Tom Sandercock is a PhD Candidate in the School of Communication and Creative Arts (SCCA) at Deakin University (Melbourne, Australia). His doctoral research centres on the genealogy and analysis of contemporary transgender representations in children’s and young adult literary and screen texts.
Volume 30, May 2014
To the extent the gender norms (ideal dimorphism, heterosexual complementarity of bodies, ideals and rule of proper and improper masculinity and femininity…) establish what will and will not be intelligibly human, what will and will not be considered “real,” they establish the ontological field in which bodies may be given legitimate expression.
—Judith Butler (xxiv-xxv)
If every narrative is driven by home, what would a narrative be without one?
—Jay Prosser (205)
Duncan Tucker’s film Transamerica (2005) tells the story of transsexual woman Bree Osborne (Felicity Huffman) who, prior to her final gender affirmative surgeries, develops a relationship with her son Toby (Kevin Zegers) on a road trip across the United States of America. In depicting various movements across state lines, as well as gender and sexual norms, the narrative centres on the themes of ‘journey’ and ‘transgression’ in the broadest sense. In the official shooting script, Tucker recalls that he tried to combine the elements from his favourite stories, Huckleberry Finn, The Wizard of Oz, and The Lord of the Rings, writing ‘they’re all adventure-quest stories, about a hero who goes on a journey to achieve a goal, encounters friends and enemies, and comes back home changed’ (x). In this respect, the ‘change’ that Bree undergoes relates to more than gender: it is also about ‘coming home’ to various norms that have so far eluded her as a transsexual woman. The title ‘Transamerica’ overtly connotes the idea of crossing the nation and implicitly refers to crossing (or ‘transing’) gender. As such, Peter Caster and Allison Andrew describe the film as ‘a journey across both the nation and the boundaries of sex and gender’ (133), with the literal movements from one side of the United States to the other serving to parallel the social, material and symbolic journeys that Bree takes in the film.
The title of this article, a quote from Bree, centres on the fact that we are not meeting her at the ‘beginning’ of her journey, but rather, at a significant and highly stressful point near the ‘end’ of her transition to female-bodied womanhood. When Toby, having been arrested for shoplifting and possession of ‘a suspicious-looking white powder’, calls the father he has never known from a New York City downtown lockup, Bree carefully denies: ‘Stanley Schupak doesn’t live here anymore’. This disavowal carries meanings beyond her place of residence, doubly referring to the sites of her body and identity. ‘Stanley’ no longer has home in her house, body, or identity, because, in affirming her self-determined identity, expression, and embodiment, she has ousted him—or, rather, the externally-defined parameters that have for most of her life partly defined her—in ‘coming home’ to herself as a woman. In this article, I explore the representation of Bree’s journey to selfhood and content embodiment, and how hegemonic gender norms, among other forces, mediate her journey.
Bree’s life is binarised into a ‘pre-’ and ‘post-’ operational life with certain affects and visual representational techniques that promote genital surgeries as the foundation of contentedness. Bree is initially depicted as an unsociable, overworked, underpaid transwoman, estranged from her family and without any platonic or romantic relationships. By the closure of the film, her life has been dramatically altered by events leading up to, and following, her genital reconstructive surgery. In the journey across America, prior to her surgery, she develops a strong bond with the son she never knew she had and meets a promising romantic partner. After her surgery, she is promoted at her job, begins to learn Spanish, returns to university to become a teacher, and plans to move to a nicer house. She moves away from transsexuality, loneliness, and shame, towards (the promise of) heterosexual coupledom, family, motherhood, and upward mobility.
These narrative elements suggest that her pre-operational life, as a woman with a penis, is invariably awful and unfulfilling, and, through becoming a ‘female’-bodied woman, her life is transformed in various positive ways. That is, the film promotes a normativising narrative of transsexuality as being en route to hegemonic sex/gender congruence. In turn this, in the popular imaginary, marginalises other modes of gender diversity. The alignment of middleclass, heterosexual, suburban, white, family-centric life with happiness and fulfilment invariably ignores the implicit class privileges and social support networks that ultimately make Bree’s transition possible. In this article, I dissect Transamerica’s transgressive and normative components, and consider how the film’s problematic positioning in a heteronormative paradigm simultaneously makes visible and delimits transsexuality. Tucker explains, ‘Transamerica is subversive insofar as the main character is a transsexual woman, yet the film is not about transsexuality. It is at root an old-fashioned story about a parent, a child and the bonds of family’ (131). This reveals a positioning of ‘transsexuality’ that is almost antithetical to ‘family’ (and its various imbrications with mainstream heterosexual life). This is an odd revelation since the film is clearly about both transsexuality and family relations. To eclipse the representation of the transsexual experience with the plot of family reunion (or to suggest that this is where the focus should be) implies that transsexual subjectivity is always driven by the desire to ‘undo’ trans-ness in order to ‘come home’ to ‘old fashioned’ (that is traditional, conservative, or normative) ways of life. As Bree desires to live as a female-bodied (perceivably) non-transsexual woman—which could not have been achieved without returning home—it is clear that Transamerica renders transsexuality ‘the journey’ and family/home ‘the destination’.
