|image is from the film's website and may be found here|
Please note: this blog post was significantly revised on Jan. 1 and 2, 2011.
Please also see *this related post on Queer Politics*.
Also please note that there are links to be able to view this film in its entirety. They appear later in this post along with a more legible list of the awards this film has received.
There's plenty of anti-lesbian privilege and "progressive" girl-bashing going on in Het and Queer communities and it's not being called out much. The dignity of women who lived their childhoods as girls is no longer regarded as of value in Queer community; I doubt it ever was. From my earliest memories, lesbian feminist political agendas were radical, while white gay men's political agendas were conservative to liberal. Things haven't changed in the last thirty to forty years; and what's gotten worse is that radical feminism has been made into a dirty word--or, well, two words. Men still defend and protect their man-given right to be misogynists, to habitually and institutionally reinforce their male supremacist entitlements, and to make sure their masculinist privileges don't go away any time soon.
How do you know white Queer politics are anti-woman? When radical lesbian feminist politics are regarded as anti-queer.
Here's but one example from North American media.
A darling of white-majority Queer film-fests, Red Without Blue is a documentary about racism, classism, and misogyny, including anti-lesbian misogyny. The problem is that the filmmakers and people focused on this documentary don't seem to notice or care that this movie promotes these values and practices in the name of "pro-trans/queer politics".
As one intergender person who is unapologetically pro-radical, pro-feminist, anti-racist, and pro-Indigenist, I reject misogyny, anti-lesbianism, and racism as prerequisites for Queer agendas of social [non-]transformation. If covert and overt racism and misogyny must exist for white Queer culture to exist, then white queer liberalism is about the same thing as WHM conservatism: oppressive and repressive: certainly for all people who are not wealthy, white, and male.
In Red Without Blue we have, yet again, the unquestioned presentation of white middle class people as THE spokespeople on trans and queer issues, as the crucible in which we learn about something called "humanity", as if "humanity" is most apparent there, and not anywhere else. This white nuclear reactive family's story is so loaded up with class, race, and gender privileges, and layered with typically classed and raced dysfunction that it's a wonder this film is heralded by so many Queer/LGBT filmfests as honest and painfully beautiful. Then again, given how white and male supremacist Queer/LGBT dominant and alternative media often are, perhaps it's no wonder at all.
Here's a synopsis of the film's plot lines along with my commentary:
Two white twins, both gay males, grow up in a het home broken by divorce. Their father leaves but is still in the lives of his sons, more or less. The twins become drug addicts, are raped, and try and commit suicide. This is not a happy story and it's a story too many of us know--these dysfunctional responses to pain and socially protected forms of terrorism are commonplace, the norm, and unremarkable if also horrible.
The fact that neither parent really has time for either of these boys is obviously a central issue in the pain they endure and almost don't survive. But they survive the suicide attempt and one of them later decides to transition from a man to a woman. Not because the male twin believes they're a woman. No. That's not the reason: that this isn't questioned more by anyone is a bit of a problem, to me. It's a problem because it means that one is left considering doing something that is quite dangerous and not at all required to bring someone closer to who they say they believe, deep down, they are.
The twin who wishes to transition finds the most understanding and support not from the twin brother but rather from another class-privileged white person raised only as a boy And the exchanges between them are so overtly misogynistic and grossly male privileged that it made me want to scream out at them for their vile unmitigated woman-hatred. The other twin, who remains a gay man, seeks relationship and travel abroad, finding value in each and leaving his sibling to figure out what to do about being transgender.
Here, in this story, is something that is not questioned by anyone in the film or by contemporary queer community in my experience: the assumption that someone who is male is entitled to appropriate some kind of surgical semblance of "a woman's body". Beyond the dominant cultural transphobia that anyone seeking to do this is likely to encounter, we are not led by the people filmed or the filmmaker to ask anything else about this--if a male person wants to have breast implants or to have some sort of pseudo-vagina and vulva fashioned out of penile and scrotal tissue, we are all supposed to nod affirmatively that this is, unquestionably, a socially good thing to do because what the effect is on women as a class can never, ever matter as much as the needs and wishes of people with male privilege--male privilege trumps radical lesbian feminist women's wishes, wants, or dignity in contemporary racist patriarchies like those found across dominant North America.
