JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Back home, Frank finally comes out to himself and tells Cathy he has fallen in love with someone (the blond boy.) Note the blue light surrounding him.

In response to Frank’s tearful confession, a wooden Cathy brings up the issue of divorce.

The scene then dissolves into this one, in which Cathy finally confides in her friend, Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson) about Frank. Eleanor responds: “Who would have imagined — Frank!?”

But Cathy has her own “coming out” to do. She begins to talk about her feelings for Raymond. Notice a touch of the blue that surrounded Frank now bathes half of Cathy’s face.

With this new information, Eleanor turns away in disgust …

... and completely rejects Cathy. With Eleanor’s differing reactions, interracial desire is shown as more scandalous and more “queer” in terms of visible deviance than homosexuality. It is more incomprehensible within the film and occupies the “queer” space of the movie.

Soon after, Raymond tells Cathy he’s moving to Baltimore. After the scandal of their friendship, no one will hire him anymore.

Frank escapes with the blond boy.

After Cathy’s and Raymond’s final farewell at the train station …

... Cathy is left alone. Frank seems to have a space to escape to, but not she and Raymond. Note that throughout all of these stills, the Whitakers have been our main objects of identification. Far from Heaven never presents Raymond’s point-of-view, and at the end he exits the map of the film entirely, literally fading into the distance.

Transamerica (2005), written and directed by newcomer Duncan Tucker …

... features Felicity Huffman as Bree Osbourne, a transsexual woman. This image is from an instructional video Bree uses to teach her how to feminize the voice.

She puts the stereo on to listen to a Zulu battle song performed by Miriam Mkeba.

She dresses herself for her own battle.

Of course, Bree doesn’t forget to pack Civilizations of Black Africa. The film clearly establishes a connection between transsexuality and “racial otherness.”

Bree’s reflection in a photograph of women in neck rings is an obvious symbol of her own bodily transformations.

Fully armored in pink, Bree heads to the psychiatrist’s office. Her pink femininity is almost parodic.

Note Bree’s drag-like appearance among her Hispanic neighbors, her artifice to their naturalness. So much ”multicultualism” is established in just minutes.

Yet the psychiatrist compliments Bree on her “authenticity.”

 

Queering “coming out”

It is from the pool scene forward that race and sexuality are much more closely intertwined within the film, culminating in one important scene in which Haynes maps the traditional gay “coming out” narrative onto Cathy’s experience of interracial desire. This occurs when she reveals her desire for Raymond to her friend Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson). In this scene, Cathy first tells Eleanor about Frank’s homosexuality, and in this context Cathy’s dialogue obliquely references both the language of the closet and of racial markers:

“The endless secrecy. Our entire lives just—shut in the dark.”

She then proceeds to admit her feelings for Raymond, and this continuation of the scene follows to the letter the typical “coming out” narrative form: having hidden her non-normative desires, Cathy feels compelled to confess “the truth” to someone, coupled with the attendant hope for the other’s acceptance and fear of rejection. Eleanor displays much more receptivity and understanding when Cathy reveals Frank’s homosexuality, but Cathy is soundly rejected by Eleanor regarding the issue of Raymond.[24][open endnotes in new window] Furthermore, Frank’s own coming out eventually leads him to leave Cathy for the blond boy, while Raymond leaves town and also leaves Cathy behind. Thus at the point in the film when the kinship tie between interracial and homosexual desire has become so deeply conflated that the discourses are nearly indistinguishable, everything falls apart for Cathy.

The two instances of “coming out” in Far from Heaven produce different narrative trajectories, and the mediating factor of racial difference accounts for these divergent outcomes. This difference in outcome is based in the notion of visibility—racial difference cannot usually be hidden. The film communicates that heterosexual, interracial desire could, in a sense, be seen as even more “queer” than homosexuality, at least in the context of queerness as visible deviance.

This “queerness” might explain the film’s insistence that Cathy and Raymond have no place or space to escape to, which, as I pointed out earlier, is not socially and historically accurate. The failure of this coupling, then, has a specific function within the terms of this melodramatic filmic world.