Transamerica has been the topic of substantial critical debate since its release. Gary Needham has discussed its role within post-New Queer Cinema and its mainstream reception; Traci B. Abbott (2013) and Nicole Richter (2013) have respectively explored the representations of transgender romance and intimacies in the film; Mary M Dalton has discussed transgender motherhood; and Sean Brayton (2008) and Rebecca Scherr (2008) have respectively analysed the racial and ethnic representations (Välimäki 2013). Such diverse attention bespeaks of the intersectional anxieties relating to gender and sexual minorities in contemporary America. Transamerica re-writes narratives of (normative) gender and (hetero) sexuality in the context of a transsexual life and body, but the film’s subversive potential is undermined by creating a stark distinction between Bree’s life ‘pre-’ and ‘post-’ genital reconstruction. By ‘pre-’ and ‘post-’ I do not mean to imply that transsexuality is only an identity that requires moving towards a particular location in the gender order. This would suggest that gender transitions always follow coherent and universalised paths from one ‘distinct’ sex/gender (male/man; female/woman) to another, and secondly, that such sex/gender movements always have clear ‘beginnings’ and ‘ends’ which fail to account for the way that the processes of day-to-day life can change and modify people psychically and physically.
Bree has mapped her journey to womanhood as concluding with genital surgeries, explaining that ‘after [her] operation … [she] will be a woman’. Her pre-operational life is thus constructed as one in waiting for the joy of the post-operational or post-transsexual life in which ‘not even a gynaecologist will be able to detect anything out of the ordinary about [her] body’. This is not the kind of posttranssexuality that Sandy Stone envisioned in her 1991 ‘posttranssexual manifesto’ (to be discussed below) when she ‘called upon transsexuals to critically refigure the notion of authenticity by abandoning the practice of passing as nontranssexual (and therefore “real”) men and women’ (Stryker 2006, 4). While Bree has a right to bodily autonomy—to govern and manage her embodiment in accordance with her desires and needs—this film posits the pre-operational transsexual body as inherently marked by shame and disgust. This, I contend, is revealing of the wider delimitation of transsexual personhood in Transamerica. As an example, when she is asked by an assessing doctor how she feels about her penis she responds: ‘It disgusts me. I don’t even like looking at it’. However, this response also voices the discomfort that many transsexual people might feel about their bodies and the difficulty of being differently gendered in a culture that assigns gender at birth and expects certain identity manifestations.
The focus on genital modification, and the tremendous positive impact this has on Bree’s life might be viewed as problematic because various transpeople do not desire such procedures. Also, for social, cultural, economic, or legal reasons, many do not have access to such medical interventions. Furthermore, while the film is at times critical of the bureaucratic ineptitude of transsexual treatment, it does not critique the medicalisation of gender.
This article’s epigraphs evoke the central ideas of this discussion. The mediation of transgender subjectivity by hegemonic gender norms, which Judith Butler explains ‘establish what will and will not be intelligibly human, what will and will not be considered “real”’ (xxiv-xxv), and Jay Prosser’s argument that transsexual narratives, like numerous tales from Oedipus to The Wizard of Oz, are driven towards ‘coming home’. This is not always in the literal sense of returning to a place of origin, but can be understood more symbolically in the idea of finding acceptance, legitimacy, or contentedness, which marginalised people are routinely denied. In this sense, ‘home’ must be understood broadly as a state of mind as well as places, spaces, and relationships.
Poststructuralist theorists like Judith Butler and Sandy Stone point out that all cultural productions, whether literary or cinematic, incur problems if they rely on or fail to debunk stereotypes about the subjects they depict. Thus gender diverse people, like other minorities, have often been totalised as objects of study and inactive in the discourses produced about them by expert and authoritative others (Stone 229). However, the active role that transsexual people have played in the development of psychiatric and medical treatment, and public discourse must also be noted (Prosser 11). Butler claims that, in relation to gazing at (transsexual) bodies, ‘it is no longer possible to derive judgment about stable anatomy from the clothes that cover and articulate the body … even “seeing” the body may not answer the question: for what are the categories through which one sees?’ (xxiv). Butler articulates that ‘seeing’ (and consequential knowledge production) is filtered through and thus mediated by biases which favour the hegemonic gender order. In ‘The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto’, Stone contends that various groups have sought to control and construct meanings about transsexual people and bodies, contending that the transsexual body is ‘a hotly contested site of cultural inscription, a meaning machine for the production of the ideal type’ (230). Together, the skewed visions of, and problematic investments in, the transsexual body reveal how political and contentious gender minority representations are, illustrating the pressing need for further critical analysis.