And so objections to males appropriating women's body parts in the most superficial surgical ways, if questioned or challenged as "a right" at all, is to render the questioner--the woman--grossly transphobic. We may note that someone with male privileges and entitlements to appropriate women's bodies is not challengeable as grossly misogynistic. Who cares if they're called a misogynist anyway? Not many males I know. They just deny it and move on. Never mind that misogyny and anti-lesbianism (more on this later) is so thick in this film you can cut it with a dull plastic knife.
What ISN'T misogynistic about endeavoring to put "female parts" on a male's body? We're collectively not allowed to ask that question without being branded a bigot. Males get to do what they want, to the extent we are able to do so, and heteropatriarchal society will assist males in doing whatever we want as long as we cough up the bucks. That's one point made in this movie. And once again, it's not a point the filmmaker is intending to convey.
Where's the "painful beauty" of two white middle class young adults--the twin who is transitioning and the friend who has already done so, who were raised with plenty of structural male power even if they each were marginalised socially for being queer or nerdy--having a conversation about how gross and disgusting vulvas are, while one uber-privileged transsexual supports another shopping for them? Yes, "shopping", like one would for a car or an iPad.
Note the complete ignorance of what being female is, socially and physically, on the part of our main character, Clair, who believes that to really understand what vulvas look like, one must view pimped images of raped women's bodies--as if images of women pimped by men are not retouched--in every violating and contemptuous way imaginable.
Note how this very male supremacist person, the one who doesn't believe they are a woman, is utterly repulsed at the sight of a FAKE vulva (to our knowledge, Clair has never, ever seen an actual woman's genitals in a non-exploitive context). Note that the repugnance is not even at seeing an actual human vulva as such an organ appears on someone who has not had surgery, but is, instead, elicited by being shown a graphic photograph of the post-op transsexual person's crotch; is this scene, for trans people, not grossly transphobic? How does one show someone an image of their own body and have someone recoil saying "GROSS" and feel respected by that? There's no indication that anything disrespectful has happened to anyone at all--particularly women raised as girls.
Instead this person with the photographic image of their surgically reconstructed groin tells Clair how happy they were to have it done. We are made to believe that the process is easy--kind of a breeze, really: this process of having ones male genitals removed and a semblance of mostly external female genitals fashioned in their place. In M2F sex-reassignment medical parlance, it's called "bottom surgery".
For whom is this really no big deal? It's not that I think having one's penis and testicles lobbed off ought to be regarded as the highest of cardinal sins; although to be honest, I do think one ought to be made to consider the ramifications of this being done with someone more mature than a person who can laugh with you about how gross vulvas look.
I don't assume that we all feel great affection or affiliation with our bodies. There are many complex reasons for this. Many, many women hate their bodies and do many things--including getting surgery if they can afford it to change the shape and size of various areas of their bodies. Many girls and women also starve themselves to try and get rid of secondary sexual characteristics, from breast tissue to thigh and buttock tissue, and to stop menses. Some women cut their flesh with sharp objects or burn themselves. Body self-hatred is to being female in Western patriarchal societies what penis-worship among men is in the same societies; it is for this reason that some might find Clair's decision to pursue "bottom surgery" objectionable. Some of those who do object, I believe, are located within trans and intergender community. I am one such person but I am not alone. The fact that I have many of the privileges Clair has means that I can speak with a voice that will be regarded as "comprehension-worthy" in a way that people without my privileges will not be listened to so carefully by whites, males, and class-privileged people.