Frank’s more traditional “coming out” demonstrates the positive power of this narrative: something hidden is made visible; the secret is revealed in the moment of utterance; and such revelation holds the power to enact change in the individual and the world. Yet that same power to enact change is often denied to those kinds of queer and non-normative identities where there is no escape from visibility, where there is no possibility to choose revelation or concealment, where the interpellation of the subject precludes his or her ability to narrate her own identity or express her own will.[25] This does not mean that there were no visibly out “queers” in 1950s United States. The function of the obviously gay art dealer Farnsworth is to demonstrate that gay men, rendered visible through stereotypically effete mannerisms, did indeed exist and even, in a limited way, prosper at this time. That Frank seeks sex in a cinema and a bar also points to the existence of an underground community. Yet there is no visible existence within this filmic world where interracial romance seems even a remote possibility, so that within this world the potential coupling of Cathy and Raymond exists at the very margins of intelligibility, thus occupying the “queer” space of the film.

In Far from Heaven, then, a critique of the “coming out” narrative surfaces when applied to straight, interracial desire, not homosexual desire, revealing that this narrative is not exclusively gay nor does it operate positively for certain queer identities. Racial difference discourse allows for the “making strange” of this foundational gay narrative to emerge on the visible plane of the film. In other words, through the presentation of interracial desire as queer, Haynes ingeniously “queers” the very narrative that gay politics stages as “ground zero in the project of articulating an ‘epistemology’ of sexuality.’”[26] In complicating the "coming" out discourse in this way, Haynes stages a meeting between the "historical queer" and the contemporary "queer project," for a queer project, in contrast to a gay one, insists on undermining and questioning what has come to seem foundational and universal.

Far from Heaven’s white lens

While Far from Heaven adds the layer of racial difference to the class conflict central to Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), it also reveals that when representing desire and romance, racial difference actually eclipses class difference. Haynes’ film demonstrates that Raymond’s status as a black man, not as a gardener, is what makes his friendship with Cathy so scandalous. He is simply “The Negro” to the white people within the filmic world. For them, he has no name, no occupation, he is only the color of his skin and all the associations white people attach to that skin. For those familiar with both All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life (1959), Raymond is a composite figure. In his role as gardener he is an echo of All That Heaven Allows' Ron Kirby, and in his role as caring, single black parent (in fact, he is shown as the only caring parent in the entire film), he is Imitation of Life's nurturing and self-sacrificing maid Annie Johnson. I think that this representation of Raymond as an avatar of previous representations of melodramatic “others” draws him less as a developed character and more as a kind of cinematic prop that allows for his “queering” function within the film to become apparent. As such, Raymond is less realistically fashioned than Cathy and Frank, and the film’s point-of-view fails to challenge the white vision of Raymond.

White womanhood is the site of affect in this film; it is through Cathy’s character that we, the audience, experience Far from Heaven’s intense affect of longing and loss. In fact, both Whitakers are our sites of identification throughout the entire film. Despite the crucial role Raymond’s blackness performs in revealing the production of otherness, his lack of subjectivity is striking. According to Willis,

“Raymond’s world is…even more invisible than the gay subculture, whose margins Frank haunts.”[27]

Furthermore, Raymond’s character is not only a conglomeration of Sirkian others, but his appearances on-screen only relate to his position within Cathy’s world and as an object of Cathy’s desire:

“[Raymond] is the one who stimulates the flow of Cathy’s speech and thought.”[28]

We are never given even a glimpse from Raymond’s point-of-view, yet he is the one who, in the end of the film, says he has been more or less run out of town, forced to move to a city he has never even been to. Thus the character whose visible blackness performs the symbolic work of “queering” both hetero- and homo- desire is literally “pushed off the film’s map.”[29] In other words, once the “racializing principle” has performed its cinematic “work” of queering representation, it fades into the margins and falls silent in the overarching conflational discourse.

