As filmmaker Kimberly Reed appeared on Oprah to discuss her film Prodigal Sons, a banner ran across the screen reading “Kimberly—born a boy”. With its soft purples and powdery feminine font this caption drew a soft, but immovable line between the purposes of the guest and the host on the show. While Oprah focused on Reed’s gender change as a personal journey that all can take heart from, Reed takes a far broader approach to transformation. In fact, one of the most important aspects of Prodigal Sons is that transgender issues are not the sole focus of the film. While exploring her gender is central to the film, Reed places her own transition against that of her adopted brother Marc—a man whose history of brain trauma and memory loss gradually destabilize him even as astounding secrets from his own past come to light. What unfolds is a tightly crafted story of how identity is formed and frayed and how families bind those identities with love and struggle. Oprah’s focus on the other hand is with “Kimberly—born a boy”. She questions Reed’s inner life as both a boy and a woman and talks with Reed’s mother and high school friends about their surprise at Reed’s revelations. While Oprah is always sympathetic and never once condescending, these are the same questions that have been aired and answered since the first transvestites and transgendered persons appeared on TV talk shows. From Donahue to Sally Jesse Raphael to Jerry Springer, the questions remain the same and the fascination with transgender issues stays fixed and immobile, in need of a transition itself.
Giving Oprah her due, her emphasis on Reed’s transformation matches her oft-espoused philosophies of self-determination in a more palatable fashion than the complexities of Prodigal Sons. Oprah goes so far as to advise viewers who may find Reed’s gender switch strange or even repulsive to look into their own lives for the self that needs to transform. Couched in such benevolence, it’s hard to fault Oprah for the focus on the simplistic and more sensational side of Reed’s story. Thankfully Reed’s elegant self-possession speaks as much about her comfort with the intelligence and complexities of her work as it does about her gender. To see Reed talking with Oprah is to see a confident woman who made a challenging film. To see Prodigal Sons is to see a film that tackles the inter-relations of gender, mental illness, and family love. In doing so, it may be the first documentary that places transgender issues on equal and normative footing with all other aspects of identity, memory, and self.
For more on Prodigal Sons and Kimberly Reed on Oprah, go to: oprah.com.
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