Sunday, June 28, 2015

Existing: Transgender Representation in Sense8

It's easy to say representation doesn't matter when you have all of filmed media to choose from. White boys grow up knowing they can be anything and do anything, because film and television lets them know that they are the heroes and makers of their own stories. They can go out and achieve whatever dreams they want, because the entire world is at their grasp as long as they work hard or in some cases luck into it, but that isn't the case for everyone else. When characters on television and film represent some sort of cultural identity and definition, especially in the case of minority persons, the few characters that actually end up having their stories told become of utmost importance to those with little or no representation. It's even rarer when one of those characters is created by someone adjacent to the lived experiences of that minority character. More often those narratives and characters are constructed by the same white men who grew up wanting to be writers, and that isn't to say they cannot create great characters that aren't of their own lived experience, but it can be revelatory to see that character in the hands of someone who truly knows the ins and outs of a lived experience another person may only have tertiary knowledge of. In the case of Sense8, Lana Wachowski has given trans women a character so wholly different from the normal palette of transgender women in film and television that she feels like a springboard moment in what is hopefully more respectful and understood characterization of an often completely botched segment of people in film narratives.



The history of transgender female representation in movies and television is a constricted, damaging, limited, and completely toxic presentation of our lives with only a few bright spotlights throughout the last 100 or so years of movie making. Before the advent of Netflix's transgender duo (Nomi in Sense8 and Sophia in Orange is the New Black) there wasn't a significant role for transgender women where they could play a character who wanted to be more than a corpse (CSI, Dallas Buyer's Club) , a murderer (Dressed to Kill), a joke (Family Guy, Ace Ventura) or a sex worker whose life decisions were damned by whoever was writing the character (Law and Order). There wasn't an opportunity for us to exist beyond these confines so preconceived notions of who we are formulated in the minds of those without any direct relation to transgender people. It painted a portrait of a non-existent humanity, something (not someone) to be feared, mocked or pitied for having decided to become a deviant.

Even well meaning liberal motion pictures like TransAmerica and Dallas Buyer's Club reek of allyship and an understanding that our bodies are constructed through maleness, rough exterior, and a kind of damaged femininity that is more akin to clown make-up and dress-up rather than an internal sense of womanhood. In those pictures we cannot escape a body that came to being through an assumed male socialization, because in these pictures transgender women are not women, but men to be pitied for having taken on the guise of womanhood which is in and of itself a deeply misogynistic line of thought that completely undermines who we are, how we got to be, who we are, and how our bodies are structured. Notice how transgender women are almost always portrayed by cisgender men, because in the opinion of Hollywood there is no way we can achieve a body capable or close to the cisgender female beauty standard placed upon all women by society at large so instead of showing real transgender bodies Jared Leto, Jeffrey Tambor and Eddie Redmayne occupy our space and define our place as women through masculinity. When they do write transgender women as beautiful characters or love interests for men it's never enough to actually give them a happy ending and romance, but instead our bodies are upended by a reveal that categorizes us as male by focusing on a phallus. The man in the relationship has been tricked, and the entire relationship has been an affront to his sexuality. Take for instance the scene in Family Guy where characters vomit upon knowing they've slept with a transgender woman, only to have creator Seth MacFarlane say this is the natural reaction of men afterward. This both distances the narrative away from a transgender woman and focuses on a misogynistic, male viewpoint and a token punchline in a joke that our bodies are vessels of disgust. When dissecting that idea even further one finds that our humanity is then weighed on our attractiveness and our ability to please men, which goes beyond just a transmisogynistic idea of our standing in culture, but women as a whole, because if women's narratives in film or television are only there to be attached to the pleasures of one man then this is wish fulfillment instead of reality, and strips all women of anything resembling character, cis or trans.



