Transgender Benders

This is my first post on The Hathor Legacy, and I had originally intended to post under the book section. However, I just re-watched Transamerica (one of my students is using it for their research paper) and got to thinking. Transgender theory holds a special place in my heart. When I was an undergraduate, I took this amazing class called "Literature of Passing" or something to that affect in which we examine various stories of passing–African-American passing as white, Japanese passing as Chinese during WWII, etc. For my final project I chose to focus on transgendered people. Thus (full circle) Transamerica.

This is a truly fantastic and human movie. Felicity Huffman's portrayal of pre-op transgender Bree Osbourne is pitch perfect; the viewer "gets" the struggle that this individual must undertake every single day in her efforts to slough off the physical trappings of male in order to become fully female. Furthermore, Huffman approaches this role with a real sensitivity–Bree Osbourne is not a caricature but rather a complex individual with emotions and demons. So many movies about transsexual or transgendered peoples present them as over the top, overly flamboyant shadows of real people. To Wong Fu comes to mind–each of the "female" transvestites (not to be confused with Drag Queens, who are men who dress as women as a performance or impersonation, transvestites are men who dress as women all the time but HAVE NOT had/or plan to ever have a sex change surgery) played by Wesley Snipes, Jon Leguizamo and Patrick Swayze are all caricatures of some facet of "woman": Snipes the angry black woman, Swayze the matronly nurturer, Leguizamo the feisty Latina. The audience is asked to suspend belief that each of these men can pass as women with their over the top ostentatious clothing, hairstyles, make-up, etc. In comparison, Transamerica's Bree Osbourne dresses in a more realistic (though, at times prudish) manner–no spike heels for this woman but rather more sensible flats and thick soled heels.

Additionally, Transamerica is the story of an inner journey–woman finds out she fathered a son back in the day and that said son is a bit of a mess (of the coked-up man whore variety). The movie is a classic buddy movie in which two characters travel cross country (think Thelma & Louise, Bill and Ted, and a slew of other such movies) and personal growth and hilarity ensues. Most often (with a few notable deviations) these movies are more hilarity and less growth–think Dumb and Dumber. Yet Transamerica does not. Don't get me wrong, there are funny moments (and they're beyond hilarious), but they're tempered with moments of profound sadness and thought. One moment, Bree's peeing desperately attempting to squat and pee like a woman but lets her frustrations get the better of her and she stands and pees (full frontal ensuing). It's a funny moment, because lets face it, penises are just funny contraptions and seeing one sticking out from under a skirt is seriously funny. But it's also incredibly sad at the same time because Bree's loathing of her male parts is clearly apparent. She hates her penis–it reminds her of all she isn't, specifically that she isn't whole. At this point, her son also discovers who she is and the relationship struggle for the rest of the movie is (thankfully) not about a man and woman falling in love and overcoming odd, but a father and son simultaneously getting to know each other and redefining their relationship. This, as well as a multitude of scenes, enhance the idea that drives the entire plot: no man (or woman for that matter) is an island, we all need someone to lean on and for Bree that is her son.

So, to wrap this up, Transamerica. Fantastic movie, fantastic story, fantastic lesson. Rent it. Watch it.

Comments

  1. Purtek says

    I need to see this movie. I’ve long felt frustrated by the conflation of transgendered/transvestite individuals with “drag queens”, especially since I read an essay by bell hooks that blasts the misogyny in the heavily caricatured version of femininity used in drag shows essentially for amusement. Media images that address the complexities that transgendered people face (or frankly, even mention them at all, since we’re mainly dealing with the To Wong Foo caricature variety) are few and far between.

  2. says

    Exactly. I wish I had thought this post through a little more because I think I would’ve like to have included some dialogue regarding the Austsrailian movie, The Ad entures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It touches on a lot of the same subjects as Transamerica, but is about a drag queen (portrayed by Matrix’s actor, and Mr. Smith himself, Hugo Weaving). Never once in Priscilla is being a drag queen confused with being a transvestite or even a transgendered person. Tick (Weaving) is clearly male, clearly preforms as female, and is clearly gay. Similarily, he also has a child and the road trip/buddy movie that ensues is also about self discovery and self love (in the non pervy way). The distinction between the character’s sexuality and the character’s womanly character is made distincly clear–which is another thing that I think that most movies that drag in some respect (be it as a life style or whatever–Think all those Big Mamma’s house and Eddie Murphy movies) fails to do. As viewers, we asked to believe that these big hulking, otherwise handsome men but god aweful ugly women, can pass as women and the “real thing” (most often the women they lust after) can not tell the difference. Then, to further ensure that masculinity and masculine sexuality is entact, there’s a big reveal and everything is a-ok, which bugs me to no end because I don’t think it would be or should be that cut and dry.

