“From men, I learned to praise the thickness of walls./From women,/ I learned to praise”
— Ocean Vuong, “To My Father/ To My Unborn Son”
“The moment of queer pride is a refusal to be shamed by witnessing the other as being ashamed of you.”
— Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
I am not the first person to point out that a lot of folks’ first exposure to any kind of gender-bending in popular media was the freaky sewn-corpse bodysuit scene in The Silence of the Lambs. And I am certainly not the first person to assert that this is not a good thing. Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how many stories, images, and characters our culture will need to create (and consume) in order to replace the frightening image of a serial killer tucking his penis behind his legs with something complicated and real in its stead.
I think the answer to that is: a whole damn lot of them.
In this article, I would like to show you some scenes from TV and film that made me think more critically– and in some cases, more lovingly– about gender. I’m not saying that any of these scenes are perfect. They aren’t. But they meant something to me when I watched them, and they inspired me to be a better activist, partner, and human being.
As Pride 2019 loses its summery luster, leaving behind its ever-lengthening trail of corporate advertisements shrouded in glitter and rainbows, I encourage you to consider the perennial gifts of these cinematic moments. They all deal either implicitly or explicitly with some aspect of gender presentation, performance, or identity, and they all have made unique and powerful impressions on my mind. I consider these characters and the shapes of their lives often; I’m hoping that perhaps they’ll inspire you, too.
I recently consulted Wikipedia to confirm my suspicion that Hank Schrader, Breaking Bad’s finest DEA agent/brother-in-law, was created as a kind of bro-y, charismatic foil to Walter White (who, as you probably know, does not quite possess either of those qualities. Case in point, Walter’s infamous excuse for ending up half-naked in the hospital, “I was in a fugue state!” has become a popular justification for selfish acts of wrongdoing in my house.*)
Apparently, Hank’s character was originally designed to function as pure comic relief, devoid of the characteristic dimensionality of the show’s complex cast of characters. However, over time, inspired by actor Dean Norris’ real-life intelligence and sensitivity, the show’s creators began to add nuance to the character, focusing on the ways in which the unadulterated masculinity required of his job and the psychological trauma of gun violence affected his well-being. Go figure.
In “Breakage,” the fifth episode of the series’ second season, Hank enters the elevator of his office building after receiving a promotion. His boss has just compared him to a great white shark, suggesting that his pursuit of local druglords has earned him a spot at the top of the police department’s proverbial food chain. His colleagues congratulate him as he walks down the hallway; his partner ribs him for getting a big head– all of this while he struts around like a rooster in a hen house. But the moment Hank realizes he’s alone in the elevator, the doors closing him up in that small and private space, he is struck by the airless intensity of a panic attack.
It’s worth noting here that the viewer is hardly prepared for this moment. It presents itself, just like panic does, as a kind of narrative shock. It’s also worth noting that, generally speaking, Hank appears unrattled throughout his daily encounters with drug cartels and hitmen; that is, he tends to favor making racist, macho, and misogynistic jokes about those around him over confronting the realities of his job with sincerity. But there in the offices of the Albuquerque Police Department, after a particularly violent shootout with a meth distributor named Tuco, he unexpectedly snaps, allowing the viewers to witness his cool exterior give way to fear and trauma.
Ultimately, this moment is not an isolated event. Hank takes a hiatus from work, enters a kind of depression spiral, and develops a passion for aesthetically-pleasing rocks. Yeah, we’ve all been there. The domino effect that results from the panic attack thus becomes a cascade of shame and failure, all messy and vulnerable and human.
While the season two elevator scene was scripted, it shares its emotional resonance with another moment in Breaking Bad. This one takes place during Season 3. While filming the episode “One Minute,” Dean Norris began to cry too much for director Michelle MacLaren’s liking. According to the Wikpedia entry, which I am not ashamed to cite,** “Norris felt that Hank’s self-realization in the episode was the turning point toward his becoming a better man, and set the stage for his decisions later in the series: [Norris] opined that ‘Hank wants a clean soul.’” The entry also notes that the director was unable to elicit the kind of stoicism she was looking for in the scene, and that “Norris was eventually filmed from the side to obscure the fact that he was crying.”
