisco, the film tends to skew more towards the female to male trans experience (though local authority Susan Stryker is interviewed on camera by director Monika Truet), providing a nice varietal counterpoint to the more common, popular male to female narrative. Gendernauts looks at the idea of “shifting identities”, and one interviewee, Texas Tomboy, flatly refuses to be defined in terms of gender. “Genders take every possible form,” says trans pioneer Sandy Stone on camera. “We think of them as only two: masculine and feminine because we’ve learned to make the others invisible. First of all, before we can truly talk about what the other genders are, we have to learn to see them. We have to rediscover vision, we have to re-learn how to see.” In other words, it’s in celebrating the diversity of all of the possible genders in these films, and by deconstructing what gender actually is, that we will begin to move past binary ways of thinking and see gender as fluid, as something that doesn’t need to be focused on.
The physicality that most of the filmmakers choose to show in the documentary selections isn’t as sensational as the big reveal in The Crying Game, but the range of representation of “maleness” and “femaleness”, both in sex organs and mode of presentation, in every sense, attacks and destroys conventional notions of binary male/female gender, rather than simply agitating the public-at-large’s ire with a clever marketing strategy designed to drive up the ticket sales. I don’t wish to ascribe more significant meaning to The Crying Game‘s politics, in terms of the gender discourse, for the gender and transgender theory it purports – and by focusing solely on how “transgender” complicated the life of the straight male lead—can be seen as problematic or as aftethoughts of a sensational public relations campaign. There wasn’t a strong argument in there for non-binary gender or sexuality, that much is certain, and the denouement can still be read as tragic, as playing into the stereotype of the “tragic transsexual”.