There are many sporadic instances of transgender, transsexual, and gender variant depictions in television, cinema, and literature. Despite this, Kate Bornstein claims that ‘[a]udiences have rarely seen the real faces of the transgendered’ (60). While much has changed since the mid-1990s when she made this claim, her arguments still resonate in trans representations in and after this period. Bornstein argues that representations of transgender and transsexual people have been exploited either for shock value or to enhance themes of horror, humour, and eroticism. She contends that, traditionally, cinema has had limited transgender archetypes, listing them as ‘…the clowns, the sex objects … the psychotics, the murderers or the criminal geniuses who populate the movies’ (60). In Transgender on Screen, John Phillips explains that there are two central genres of transgender films: comedies and thrillers. He discerns that ‘comedies almost exclusively represent cross-dressers, exploring temporary transformations of gender in a largely playful manner, while thrillers deal with the frightening prospects of a more serious threat to gender identity’ (5). These problems of representation are evidenced by popular mainstream films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in which the character Norman Bates has the dual personality of, and cross-dresses as, his mother whom he murdered (Phillips 86-94); Tom Shadyac’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) in which the villain is a deceptive transwoman (Flanagan 198-204); Chris Columbus’ Mrs Doubtfire (1993) in which a divorced man, Daniel Hillard, cross-dresses as a female nanny to surreptitiously interact with his children (Flanagan 190-8); and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), in which the serial killer, Jame Gumb, attempts to make a suit out of women’s skins (Halberstam 1995, 161-77; Phillips 102-7). More recently, Jason Ensler’s Grilled (2006) characterises transwoman Loridonna as dishonest and nauseating because she does not disclose her biological history prior to kissing the protagonist Maurice. These mainstream films respectively utilise very broad ‘transgender’ themes in their depictions that imbue trans subjectivities and practices with absurdity, mental instability, and villainy. They demarcate what is and is not appropriate and acceptable gender expression and identification. However, there are many, often far less mainstream films with more realistic and nuanced representations, including Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999), based on the true story about the rape and murder of American trans man Brandon Teena (Halberstam 2005 22-47; and Salamon 57-58, 62, 107-8); Alain Berliner’s French-language film Ma Vie En Rose (1997), the story of a transgender girl (Flanagan 204-8); and Jane Anderson’s Normal (2003), about a Midwestern American transwoman who comes out to her wife after two decades of marriage.
The mainstream films mentioned above are often informed by transphobic and gender normative rhetoric; they present gender transgression as pathological. In exploiting the popularised imaginary of transsexuals and cross-dressers as incongruous and confused subjects, they shore up an imagined binary between cisgender people—‘those whose female or male medico-juridical designation and social status has been consistent over a lifetime’ (Enke 61)—and transgender people. Conversely, the independent transgender films mentioned above challenge many of the falsities and sensationalistic undercurrents in mainstream thought. In many ways, Transamerica is indicative of a shift in transgender representations, in being an independent film that was also highly visible in the mainstream (Needham 51). As such, the antagonism between its production and reception makes for thought-provoking viewing.
The neologisms ‘cisgender’ and ‘cissexual’ have come into popular usage as a way to discuss non-trans people in a way that does not privilege their modes of being and identifications with an assigned sex as natural and normal. Stryker explains that ‘[t]he prefix cis- means “on the same side” (that is, the opposite of trans)’ adding that ‘[t]he idea behind the terms is to resist the way that “woman” or “man” can mean “nontransgendered woman” or “nontransgendered man” by default’ (2008, 22). In this way, ‘cisgender’ should not be understood as an identity category (with which one identifies), and it should not be thought comparable to ‘transgender’ (Enke 64); rather, it refers to a system of norms that make visible and help us to understand the privilege of people who conform to their assigned sex/gender. In light of this, cissexism refers to the privileging of cisgendered people’s ways of being, embodiments, identities, and lives, over those of transpeople’s (Serano 156).
Transamerica was released in mainstream cinemas in the same year that two other subversive and nonnormative films made their debut screenings: Bennet Miller’s Capote (2005) and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005). These three films received both mainstream and alternative reception, and Needham notes
the image of these queers adorned posters and marketing and were highly visible in the usual public spaces of film advertising such as shopping malls and bus stops. Importantly, those were lives depicted onscreen and seen by many, not in the relative safety of the liberal art-house cinema, but right at the center of the multiplex film-going. (51)
The significance of transgressive or non-normative films being marketed in the mainstream to implied non-trans and straight audiences should not be overlooked. Needham explains that ‘queers’ (referring broadly to sexual and gender diverse people) are now being ‘seen by many’ and, for this reason among others, it is becoming increasingly pertinent to consider how gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans, intersex, and other gender and sexual diverse narratives, are being produced, marketed, and received. Discerning the target or implied audience of such narratives can often be crucial to understanding the wider politics of a text such as Transamerica. For example, along with other trans characters in the film, Bree explains (or rationalises) ‘transsexuality’ to outsider/non-trans people such as Toby and Bree’s parents. By doing this, they limit the scope of how transgenderism and transsexuality can be understood more broadly by these characters whose learning experience mirrors that of the implied audience who, as Needham suggests, are ‘at the center’ (non-marginal). In this way, Transamerica’s didactic explorations function to orientate viewers to understand ‘trans-ness’ in a limited way and to conceive of transpeople as being largely conservative, assimilative, and normative, as Bree is represented.
Furthermore, while the marketing strategies discussed above suggest some small changes in social attitudes towards gender and sexual diverse people, it also relays a certain mainstreaming of Western culture’s fascination with all things transgender. With problematic didacticism and recurring instances of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric (fuelled by misinformation about sexual and gender minorities) in popular culture (discussed above), these representations suggest that non-straight and gender diverse people are only intelligible in relation to the normative and hegemonic categories from which they deviate. In other words, trans and intersex people are ‘made sense of’ by understanding the ways they do not conform to cisgender norms, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and otherwise sexually diverse people are understood by the ways they deviate from (strictly) heterosexual behaviour and relationships. This strengthens sexual and gender binaries that Other trans and non-heterosexual people. This section considers these problematic discourses in Western cinema and culture in a wider discussion of how Transamerica renders transsexuality intelligible for implied non-trans audiences.