This is obviously a problem, and becomes exhausting when looking for anything resembling direct text relating to transgender lifestyle. Personally, I have always looked for subtextual readings of motion pictures where I could find something genuinely relatable to my own life experiences. I wrote about this earlier this year when I analyzed Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin as a transgender narrative, and while that film means a monumental amount to me it's closeness towards transgender themes are something created by accident and completely in the realm of subtext. Girls like me don't exist in the pictures is something I used to say to myself. I'm a young woman, and I look like these girls on the screen, but they don't have my dysphoria or the problems present in my life. I didn't find a single relatable character to my own personal existence until I watched Paris is Burning and found a closeness with Venus Xtravaganza who wanted nothing more than to live a normal life, and make her body complete in her eyes by having vaginoplasty, but in the final moments of the movie her body is disposed of, cutting short a life that was in it's earliest chapters and extinguishing the chance she had at feeling home in her own skin some day. It's devastating, it's documented, and it's real. I was left aghast at the brutality of the world, and wondered if I'd ever make promise on completing my own body or if someone would take that chance from me someday. It's uncertain, because we aren't safe even 25 years later. Paris is Burning is the greatest piece of transgender art that has ever been created, because it offers a glimpse into the lifestyle, bodies and humanity we have to offer this world. We are completely driven by the same desires and goal oriented ideas about career-making, family and creating a lasting effect on this world that all humans are even if our time is shorter. I fully believe we can change the ideas presented about our worth of life, and in the last few years there have been significant strides in the mainstream media regarding our lives, but things still have an exceedingly long way to go, but the trickle effect of gaining agency on our own narratives is beginning.


I'm forever grateful of what netflix is allowing to happen on their network, because they've finally given me a mirror in a fictional narrative of someone who I can finally say is like myself. When Nomi is introduced on Sense8 she's having sex, her body is there for the entire world to see, and it's not sorrowful to gaze upon her flesh, because it's like mine. It belongs to a woman, not a man acting. Her sexuality is treated as belonging to her, and it's her orgasm that the show is intent on capturing. This is agency, and the reveal of her girlfriend using a dildo on her afterward presents this as a narrative that won't end with her feeling betrayed at knowing her body completely, because she loves every inch of her. They embrace, and their queerness is beloved by this show. Their warmth goes beyond the bedroom as well, and in a later scene at a pride gathering Nomi is confronted by a trans exclusionary radical feminist who refers to her as a colonizing male. This visibly upsets Nomi, but something remarkable happens just moments later when her girlfriend defends her place as a woman and in the LGBTQ community. Nomi is crying and then simply says to her girlfriend "No one has ever defended me before". That is love. I know it because, the same thing happened to me just 24 hours earlier to me when my boyfriend called out some people for using the word "Tranny" when I was visibly upset by it. The parallel example of these two things happening alongside one another really hit home that this is my show. This is the truth. This is made for me and not for cisgender people. Nomi belongs to people like me, and after 23 years of existence I have someone. I guess girls like me do exist in the movies after all.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: SuperDyke (Barbara Hammer, 1975)

If Themyscria is a supposed feminine ideal and a place of paradise for Amazonian Women in Wonder Woman then Barbara Hammer's movies seek out to create Themyscria for lesbians within her cinema. SuperDyke specifically works as a document to a very specific time in queer rights where the mainstream was just starting to get wind of queerness and a post-Stonewall, Second Wave centrism on lesbian feminist identity was becoming more pronounced. The idea of SuperDyke extends beyond the political though as Hammer's lens once again finds its greatest meaning in the personal, quieter moments of sexuality instead of the more on the nose examples of women kissing in front of a bus with words like "Lesbian Express" scrawled across the front. Those moments, however, are not brought down by the superiority of Hammer's more sensual, individual eye as they remain fun, tongue in cheek and at the time radical because of their intention of taking the queer space and extending it into the public eye. Another fun moment which calls back to it's comic book title is a scene where two women kiss in a phone booth, don vibrant yellow tank tops which say "SuperDyke", and step out into the open. The image is both interesting for it's cute call-back to the Amazon signs at the beginning of the picture to represent a Wonder Woman, as well as being a lesbian version of Clark Kent to Superman, and the political context of it meaning a coming out of the closet.


Hammer keeps the filmmaking interesting as well, and it'd have been easy for her to go back to the quick cutting and dissolve heavy imagery of her previous shorts Dyketactics and Menses, but here she goes for home video, with fleeting moments of interaction between her lesbian superwomen to create a portrait of life, love, happiness, and rightful personhood. The film is structured into a few sections, "On the Street", "In the Home", "In the Court", "At Macy's". Each representing a facet of life as seen through the eyes of her filmic figures. In the House is the most impressive as Hammer focuses on the foreplay of two women in a way that calls back to the way she shot sex in Dyketactics, but without the aggressive abstraction of constant dissolves. Here, she focuses on the smaller moments of sex, like the rubbing of shoulders, the look in another woman's eye when being in a complete state of effervescence, and the thrill of existing within one another. In that moment queer cinema never feels more present and alive. Away from the tragedy of Hollywood martrydom, and fetishization of the unknown, queer cinema lives and breathes in Barbara Hammer's worldview, and it's beautiful.




Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: Menses (Barbara Hammer, 1974)

There's this Heavens to Betsy song that surfaced out of the riot grrrl movement entitled My Red Self , it's an angry anthem about how menstruation is treated as something to cover up and hide by society at large. In that song Corin Tucker would sing "So you make me hide the truth from you" and it's a direct attack on how a normal bodily function is treated as something to shield away and how unfair that is to those who menstruate. That song was recorded in 1993, nearly twenty years after Barbara Hammer made a short film with the same intentions. It's embarrassing that nothing had changed in nearly twenty years. Second wave feminism led into third wave feminism, and today things are very much still the same. Only a few days ago Canada lifted their taxes on menstruation hygiene products, much to the chagrin of men who felt the tax should have stayed in place, even though the taxing of such products is ridiculous when if anything it should be a human right to have those products. Even then it's been 41 years and nearly nothing has happened to de-shame menstruation cycles so Barbara Hammer's, Menses still feels very relevant.

In style Menses feels connected to her previous feature Dyketactics, but her intentions are much more blunt this time, and instead of creating something sensuous and graceful in motion Menses prods at viewers aggressively. She still uses the dissolve technique and the nudity of women is present in almost every frame, but otherwise the sunny, warm textures of Dyketactics are replaced with dark reds that fill up the frame and in one case, at the close completely fill up the frame in a mural of women connected through a menstrual cycle. Menses is at its strongest when dissecting the notions of period blood as horror and turning it into a badge. In one frame a woman exists as a sanitary napkin completely covered with blood gushing out of her and staining the napkin before she rolls down a hill, and in another a woman stands before a white towel before droplets begin to form underneath her. She then takes the towel and drapes it around herself. This is a part of her, and not something she should be ashamed of, and that's the general message of Menses whether it be conveyed through the dismantling of a Kotex box or through a blood mural in the final frames.



Barbara Hammer week at Curtsies and Hand Grenades continues tomorrow with Superdyke. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: Dyketactics (Barbara Hammer, 1974)

Dyketactics: tactile cinema by way of lesbian expression and complete reclamation of the body in the face of a longstanding history of male gaze upon women's bodies and the fetishization of queer women's sexuality. Notice how Hammer subverts the idea of nudity in imagery throughout art in her insistence to show the vagina in extreme close up instead of the more male associated fixation on breasts. As Hammer would recall in this interview with BOMB magazine, at one screening for Dyketactics in the 70s a man screamed at the close of the movie upon being shown a vagina to which the women in the audience replied "Haven't you seen one before?". One can infer that he had not been this close and personal before seeing Hammer's short, and there in lies the power of the image. The meaning of saying "This is my body, and it is not for your consumption or your sexualization, but instead it is my reality". This also supports the theory that this is not cinema made for men, but with it's everflowing love towards lesbian sexuality and the female body it would reject all things male, and it does. The recurring image of the camera in the hands of women taking pictures of their own bodies is another example of the control in which women have here, and the lens being shown focused specifically on genitals and breasts shows a specificity towards taking control of parts of women's bodies that men otherwise seek to control (breasts through the male gaze, and genitals through reproductive lawmaking).

Dissolves are the most consistent cinematic technique on display here with images surging in and out of one another with an ease and grace that is only empowered by the insistence upon showing fleeting moments of touch. A foot glides up against a calf, a hand runs through a blade of grass, a mouth clasps over aureola, and everyone is nude or in an embrace through all of this. Hammer drops all semblance of the dissolve in the final minute and instead shows two women in the process of having sex. Her camera glides through the sweeping curves of their bodies and slides around limbs and crevices of flesh. Closing on an image of two women wrapped up together as close as they can possibly be, symbiotic, as one.



Barbara Hammer week at Curtsies and Hand Grenades will continue tomorrow with a look at Menses.

You can watch Dyketactics on Vimeo here
https://vimeo.com/101192467