What I am arguing is that while racial difference and segregation policy perform important work in this film by structuring virtually all encounters between individuals across institutions of race, class, and sexuality, this discourse of racial difference ultimately becomes backdrop— Eisenhower’s speech as background noise, the black child in the pool, the complication of the “coming out” discourse in regards to interracial romance — queering desire by marking it as contingent through parallelism and intersectionality. While revealing the dynamics of white and heterosexual privilege, this focus simultaneously reproduces the logic of white supremacy by positioning white bodies as primary sites of identification and affiliation.

In this context, the supposed subversiveness of Haynes’ queering of desire comes under question. If his cinematic queering relies on perpetuating racial power dynamics by deploying these dynamics mostly as props for framing white experience and understanding, how can this use of queerness and intersectionality claim real subversiveness? Dyer points out,

“White discourse implacably reduces the non-white subject to being a function of the white subject, not allowing her/him space or autonomy, permitting neither the recognition of similarities nor the acceptance of differences except as a means for knowing the white self.”[30]  

Thus the queering mechanism at play in Far from Heaven is in the final analysis a “white” mechanism. While this queering method does indeed expose fractures within white identity formation in terms of both racial affiliation and sexuality, it nevertheless positions white bodies as the medium through which all of this information is processed and disrupted. While I would argue this trend runs throughout queer cinema, there are indeed film directors who directly take on cinema’s “white vision” and queer this vision from both a black (or, more generally, non-white) and queer perspective simultaneously, although most of this film production happens within alternative, independent, and documentary film. Arguably, Jennie Livingston’s documentary, Paris is Burning (1990) examines questions of race, class, gender, and sexuality from a counter perspective, as do Marlon Riggs’ and Isaac Julien’s bodies of work.

Establishing “white vision” as primary reasserts the status quo even if the status quo is shown to be fraught and splintered at its core. It could be argued that exposing the instability of whiteness actually strengthens its power. Thus it is seen to be a more self-reflexive, self-critical, and unstable identity and therefore critically engaged and fluid. Representations of blackness in the form of black characters in this film are quite undeveloped, and an examination of black identity formation does not exist at all. “Blackness” exists as a prop, and as a category of identity it does not possess its own movement or logic. In this way Far from Heaven, seemingly unintentionally, ends up undermining the potential of its own critique. It falls apart precisely on the mechanism it is so dependent on.[31] To Haynes, as to mainstream U.S. audiences, white non-normative sexuality is more “palatable” as a central site of identification, and this focus is achieved at the expense of a deep exploration into the politics and production of “racial otherness.” In Far from Heaven, flashing “racial otherness” as a product of white power is the stepping stone towards rendering the contours, construction, and problematics of “sexual otherness,” but it does only that. This trajectory stops short at turning back again to effectively question “whiteness” or “white vision” as the dominant filmic lens.

Transamerica

Far from Heaven’s depictions of the links between racial difference discourse and homosexuality are so self-consciously stylized as to seem almost “stiff,” a conscious move made to expose the constructed nature of difference in general. In Transamerica, the surprise hit from first-time writer/director Duncan Tucker, a similar conflation is made: in this case, racial difference both parallels and intersects in the presentation of “transsexuality,” although this conflation comes across less self-consciously than it does in Haynes’ film. Indeed, in Transamerica, this conflation seems so unconscious that I suggest that the film can be read as a counterpart to Far from Heaven in that it demonstrates that the link between “racial others” and “sexual others” is so deeply ingrained within U.S. culture that the presentation of “otherness” cannot be visually conceived of without recourse to the rhetoric of racial difference.

In contrast to Far from Heaven, which is a film that depends heavily on costume, dialogue, and mise-en-scène to carry the narrative and communicate the subtlety of the film’s central conflation, Transamerica is a textbook example of the ways that “performance” shapes and moves filmic narrative. The opening scene is an almost classic study of gender performativity, where we watch the protagonist, Bree Osbourne, adorn herself in all the accoutrements of high femininity. However, much like Haynes, Tucker uses props and backdrops in which racial difference figures as the vehicle which contextualizes and politicizes what this performance means.

