JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The psychiatrist represents the medical management and pathologization of transsexual people.

Yet Bree herself pathologizes certain trans indentities. Here she stumbles unwittingly into a trans gathering …

Stealth/ passing is good …

... while gender-queer is freakish.

Although Bree’s son Toby (here he doesn’t know yet Bree is trans or that he is her son) seems to be enjoying himself—a queer among queers.

Like she feels comfortable surrounded by African artifacts, Bree feels safe in non-white environments—in her neighborhood and ....

... where she works ...

... and with non-white people. Here Bree is serenaded by Calvin, a Native American man who helps her out of a bind.

In contrast, small-town white people seem to make Bree nervous.

The exchange of hats in the film indicates performativity and the vicissitudes of identity. Here Toby, who erroneously believes he is part Native American, buys himself a hat with an Indian sports logo…

... and gives Bree a present. On the road trip, she pretends to be a Church lady helping runaway teens, so he gives her hat with "Christian" on it. Yet Toby is not Native; Bree is not Christian …

... and Calvin is no cowboy. Nevertheless, the hats provide protection and a certain “cover,” although Calvin is honest about the performativity of his own hat.

Calvin gives Toby the gift of a cowboy hat: ”Now you look like a warrior.”

Bree remembers to give Toby the hat he left behind when they reconcile at the very end of the film. Note Toby’s blond hair. In the interim he has learned Bree is his father, and that he is fully white.

 

 

The road trip:
racial discourse in Transamerica

Days before her scheduled sex change surgery, Bree, who used to be Stanley, discovers she has a teenaged son named Toby (Kevin Zegers), the result of a college fling. Forced by her therapist to face the fact of Toby’s existence—Margaret won’t sign the requisite paperwork until Bree comes to terms with this heretofore unknown dimension of her life, setting a new condition which, parenthetically, is unethical—Bree travels from her home in Los Angeles to New York to bail Toby out of jail, where he has been arrested on prostitution and drug charges. As Toby does not know that Stanley has become Bree, and the two have never met before, Bree does not reveal her identity to her son. She poses instead as a church lady who helps runaway teens. Bree offers to drive Toby back to his home in Kentucky, but he wants to move to Los Angeles to try his luck in the porn industry. After a series of misunderstandings and mishaps, Bree reluctantly agrees to drive Toby all the way to Los Angeles, determined, the whole trip, to maintain her church lady disguise.

On the road trip, Bree and Toby first pass through the southern United States and then on through the Southwest. In the south, the gas stations and truck stops are populated by small-town white men, and Bree’s fear of being “read” is rendered obvious by her nervous gestures and self-consciousness at being watched. Interestingly, she is read while in this geographical zone but not by a white man. Sitting at a restaurant in Arkansas, a young black girl, looking backwards over her chair, stares openly at Bree and asks, “‘Are you a girl or a boy?’” Bree does not answer as the girl is admonished by her mother. Yet moments later we see Bree tearfully phoning Margaret, “An 8-year-old just read me!” she cries.[35][open endnotes in new window] Considering Tucker’s comment on the link between blackness and transsexuality, was the choice of casting a young African American girl in this scene purely accidental? For such an encounter reinforces the notion that Bree, who usually passes so successfully among whites, can be “seen” by a person whose visible blackness categorizes her as “other” within the dominant culture. Here the director plays with the concepts of visibility and stealth, blackness and transness, in an effort, it seems, to drive home to viewers that he thinks that the “otherness” attributed to transgender people establishes a kind of connective bond that bridges differences across and within heterogeneous, marginalized populations. This is, in a sense, a restaging of the opening scene, where Bree’s gender presentation is shown to be visually unstable against the contextualizing backdrop of people of color.

In the Southwest, the locals presented are mostly latino and Native American. It is in this region that Bree, who in L.A. lives and works in a predominantly latino environment, is portrayed as more relaxed, much less fearful of discovery and possibility of bodily harm. Thus on a cursory level the film communicates that the shared experience of marginalization itself is enough to convince Bree that as a transwoman she is in less danger in predominantly non-white areas of the United States, although the truth of this depiction is certainly questionable. On a discursive level the director relies on a “like race” argument, using “race” as a kind of pedagogical backdrop or an explanatory mise-en-scéne, instructing the audience on the position of transsexual bodies in contemporary United States.

