What’s turning me on this week? Transsexuals. Transvestites. Drag queens.
It’s Fantastic Fest time in Austin, and we here at Reject HQ are celebrating sex in ways you never knew we could. Details notwithstanding, let’s just say that both goings-on at the HQ and the line-up of sex on-screen have provided for more than a few eye-openers. From the hyper-evocative Antichrist to the more-than-a-little-bit-fun Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, to vintage smut like The Barebreasted Countess, it’s certainly shaping up to be an enlightening week. Fantastic Fest is a time of Asiansploitation, kooky genre films, and titillating images galore. From movies to pole dancing at the new Alamo Drafthouse debauchery venue Highball to drunkenly boarding (not driving) the Reject HQ Party Bus, even I am on sensory overload. Taking a short break from this week-long bender to think about how we bend gender has been especially tough, but I believe it to be important nonetheless.
As much as we champions of cinema often favor talking about sex over discussing gender in film, gender issues matter. Sex on-screen can be disturbing, engrossing, off-putting or just sex, but it’s an over-arching trope integral to many films. More often than not, my readers are happy to see sexy girls (and women) show a bit of nip, and I’m happy to point them in that direction. All women are beautiful, and it’s fun to celebrate that in ways that provoke a response. But sex — and how we see it — is important to cinema as a whole. Why is this particular manifestation of sex happening? How does it propel the story? What is the director’s intent here? The answers to these questions shape the narrative and world of a film, and can make or break your cinematic experience.
Alternatively, and I believe more importantly, there are consistent instances of gender portrayal. In this week’s interview with the Austin Chronicle, director Jess Franco (The Barebreasted Countess, Venus in Furs) explained his use of women not as that of objects, but that of sensual elements — with personality — that propel his stories forward. This got me thinking. The images that we’re seeing may be those of sex, but the portrayal is that of a gender. Fascinating.
Here’s a question immediate to me: Women and men are one thing, but how has cinema dealt with the portrayal of those ‘in-between’ genders, or gender-bending? A little research and a lot of tequila later, and I’ve come up with a list. In chronological order, here are my top ten trannies, just for you:
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
“It’s not easy having a good time!”
I wrote about this recently in my fetish column, but I’d like to revisit it here again. This movie certainly pushes the boundaries of transsexualism, transvestites, and Transylvanians. A cult classic — and favorite of mine — Tim Curry looks stunning (if not odd) in a corset, fishnets, and stilettos worthy of a stripper. This movie, I think, was clearly made just to be made. It’s fun, it’s funny, the music is good, and it expressed the underground zeitgeist of its time and continues to be relevant (or at least a fun exercise in popular subculture) almost 35 years later.
Several interesting identity issues arise when seriously considering Rocky Horror, but we’ll let ’em slide for the time being. What I hope viewers would take from this film is that it’s okay to have a gender identity that’s well off the beaten path. Let your freak flag fly, that sort of thing. The film is progressive and weird, and — although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with mainstream sexual proclivities — identifying oneself with envelope-pushers isn’t bad. Especially if it’s done in good fun, and with Susan Sarandon in her underwear.
“Oh I know what y’all really want is some gross, caricature of a woman to prove some idiotic point that power makes a woman masculine, or masculine women are ugly. Well shame on you for letting a man do that, or any man that does that. That means you, dear. Miss Marshall. Shame on you, you macho shit head.”
Directed by the late, great Sydney Pollack, and starring Dustin Hoffman in the title role, Tootsie is a film about empowering women — but these women’s new-found guru is a man. Out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) is desperate for work, so he becomes Dorothy Michaels and lands a role on a daytime soap. Dorothy Michaels inspires women of all sorts, Michael Dorsey simultaneously falls for an actress, and Dorothy/Dorsey has a psychological breakthrough. Not only is the film a tour de force for Hoffman, but it’s an endearing peek into gender identity and an indictment of conventional perceptions of both decency and acceptable persona.
Ich Bin Meine Eigene Frau or I Am My Own Woman (1992)
This one’s a documentary. Thought it has some dramatized scenes, this is a reasonably factual rendering of the life story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Born Lothar Berflede, Charlotte survived the Nazi regime of WWII Germany, as well as the repression of the Communists. She also helped to start the German gay liberation movement. All of this is huge in and of itself, but Charlotte is also a transvestite. A fascinating look at a truly unique story.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
“Ever wish you could freeze frame a moment in your day, and look at it and say ‘this is not my life’?”
This one’s tough, because the dressing in drag is like Tootsie — it’s not because the character has an alternative sexual identity, but it’s a means to an end. In Tootsie, however, Dorothy Michaels becomes a great inspirer of women, and a woman who can stand up for herself. And Michael Dorsey has to learn how to be the stand-up woman that he is as a man. Mrs. Doubtfire (played absolutely brilliantly by Robin Williams) is merely an elderly British domestic worker, who turns out to be Daniel Hilliard — the father of the children in Mrs. Doubtfire’s charge.
The gender implications are for men: Mrs. Doubtfire proves that dads can be sweet and nurturing — traditionally maternal qualities — to their children. Mrs. Doubtfire is a sensitive and sweet movie, brilliantly acted by all parts, especially Williams. Although the larger and more compelling issues of identity while gender-bending aren’t raised, the idea of being uncomfortable (or, in Daniel Hilliard’s case, unacceptable) in your own skin is a classic among transsexuals. There is a subtle nod to acceptance of swapping gender identities, as Daniel Hilliard (like Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey) is ultimately successful in his career and family because of his taking on of Mrs. Doubtfire.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
“Oh, you can’t do that with a ping pong ball!”