  3. Purtek says

    I was going to bring up Priscilla in my comment, because I remember really liking that movie when it came out, but hating To Wong Foo. I was in high school at the time, so I wasn’t able to figure out why they were so different, and now I just don’t remember enough about either to make as informed a comment as you just did. Overall, it seems like where Priscilla was exploring and humanizing characters in complex situations, in ways that could also be funny, To Wong Foo was just exploitative and as a result, didn’t even succeed in being funny.

    And now that I dig deep in my brain, I do remember Hugo Weaving in that movie, but he’ll always be Elrond to me.

  4. Patrick says

    I’ve been a big Felicity Huffman fan since Sports Night, so this is going on my rental list.

    I find their casting of a woman in the role of a transgender woman interesting. My best guess is that the filmmakers wanted the audience to view Bree as who she really is, rather than who she was born as, and had they cast a man or a transgender woman in the part, many in the audience would not have been able to get past that.

    Definitely interested in seeing this movie.

  5. says

    I thought that was an interesting choice as well because of how they made Bree look. Felicity Huffman is not “Hollywood” pretty by any means, but she is a handsome woman that no way in real life resembles a man. However, for this movie who ever was the make-up artist did a fantastic job of capturing a person who is desperately trying to pass as female. Bree is not beautiful, perse, but she is not mannish. Rather, she is normal. By my best approximation, the character is meant to be roughly late-40s, and is portrayed as a demure woman figure (demure, in this case, not meaning weak but rather lady-like). Part of Bree’s struggle is to “pass” as female, and at times this means being overly feminine. At first, I was like “dude, no way a woman would EVER act like that” but then I got thinking about it. Why wouldn’t an individual who is attempting to pass a another gender not err on the side of safty and “over-do it” in terms of lady-like qualities? Does that not make more sense then the over the topness of drag queens?

    Anyway, the point was, Huffman was perfect. She managed to capture the idea of what it must be like to be neither here nor their in terms of ones gender identity, while desperately trying to cultivate and assume one that you were not born with. I had similar feelings about Boy’s Don’t Cry. Part of me wonders/thinks that casting men as women is (most of the time) going to result in camp and must becuase how else can you preserve and maintan Hollywood masculinity? However, casting a woman in a transgendered role is “safe” because really, in doing so, do you challenge any gender bending rules? I would love to see a man take on a serious movie role like Transamerica or Boys Don’t Cry and acutally do it justice.

    As you can see, I could go on and on and on (ad already have) about this topic!

  6. Roxane says

    As viewers, we asked to believe that these big hulking, otherwise handsome men but god aweful ugly women, can pass as women and the “real thing” (most often the women they lust after) can not tell the difference. Then, to further ensure that masculinity and masculine sexuality is entact, there’s a big reveal and everything is a-ok, which bugs me to no end because I don’t think it would be or should be that cut and dry.

    That sounds a lot like the movie Tootsie actually. The problem with movies that try to pass off men disguised as women is that the man’s sexuality is always emphasized for fear of alienating the audience. This is made doubly offensive when the movie heralds itself as making strides, pushing boundaries, etc just for remotely addressing an issue that not many people address.

    In fact, they only solidify previous misconceptions or create new ones, like “It’s o.k. if you play a woman and you’re a man, just as long as you make sure everyone knows that you’re straight and are only cross-dressing because of some cah-razy plot device.” They can’t have their cake and eat it two; if they want to be acclaimed for having the “courage” to speak out, they should actually speak out instead of relying on what’s considered safe.

  7. MaggieCat says

    I would love to see a man take on a serious movie role like Transamerica or Boys Don’t Cry and acutally do it justice.

    While I haven’t seen it yet myself, a lot of people whose opinions I respect have said nothing but wonderful things about Lee Pace’s performance in Soldier’s Girl.

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