Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"The Gendercator" and Transphobia

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Tonight I went to a screening of the independent film The Gendercator at the Center on Halsted. This film has been causing quite a stir amongst transpeople across the country and in the queer blogosphere. The film has actually been banned from a few LGBT(qai...) film festivals for supposedly being anti-trans.

I will say that I do not think that this film was anti-trans. I do not think it had anything to do with transgender issues AT ALL. Before I go into an analysis I will give you a brief synopsis. A young non-gender normative lesbian woman falls asleep at a party in the 1970s after smoking much marijuana (or what appeared to be marijuana). She wakes up 75 years later to find that the religious right has taken over. A person can only be a man or a woman and MUST fit into rigid gender categories, brave-new-world-style.

One can have surgery to fit the gender that they prefer but once they are in their new body they MUST comply with the rigid gender roles. This young woman is forced by medical professionals to be surgically transformed into a man. This petrifies her because while she likes women she also likes her androgynous body. In something of a cop-out (on the director's part) the sequence ends up being a dream and she wakes up again to find the 'real' world. Fin.

Anyway, the controversy has arisen because many people see this film as being transphobic. I do not see that. I think the film is a dystopian fantasy in which we see what would happen if the religious right had their way and choice was taken away. This film is very much about force and removal of choice. The surgery in this film was not a result of some deeply felt yearning or life long struggle with one's body image not matching her/his gender identity. This surgery was about a woman being forced to become a man because of her clothing and her sexual object choice. That is something very different indeed.

After screening the film there was a panel discussion with the director, Catharine Crouch, and five other activists/theorists in the gender queer field. The discussion was fascinating. Judith Halberstam was on the panel! She had the most insightful comments, I wish I could have heard more from her. I have long been a fan of her work.

The director defended her film saying that it was meant as a resistance to medicalization of bodies and that straight women are socialized to believe that if they do not look like Barbie they are value-less and that plastic surgery is a way to fit into that norm is scary. She also said that transmen are forced into FTM surgery in order to fit into a gendered norm. Because their bodies are not stereotypically masculine they are not valued as males in our culture. Her argument seemed to be that people should be content with their bodies and not seek surgery as a way of copping out of dealing with non-normative gender.

This is where she got herself into a bit of hot water. NONE of the above things were in her film. These are statements that she has made while on her national tour with this film. The other panelists were rightly upset at the notion that transmen are somehow depoliticized just by virtue of their maleness. Choosing a male body is not a way of avoiding feminism! It is not a way of gaining privilege. It might be a side-effect sometimes, but I seriously doubt that that is the reason many transpeople transition.

One of the things that I enjoyed the most was the reappropriating of the directors notion of medicalization as a tool of the patriarchy. While I agree that it has been used that way (especially in the case of intersexed peoples) it seems to deny transpeople the agency that they deserve. Halberstam argued that medicalization is just a much a tool for trans liberation as it is a tool of the patriarchy.

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Halberstam was clearly annoyed with Crouch. Crouch seemed to be rather ignorant on trans issues and this is what is getting her into trouble. She is going around the country in the name of starting a dialogue and than openly admitting that she has no idea what trans identity is! She certainly should not be a spokesperson for this community by any means. The film was not anti-trans but the director might well be. As Halberstam suggested, she would do well to read much, much more queer theory before taking on such an ambitious tour.

Finally, I want to say that I think this film is mis-named a satire. There is nothing satirical about it, it is a dystopian fantasy about an extraordinarily conservative regime. Possible? Maybe. Likely? Probably not. All I know after listening to this panel is that Crouch ought not claim to have made a movie about transpeople when it clearly is not. And she probably would do well to pick up some queer theory.


s. schmitt said...

well put, cortney. i agree. i think the film is not really anti- trans on its own, but it has been more crouch's commentary that has caused the drama. there are some things about the film that i think are anti trans though, so here are some: the ending, (which you allready mentioned). crouch also presents the post op transpeople as either very shallow and apolitical people who rellish in privilege, or in the case of the long lost friend as disheartened, depressed, and happily powerless. The film is an unfair representation of transpeople and queer identity at best. it does nothing to challenge the distopian vision of gender binary it presents other than add in some antiquated and stereotyped vision of lesbian identity, which we could argue as well. it doesnt present any real vision of the diversity of trans identity or the immense struggle and oppression that transpeople face. trans identity is the furthest things from an "easy answer to patriarchy," and that's the important point that crouch however deliberately or not, left out.

Anonymous said...

i'd have to agree with much of what s. schmitt said, in identifying elements of the film that were transphobic.
the other thing that troubles me is the argument people keep making that the director might be transphobic, but that the film isn't. the director is also the person who wrote the script, who conceived the film, and she has said her inspiration for making the film was that dykes were being tricked or duped into becoming men, along with her line about straight women being compelled to look like barbie. now i know any text is more than the sum of its authors intentions, but surely the director's explicitly political project for a film is relevent to our reading of what the film does and is...
anyway, though i don't think crouch is interested in a genuine dialogue lots of people seem to be.
so thanks for thinking and writing about the film though...
ana semia