Write Your Representative: The Trans* Self on Film, Part 1

Bono with Becoming Chaz's directors, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato.

(I feel like I should have a disclaimer on each post that my titles will inevitably be unselfconsciously pretentious, because I myself am so in real life. Makes me primed to be great at academic writing, though.)

During the media press junket prior to the release of Becoming Chaz, I joked that when I inevitably watched it, I’d have to resist from playing the Trans Documentary Drinking Game, lest I get alcohol poisoning.[1] While I sincerely wanted Bono to pull off something different (my standard for the best “trans” documentary being the fantastic STILL BLACK), my hopes weren’t high. And though I admit it was a bit presumptive on my part, turns out I shouldn’t have had hopes at all.

For a viewer versed in the Way of the Trans Documentary, Becoming Chaz is neither new nor revelatory. Sebastian’s review at Autostraddle encapsulates the documentary’s key problem in his title: “About a Boy or About a Body?” The camera fixates on Bono’s body, viewing it as the ultimate exteriorization of his internal self—a supposed perfect model of inverse Cartesian dualism on display. And on a private trans-focused community I belong to, the response was equally lukewarm. Such mixed feelings-to-downright negativity prompted a member ask an important question, one that (seemingly) inevitably accompanies the release of trans* memoirs and documentaries: “What is it about all of the public transmen that doesn’t represent your experience?” Members offered many different responses, all of them equally valid.

But I think the question, at its premise, misses a key feature of the documentary: the role of the intermediary eye, most often the director’s. The trans documentary is most often premised on making the subject accessible to the cis viewer, ‘de-mystifying’ the transitioning subject. To do so, the trans documentary most often emphasizes difference and disunion, all neatly wrapped up in a pre-existing trans narrative.[2] In Whipping Girl, Julia Serano notes several examples of prominent trans women, herself included, who agreed to participate in documentaries only to be told that the filmmakers specifically wanted footage of them, in one director’s words, “getting ready to go out”—that is, putting on makeup, dresses, and using other object-markers of femininity. When Serano showed up for her interview in street clothes, the filmmaker was visibly disappointed. Serano refused to fit the role slotted for her, and her interview ultimately went unused. And Alexander and Losh find the same ‘cleaning up,’ so to speak, of messy, complicated narratives in comparison to “professional” coming out videos, produced by Logo Network, and amateur YouTube videos. YouTube “amateurs” emphasize a variety of different and varied identities, messy, indeterminate, always in transition. They provide a sharp contrast to the clean compartmentalization of the “Coming Out Stories” series, where identities fit a “drop-down” menu format (Alexander and Losh 2010).

Thus, I would argue that to really answer this anonymous member’s question—why do others’ public narratives prove dissatisfying—one has to ask another question entirely: what does it take for trans men (and women, and others) to appear in mass media that defy/deny stereotypical depictions? For it’s not primarily the trans man himself who is problematic, but the format and a broader culture which encourages its worst attributes.

There’s not a single answer to this question, but there is a good place to start looking for some: the vlog. Compared to the documentary, or even short series in the vein of Logo’s Coming Out Stories, vlogs are entirely independent productions. Vloggers shoot and produce their videos, with little to no intervention from outsiders. Images that appear in the videos exist, at least initially, outside of the cis gaze; unlike the biographical images Jay Prosser studies in Second Skins, these images do not risk “[incarnating] a ‘dead’ self that one is not,” (Prosser 1998, 218) or the unwilling re-insertion of the trans subject into past contexts. Instead, self-authored video claims the journey of transition as personal and unique—an ongoing one-person show, produced, edited, and scripted by the vlogger. Tobias Raun casts vlogs as the site of “screen births” for trans vloggers, as they come into their new self through interaction with the camera lens. The vlog’s not just about the boy or the body, but the boy in the body.