In the week prior to her final gender affirmative surgeries, Bree is forced to deal with the unexpected appearance of her teenage son, Toby, whom she was not aware existed. When her therapist Margaret threatens to withhold her surgery consent form if she does not see him, she is forced to travel to New York from Los Angeles and bail him out of jail. Then, in a moment of fear, she does not reveal that she is his parent, but rather poses as a Christian missionary, and offers to drive him to California as a ruse to spend time with him, develop a relationship, and, in Margaret’s words, ‘deal with this part of [her] body’. However, when Toby discovers that he is her son, he attacks and abandons her and their journey ‘home’ is never brought to fruition. The incomplete journey in this film is significant if we are to read the coast-to-coast trip as a parallel to Bree’s gender transition. With this view, this plot point partly challenges much of the film’s totalising discourses by suggesting that there is not one way to be a ‘complete’ or ‘whole’ gendered subject.
Transamerica builds its narrative upon popular discourse that pre-operational transsexual subjectivities are in due course unviable and that stable and normative gender identity is the objective of all transsexual people. For transsexuals who are conservative or traditional in their gender expression and beliefs, a significant issue for some can be blending into a cisgender-dominated society. There can often be pressure towards assimilation with the consequence of erasure of trans visibility in the wider society. On this note, Namaste contends that ‘transsexuals are continually and perpetually erased in the cultural and institutional world’ (2). Attempting to pass as a biological female, or a ‘genetic girl’ as one transwoman phrases it to Bree, is an act of survival for many. It is also a highly contentious because, as transgender activist and writer Leslie Feinberg explains, ‘[p]assing means hiding. Passing means invisibility’ (207), but it is also a necessity for many people who otherwise might be subject to harassment, discrimination, and violence.
Despite being intelligent, compassionate, and humorous, Bree describes herself as ‘living stealth’, which carries implications beyond hiding her transsexuality. The word ‘stealth’ means being cautious and surreptitious, but it is also the antonym to ‘open’ and ‘overt’, characterising her pre-operational life as living socially marginalised. Her clothing, residence, absent social and family life, and economic conditions are evidence of this. In the opening sequence of the film she emerges from her small cottage, among and behind many other homes, in an overtly ‘feminine’ outfit: a pastel-pink skirt and jacket, a lavender turtleneck, with her face hidden beneath a large pink broadbrim hat and dark sunglasses. This attire evokes the image of a celebrity not wanting to be spotted by paparazzi, of someone who wants to not be noticed, yet this overtly feminine outfit and her refined mannerisms inevitably draws more attention to her, suggesting that if people are going to look at her she will be seen as a woman and nothing else.
While Bree is white and educated she is characterised as marginal due to her gender minority status. Sean Brayton notes that Bree mostly passes as non-trans and her social ‘exclusion is made visible in other ways … marked by the type of work she performs and the community in which she resides’ (468). Her employment as a dishwasher at the Latin Caribbean-Mexican restaurant, Papi’s Kitchen, and as a telemarketer from home (which requires no face-to-face contact), also highlights her segregated life. Despite being an English-speaking person, with various socio-cultural advantages, she is represented as a cultural outsider by living and working among Hispanic and Latino people, and there are various barriers between Bree and her neighbours, colleagues, and customers, which further render her socially marginalised. Much of this is telling both of wider attitudes to gender diverse people and other minorities in contemporary America, but also that Bree has internalised many of the hegemonic attitudes towards gender difference, which is clear in her attempts to ‘live stealth’ and to appear in every way as a cisgender woman (which of course is her right). Donning a conservative feminine outfit can be understood as an act of vigilance against those who might not perceive her as a ‘real’ woman. On this note, Butler explains that:
If one thinks that one sees a man dressed as a woman or a woman dressed as a man, then one takes the first term of each of those perceptions as the “reality” of gender: the gender that is introduced through the simile lacks “reality,” and is taken to constitute an illusory appearance. In such perceptions in which an ostensible reality is coupled with an unreality, we think we know what the reality is, and take the secondary appearance of gender to be mere artifice, play, falsehood, and illusion. (xxiii)
Bree does not want her femaleness perceived as the latter in this context. When her efforts to be constantly disguised are coupled with her later performance as a Christian missionary, along with her sex and gender transformation, it is clear that Transamerica suggests that transsexual people’s lives inevitably involve, or are equitable to, masquerading as something they are not. This discourse, that transsexual people are in a state of false consciousness, is reflected by Elizabeth Grosz’s problematic claim in relation to transwomen:
At best the transsexual [woman] can live out his [sic] fantasy of femininity – a fantasy that in itself is usually disappointed with the rather crude transformations effected by surgical and chemical intervention. The transsexual may look like a woman but can never feel like or be a woman. (207)
Grosz’s argument is highly problematic in limiting the category of “woman” to people assigned female at birth and misgendering transwomen with the male pronoun “his”. Her argument fails to account for the fact that not all people can easily be defined as males or females and this kind of ‘squeezing of biological complexity and adaptability into a stark dichotomy’ (Connell 10-11) invalidates the lives of human beings who fall outside sex/gender norms. Within this paradigm, bodies and identities that appear to be “in transition” are not viewed as valid, valuable, or complete. Under this model, transpeople who want to be gender normative are perceived as deceptive until they are “fully” transitioned, and those who refuse to do so are deluding themselves that bodies and identities do not have to resign to an “either/or” paradigm (Roen 501) and be male or female, man or woman.
Dominant perceptions of identity and embodiment often problematically reify people as embodied subjects that are coherent, whole, and totalised entities, rather than identities and bodies that are fragmented and which augment over time. Furthermore, they consist of various parts that cannot be said to make up the ‘wholeness’ of the subject or the body. In this sense, identities and bodies present the illusion of (sex/gender) coherence and wholeness and counter more complex ways identities and embodiments may come into and create meaning.