The battle

The first thing we see is Bree training her vocal chords to a feminine pitch, immediately establishing her transsexuality, and in particular, her identity as a transsexual woman intent on “going stealth.” The diegetic soundtrack then takes over from Bree. She puts a record on the turntable, and significantly, it is the South African diva Miriam Makeba singing a traditional Zulu battle song. With music blaring, we watch Bree pack her pink handbag, into which she stuffs a copy of Civilizations of Black Africa by Jacques Maquet. Both the song and the book signify in such a way as to present Bree herself as a warrior going into battle. This is underscored by the scene’s focus on Bree’s dressing and make-up ritual. She is putting on her armor, readying herself to fight and win, and, like “Black Africa,” she is fighting the battle of the subjugated, the colonized. We quickly discover the nature of Bree’s battle, for cuts to Bree in a psychiatrist’s office are interspersed into her dressing ritual. She wants the psychiatrist to authorize her sex change surgery, and she is performing “woman” as best she can to win his approval. Furthermore, the quick shots of the walls of Bree’s home show them adorned with pictures and objects from “other” cultures. Images of black women with rows of neck rings, for example, are meant to parallel Bree’s own bodily transformations; as she speaks to the psychiatrist, she details all of the intensive cosmetic operations she has undergone to feminize her appearance.

Before our first glimpse of Bree, we see, reflected in the mirror, an African artifact…

... and then Bree, mimicking the voice training video.

Strangely, the shots of Bree applying her pink-tinted make-up, putting on all her pink clothes, slipping into her pink high heels, painting her nails pink, seem a kind of parody of feminine performance resonant not with transsexual self-presentation, but more with drag performance. This becomes especially apparent when she leaves her house and enters the world outside. Bree’s white and pink femininity contrasts sharply with the people she passes on the streets. The entire neighborhood, with the exception of Bree, is working class Hispanic. She looks like a drag queen up against this background, overdressed, hyper feminine, taller than everyone she passes on the street, although her neighbors don’t even bat an eye. Nevertheless the performance works for the (white) psychiatrist; he tells Bree that she looks “authentic.”

Perhaps the fact that Bree is presented as less authentic, more gender queer against the backdrop of non-white people comments on the “otherness” attributed to both transsexuals and non-white people within the hegemonic rhetoric of white privilege and power. Her otherness within the larger cultural framework is rendered visible through the film’s analogical link between Bree’s identity and non-white people. In other words, to make the analogy clear to viewers, Bree must stand out in relation to other “others.” Simply presenting her as passing in the white world would fail to delineate Bree’s identity as subjugated, a political identity that requires racial difference rhetoric as well as a hint of civil rights and post-colonial rhetoric in order to send the “correct” message to the audience.

Bree is constantly juxtaposed to and takes an interest in people of color throughout the entire film. Not only does she lives in a Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles, but she washes dishes in a Mexican restaurant, and later in the film flirts with a Native American man. Her only friend is her therapist Margaret, a latina woman played by Cuban-American Elizabeth Peña. In a sense, Bree is framed by elements that signify “boutique multiculturalism,”[32] a kind of uncritical selection of objects and images of a variety of “racial others” whose display is meant to demonstrate Bree’s personal and political positions. I would certainly call this a form of cinematic “white vision.” These representations of “the racial other” within Transamerica come to signify something extra-diegetic related to the position of transsexuals in contemporary United States. The constant positioning of Bree up against this backdrop of racial difference operates analogically: the message is that to be transsexual and white is like being racially other.