As an example, let’s contrast a scene in Becoming Chaz with a vlog, DominoAyeJae’s (hereafter referred to as Ty) “Why didn’t I think of this before?”. Structurally, these scenes represent two different formats: the real-life simulacrum of documentary and the vlog’s mediated memory. However, I’ve chosen them primarily for their similar affective dimensions: the subject’s powerful reaction to the post-op chest. In a cultural environment that actively genders (and sexes) the chest along strict binarist lines, the post-op chest represents an undeniable marker of masculinity for both Bono and Ty.[3]

In Chaz, Bono’s interactions with the camera are intercut with “live” scenes of him seeing his chest for the first time. The combination of voiceover and footage mediates the viewer’s experience of Bono’s experience, creating a layer between Bono and the audience. This layer reinforces the presentation of transition as a narrative arc with beginning, middle, and end (embodied in his emphasis on achieving “clarity” through transition and achieving a life “like everyone else’s”). In this arc, Bono’s experience is no longer his own; instead, he moves through transition with little visible autonomy.

Ty, in contrast, speaks to the audience directly. Though they cannot see him run through the rain, the emotion of his experience is clear in his tone of voice, his inability to describe its meaning. Where Bono’s experience is nearly over-articulated, images constantly framed by archetypal narrative (“female shell” and “male self,” having bottom surgery, etc.), Ty’s inarticulate response takes on intense personal affective dimensions. Listening to him, the viewer must themselves process, second hand, Ty’s emotions to fully grasp the moment’s meaning. It’s a messy moment, and that messiness gives the vlog its power. When a mass media depiction can manage the same, they’ll have started on the right track for making media that aren’t framed as subtextually representing all trans* experience, but representing one person and their experience.

—-

So, I think I’ve sufficiently argued my point in this case. However, when speaking of mass media, there’s always the question of eyeballs. As Herman Gray says of racial representation on broadcast television in Cultural Moves, the push to increase the amount and diversity of people of color was premised on the idea such visibility might mean “whites would eventually be comfortable with people of color as televisual citizens, friends, neighbors and family members”—a comfort that would ideally transfer over to other arenas (2005, 103). This same logic can be and is used in the case of trans* visibility was well. And there would, on the surface, be evidence to support it: over 700,000 televisions, some of them being viewed by people who were presumably trans*, were tuned to Becoming Chaz when it first aired on OWN.

However, Gray also makes the point that as broadcast television came less to dominate national cultural discourse, its actual impact on the national imaginary decreased in comparison to its actual importance. The problem of encouraging diversity on television has now “given way to the question of how to link a brand name to specific kinds of difference…in order to establish distinctive brand identifications and loyalty through consumerism” (2005, 106). The political commitment to a “liberal pluralist” society model, in a landscape of global, language-delimited information economy, leaves “such politics at best critically improvised and at worst ineffective” due to their failure “to expose and exploit the discursive gaps and fissures between lingering modernist conceptions of the nation and the shifting logic of television as a transmodern, post-network media” (2005, 109).

Instead, Gray looks to new technologies as a tool for developing new cultural practices and social relations, and I would follow him. Though trans* folks on television have not yet reached the point of being branded, the broadcast-oriented documentary model of exposure (be it on network or cable) doesn’t encourage new practices or understandings of the self. However, the unique combination of the vlog and its host, YouTube, provides an opportunity to develop, as Gray terms it, counterhegemonies.

I’ll pick up this thread in Part Two, which I’ll have posted in a few days.


[1] It should be noted that I approach consuming trans-oriented mass media (as a trans* person) with an attitude of reluctant middle-class civic boosterism; no matter how bitter the pill, I’ll make myself swallow it because it’s The Right Thing To Do.

[2] Anecdotally, the one time I watched a trans documentary that didn’t follow this premise with a majority-cis audience was during a class viewing of STILL BLACK. The sole complaint about the film was the lack of background on the subjects’ transition—a subject the director very clearly (to me) chose not to discuss. Though the comment was benign, it speaks to the expectation that trans subjects’ past should always be fully explicated and accessible to the viewer.

[3] Possibly the best example of this gendering is in Dean Spade’s chronicling of his attempts to get top surgery without being diagnosed as “transsexual.” Because he did not view top surgery as SRS, the medical authority saw it as “cosmetic surgery, something normal people get.”

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2 responses to “Write Your Representative: The Trans* Self on Film, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Write Your Representative: The Trans* Self on Film, Part 2 | Ping Your Spaceman

  2. Pingback: Nakedness « South Carolina Boy

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