We do not live in a world that promotes girls and women loving their bodies. Mark this down as an early "understatement of the year" for 2011. That so many women with financial means seek to alter their bodies is one clue of this social disdain and denigration. A solution to this social-political problem is not to promote more surgery. It is to promote the end of the institutions and industries which manufacture woman-hating.
It's not that I can't imagine wanting to dissociate completely from a part of oneself that one increasingly doesn't identify as "who I am". But who among us gets to act out this level of dissociation by seeking out surgery? Not most trans people across the globe who will never have the funds necessary to pay a doctor to do it. And who among us gets to have medically necessary non-trans surgeries to repair the physical/genital harm of being sexually violated and injured. Most girls and women who are not trans don't usually get to have access to the experience a few wealthy-enough males who seek sex-reassignment surgery get to have.
This isn't an argument for not allowing someone to have surgery to remove parts of their body. But it is an argument about what people who have been raised as boys--including those of us who didn't identify with being boys--ought to call ourselves. This is an argument about those of us who were born male and grew up into adulthood with structural and social male privileges and entitlements. It's an ethical and political argument about those of us who later, after reaching adulthood, have various medical and surgical procedures done to re-assign our sex. My argument has to do with what we are, socially and politically when that process is completed--or not. This ethical argument is built on this premise, which is, in reality, an institutionalised, globalised practice: we live in a world in which female bodies are medically and socially violated as standard operating procedure. In this world, always in this context--never outside of it--a very few number of class-privileged people raised as boys get to shop around for the kind of vulvas and breasts they want to own, physiologically, to pass as "a woman", as if "a woman" is only someone who has socially noticeable breasts and something between their legs that looks enough like what pornographers' photograph to get prospective het men to believe its "a real vagina". The argument is that surgery doesn't construct a person into being a woman; male supremacist social power, including routine sexual terrorism, does.
If this wasn't a documentary I'd simply call out the writer of the film for scripting a grossly misogynistic, classist, and racist screenplay. But since this is not scripted, I've got to call out the two white middle class people in this movie--Clair and her transsexual friend--for revealing for all of us who view the film how virulently misogynistic and absolutely objectifying of women's bodies male-privileged people can be, even those who demand to be considered women by family and society. It's not like they didn't know cameras were rolling when they were discussing this. Their level of callousness to girls and women who are not trans who might watch this is astounding to me--or, well, it would be except that's the level of callousness I've come to expect from most people raised as as boys.
There's some honesty here in this movie about gender in the West. As mentioned briefly already, Clair acknowledges (a few times) not feeling like a man or a woman. So why shop around for fake female genitals? What are the sexual politics and signs of entitlement infused with THAT course of action? Who is this person wanting to be, and for whom? Why is Clair feeling profoundly loved and unconditionally accepted by their father because he is willing to pay for Clair to have a fake vulva surgically constructed where male genitals are? Shall we not question the misogyny of the father, in assuming his purchase of something that looks sort of like a vulva, but isn't one at all, is a blessed gesture of fatherly love? I am reminded of the parents who permit teenage girls to get breast implants and nose jobs. Sure, the kids feel loved by the parents who let them. But is that really what love is? I sure hope not. What that is, is this: the misuse of money to replace real relationship; the use of purchasing "things" to replace putting in the time it takes to have intimate and solid connection with ones children. That dad checked out earlier and feels awful about his twin boys almost killing themselves--might this be a motivation for him wanting to pay for one of his children to have "bottom surgery"? Are we allowed to ask him? Are we allowed to ask this at all? Isn't this what capitalist parents do, who have the means to do it: buy the love of their children?
How do we conclude that dis-identifying with ones own male genitals leads us to shopping for surgeons who can manufacture vulva-like flesh? In what social world which values any level of personal authenticity does obtaining a fake vulva make you the woman you repeatedly say you aren't? Clair is not only NOT a woman-identified person; Clair is a seriously misogynist male supremacist non-female person who feels trapped in a gender-binaried world and seeks solutions that reinforce the binary Clair is trapped inside.