Simply put, the elevator scene is important to me because we are taught that boys don’t cry. Except that they actually do–especially, you know, when they are hurting, feeling vulnerable, and suffering from PTSD.
2. Transparent: A Young Maura Pfefferman Plays in a Bomb Shelter
The shadow that has been cast over Transparent in the last year*** is one of the great sadnesses of my art-loving life. This show meant a lot to my family when someone close to us came out, and we were able to have a lot of important discussions about gender, class, and sexuality after happily binge-watching it together on our beat-up leather couch.
One thing I really love about the show is that most of its characters are desperately lonely and problematic, uncertain and passionate and desperate for comfort. Lately, it seems like when people call out for the representation of marginalized people in art, they (justly) want the characters representing those people to be complex– but also, often implicitly, to be observably good. Otherwise, it feels like a step in the wrong direction. I get this. We don’t want a repeat of Buffalo Bill, or grotesque racist tropes like Mickey Rooney’s landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But the problem with wanting all of the characters representing marginalized people to be generous, put-together, and morally righteous is that marginalized people, just like any people, are not always purely good, and making them appear so upright and flawless can deny them of their human complexity.
In other words, I loved Transparent because of its chaotic messiness, not in spite of it. I appreciated its insistence that love and support can exist even when they fail to resemble our ideal versions of them. When Maura’s kids learn that she is transgender, for example, they mess up a lot (a lot a lot a lot). But they still fight for her. In this scene, for example, Maura’s eldest daughter Sarah calls out a stuffy, transphobic soccer mom for telling Maura that she can’t pee in the girl’s bathroom. “This is my father, and he’s a woman. And he has every right to be here,” she says angrily. Sara messes up by misgendering Maura here, but her immediate impulse is to stand up for her parent with loving ferocity. And that feels real to me.
I want to include dozens of scenes from Transparent on this list (like this one, where Maura deals with the aggressive bureaucracy of the TSA while trying to fly to Israel). But the scene I’ve chosen is a flashback to Maura’s childhood in the 1950s. Here, a young Maura–who was assigned male at birth–reads quietly and plays dress-up in the privacy of her grandfather’s bomb shelter. Sarah Vaughn’s “Make Yourself Comfortable” plays in the background. The scene is characterized by a kind of peace and quiet that is rare on the show. Maura’s child-self appears wholly content, as if she feels safe for the first time in her young life. In some ways, the scene connects to a moment later on in the season, when Maura decides to get rid of the constricting, uncomfortable shapewear that she has been wearing to achieve a more feminine body type. The insistence on comfort— rather than appearance or performance– as the ideal antithesis of dysphoria is striking to me. Maura is a woman, but like so many women, she is tired of making herself suffer in order to appear stereotypically womanly in public. The peace that she appears to feel as her shapewear floats down to the sea is the kind of peace I wish everyone could feel in their bodies.
3. Destroyer: Erin Bell Bleeds, Beats People Up
Ever since I stepped out of the movie theater after seeing Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, I have been practically grabbing people off of the street to get them to see this film, mostly because it features a tough female character who is not strong in a palatable, modelesque way, but in a real, painful way not principally constructed for the male gaze. Destroyer is about cruelty and autonomy and sacrifice, but, like Transparent, it’s also about what happens when people who are hurt continue to love one another. When love doesn’t quite look like love, but exists anyway.
In an article about the film for The Guardian, Guy Lodge wrote, “Genre films like Destroyer are rarely framed around female characters; when they are, the heroine tends to be portrayed as dully indestructible, her feminine attributes either pushed aside in favour of ‘one of the boys’ toughness or flattened into a one-dimensional form of girl power.” I agree, and it’s for that reason that after seeing Destroyer for the first time, I described it to a friend as “True Detective, but femme. And dimensionally so.” I’m all for girl power, but Erin Bell’s brand of power, like the Pfeffermans’ messy advocacy, looks more like something I would see in real life. And perhaps I’m alone in this, but representation seems less effective as a tool of advocacy if characters only function as two-dimensional renderings of actual human beings.