That Bree both lives in and travels across the southwestern U.S. borderlands, and finds peace within environments in which the border between (white) United States and (brown) Mexico is fluid and loosely defined, seems to position Bree, through analogy, as on the borderlands of gender identity. On a discursive level this borderland subjectivity positions Bree as a kind of queer subject, when in fact she thinks of her sex change as the last step towards coming into the woman she has always been. Thus in this case the background of racial difference seems to insist on queering Bree’s identity, in a way forcing a queering of the subject even when this is not particularly relevant to the situation at hand. This uncritical or almost unconscious use of conflation ends up pitting the character’s own will, and even the way that the film marks Bree’s transsexuality as normative, against an intersectional rhetoric that positions her as neither here nor there, as a queer subject who nevertheless resists such interpellation.

A pattern emerges when one looks at the use of “racial otherness” throughout the entire film. It is always non-white characters who seem to accept, or remain indifferent to, Bree’s transsexuality. The shots of Bree working in the Mexican restaurant where all her co-workers are latino depict her at ease in a friendly environment. The little black girl’s mother admonishes her daughter and instructs her on proper behavior, but does not even bother to look at Bree. The film even has a mammy-like figure (Venida Evans) who once acted as a kind of surrogate parent to Toby and, upon meeting Bree, offers to give her free electrolysis. Margaret is a compassionate and challenging friend. And it is Calvin (Graham Greene), a Native American man, with whom Bree establishes a romantic connection.

In my interpretation of the film, not only does this pattern forge the analogy that to be transsexual and white is like being racially other, but it also reinforces the simplistic and incorrect notion that “racial others” lack power. To me, the film implicitly communicates that these “others” don’t judge Bree because their judgment holds no social weight. They are “safe” precisely because they, too, are “threatening outsiders” as defined by the status quo. In other words, as defined by the white power elite, all “others” fall outside of the category of what constitutes a legible person.[36] Like the figure of Raymond or blackness more generally in Far from Heaven, these “others” serve as props towards delineating the contours of Bree’s outsider status within the larger culture. The characters serve little to no purpose of their own and as a result their depictions lack complexity. Again, “racial otherness” as an explanatory mise-en-scène works towards framing non-normative white subjectivity as queer.

Transamerica’s queer project

It is Toby who is presented as possessing the most indeterminate, queer sexuality of all the characters in the film. He is a male prostitute and we see him in one scene with a john; in another scene we watch him kiss a young girl; towards the end of the film he even hits on Bree after he has discovered she is a transwoman and still has her penis (but he doesn’t yet know that Bree is his father.) Aside from the possible reading of Toby’s pass at Bree as a quasi-comical, queered version of the Oedipal drama, the issue of race and racial difference is also very much at play in the filial relationship between Bree and Toby. The question of origins often pivots on the issue of racial “purity” and “mixing,” and Toby is certainly concerned with the racial identity of his father. At one point on the road trip, Toby tells Bree he is part Native American on his father’s side, and he qualifies this by saying he’s not really sure but he feels it, “it’s an Indian thing.” Calvin also tells Toby he looks like he has some Cherokee in him, something it is clear Toby is delighted to hear. Bree is half Jewish, and significantly, it is precisely during Bree’s moment of revelation, when she comes out to Toby as his father, that “queerness” and “racial identity” are shown to be so conflated that they turn on the very same axis.

In Bree’s “coming out” speech a torrent of guilt is unleashed, and she tells Toby that she knows he must be disappointed that Bree is his father, because this means that Toby is part Jewish, not Indian, and moreover, she later tells Toby that he is Jewish on the “wrong” side, meaning that he is not really Jewish at all. An interesting parallel is constructed here. Bree’s revelation forces her to accept a queer identity: she is Toby’s father, thus disrupting her dream of attaining unadulterated womanhood. This child will be a constant reminder of her past as a man and thus acceptance of Toby is also an acknowledgement of her own status as a kind of “queer” parent, at least in the eyes of the larger culture. Her identity as “father” certainly calls attention to the indeterminacy of gender roles; she will never be Toby’s mother, nor will she fit the image of the father. The analogy here is that Toby, a queer character, must accept his identity as a fully white person, that is, he must give up the dream of racial otherness, in accepting Bree as his transwoman father. In giving Toby his whiteness by claiming him as her son, Bree moves into a more queer identity in relation to him. This move thereby establishes a reciprocal, kinship relation between queerness and racial identity. This move is made visible at the end of the film when Toby, who has indeed started a career as a pornographic actor, is shown as having dyed his hair from dark brown to an incongruous blond, a seeming nod to his newly confirmed whiteness. Bree, as well, begins to call herself his “father,” which also produces an incongruous picture, as Bree is a thoroughly pink-clad woman, an exaggeratedly feminine “father.”

