Archive for the ‘cis people are rubbish at writing trans characters’ Category
My partner and I watched Priscilla, Queen of the Desert last night. For those who don’t remember, Priscilla was one of those ridiculously colourful Australian movies of the 1990s, about three drag queens (two cis gay men and one het trans woman) who travel from Sydney to Alice Springs. I believe there was a contractual obligation with the AFI that all Australian films of the 90s had to feature at least one ABBA number. It has a great cast for the leads – Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp as Bernadette, the trans character.
When I first watched Priscilla at 14, it was one of those click moments that, oh yes, trans women exist, it is possible, it is liveable. I was never a queen and never part of campy gay male culture, but still it spoke to me in powerful ways. I still know the words to most of the songs on the soundtrack.
Rewatching it now though, it really is an awful portrayal in many respects.
A trans woman who transitioned 30 years ago supposedly has loads of stubble? And is naturally played by the gruff Terence Stamp? This being a character based on the gorgeous Les Girls showgirl Carlotta, famous for looking Bridgette Bardot? And she’s sitting there having a bowl full of hormones as breakfast cereal? Fuck off. Never mind the “mail order bride” section which I had completely excised from my memory (white privilege, party of one).
I actually don’t mind the bits where Bernadette (the trans character) kicked a guy in the nuts which either Namaste or Serano critiqued, that was fine, and her romance was mostly sweet and there were a few lovely moments of queer family towards the end, but not surprisingly, a very different experience to my early one. Rewatching movies is a dangerous business.
I think when you’re young, you get what you need out of movies and discard the rest–a process so selective that looking back you wonder how you pulled anything useful from there at all. Marginalised people can do wonderfully perverse things with texts, but the sad thing is we have to.
Because there’s no real affirming alternative, and turning poison into cure is the only cultural option we have.
(vaguely relevant to whines about “censorship” re: Ticked Off Trannies With Knives, but apply as necessary)
Critique is not censorship. Critique is not censorship. Critique is not censorship.
If there’s not a law against it, if there’s not police knocking at the door to take you away, and a big pile of books being burnt, you’re not exactly being censored, are you? Already we’re talking about a selective kind of censorship, nu?
In fact, this argument ignores the ways in which we already have regulating mechanisms for the public sphere. We don’t have ads for porn on network TV, or violence and swearing during children’s timeslots. Characters in primetime sitcoms don’t call each other “cunt” or “fuckhead.” Inappropriate doesn’t mean governmentally censored.
That’s what the rating system does, based on all kinds of regulatory criteria, some conservative and some progressive. It includes both implicitly and explicitly understood guidelines about content being inappropriate because for ideological reasons. It acknowledges that some language can and does demean (sexism, racism, homophobia etc).
But what they don’t include is any measure of acknowledgement that transphobic language is any way harmful. If TOTWK is ejected from that festival, it’s not being “censored,” it is rightly being acknowledged as inappropriate for wider audiences.
You can still sell it on DVD, screen it online, whatever. But you don’t have a right to as wide an audience as you like, because no-one is assured of that. You don’t have the right to every kind of free speech in every kind of venue – especially if the text uses a slur for its title.
So this notion that there’s “art” here and “censorship” over there and they only meet once in awhile when people get up in arms about something is individualist bullshit. It profoundly ignores the ways in which power is always involved as both repressive and productive, both top-down regulatory and engaged in a feedback loop with audiences about what is and what isn’t culturally acceptable. This is a conversation which has included much more than mere free-market Darwinist consumerism, but the input of advertisers, commentators in the media, lawmakers, and yes grass-roots protest.
Trans people haven’t historically been a part of that conversation, but it is time that we are. Cis people are utter rubbish at writing trans characters. And it is time that that changed, too.
A protest is also a form of speech, indeed it is as equally free speech as the work in question. And oh yeah, once more with feeling, say it with me now, critique is not censorship.
Continuing on from this thread…
Last week, I watched an episode of How I Met Your Mother, a PG rated show, because hey, I was bored and I enjoy a rubbish sitcom. And then there was a moment of pure, groundbreaking edgy hilarity. Marshall’s car is “part tranny, it goes back and forth.” Hur hur.
And then I watch Ugly Betty, and the hilarity continues. (about the trans character) “Like taking candy from a tranny.” Hur hur.
And then I see an ad for Dirty, Sexy Money and a character snaps something about a “tranny hooker.” Hur hur.
Then, I turn to the newspaper to read a music review. Kitty Empire in the Guardian, reviewing a concert featuring the Cure says “Robert Smith, by contrast, still slaps on the slap like a tranny gone feral.” Cos trans women are so rubbish with make-up. Hur hur.
See, the word “tranny” gets used with alarming regularity in the media, and I’m not sure it actually registers that it is a slur. It’s always so jolly, like it’s a whimsical, fun term that cis people can throw around with abandon. Always with the implication that trans people are laughably pathetic. Because my identity, our history, of itself is a joke.
What is missing is that in my personal experience as a trans woman, “tranny” is a form of hate speech. The last person who called me it literally spat on me. It’s frequently paired with “faggot”–yet no-one sprays that word liberally around the media. When someone spits a word at you, the implication is clear– you’re disgusting, barely even human. And that disgust is worked out violently against the bodies of trans people.
