Connect the Dots

Transgender Narratives in Pop Culture

by Matt Mazur

8 September 2011


With Just a Little imagination and a Lot of Deconstruction...

Still, if there was no gender, or more genders, where would that leave the whole Dil in The Crying Game phenomenon? More importantly, what would happen to the movies? Would the industry collapse if it was not able to churn out inspid rom-com after insipid rom-com that pitted some form of “girl” versus some form of “boy”? Would members of that target 18 – 36 straight male ticket-buying audience that everyone seems to bend over backwards to cater to eventually throw their exasperated little hands up in the air, or would they violently resist the idea that the cinema that used to cater to their needs now had an infinte combination of new masters and mistresses? “Doing away with gender is key to doing away with the patriarchy, as well as the many injustices perpetrated in the name of gender inequity,” writes Kate Bornstein. “Gender inequities include sexism, homophobia and misogyny”. (“Gender inequities include sexism, homophobia and misogyny”. Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us. NYC: Vintage Books, 1994: p. 135)  This means filmmakers would simply need to create new narratives and find new, daring ways to execute them.

Will the Trans Narrative Thrive or Wither as the Racial Passing Narrative Did?

Considering the future of trans representation, one need look no further than to the common theme that ties all of the documentaries together, that is the basis for almost all truly great dramatic and comedic texts: family and love. Red Without Blue, Middle Sexes, and Prodigal Sons all thoughtfully explore the literal family ties of their transgender protagonists as well as their love lives; while Cruel & Unusual, Gendernauts, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, and Southern Comfort more closely depict chosen families and romantic partnerships. Interestingly, Almost Myself alternates between the two.

As Middle Sexes shows us with the touching narrative of an eight-year-old transgirl named Noah and her kind, middle America, middle-class Christian family, trans people are articulating their true genders at earlier and earlier ages, so the need for more fictional transgender narratives that include elements of love and family, to show a sense of belonging, seems even more pressing when a sweet kid like Noah, whose parents’ only concern is for their child’s happiness and safety, only have access to grim statistics and hopeless narratives that fill them with worry and despair that their child will die much too early from either suicide or murder. While there’s little in the way of hopeful or happy trans narrative in dramatic works of fiction, the documentaries, the real stories, pick up the slack and are resources that must be made more available. 

There’s a dire need for more truthful, interesting, and substantial transgender narratives of all types in popular fiction, like the documentaries I have chosen, but also for more that singularly focus on the healing powers of love, family, community, and most importantly—activism. These need be repeated on screen and in other works of popular fiction. As I watched Stryker’s Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, I imagined the story as an epic, cinematic period piece that could provide actors of all genders with plum roles that have never been seen dramatized for film.

Southern Comfort dramatized with a mixed gender cast would be amazing, and once upon a time it was actually going to be made, scheduled to star Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek as Robert Eades. Sadly, that project has now totally disappeared, despite being completely relevant in both today’s dialog transgender issues and the discourse of the crisis in the health care system for both the trans- and cisgendered communities. Eades’ is a universal story, tragic, to be sure, but so many lessons could be learned by sensitively dramatizing it for a larger audience. I’ve always thought any of the three daughters in playwright Tracy Letts’ August Osage County could easily be rewritten and cast as trans characters and would still make perfect sense in the gonzo Southern Gothic landscape. I’m eagerly awaiting to see how the central character of Cal is presented in HBO’s Middlesex, if indeed the production ever gets off the ground.

After starring in a trans-romantic storyline on Showtime’s cable series The L-Word, iconic actress Pam Grier, who knows a thing or two about cinematic representation after starring in key films that redfined the black female filmic experience such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), told me in an interview that she knew exactly what the future should be for trans representation and what potential risky represntations had to change the way people view gender.” (“Body and Soul: Pam Grier Will Still Kick Your Ass ‘Graciously’”, PopMatters, 10 August 2010.)

“On several occasions, people would come up to me—and these are varied genders, male and female, white and black—and would say to me that because of me, they watched the show and realized that they had tossed away, thrown away like a discarded soul, someone who was born into their family, who was gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender,” Grier said, “They threw away people. The greatest act of service was to show these wonderful stories about these ‘scary’ people, humanizing them in story and having it matter.”

The potential combinations of genders and roles, and who plays them, are infinite. As a cinephile, I find that proposition overwhelmingly attractive, and as a writer, I find it full of creative possibilities that could go against the grain and make significant changes to the cinematic discourses on what gender actually means.

The most interesting thing about the deconstruction of gender in film is that when you begin to destroy those heteronormative “male” and “female” binaries, the other multiple, intersecting vectors of patriarchal oppression soon come prominently into view. Race, sexuality, age, nationality, and especially class all get called into question when gender is absent, leading to a more nuanced understanding of why variant gender is problematic: because it interferes with the smooth flow of capitalism and money, especially in the film industry.

“I am permanently troubled by identity categories”, writes Judith Butler, who would say that attacking the very categories would necessarily disturb the power heterosexual men have to oppress everyone, and this is truly a dangerous and exciting concept, to dismantle the very systems of hierarchical oppression that hold the power by attacking the stability of the categories that separate everyone in order to dominate and conquer them. (“To Theorize as a Lesbian?”, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. NYC: Routledge, 1993: p. 308) “The continued oppression of woman proves only that in any binary there’s going to be one up and one down,” writes Kate Bornstein. “The struggle for equal rights must include the struggle to dismantle the binary”. (Gender Outlaw, ibid)

Whether this attack comes from the variety of gender shown in American documentary films about the transgender experience, literature, a television sitcom, or an Oscar-nominated dramatic fiction film is besides the point, as long as these categories are being challenged and scrutinized, rather than essentialized. In a 2010 interview, Academy Award-nominated actress Miranda Richardson, who once played Virginia Woolf’s time- and gender- bandit Orlando on stage, provocatively exclaimed that she feels “neither male nor female in [my] profession, I’m just an actor. I kind of like it that way.” (“Politicking with Made in Dagenham‘s Miranda Richardson”, PopMatters, 19 November 2010.)

Perhaps we could follow Richardson’s welcome gender-neutral lead and instead of having “Best Actor” or “Best Actress” at awards ceremonies, we could have simply, “Best Acting”.

Going another step further, how about instead of subjecting a billion international viewers to James Franco and Anne Hathaway blundering about in drag, perhaps we could have genuine outlaws like Bornstein and Butler actually tackling the hosting duties? All it would take is a little imagination and a lot of deconstruction. Think about it and imagine for one second, if you could, that in Hollywood age doesn’t matter. I know, that is the most impossible thing I’ve asked in this entire essay, but at least we know that Bornstein and Butler would be smart and funny while using the concept of non-binary gender in a more important way than a movie star who is simply lost in the nebula of their own ego.

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