Gayle Salamon explains, ‘Plenitude and fullness, coherence and wholeness, are not only fictive states as far as subjectivity is concerned, but are the very conditions of being that are foreclosed by language and entry into the symbolic realm’ (24). Drawing on Salamon’s theorisation, it becomes clear how various nonnormative subjectivities in hegemonic thinking become displaced from mythic ideals of wholeness and completeness that are ‘naturally’ attributed to normative ways of being. In thinking of subjectivity and embodiment as fragmented and dynamic, constructions of genders, identities, and bodies can become less problematically limited. Furthermore, problematising the notion that subjectivities and embodiments are either complete or incomplete, normative or nonnormative, the idea of redefining one’s gender can be conceived as less about the movement towards ‘wholeness’ and ‘completion’, but rather as the movement away from initially designated identities and embodiments that may have caused discomfort.
The representations in Transamerica in many ways parallels prejudices embedded in the medical diagnosis and treatment of transsexual and intersex people. Abbott discusses this heteronormative preconception and writes that the ‘anxiety over sexual transgression meant that any deviant [sic] sexual behavior, such as cross-dressing or homosexual desire, prevented persons from being approved for treatment’ (33). Furthermore, the representation of Bree’s experiences attaining psychiatric permission to modify her body reveals many of the difficulties in navigating psycho-medical bureaucracy while also suggesting that these hurdles, while difficult to overcome, are appropriate measures to ensure that transsexual people do not ‘make mistakes’ when it comes to modifying their bodies.
While Bree has traditional gender values she nevertheless protests her status as a mental health patient. When she is being independently assessed for sex reassignment surgery by Dr Spikowsky, he reminds her that gender dysphoria is categorised as ‘a very serious mental disorder’ to which she rhetorically responds ‘don’t you think it’s funny that plastic surgery can cure a mental disorder?’ Here, she refuses to be demarcated as mentally unstable simply because she identifies as a woman. The problems embedded in both the medical discourse and practice regarding transsexual people is highlighted during her assessment with Spikowsky. He asks her about her past procedures and she lists them as, ‘the usual electrolysis, three years of hormone therapy, and facial feminisation surgery. Brow lift, forehead reduction, jaw recontouring and a tracheal shave’. In response, Spikowsky says, ‘you look very authentic’ revealing a bias towards, firstly, a ‘truth’ in sex, and secondly, a suspicion of simulacra. That is, after all the procedures she has undergone, Bree merely ‘looks authentic’ or looks ‘like’ a woman though is not one. This exchange highlights the subjective nature of psychiatric evaluation in trans contexts. While Spikowsky is a medical professional, his assumedly gender normative worldview, and his perception of her as ‘very authentic’, plays a role in his decision to grant her the right to have genital reconstruction.
Tucker’s own views regarding gender and transsexuality, expressed in interviews and the official shooting script, can be found paralleling Spikowsky’s beliefs. ‘I was surprised by how often’, writes Tucker, ‘when I met a transwoman at a café or restaurant, I was unable to recognize her as anything but a G.G. (a genetic girl). When a transwoman could be read, it was as likely to be a choice she’d made as it was a handicap she couldn’t fix’ (138). His realisation that trans- and non-trans women are not always easily and visibly differentiable is revealing of wider cissexist attitudes about gender minorities. It is a popular assumption that transwomen exist in contradistinction to female-assigned and identified people. When writer and trans activist Janet Mock was interviewed on CNN’s Piers Morgan Live to promote her memoir Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, the host, Piers Morgan, sensationalised her life and frequently misgendered her as a man (Nichols ‘Janet Mock’). Morgan began his interview by saying, ‘So this is the amazing thing, had I not known anything about your story I would have had absolutely not a clue that you had ever been a boy [sic]’ (Piers Morgan Live, ‘Author Janet Mock’). This interview began immediately with a discussion of her physical appearance and how Morgan, discerning from her looking at her, would not have assumed she was a transsexual woman. The more pressing issues regarding the publication of her memoir, of her life growing up as an African American transwoman, and raising awareness for trans issues, were subordinated to more hyperbolic and exploitative discussions of her genital surgeries and her sexual history. It becomes clear, often in the popular media, that transgender issues and lives are often misrepresented and exploited for ratings gains, rather than for creating awareness and increasing visibility of marginalised communities. Furthermore, veiled judgement claims about gendered authenticity based on appearance and attractiveness that often dominate mainstream discourse, particularly regarding transwomen, are also prevalent in the history of psychiatric and medical treatment of transpeople as explored in Transamerica.
