Crying Out Loud

When I wrote my recent article on Tangerine for The Dissolve, I spent some time researching the history of how movies about trans characters have been received. I’m not talking about reviews by cis critics, mind you. I already knew that those involved a lot of misgendering and lexical stumbling, even from the best-intentioned of writers. (Or fucking wordplay. The late Richard Corliss was a wonderful writer, but I’ve long loathed the coy “SHE IS A HE” bullshit acrostic in his much-loved Crying Game review.) Instead, I was curious to see what trans writers and activists have had to say over the years about seeing themselves portrayed onscreen. Those writers, however, have rarely been able to write on anything but tiniest of platforms. The farther back through the decades you go, the harder this (oft-buried) writing becomes to excavate. Maybe two trans women saw Chris Sarandon playing one of their own in Dog Day Afternoon on an autumn evening in 1975; maybe they had a rich post-screening discussion about it. Well, if they did, it sure wasn’t printed in Time.

Here’s what I did find, though. In early 2003, the trans activist and filmmaker Andrea James—whose status in trans circles I’ll charitably describe as “complicated”—reviewed the movie Normal on her website and vocalized a discontent that was also central to my Tangerine-spurred op-ed:

Yet another male actor playing a male-to-female transsexual left me feeling pretty apprehensive, too. Out transsexual actors are rarely allowed to play others in our community, let alone non-transsexual roles. I doubt I’ll live to see the day an out transsexual actor plays a lead role in a movie put out by a major Hollywood studio. We’ll see what we can do, though!

Going back another decade to 1993, I found a pair of writers whose work excites me far more than James’: the Toronto-based Xanthra Phillipa and Jeanne B. (the latter a nom de plume for Mirha-Soleil Ross), who together created the zine Gendertrash. The zine’s first issue, hosted online at the invaluable Queer Zine Archive Project, is the only one I’ve been able to find so far, and it’s a 40-page grenade hurled at LGBT complacency. It’s a snapshot of a particular time and place, boiling over with the anger that comes from real suffering. The whole issue is essential reading, but since the subject at hand is film criticism, here’s an excerpt from page 14.

gendertrashfromhell_thecryinggame

Since its release, The Crying Game has born something of a checkered reputation; two decades later, I suspect that what’s most remembered about it are (1) the indie phenomenon it became thanks to a Miramax release and (2) Fergus throwing up when he sees Dil’s penis. When untethered from the film itself and spread via years of pop-cultural osmosis, that scene becomes terrifying shorthand for the way trans women are seen by a hateful world. But here in this clipping, with the film fresh in the air, are two trans women explicitly claiming The Crying Game as their own, saying that Neil Jordan probably has “first hand” experience with its subject matter, all while using language that looks totally alien only a generation later.

This polemic/review provides so much to unpack, but right now I’m primarily fascinated by it as an example of how cultural history works. Nothing, it says to me, is static. How you look at or talk about something right now may not be consistent with how it’s approached only a few years into the past or future. All you can do is try your damnedest to situate yourself in space and time. For me, that means tracking down the words of trans and queer artists who have come before me. Now to pick up my shovel and keep digging.

5 Comments

Filed under Cinema

5 responses to “Crying Out Loud

  1. dunyazad

    I wrote a scathing critique of The Crying Game a few years ago. I meant to make it as a video essay, but never got around to it. I need to finish that. (For the record, I fucking hate The Crying Game, not just for that one particular scene, but also for the way it completely ungenders Dil at the end in order to reify Fergus’s manhood. There’s no way that turn of the plot occurs to anyone if Dil is a cis character played by a cis actress. Big hate).

    I remember reading a review of Hedwig and the Angry Inch–the play, not the movie–written by a trans woman in the mid 1990s, but damned if I can remember where. Earlier than that? Not a lot.

  2. Christianne —

    If you ever do complete that video essay, I’d be really eager to watch it. I remember seeing a video you narrated about The World According to Garp from several years ago, and I’m not sure if it’s something you’d still stand by, but it at least made me curious to check out the movie and examine Lithgow’s performance.

    I really appreciate how many movies your writing has helped me see, or see in different ways. And now that I’ve started finding old zines like Gendertrash, it makes me want to keep seeking out alternative viewpoints from the ’90s and earlier…

  3. dunyazad

    The Garp video is not something I’d stand behind these days, though the core of what I said–that I like Roberta Muldoon and that I think the film is largely respectful of her and doesn’t really pity her–is probably something I can live with. If I’m uncomfortable with her now, it’s because she strikes me as a magical other. I don’t completely agree with Julia Serano’s use of her as an example of the “pathetic” transsexual archetype, though I don’t think Serano is entirely wrong, either.

    I made the mistake of reading In One Person, John Irving’s more recent novel in which a trans woman figure prominently, a couple of years ago and if I hadn’t been reading it on audiobook, I might have thrown it across the room. I’m completely agog at how clueless that book was, compared to Garp which was written forty years earlier.

    Anyway, yeah. Trans people speaking for themselves are hard to find before the rise of the internet and new media.

    Have you seen Boy Meets Girl yet? I didn’t care for the movie, which struck me as very male-gazey and exploity and very much about its lead character being trans and all, but I did like Michelle Hendly in it. She lives here and introduced the showing I attended. She’s has cis-normative movie star good looks and charisma. She might have a career in film if she wants it.

  4. No, I haven’t seen that yet! Feel kind of obliged to at some point, but sounds like such a generic indie romcom (and I’ve heard worrying things about the director) so I’ll have to be in the right mood and browsing my Netflix queue for it to happen.

  5. i am very grateful for the verbally liberating nuances quoted by you, Andreas: every typed terminology – from wimmin comprising many a womyn [breaks at least Old/Middle English imposition upon many transologically-cisologically gendered women\men & breaks similar impositions upon perhaps just as many femalehooded-malehooded women à la ‘wives of men’] to encapsulating transvest(ite)s, transgen(der)\(hood)s, transsex(ual)\(itie/ity’)s as the more breathably vocal TV, TG, TS for simultaneously critiquing the ‘mainstream’ audiences television targets much of its marketing at – has made me appreciate quoted zine title Gendertrash {poetically compact acrostic} even more now!!

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