I didn’t choose one scene in particular for this film because it’s really Erin Bell as a character– her movements and hesitations, her tenderness and aggression– that strikes me more profoundly than any moment by itself. In many ways, Erin Bell reminds me of Detective Sarah Linden, the protagonist in Netflix’s dark cop-drama The Killing. That character, played by (the forever underrated) Mirielle Enos, wears minimal makeup, a near-permanent frown, and a series of hideous cowl-neck sweaters in neutral tones as she attempts to solve the violent murder of a young girl. While I think it’s important to see glamorous women in strong roles on screen, it’s something like a relief to see Linden, a depressed single mother in dire financial straits, looks somewhat believably look like both of those things. I wish I had seen more women like Erin Bell and Detective Linden when I was younger, and understood that strength does not always and need not always coincide with external beauty.
Despite its status as an awards season darling, Dallas Buyers Club has garnered a lot of flak since its release. The criticism levied upon the film has not only addressed the writers’ depiction of Ron Woodroof, who apparently was not the homophobic asshole the film made him out to be (for effect), but also of Jared Leto’s portrayal of a trans woman named Rayon, who did not actually exist (but does in the world of the film…for effect!). For a breakdown of some of the most cogent arguments surrounding this film’s problems, check out “The Trouble with Representing HIV-AIDS in the Very Troublesome Dallas Buyers Club” and “Don’t Applaud Jared Leto’s Transgender Mammy.”
While I understand and care about Dallas Buyers’ problems, in truth, I did not think about them when I was a lonely teenager watching this movie in the theater. What I did think about was how much a single scene, Rayon’s visit to her dad’s law office, seemed to wipe out all others in the wake of its sheer emotional pain. During this exchange, Rayon’s father remarks that he supposes he should thank her for wearing men’s clothes that day, to which Rayon responds,
“Are you ashamed of me? Because I hadn’t realized.”
“God help me,” the father responds, rolling his eyes in response.
“He is helping you,” Rayon says, “I have AIDS.”
Rayon’s confident words here, her father’s smug rejection, her visible awkwardness as she occupies an ill-fitting suit– it all meant something to me. Right there in the theater, the scene made me silently commit myself to fighting for trans people however I could, even though I had no idea at the time what that might look like or require.
In graduate school, I wrote a term paper about Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine, which is an amazing project for at least two reasons: 1) It was entirely shot on an Iphone 5, and 2) It features two actresses who (like Dean Norris of Breaking Bad) helped inspire dialogue and character development in the script simply because of who they were.
I’ll spare you the academic details of my paper, but the point of my argument was this: most of the films we see about transgender people are undeniably tragic. From Boys Don’t Cry (1999), which depicts the violent murder of Brandon Teena, to Dallas Buyers Club, which I’ve discussed above, audiences are provided with consistent reminders that transness is inevitably linked with suffering and death. And of course, historically speaking, this is true. But it does contribute to a kind of one-dimensionality that makes transgender people appear less like everyday folks and more like exotic spectacles– stange, abnormal creatures worthy of our pity.
In Tangerine, Baker challenges one-note trans narratives by following a day in the life of two trans sex workers in Los Angeles, Alexandra and Sin-Dee Rella (played by Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). The plot is constructed of two narrative lines: one follows Sin-Dee and Alexandra as they look for Chester, Sin-Dee’s pimp and boyfriend. The other follows an Armenian cab driver, Razmik, as he hides his interest in transgender women from his family. Despite the clear presence of poverty and transphobia in both of these narratives, the atmosphere of Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra’s adventures is often undeniably comedic. As the women walk—quickly, with quirky, experimental electronic music (often chosen by the actresses) playing loudly in the background– they banter, argue, gossip, and laugh. In several interviews, Sean Baker has noted that some of the funniest lines in the film were written by Taylor and Rodriguez, who also called him out when lines in his original script contained language they would never use in real life.
For some of the same reasons that I loved Transparent, I like the messiness of this film. It strays away from sentimentality without abandoning sincerity, a tone that can be difficult to accomplish when grappling with the bleak heaviness of marginalization and trauma.