Medical professionals should of course discuss with their patients the reasons behind their decision to modify their bodies, yet it should be noted that most transpeople who want to modify their bodies do not make these decisions lightly. Patrick Califia suggests that all people seeking surgery for gender issues should be familiar with the medical literature and should discuss this decision with counsellors (xxvi). However, the extreme regulation of trans modifications seems unfair considering other body modifications, such as breast implants or augmentation, vaginal modifications (in medically-assigned females) or penis enlargement surgeries (in medically-defined males), do not demand the same kinds of rigorous psychiatric evaluation. Such invasive procedures, even when considered purely superficial and/or aligned with dominant beauty ideals, are considered acceptable while others, such as genital reconstructive surgeries for transsexuals, are largely considered forms of mutilation. In ‘Transmogrification: (Un)Becoming Other(s)’ Nikki Sullivan reminds us that:
the ways in which transsexuals who require surgery must prove, in accordance, with an established set of criteria not of their own making, that they are in fact “transsexuals”, and that they therefore fit the eligibility criteria for surgery, demonstrates that identity is never autonomous, but rather, is constituted in and through relations with others and with a world. (556)
A significant impact of this reality, what Sullivan defines as ‘intercorporeality’ (ibid), is validated in Viviane Namaste’s discussion of Harold Garfinkel’s well-known case study of the transsexual woman ‘Agnes’. Namaste highlights that transsexual diagnostic processes have been, and still remain, implicitly sexist and that Agnes’s treatment in the 1950s was aided by her compliance with sexual and gender stereotypes of the period (202). It must be remembered that her dealings with medical professionals differ from more contemporary diagnostic practices. However, Transamerica implies that various problematic practices, particularly the validation of surgery based on physical appearance or heterosexual attractiveness, continue. Agnes falsified her biological history (she did not tell her doctors that she was assigned male at birth but had been taking female hormones since she was twelve) that led her doctors to believe she was genetically female despite the presence of male genitalia. As a result of this misinformation, and her normative feminine expression, she was misdiagnosed with ‘testicular feminization syndrome’ (Garfinkel 90). She was considered a prime candidate for sexual reassignment because she appeared, in every way except her genitals, to be a female woman. Namaste explains that her study ‘exposes the implicitly masculinist frame of reference of the assessment process: a situation in which Agnes was considered to be a “natural” female because she appeared attractive to her male caregivers’ (202). There are clear patterns between the diagnosis of Agnes and Bree that centre on appearance to define authentic womanhood and the right to medico-legal intervention to achieve sex/gender congruence.
When Spikowsky expresses that Bree replicates ‘woman’ he reveals his belief in an ‘original’ or ‘essential’ mode of woman as feminine and female-bodied. Butler argues that ‘the effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self’ and arguably all people perform their gender through ‘a stylised repetition of acts’ (191). In the case of the gender changing person, this stylised performance appears more obvious as it disrupts the naturalised links between sex and gender, revealing gender as something that is done rather than something people are. In Butler’s view, gender ‘can neither be true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived’ (193). Therefore, Bree is not a feminised-male or a faux-woman, but rather she is as in/authentic as any person who abides by the dominant norms and embodiments of gender in Western culture. This sequence illustrates, and partly critiques, the heterocentric and gender normative ideologies that remain embedded in the psychiatric assessment of transsexual people.
The other psychological professional that impacts Bree’s life is her therapist, Margaret, who is described in the script as ‘compassionate and thoroughly womanly’ (Tucker 5). This description is significant because, as Bree has no contact with her family at the beginning of the film, Margaret fulfils the absence of Bree’s parents, sister, and friends. Her maternal role is heightened in the script when Bree, on presenting Margaret with her surgery consent form, is described as being ‘[l]ike a child with a straight “A” report card’ (ibid). The script notes, along with the onscreen representation, construct their relationship as a mother-daughter dyad, illustrating a highly problematic power dynamic. This is clear when Margaret withholds Bree’s consent form as a method of coercion that ensures that she will make every effort to meet her son and ensure his welfare. This reveals a maternalistic agenda in which motherhood is both privileged and characterised as a female imperative. Margaret reveals this by expressing, ‘I don’t want you to go through this metamorphosis only to find out you’re still incomplete’. Here, Margaret defines ‘incompleteness’ for Bree as failing to imbricate her sense of self as female with a maternal role. Regarding the representation of transgender motherhood in Transamerica, Dalton notes
We are reminded as we watch Bree alter her form that she can reconstruct her body from male to female, which illustrates the flexibility of her form, but she cannot physically give birth to a child, which imposes a limitation on that flexibility. There is a complexity to this formulation of Stanley/Bree as biological father/social mother that makes traditional boundaries collapse under the weight of her emerging identity. (240)
Pregnancy and motherhood are often believed ‘essential’ aspects of womanhood, and this correlates with Margaret’s maternalistic agenda—that is, to ‘mother’ Bree and encourage her to become a maternal subject. There is normative currency in motherhood for transsexual women, as the ‘ability’ to give birth and nurture a child is surely clear ‘proof’ of one’s (reproductive) ‘femaleness’. JaneMaree Maher writes, with reference to Julianne Schultz, that contemporary women don’t ‘fall’ pregnant anymore in the traditional sense because ‘“falling” with its connation of accident and uncertainty is seemingly no longer applicable in women’s reproductive lives. Contemporary reproductive discourses are deeply imbued with ideas of choice, control, and certainty’ (206). In this sense, ‘falling’ pregnant can be considered more traditional while contemporary reproduction is enacted through planning, strategy, and often medical assistance. In this way, Bree’s ‘falling’ into motherhood, unplanned (or rather, her being ‘pushed’ by Margaret) can be understood as imbricating Bree, and her emerging identity as woman, with traditional notions of maternity.
Under Margaret’s tutelage, Bree cannot become a ‘real’ woman until she can conceive that Toby ‘is a part of [her] body that cannot be discarded’. It is a position that forces Bree to affirm her gender in relation to motherhood, something she is not emotionally or financially prepared for. Moreover, as the difference between girlhood and womanhood is often considered entering sexual maturity, Margaret forces a symbolic rite of passage for Bree from ‘child’ to adult and from transsexual to woman through reinforcing her links to female reproduction by becoming a mother to Toby.