In this regard, a hint of Tucker’s motivations surfaced when he discussed with an interviewer some of the research he did while writing the screenplay:

"I went out and met about a dozen-and-a-half transgender women. I was very secretive, especially with the ones who were stealth, whom I was the most interested in. I met a lot of them through friends of friends, and if I could gain enough trust, we'd usually arrange to meet in a restaurant. I'd get there and look around, asking myself, ‘OK, who's the transsexual?’ You don't say ‘tranny’ for the same reason you don't say ‘nigger.’"[33]

This explicit reference to racial difference discourse, and the implicit link between transsexuality and blackness, seemingly emerges from nowhere, and moreover it is strange in the context of Tucker’s own comment. He begins by drawing on the notion of visibility, saying that the transsexuals he sought out were “stealth,” that is, passing as women and presumably invisible as transsexual. Yet he links this to the notion of seeing blackness, or bodies that are hyper-visible to white people, which is the opposite of stealth. Tucker’s comment does not make any sense, then, except on the level of discourse, for unconsciously Tucker is linking blackness and transsexuality along the axes of non-normativity and visibility.

The concepts of “passing” and “stealth” in relation to identity and visibility have their antecedents in African American culture, based on the history of people of color passing as white for a variety of personal, professional, and legal reasons, including, in antebellum United States, the possibility of escaping enslavement. In this context, then, “passing” or “going stealth” as a fact and a discourse references both the issues of racial difference and miscegenation, although within the film this aspect of the analogy operates on an extremely subtle level.

Transsexuals as “queer”:
the discourse of pathology

By linking transsexuality to both blackness and racial difference in general, Tucker draws on the same intersectional and analogical discourse as Haynes, yet Tucker positions transsexuality as the new, old“queer.” What I mean by this is that in our contemporary world transsexuality is defined by law and medicine as a mental illness and is therefore under the purview of “the experts.” In order to receive the medical treatment we see Bree undergoing in Transamerica, one must receive and accept the psychiatric diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder” (GID), although the psychiatrist in the film uses the terminology “Gender Dysphoria.” Not incidentally, GID was first included as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) just as homosexuality was taken out. What this means in legal terms is that one must accept a clinical diagnosis of mental illness in order to change one’s sex. The institutional forces of medicine and law control the parameters of the sex-change process and act as gatekeepers as to who counts as a “real” transsexual, and a “real” transsexual is by definition sick.

Rather than basing GID on sexual object choice, which defined “the queer” of the 1950s, in this case the central issue is a person’s desire to change one’s own sex and thus one’s own body, and this becomes the basis for diagnosing or defining gender pathology in our contemporary era. In short, “the transsexual” has replaced “the homosexual” as medicine’s “other.” The film does show that there is a legal space for this form of “deviance” within the existing structure as long as one is willing to be labelled as “ill.” This is in contrast to the queer desires presented in Far from Heaven, desires that were seen as signs of illness and were illegal to act upon.

Yet as Dorthe Troeften discusses in her dissertation Trans/acting Truths, one must adhere to a very narrow concept of transsexualism to receive the requisite medical treatment. Those whose identities and desires as “the opposite sex” most closely align with normative conceptions of femininity, masculinity, and heterosexuality more easily pass through the mechanisms of control. Therefore in terms of current radical queer theory, traditional transsexuality (the kind Tucker refers to in the interview I quoted above, and the kind of transsexual identity with which Bree is characterized) supports and reinforces a two-gender system and relies on the existing standards of gender roles and sexual normativity.[34] In other words, there is nothing “queer” about this kind of transsexuality, in the contemporary sense of “queer” as questioning and revaluing the foundational (gendered, sexual) narratives of the status quo. Thus the relation between a transsexual person and the medical establishment is based on a rather odd premise: the establishment initially defines transsexuality as a (historically) queer identity, and then gives the transsexual treatment to smooth over that queerness, all the while requiring that person to maintain this “queer” label in the form of pathology.

Bree is a traditional transsexual, and indeed in one scene, where Bree unwittingly stumbles into a transgender gathering that includes all kinds of gender queers, the film marks gender queer people (in this case, transsexuals who are not interested in passing or going stealth) as freaks. Within this economy, then, visual evidence of Bree’s “queerness” requires an external signifier, for, like Frank in Far from Heaven, in most instances she prefers to be simultaneously visible (as woman) and invisible (as trans). And again, racial difference discourse performs this queering role.

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