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Does
Transamerica transcend its problems?

Does
Transamerica transcend its problems?

Huffman_transamerica

A trans woman finds much that's wrong with the Felicity Huffman film that's now available on DVD: Its science is inaccurate, its wardrobe outdated, and its stereotyping frequent. But for all that, there's still something about the movie that touches the heart.

Almost everything seen in the movies, print media, or on TV regarding transsexual people is in some way derogatory, sensationalistic, or negatively stereotyped. The movie Transamerica is no exception.

Yet transsexual people generally like this movie. Transsexuals are so accustomed to the media's negative and misinformed treatment of the community that whenever anything appears in the media that is remotely positive, transsexuals embrace it with open arms as if it were a major victory for truth. But in every presentation of transsexuals, the media can't help but tantalize the public with sensationalism.

No entertainment program hits the mark of truth on this complex subject. Newspaper articles often have a derogatory slant or use the wrong pronouns and terminology. TV shows from Oprah and Montel Williams to documentaries and news programs focus more on the shock value of transsexualism than on the human commonalities.

Transamerica also enlists stereotypes meant to shock and awe the viewer.

Transsexual people talking about the movie will overwhelmingly say they liked Transamerica and that it's good for the trans community. If you press them, however, they will also note parts they didn't like. Three main critical themes arise--the film's inaccuracies about the process of transition, its unrealistic stereotyping, and the fact that a transsexual woman did not play the lead role.

Almost all trans people are actors by necessity: Before transition, the majority have a need to pretend to be someone other than who they really are. Some go back to acting and live "stealth" once they can "pass," as the movie depicts. But living stealth is old-school thinking, a stereotype that is behind the curve. More and more, trans people are living a blended life--known as trans people to many non-trans people. Far fewer go through transition and then run away to start a new life in total secret. "Super stealth" is becoming rare in this information age and less necessary for survival as antidiscrimination laws that are transgender-inclusive slowly spread across the country.

Trans people already work in the entertainment field as actors, singers, entertainers, models, and musicians. Finding a real transsexual actress would not be that hard to do. Did Hollywood ask Kate Bornstein or Namoli Brennet to audition? Not likely. If there had been an open call for a transsexual actor, a mob of contenders would have answered it. Instead, Felicity Huffman, a genetic female, played the preoperative transsexual character, Bree. She did a fantastic job of acting the part of a transsexual--of the 1970s. But the movie is set in the present.

Understandably, some stereotypes are necessary for this story line, but there is far too much misinformation about transsexuals in this movie. Some elements of the therapeutic relationship depicted in the movie are also well outside the "Harry Benjamin Standards of Care," or normal therapeutic procedures and ethics. For example, the gender therapist, Margaret (played by Elizabeth Pena) would not hold a patient hostage over unresolved issues regarding Bree's newly discovered son, especially only weeks before her sex-reassignment surgery. Surgeons in the United States and Canada require that the mandatory support letters be delivered well in advance, long before surgery can be scheduled. Even surgeons in Thailand, who do not require letters, need advance notice to schedule the operation. Realistically, a therapist could not and would not stop Bree from getting her surgery.

In addition, the male doctor character portrayed in the film was way out of the psychological mainstream, misrepresenting current standards of diagnosis and treatment. Today, transsexualism is not medically regarded as a psychological pathology or mental disorder, and psychology professionals by and large accept and understand much more about the scientific, medical, and psychological realities of transsexualism than the movie portrays. That scene was as socially damaging to the trans community as The Jerry Springer Show--and just as unrealistic.

Bree demonstrates various stereotyped modalities that are far from the everyday realities of the contemporary trans community. Her manner of dress is not usual for a transsexual who's been living "full-time" as a woman for more than a year, has had at least 300 hours of electrolysis (which, typically, takes years), and has been in therapy for so long. Bree may be typical of a person transitioning 30 or more years ago--but not today.

Bree was dressed and made up like a stereotypical aging cross-dresser who favors clothing popular in her youth, not a person ready for sex-reassignment surgery in the modern world. Today's trans women generally look and dress just like any other women. How many women on the street are dressed like the "church lady" from Saturday Night Live? To blend or be stealth requires that one fits in. Bree stands out like a neon light in her 1950s attire. She is too young to dress so old.

Another major problem is in the plotline. Bree's son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), because he's a street hustler, would be able to read Bree as a transsexual a mile away, since he would travel the same grounds that transsexual and transvestite prostitutes frequent. For that matter, a person in Toby's position would especially not be so easily fooled during the potluck scene, which was unrealistic and uncharacteristic of a gathering of trans women. The group's dialogue itself was typical Hollywood sensationalism--humorous, but misleading.

Yet in spite of enforcing stereotypes and utilizing disinformation, Transamerica is a movie that does more good than harm, because it is well-written, well-acted, and humanizes the rarefied main characters. Good fiction is driven by believable characters who experience real-life conflicts, things that everyone can identify with.

Ultimately, Transamerica is a movie about relationships, revelations, loss, and healing. The lives of the characters are unusual, but their humanity is universal. Transamerica's most important message to the larger world about the trans community is that trans folks are human too. Transamerica transcends superficial gender lines and reaches deep into the human heart. An audience expecting an educational piece of filmmaking will find itself misinformed. But as a movie with gut-wrenching lessons on the diversity of humanity, this movie succeeds with flying rainbow colors.

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