Morbid Fascination

I’ve spoken before about how little regard I have for the media’s portrayal of transsexual people, and in particular the bulk of the documentaries that get made about transsexual people.  For the most part, the documentary makers prey on vulnerable people who are looking for validation, and they cater to a kind of prurient fascination with the topic of changing sex. Julia Serano does an excellent job deconstructing the tropes of these documentaries in her book Whipping Girl, and so I’ll try not to repeat her too much here. They’re mostly terrible, yet they keep making them and people apparently keep watching, and, yes, I’m one of the viewers.

Mostly the documentaries you’ll find out there follow the “sensitive documentary of human freakishness” tropes you’ll find perfectly parodied by Mitchell and Webb in their sketch The Boy with an Arse for a Face.

Some people have even suggested trans-documentary drinking games.  I can imagine some possible rules would be:

  • Shows “before” pictures or reveals old name — drink;
  • Wrong pronoun used — drink;
  • Person embraces strong gender stereotypes (before or after) — drink;
  • Person shown getting dressed, applying make up, binding breasts, etc. — drink;
  • Person seems to have a largely dysfunctional life — drink;
  • Documentary ends with surgery and a vague-but-dubious message of hope — drink rest of bottle.

Yet despite all of this, and the extent to which much of what’s out there in the media frustrates me, I whenever I see that there is documentary about trans people or a movies with trans characters, I usually feel an obligation to watch it.

Back before I transitioned or had even come out, media coverage of transsexualism fascinated me because I hoped it might inform me. A part of me wanted to know everything I could about the mechanics of transition to answer the question whether it was remotely technically feasible in my case.  I think what I got out of them was a mix of hope and despair—that it might be possible, but it seemed to be done by people who were nothing at all like me.

One of the earliest documentaries I can remember watching was Paris is Burning, which I saw with my partner of the time in 1990 or 1991. At the time, I was very much in the closet (it would be a few more years before I started dealing with things), and I was starved for information about gender variance. It aired on television, and getting to watch it at all was a challenge—I was afraid of appearing “too interested” in the topic, but I was, of course, very interested. Looking back, it’s not a film that really matches up well with my experience, since it focuses on the drag-ball culture of New York city in the mid-to-late 1980s, but for someone who wasn’t even sure what was possible, it was still quite fascinating. (Of course, I couldn’t really reveal just how fascinated I was at the time—I hardly wanted to out myself—I had to keep my level of interest close to my chest, but I ended up coming very close outing myself anyway. After it was over, my partner made some intolerant remark about the people in the documentary, and I defended them.  It was a tense hour or two, and I know that at least one point an accusing finger was pointed at me asking why I should care so much about such people. It was an ugly scene, but one that was quickly forgotten, in part because my behavior actually was fairly consistent with my general stance of cheering for the underdog and supporting oppressed people. Phew!)

I don’t know how many documentaries I got to watch before I found better information sources in Internet communities, but it probably wasn’t many. It was the friends and acquaintances I made on the Internet, who gave me realistic information and the courage to pursue things in the real world, not TV documentaries.

Once I began to deal with things, my relationship to media portrayals changed. For one thing, I didn’t need to be scared about watching them, but I also no longer needed what little useful information they contained. Yet I have continued to watch them anyway, out of a different form of fascination—I can’t help being curious to see how transsexualism is portrayed in the media, and feeling some sort of obligation to watch.

Watching the standard trans-documentary tropes applied to another pitiful person who can’t see the extent to which they are being exploited, is at best something of a chore. But I watch anyway with some resignation, to see how things are being distorted, and what kind of screwed-up person they’ve dredged up this time to be transsexualism’s poster child. Each time I hope that the next documentary will make me cringe a little less than the last, and mostly I’m disappointed.

The most recent documentary I forced myself to watch was, CNN’s Her Name Was Steven, a documentary about Susan Stanton’s transition (although “Steven” gets more screen time than “Susan”). The very title was cringe inducing (although I suppose they weren’t quite at the bottom of the barrel for names—they could have called it “She used to have a penis!”). A better name for the documentary might have been “How not to transition!”, as it tells the story of someone whose life as a public figure meant that they were pretty-much forced to came out as a transsexual at a press conference (before transition) and was unable to escape the ensuing media circus, instead eagerly embracing the spotlight as the media anointed her Florida’s transsexual poster child. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go well in a variety of ways. As a conservative Republican who’d almost certainly benefited greatly from various forms of privilege to become city manager, Susan’s bizarrely transphobic viewpoints hardly endeared her to Florida’s transsexual community. I could say more, but honestly mostly I’d just say it’s another two hours of my time I’ll never get back.

Once in a while, there are a few gems. I mostly enjoyed TransGeneration, which tracked the lives of four trans college students through the 2004–2005 school year. By following students, they avoided the trope of following a sad case who is transitioning as part of a mid-life crisis.

On the movie front, a few nights ago, I chanced on the film Zerophilia, and reading the description which mentioned its being about “a young man who discovers that he has a genetic condition which causes him to change gender,” it had to be watched. As it turned out, it was quite sweet and endearing, if a little silly in places. It’s the old story of boy meets girl, boy becomes girl, etc.  At the very least, seeing it made up for sitting through Her Name Was Steven.

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