So why is it not that bad, why is this word qualifies as appropriate for use on tv sitcoms and apparently “liberal” newspapers (not that the continued presence of Julie Bindel on that paper helps much)? I mean, is it all this massive power we have in society? The general societal reverence and esteem trans people get? Now there’s a joke. If it’s not appropriate to use other hateful words, why does “tranny” get a pass?
Oh I forgot. I mean, we’re all post PC here, no-one gets really offended just because they’re constantly insulted, having their identity positioned between hilarious and disgusting? Hur hur.
I wanted to link to this post of Nix’s about the movie Boys Don’t Cry because he makes a really good point about the way trans sexualities are proscribed and flat out denied by cis expectations. It’s worth copying this out in full:
Cissexism is apparent in many criticisms of Boys Don’t Cry. In [the article under discussion in the lecture], Judith Halberstam argues that a space for trans subjectivity is at one point preserved by Lana’s refusal to look at Brandon’s genitals when he is stripped by John and Tom. However, Halberstam and other critics also claim that the film portrays Brandon and Lana’s last sex scene as a lesbian sex scene, betraying Brandon’s trans/male identity and turning Brandon into a woman/female. I don’t think that the film is that great in this regard – I particularly don’t think that the last sex scene is really appropriate after such a graphic depiction of rape. However, I’m also really uncomfortable when people describe it as a lesbian sex scene for the most part because Brandon takes off his shirt and doesn’t use a prosthetic penis*. What that assertion says to me is that the viewer can’t see (or refuses to see) Brandon as a man if they also see his breasts. It also implies that trans men are not allowed to be comfortable enough with their bodies and/or their sexual partners to have sex in any way other than fully (or partially) clothed. The underlying belief here is that if a trans person is comfortable enough with their body to be naked, then they mustn’t really be trans, and they aren’t the gender they say they are.
I think that the viewer of a trans film has a responsibility towards the viewing of trans bodies. I think they have a responsibility to step out of this cissexist paradigm and understand that a trans man in a sexual relationship with a woman is not switching from heterosexual male to lesbian (dependent on what bits of his body we see onscreen) but is, more likely, inhabiting a trans subject position. The inability of so many critics to recognise a possible trans space in Brandon’s relationship with Lana echoes a wide-spread inability to comprehend that trans bodies are legitimate, even though they do not seamlessly conform exactly to sexist, heterosexist, cissexist expectations of what bodies should be. Some people have a real difficulty understanding and acknowledging that a trans man’s body is male if he says it’s male**, no matter what kind of genitals he has. That’s cissexism, and it’s not OK.
* It is also because of the way the scene is shot, but, erm, I DON’T HAVE TIME to go into that at this point of the lecture!
** Likewise, that a trans woman’s body is female if she says it’s female.
Ironically given that trans bodies are so thoroughly over-sexualised in a cultural sense, we rarely ourselves seem to talk about what it means to have sex as an embodied trans person. What I think is interesting about Nix’s post is that he’s very clearly making the point that the meanings of trans bodies are viewed through a cis lens that the trans person in question very definitely does not share (and indeed a cis partner like Lana may not share that either). That nudity does not mean the cis “revelation” of the gender you really are. Rather, the first time I was naked with my girlfriend I felt open, because the peculiarly trans mixture of my body and my identity were accepted and valued for the complex things that they are.
“you’re still my girl,” she whispered to me as she pulled off my shirt, knowing how insecure I was about my body
Rather than a regression to cis-sexuality, it was an affirmation of my femaleness, of the legitimacy of my trans identity.
Of course, I do have body issues, though how that figures in sex does not fit the profile with which psychology has pathologised sexual trans bodies–the false binary between the over-sexualised auto-gynephile and the stone, sexless pre-op trans person who, if they can have sex at all, covers their body as much as possible and can’t bear to have their genitals touched. The reality is something else rather different, one that shifts from day to day.
And further, I think about my own fraught relationship with my penis as a pre-op trans woman, and how sometimes I re-figure it in my mind as a clit, or as a strap-on, and sometimes I don’t. How, sometimes using it feels like it undoes my identity as a woman.. and sometimes it doesn’t.
And none of this is particularly readable through a cis frame, because the meanings that I make from my body, are not the same meanings that of a cis-sexist society that can only see truth when its stories are mirrored back to itself.
In relation to this list of “Top 15 Transsexual Killer movies” and this post about what seems like a fairly irritating episode of Bones (normally my girlfriend and I watch it, but we had a friend over). I think I’ve been circling around this for awhile, but I want to get out there plainly. Namely:
The “shock” of the trans plot twist, the revelation that a trans person is really [whatever]–what I call the Crying Game moment–legitimates trans panic. It is the same movement, and leads to the negation of real trans people. Fiction does have an effect on people, in terms of what “makes sense” culturally, and it’s this continued repetition of transphobic tropes in the media that legitimates real-life violence, and the perception that trans people are deceptive – killers, worthy of death or hilariously pathetic,
More on this later at some point.