In discussing Salman Rushdie’s protest at Dorothy’s irrational desire to return home in The Wizard of Oz, to a place of ‘dirt-poor poverty’ and ‘would be dog murderers’, Robert Lang demonstrates that Hollywood narratives often defy reason and ‘can achieve closure only if they end on a hetero-patriarchal principle (family and home or heterosexual coming together as telos of Hollywood narrative epistemology)’ (342). Transamerica, while being an independent film, mirrors this Hollywood telos, and bases its narrative and closure around the traditional values of the nuclear family. Bree’s obvious ‘dissatisfaction with home and family’ is due to the fact that ‘the traditional family is a heterosexual/patriarchal structure which does not acknowledge [her] desire’ (344). This dissatisfaction is marked by her solitude, distancing herself from her family, telling medical professionals that her family is dead, changing her surname from Schupak to Osborne, and by initially rejecting the existence of her son.
While Transamerica depicts Bree’s dissatisfaction with home and family, the narrative of the film promotes (slightly transgressive) family values and gender normative politics. The depictions of Bree’s parents as bigoted and confused suggest that family support is not always required, or even possible, for many transpeople. These depictions also explore the difficulties that families have when a member comes out as trans. Lori B. Girshick explains that, ‘[p]arents, siblings, friends, lovers, partners, and children undergo stress when challenged by role changes, name and pronoun changes, or altered gender expression of the trans-identified person in their lives’ (115). She confirms that family reactions are usually mixed (ibid) but that often ‘many family members react by cutting a trans-identified person out of the family’ (117). This is not the case with Bree whose battle of wills with her mother, frustrations with her father, and affirmative relationship with her sister, illustrate the negative consequences of abandonment and the positive outcomes of familial support. By coming home to the space of her nuclear family, her disdain for, and rejection of, heteronormative conventionality is removed. By returning home, Bree’s parents are forced to see her as a woman, and Bree is allowed to re-evaluate her positions on family and home. Also, without her parents’ financial support she would not have been able to return to California to have her final surgeries—therefore the film strongly implies that transpeople require familial support for the best possible ‘outcome’ of their transition. Emotional and financial support can make all the difference, but this ignores the reality that for many transpeople these kinds of support systems are not realistic or available. Ultimately, the family that has refused to understand her gender transition makes it possible for her; without this charitable act she would have had to postpone her surgeries for another year, which could have had serious repercussions for her wellbeing and day-to-day life.
Much of my discussion of Transamerica centres on how this film delimits modes of transsexual personhood. However, Bree is not the only transperson represented in this film. A sequence in the film in which Bree and Toby attend a house party in Dallas highlights a diverse range of transsexual characters, all which are played by actors who identify as trans (Tucker, 99). I contend that this scene, despite depicting transpeople as heterogeneous is actually highly complicit with the rest of the film’s conservative and gender normative discourses.
In need for a place to stay, Margaret arranges for Bree and Toby to stay with a stealth transsexual woman, Mary Ellen, who appears in every way to be a normatively feminine woman. However, on entering her home, to Bree’s horror, they have walked right into ‘a little [transsexual] get together’ of people introduced as the ‘Gender Pride President’s Day Weekend Caribbean Cruise Planning Committee’. As a conservative stealth transsexual woman, Bree is mortified to be among visibly and open transsexual people, particularly because at this point Toby is still unaware that she is trans and that she is his parent.
Instead of relishing this chance to make networks with other transsexual people across America, Bree spends this evening lingering on the outskirts of this party and symbolically on the outskirts of a viable and positive trans identity. These people have confidence in their differences, they value it, and it both brings them together and sets them apart. As their group name attests, they take pride in their transsexuality and reject the shame put on them by Western culture’s polarised and dimorphic models of sex and gender. This sequence also simplistically highlights the ongoing debates within transgender communities whether ‘to pass or not to pass’ (Roen 501) evident in their displays and Bree’s expressions of disapproval.
By representing a male-to-female lesbian couple, a trans man, and several transwomen, who openly discuss their lived experiences being trans, this sequence highlights diversity and departs from strictly normative conventions relating to appearance, embodiment, and sexuality. Yet, while this scene opens up the representations of transsexual ways of being it also delimits it in other ways. The aforementioned couple explain to Toby that they were ‘just telling your friend [Bree] a little bit about the transsexual lifestyle’ which both suggests that Bree has remained closeted even in a private conversation with other transsexuals but also that there is such a thing as a ‘transsexual lifestyle’ which can be explained to an outsider. Of course, their ‘lifestyle’ would differ greatly from Bree’s and therefore the implied non-trans audience has a growing awareness that there is no one way to be transsexual. Yet, this dialogue still shapes understandings of transsexuality and transsexual people as ‘this way’ or ‘that way’ rather than suggesting there are many ways to be transsexual. Another party-going woman candidly shows pictures of ‘her new vagina’, while another explains the post-operational use of ‘vaginal dilators’. As positive as these depictions might be they are quite unsettling for Bree who feels alienated and marginalised in this space, mirroring the feelings of the implied non-trans audience.