The queer political project comes to the forefront in the very last scene of the film, when the blond Toby reconciles with the post-op Bree, for it is here that the film establishes the formation of a dyadic but nonetheless unconventional and “queer” (white) family. This contrasts sharply with the conclusion of Far from Heaven, which depicts the dissolution of the “proper” white family. What is significant is that in finally establishing the coming together of this queer family as a desirable outcome, racial difference as a dominant “queering” mechanism has sunk back into the margins, for it is no longer necessary as a framing device. “Wholeness” has been established—Bree no longer has her penis and is therefore a woman, Toby has solved the mystery of the “father” and thus of his white racial identity. “Queerness” is now established within the white family circle; it needs no longer be delineated by recourse to racial difference rhetoric, by framing these characters to those outside this circle. Referring back to the very opening, in this final scene Bree gives Toby a gift—a black cowboy hat that Calvin had given Toby on their journey with the comment, “Now you look like a warrior.” Thus this scene suggests both Bree and Toby have won their battles, and the only hint of racial difference discourse that remains is contained in the sign of the hat, which, after all, is a cowboy hat, not an Indian headdress.

Paradoxically, the queerness of this family reunion remains hidden beneath the mask of whiteness and clear-cut gender difference. The last shot of the film marks this spatially, for after Bree and Toby’s reunion, the camera actually moves outside Bree’s home and films them from a distance and through a window. Our perspective has suddenly shifted and we are now looking, peeping tom fashion, in on a mother and son sharing a beer. From this “outside world” perspective, nothing would appear strange or particularly “queer” about this dyad, the hat signifying nothing but “cowboy.” This final scene thus ultimately distances the queer political project from racial equality rhetoric by positioning the white queer family as a closed circuit.

In both Far from Heaven and Transamerica, then, racial difference facilitates the major encounters and transformations the main characters experience in terms of sexuality and gender identity. Both films reveal that identity is only understandable in a relational economy. However, both present this understanding as discernable and filtered through the lens of “white vision.” The debt owed to critical race theory and the Civil Rights movement has not been fully paid. These directors use racial difference discourse as a primary structuring and “queering” mechanism, and by doing so they use this discourse as a tool towards rendering oppression visible, yet both strangely fail to challenge the supremacy of white vision that continues to uphold the white power and privilege they seem to be intent on critiquing.

Conclusion

An intersectional perspective is an extremely useful lens for analyzing U.S. film, for such a perspective allows for an account of the interplay of identity politics within this national cinema, at the same time that it holds the potential to transform the object of study, in this case, the study of film. There are parallels here with feminist theory. For example, thirty-five years ago Linda Nochlin claimed that to develop a feminist perspective within the discipline of art history would transform the discipline itself: that such a lens would facilitate a revaluation of the politics, prejudices, and fissures in the formation of a given field of study.[37] In this way, the study of film can greatly benefit by a more direct engagement with the intersections of critical race and queer theory, for these theories can be used to further expose the cultural assumptions embedded within film and thus take the field in new directions. Moreover, by admitting the implicit whiteness of cinematic vision and keeping a critical eye on how whiteness structures both the study and production of film, and structures filmic representations of identity politics, scholars and filmmakers alike can make steps in the direction of revealing the dynamics of what actually happens between the contingent spaces where race, sexuality, and gender intersect with each other.[38]

Post-op Bree and newly blond Toby can begin again, no more secrets …

The last shot of the film moves outside and looks in on mother and son—the (queer) white family united at last!

Go to Notes and Appendix


To topPrint versionJC 50 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.