Thursday, October 31, 2013

On My Disdain For The Transgender Junk Flash

I had this whole thing where I was going to write a list of transgender-related tropes, but my heart wasn't entirely in it (maybe in the future).  Instead I'm going to write about just this one, because it's one that I don't see people talk about a lot (I'm sure people are at least thinking it) and it's one that gets to me over and over again.  It's a very common media device in film about trans folk.

I call it the junk flash.

Wait, what's that?  Well, the junk flash is when a movie or television show (or some other media) just has to find a way to show a transgender character's "junk."  By "junk" I mean things transgender people in general tend to keep covered... it includes nudity, but also under-the-garments paraphernalia such as binders, packers, the scalp beneath a wig, and so forth.

And you know what?  It infuriates me.  When I see it I tune out.

"But why? Aren't you implying that transgender bodies are horrible monstrosities that should never be seen?"

Well, no.  I don't agree with that assessment at all, hypothetical reader.  There is a big difference between sticking a nude trans person in film and, for example, by-trans-for-trans pornography or nude photography meant to showcase our bodies in a positive manner a la Loren Cameron.

The reason this infuriates me is that there is often no real plot-based reason to do so, when there is a reason it's usually horrible, and the only reason it's stuck in there is to titillate cis people and strengthen their entitlement toward trans folks' bodies... not to validate our existence in any way.

"Wait, what?"

Let's take Transamerica, a movie which is problematic on several levels (those of you who read my Twitter may have experienced my rant about how the movie makes no attempt to challenge the fact that Bree's therapist is a gatekeeping piece of shit) and has not one but two instances of the junk flash.  The first shows Bree's penis as she takes a piss alongside the road.  Keep in mind that at the point Bree is taking a piss, we are already well aware that she has a penis, so there was no reason to show it off to the audience except to titillate them.  In the second she is sighing with relief in the bathtub, full post-op body visible, a scene presumably there to "prove" to the audience that she's finally "complete" and provide another opportunity for gratuitous nudity.

Sometimes the junk flash is meant to be shocking.  In the movies "The Crying Game" and "Sleepaway Camp," it's the display of a penis that reveals the character is trans.  This is a problematic concept in itself as it reinforces the idea that suddenly being privy to a trans person's body is something to be shocked and enlightened by.  Even so, it actually bugs me less because at least it's a part of the plot, however shitty it may be (and I don't think of "The Crying Game" as an overall terrible movie for all its faults).

For trans female characters this is practically a given.  "Orange is the New Black" shows Laverne Cox's character almost immediately, "To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar" features a wig being yanked off Patrick Swayze's character's head, Alice from "Superjail!" often is shown with her penis visible through her clothing, Mrs. Garrison of South Park's breasts (which are portrayed as lopsided and misshapen to drive the "trans people are mutilated" point home) are regularly shown, at one point alongside cis female characters with censored breasts.

Again, it's important to recognize that the problem isn't inherently that people portray nude trans people, it's that the way it's done is in the context of cis peoples' entitlement toward our bodies.  It's an extension of the same mentality that makes cis people believe it's totally cool to ask personal questions about our genitals; there's the assumption that cis people deserve to know what our bodies look like.  They also serve to reaffirm to cis people what they believe our bodies look like... cis people believe trans women necessarily have penises, have obviously-fake breasts, and must wear wigs, and so those are likely to be featured in cis-focused media.

In the case of trans men, I have only rarely seen this phenomenon, but it almost is worth its own problematic device for the couple times I have just so any of you reading don't get any ideas: "perky titted trans guy."  This device portrays nude trans male bodies as stereotypically attractive and sexualized female bodies.  In the case of "Boys Don't Cry," in the scene where Brandon is raped there are several shots which are clearly eroticized for the audience as if Brandon is a woman (I'm sure the people who designed these shots would attempt to disagree but I cannot see any other explanation).  The success of eroticizing a pre- or non-T trans male body in a mainstream film relies on showcasing that body as feminine sexy, being devoid of body hair, relatively thin, with perky breasts.  Although there are certainly trans men who would qualify--and be happy about that--in general being viewed this way is not something trans men are comfortable with.  On an aside, it's also important to recognize that "Boys Don't Cry" is about a real person who was brutally raped and murdered... and now a depiction of that is frequently uploaded to wank websites.  Thanks, Fox Searchlight.

A more egregious example that wasn't in film was the comic "Trans Men Are Ridiculously Hot" by Erika Moen.  Although she has since apologized for this depiction, it's still a good example of what I'm talking about. Trans men are pretty much depicted as being physically identical to stereotypically attractive cis women but wearing binders and packers.  Perky tits and all.  And again, that's not to say there aren't trans men who don't have perky tits (and as I alluded to earlier I have certainly met some who were happy with how perky their tits are), but for a huge chunk of us at least the idea of being viewed this way is a major dysphoria trigger because these are features of our bodies that make us very uncomfortable.

That last example is particularly disturbing because this comic makes the case that trans men are hot, but the features Moen is describing as hot are not "trans male features."  The way the trans man vs. the cis man are portrayed implies that Moen's fascination with trans men is due to the perception that we are hairless and feminine (and have perky tits).  But even pre-T trans men are not necessarily hairless (I certainly wasn't), binding does weird things to breasts if you do it long enough (not to mention most of us plan on getting them removed), and so forth.

There are lots of tropes and clich├ęs involving trans people that make media a hellhole for a lot of us, this is just one of them.  Whether I write about more of them, I guess, depends on just how often I am irked by them.