Monday, November 23, 2009

Film Review: Transamerica

Transamerica introduces us to Bree, Sabrina the main character, as she is taking voice lessons from a DVD in her home. Bree is a transsexual (self-identified) who was born and raised a male named Stanley and is now living full-time as a woman; this is just two weeks prior to her scheduled sex reassignment surgery. She lives a simple life; she works in a restaurant and also does telemarketing from her home. She is living stealth which means that no one around her knows her biological history; they know her only as a woman. Her psychologist is the only person who knows about her biology.

One day Bree gets a phone call from a 17 year old young man in the juvenile detention center who says he is Stanley’s son and that his mother is dead. Apparently, Stanley’s one and only sexual encounter which took place in college, resulted in a son. When Bree mentions this to her psychologist, the psychologist explains that she cannot give her consent for the operation until Bree faces this news head on. So Bree leaves Los Angeles and heads to the New York juvenile detention center to meet with the officials and possibly the boy. While there she learns that the boy, Toby, has been in a lot of trouble. He’s been prostituting himself and he’s into drugs and living in squalor. Toby thinks that she is a missionary from the church who has come from an outreach program to assist him. Toby tells Bree that he is going to go to Los Angeles to get into movies and that he will see his real father there. Bree offers to drive him to LA. So for the next several days they are driving together across the country. Many strange things happen along the way and I won’t give away the ending, but it is worth watching.

One important aspect of the character of Bree is the lengths to which she goes in order to “pass” as a woman. She has had several smaller plastic surgeries already; she lists them – “electrolysis [hair removal], facial feminization, brow lift, forehead reduction, jaw recontouring, and a tracheal shape,” not to mention 3 years of hormone therapy. She talks about “blending in” and “keeping a low profile;” it is painfully obvious right from the start how incredibly important it is to her that she appear in all ways feminine and female. In “Transgender Butch: Butch/FTM Border Wars and the Masculine Continuum,” Judith Halberstam states that “by demanding technological intervention to ‘change sex,’ transsexuals demonstrate that their relationship to technology is a dependent one.” This dependence is observable in Bree’s medical history and her deep desire to please the psychologist in order to ensure their permission for the surgery. The doctor refers to her as having gender dysphoria which he says is a very serious mental disorder to which she states that is seems odd then that this “mental disorder” be cured by having the plastic surgery. She says that after the surgery, even a gynecologist won’t know the difference; she will be a woman. This speaks to her feeling like she is in the “wrong body,” as expressed by other transsexuals. She feels that her discomfort will end as soon as she is in the “right body,” the female body after the big surgery.

This disconnection with her own body is also evident when she is speaking to her regular psychologist. When speaking of the phone call from the young man, Toby, she tells the psychologist that he is likely “Stanley’s son,” speaking of herself in the third person. The psychologist points this out as unacceptable by saying, “no third person,” and Bree is forced to then say “My son.” However she is obviously uncomfortable with this declaration. It is apparent that she wants to completely disconnect from this previous life/self but the psychologist won’t allow that. Bree states that she “doesn’t want to get dragged back into Stanley’s old life,” and the psychologist corrects her by saying, “Stanley’s life IS your life.” The psychologist tells her that “this is a part of your body that cannot be discarded.” Bree offers to check in on him in a few weeks after she has “settled in” to her new life. This ties in perfectly with Halberstam’s discussion of Prosser. She states that “the transsexual rushes onward to find the space beyond … ‘the promise of home on the other side,’ explaining that ‘home’ is “represented as the place in which one finally settles into the comfort of one’s true and authentic gender.” This is exactly how Bree feels, that she is truly a woman born in a man’s body. It is in this same way that Halberstam refers to “transsexuality’s surgical and hormonal recapitulation of heteronormative embodiment – its tendency to straighten the alignment between body and identity.” This is the transsexual’s idea that there is a true, right, sex category for them – a dichotomous category.

One idea that wasn’t explored specifically in the film that I would have enjoyed is the idea of power and privilege. As a male, Stanley enjoyed the privilege that goes along with being a white, heterosexual male in the United States. When she became Bree, she lost that power. As Bree she is a passive, demure and obliging woman. I wish there had been some discussion about this. All in all it was an intimate view of one person’s journey towards feeling whole and complete. I enjoyed and recommend it.

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