Although Bree appears to disapprove of the party members in order to maintain the charade in Toby’s eyes that she is not trans, it is also clear that in any other instance she might not approve of these people for other reasons. Bree has devoted much time, energy, and money to appear as a female-bodied woman, which is illustrated by her testimony of having had various surgical procedures to feminise her appearance, and the laborious task of getting dressed and applying make-up seen in the film’s opening sequence. As such, the idea of revelling in being transsexual is completely beyond her and she cannot approve of these people doing so. As they flaunt their trans-ness Bree perhaps views this as them failing to achieve ‘the realness that is the conventional goal of this transition’ (Prosser 11). This is clearly expressed when she describes them to Toby as ‘ersatz women’ explaining to him that ‘it means phony, something pretending to be something it’s not’. While this might also be a reflection on how she feels about herself; that she is in fact a ‘phony’ not just in terms of gender but also in relation to her parental responsibility. Here, the resolution to these feelings is that being honest with Toby (that she is not a missionary and that she is his parent). Again, ‘coming home’ to family is highlighted as the conclusion to her gender transition—to becoming a real woman—and this will resolve her displacement from gender and the various norms of (cisgender) womanhood that elude her. Much can be inferred from her description of these other transsexual women as ‘ersatz’ but ultimately, she does not view them as ‘doing’ gender correctly as she does. While none of them are wholly ambiguous, many of them challenge dominant views of what women and men should look and act like. In this sense, because they ‘fail’ (i.e. don’t ‘pass’) her standards of gender she cannot see them as legitimate or real people. On this note, Stryker suggests that ‘most people have a great difficulty recognizing the humanity of another person if they cannot recognize that person’s gender’ (2008, 6). The showcasing of various transsexuals, while bringing an element of diversity to the film’s portrayals, actually serves to support Bree’s normative way of being trans in congruence with hegemonic notions of gender.
Bree’s trans-American trip also thrusts her into a promising romantic relationship with the rural Calvin Many Goats. When Bree and Toby are robbed and left stranded, Calvin feeds and shelters them for the night and then delivers them to Bree’s family home the following day. This brief encounter is highly significant of Bree’s development from asexual transwoman to heterosexual mother as Calvin, Bree, and Toby come to symbolise the nuclear family. This is evident in Bree secretly taking up the role of mother to Toby and Calvin’s attempts to both discipline and bond with Toby (which Calvin does through not allowing Toby to drink alcohol and by giving him a cowboy hat of great personal significance). What these depictions suggest is that, as a pre-operative transwoman, Bree believes herself outside the realm of acceptable heterosexual femaleness, but, as she transitions towards female-bodied womanhood, the institutions of marriage, family, and children are within her grasp. While there is clearly a romance of some sort, Abbott contends that the romance in Transamerica, like those in other trans films, ‘undermines the otherwise positive portrayal of the trans experience and reaffirms the dominant viewpoint that authentic gender is dependent upon birth sex rather than upon gender identity’ (32). Abbott’s discussion is illuminating and, while she acknowledges Bree’s character trait of being unable to develop rapport with people, she finds the lacking of intimacy onscreen a disservice. She explains that
Bree’s inability to establish interpersonal relationships is a key part of her character. However, it does not seem credible that the two [Bree and Calvin] would not have even one tentative touch after so many intimate conversations, particularly when they part with enthusiastic assurances to meet again. Where’s a goodbye handshake? A pat on the arm? Even a chaste kiss on the cheek? Such an omission is glaring when compared with the only scene when Bree is touched erotically—by Toby. (Abbott 38)
Bree and Calvin’s budding relationship has overtones of traditional gender values: he pays for her meal, dismisses Toby when he criticises her, and chivalrously rescues her when she is in distress. Yet they do not show any physical signs of intimacy, and, by the close of the film, they have not reunited. Considering Abbott’s reading of the ‘trans/romance dilemma’ in the film, it appears that Transamerica codifies heterosexual romance but refuses to legitimise it in the context of Bree’s pre-operational life. Abbott argues that Bree’s relationship with Calvin is the greatest obstacle for Transamerica’s success and that the rejection of any physical intimacy between them suggests that pre-operational or non-operational transsexual people are beyond the realm of (hetero) sexual legitimacy. This, I would suggest, is because transsexual and transgender embodiments often confound the binary logic of ‘sexual object choice’ that governs hetero/homo sexualities (Stryker 2006 7).
Despite the problems in Transamerica, it should be understood both as an important intervention in the history of exploitative trans representations as much as it also reflects many of these problems. The discussions of stealth and the construction of transsexual lives and bodies as secretive, deceptive, and shameful, is reinforced (but made open to critique) via Bree’s characterisation and representation. The way Bree’s life is binarised by her pre- and post-operational status is highly political as it reinforces the idea that bodies and identities should, as best they can, conform to hegemonic norms. And, that complicity with dominant norms produces better quality lives than subversion. By situating her life prior to genital reconstruction as negative in many ways and her life after as immensely positive, it promotes a problematic narrative of transsexuality. The representations of institutional and bureaucratic practices and treatments that Bree is subject to demonstrates many of the ongoing problems in psycho-medical discourse on transsexuality, particularly the stigma attached to mental health diagnoses. The cissexist and heteronormative biases evident in the practices of Spikowsky and Margaret highlight that individual belief systems can deter professional impartiality, and reveal how normativising discourses within medicine and psychiatry attempt to delimit transsexuality in accordance with hegemonic views on gender.
Transamerica is full of transgressive depictions, however, the film is consistently undercut by normative ideals. In this way, the subversive depictions, and the film’s radical political potential, are moderated in coming home to hegemonic, normative, and idealised conventions in Western culture, those of motherhood, heterosexuality and family-centricity.
I am deeply grateful to the proofreading efforts and thoughtful insights of Ann Vickery and Dylan Holdsworth.
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