At the end of Tangerine, after a particularly funny confluence of each of the film’s characters in a Highland Ave. Donut Time, a group of men driving by our protagonists throw urine on Sin-Dee, shouting slurs through the window and ruining her wig. The scene then shifts. Sin-Dee and Alexandra are sitting together on a late-night public bus. Without speaking, Alexandra slowly pulls off her wig and hands it to her friend. After yelling and bickering throughout the movie, the women smile at one another, saying nothing. The frantic energy and chaos of the film seem to coalesce and then disappear, fading into the softness of this single quiet moment.
To be honest, before this point, I felt like I didn’t understand what this film was trying to accomplish. But when I saw Alexandra pull off her wig and give it to Sin-Dee, I felt myself saying Oh in my head. And it felt like a little prayer.
When I was a preteen, I read Jane Eyre, and I have to confess that pretty much every feminist, moral, and socioeconomic critique it contained was lost on me. Sorry, Charlotte. I didn’t notice a single element of literary mastery in the narrative because I found the story so unbearably romantic. Knowing this, you can imagine my disappointment when I reread the book years later, and my favorite English professor savagely roasted Mr. Rochester by pointing out that he only allows Jane a modicum of power when he becomes physically incapacitated.****
The same interpersonal dynamics present in Jane Eyre rear their ugly, misogynistic heads in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 masterpiece, Phantom Thread. Like Brontë, PTA provides viewers with a host of pretty distractions: drool-worthy gowns, incredible music, and a breakfast meet-cute for the ages. I loved all of it, of course. I would have loved it on the merit of Jonny Greenwood’s score alone.
Unlike Bronte though, Paul Thomas Anderson clearly establishes a critique of his male protagonist’s controlling nature and icy misogyny throughout the course of the narrative.”You have the ideal shape,” he tells his love-interest Alma as he conflates her with a lifeless dress form. Gag. Ultimately, PTA acknowledges that in order for Alma to achieve anything that looks like autonomy in her relationship, she needs to perform the same function as the Thornfield house fire in Jane Eyre; that is, by incapacitating the man she loves in order to survive his methods of control. Grim, I know. What is particularly incredible about the way Alma’s plan plays out in this scene is the way in which PTA slowly unveils the fact that Woodcock knows precisely what Alma is trying to do to him. And because he also knows that he will not be able to relinquish control on his own, he willingly drinks your milkshake–the omelette Alma cooks for him– and becomes complicit in his own poisoning. The film ends in the shadow of this meal, an act of mutual concession both shockingly brutal and surprisingly pragmatic.
Brief & Honorable Mentions: Under the Skin, Ex Machina, and Neon Demon
I am placing these three films in a posthuman/science-fiction category of their own here, primarily because a) I don’t have the space to write about them, and b) because they all contribute to the idea that womanhood… can kind of suck.***** In fact, as the films’ narratives suggest, the experience of being a woman is a lot like being a powerful alien that is still ultimately unsafe, a robot controlled and objectified by men, and an insecure teen who has to feed from others in order to become successful herself. Good stuff. Would recommend.
Notes & Further Reading:
1) Along with, of course, “I am The Danger!” which maintains a comedic potential that can never be overstated.
2) In K-12 and college, we were always taught not to cite Wikipedia. In graduate school, we were discouraged from letting our students use it. The Norris passage I quote from is mostly derived from this Vulture interview, but I like the freedom of citing a resource so academically taboo. S/o to Wikipedia, my darling & muse.
3) Andrea Long Chu wrote a great article for affidavit about Transparent’s creator, Jill Soloway, and the role she played in Transparent’s fall from grace.
4) TLDR: Mr. Rochester becomes burned and blinded in a house fire (mansion fire?) set by Bertha Antoinetta Mason, mental-illness sufferer, kidnapping victim, and purveyor of this very attic.
5) It’s also worthwhile, of course, to mention Spike Jonze’s Her and HBO’s Westworld in this regard, but those two get so much buzz that they don’t merit as much attention here.
The text of the section on Sean Baker’s Tangerine was adapted from my 2016 paper, “Aberrations in Tangerine: The ‘Pleasure and Alrightness’ of Alexandra and Sin-Dee Rella,” written for the 2016 PCA/ACA Conference in San Diego, California.