The ’90s is all about trannies. This movie is about a cabaret show in the Australian desert. But, more importantly, it’s about… well, several things. For the purposes of our list, this film adequately showcases the difference between transsexuals and drag queens. In Priscilla, Bernadette is a post-op transsexual, who is still receiving hormone treatments. Mitzi and Felicia, on the other hand, are biological men who dress as women — drag queens. There is a distinct difference in terminology and definition that even I mistake at times, and it can be an important mistake not to make. The differences between a transsexual and a drag queen are huge, and how society deals with each faction of these “in-between” gender identities is equally varied.
The movie, however, is a good-natured, funny romp that deals with both homophobia and the music of ABBA with a distinct ease. It’s hard to say if the music, the story, or the bitchy dialog is best, but Priscilla was adapted for a European theatrical road show, and it remains a success. A huge hit overseas, if you haven’t seen this one yet, do. You’re only 15 years behind.
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar (1995)
“When a straight man puts on a dress and goes on a sexual kick he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man’s body and has a little operation he is a transsexual. When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender he is a drag queen. And when a tired little Latin boy puts on a dress, he is simply a boy in a dress!”
Here’s one to add to your Patrick Swayze Mourning Party list of DVDs. Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo play three drag queens whose bus breaks down in a small town. With fun performances by Blythe Danner and Stockard Channing, this movie is awash with good acting and great dialog. The rainbow coalition of fine actors gone femme once again portrays drag as a comic device, which can be problematic to queer cinema as a whole. The movie, however, is just too fun.Call me crazy, but when there’s laughter, positivity, and progressive understanding to a movie, I think it’s a good thing for the people that it’s chosen to represent.
Rest in Peace, Swayze. You wore your rouge and Wonderbra so well.
The Birdcage (1996)
“Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle- aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I’m not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that.”
Mike Nichols directing Robin Williams and Nathan Lane makes me so happy. Other things that make me happy? Gene Hackman in drag. The Birdcage is a fabulous film of an even greater story, set in a ridiculously ’90s Miami drag club. Williams and Lane play the gay parents of a newly engaged son. Not a problem in the least, except that the betrothed is a conservative politician’s daughter. A rock-star cast giving bang-up performances, there’s little not to like about The Birdcage. (The soundtrack hasn’t aged so well, but that’s about it.) Nathan Lane as Mrs./Mr. Albert Goldman is the absolute heart of this film. Although the drag club is the de facto set of the film, and there’s no question that Albert is more comfortable as a woman than a man, the issue of gender identity can be taken on-face. There’s not much to be said that isn’t just said, although there is an endearing scene wherein Albert and Armand play with their gender roles (perfectly acted by the gods of impression and nuance, Williams and Lane) that would be worthy of a dissertation.
What I find most compelling about the film is the deeper implications and message about the perceived perverseness of an unacceptable-to-the-conservatives gay marriage. The Goldman’s are tender, long-time partners who love one another deeply, have the problems of any marriage, and are clearly stellar parents. They just happen to both be male, though one would identify as a transsexual. (I’m inclined not to worry too much about the son-as-a-child: all parents are embarrassing.) The film’s apolitical message about the success of a non-traditional family is especially salient today.
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
“I hate my life.”
“I hate your life, too.”
The tragic true story of Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon, played by Best Actress winner Hillary Swank. Brandon Teena is a poor, country female who prefers a male identity. When her friends and girlfriend (played by Chloe Sevigny) find out that he really is a transgendered man, the result is bloody, grisly, and heartbreaking. It’s difficult even now to write or think about this film, much less the real story behind the film. The story is powerful and the acting spot-on. This film is a dramatic story of a person, but also a story of gender. This filmtakes place inside this bending of gender, and we learn that gender identity and its perception can be a driving, defining social and personal force. And sad to say, humans — when faced with genders that we refuse to understand — can do terrible, barbaric things.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
“To be free, one must give up a part of oneself.”
Hedwig was a boy named Hansel. Hansel falls in love with an American soldier. The GI tells Hansel that they can be married if he has a sex-change operation. That goes wrong. Now Hedwig is left to fend for himself as an ignored rock star. There’s more to the story, much more. But this over-the-top rock opera musical is every bit as crazy as its, uh, bits and pieces. The movie is weird as hell, but there’s an undeniable redemptive quality in the music, story, and ire over injustice. All Hedwig wants is to find her/his other half — a soul-mate. But there are several questions, as you’d imagine there might be. Not only a tale of gender identity issues and those fascinating in-betweens, but also a tale of sexuality: Hedwig does not know what gender her/his mate will be, and how they will have sex. An interesting thought exercise, if anything. And there’s glitter.
“My body may be a work-in-progress, but there is nothing wrong with my soul.”
Three words: Felicity Huffman forever. Huffman plays Bree, a pre-op transsexual that’s almost there. He finds out that he fathered a son, and the two of them drive across America. This movie is a phenomenal telling of gender, expectations, and is – at its core – a story about family. The exploration of identity here unfolds, rather than being impressed upon the audience. And you learn abour Bree through Bree’s past and present, and through her lens as a gendered person.
What I mean to say is, the story of this character is a mash-up of her past and present experiences, and an expectation for her future (as well as her perceptions about its necessity). You’re not drawn in because Bree is a freak without a gender, you can relate to the hurt and uncertainty that she feels about life in general. Family, insecurity, and spiritual resolve — these are all experiences, that, when accompanied by a physical and emotional journey, create a universal story amid gender issues. The interplay of ordinary life and extraordinary circumstances make the story ultimately compelling, and Huffman is both dear and flooring. A must, must, must see.
Want some sex advice? Turned On, Tuned In author Bethany Perryman is here for you. You can get ‘in touch’ with her via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and/or follow her stream of hotness on Twitter at twitter.com/bethatasitmay