Were I Clair's friend, I'd say: "Clair, welcome to our anti-queer, woman-hating world. Now, what can we do to fight male supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and stop the degradation and mass production of women's body parts seen to be and made into things to be thoroughly exploited, violated, and exchanged in the male supremacist marketplace? How can you find some peace within yourself, given the emotional and sexual trauma you've endured?"
Even her twin brother, it seems, cannot approach speaking about their rapes. And so no one appears to be interested in tending to that horrendous wound. Instead, let's find doctors to replace parts that we no longer wish to have be part of us.
It's a strange time we live in, for those of us who live in places where such surgical solutions to emotional and political problems are promoted as healthy and are not objected to as blatantly woman-hating.
And then there's the "Driving Miss Daisy" scene, with our protagonist, Clair, being chauffeured around by a man of color who drives a cab: yes--chauffeured. She rents his services to drive her everywhere claiming he's a really good friend. It is obvious that Clair is completely clueless about the blatant racism and classism being promoted as perfectly acceptable behavior. There's no social awareness here evidenced by these actions of our white trans exploiter. This is about as gross a display of classism and racism I've seen in any allegedly progressive movie, heralded as such by one white male supremacist queer film festival after another.
And additional dimension of classism shows up when we find out the twins' father was out of work for months but pretended to be going to work each day, out of the house. How did this family survive economically? Were this a poor or working class family, such an act would have meant terrifying peril. How is it that the white man of the house, who, to our knowledge, is a primary "bread-winner" can not work for months and yet the family still survives exactly as if he is working all along? This unaddressed question may perhaps be seen a being beyond the scope of the film, but if you understand the film to be about how class, region, gender, and race all coalesce in each of our lives to promote or protect various realities, then this is a relevant question. He does go on to use his money to assist Clair in her gender-journey in a few key ways: all of them medical or surgical.
As if all that weren't way too much, we also have the Christian mother of these twins living with--as in sharing her bed with--another white Christian woman, but they state clearly THEIRS IS NOT A LESBIAN RELATIONSHIP. Got it. They're Good Christian White Women sharing a bed and apparently are keeping enough space between them for Jesus to keep them good, and holy, and what? Straight?
The class, hetero/sexist, and white anti-lesbian privileges reek to high heaven throughout this film.
One of the entitlements of the most privileged among us is that we get to name ourselves and define ourselves, because if we're atop class, gender, and race hierarchies, we don't have those dominant groups above us telling us who we are. This whole matter of deciding what gender or sexual orientation someone is comes with various degrees of privilege; let's not forget that millions of queer kids, including me, were told what we were from childhood on, and the terms weren't pretty.
We were told what we were and we internalised the sexual shame and gender degradation to our humanity that the bullies' news was delivered on. The shame, for me, to be clear, wasn't being called a girl. Being called a sissy did sting; being called a f*ggot hurt a lot. To endure verbal abuse and other forms of mistreatment was degrading. But to be called "a girl" was flattering. The shame was in being systematically targeted for humiliating verbal and physical assault by boys who were perpetrating pricks.
And speaking of perpetrating pricks, there is a rapist in this film's story too. A slightly older gay man who rapes both twins repeatedly, also rapes another child, a boy who at the time of his assault was younger than they were. They witnessed this child's assault--they witnessed him come out of a bathroom where the man raped him. They witnessed him be curled up with a terrified and distant look in his eyes. The obviously traumatised, terrified boy didn't wish to prosecute. I can understand why. I doubt I'd have had the strength or will to prosecute the man who sexually assaulted me when I was twelve. I get not being able to prosecute someone you want to never think about again--let alone be face to face with.
But the gay male twin presents this as a reason why the twins couldn't do anything to hold the rapist accountable. Why not? He raped both of them? If the younger child didn't want to be part of the case, that's up to him. But there are other assaults here to report: their own. But that never gets discussed beyond it being a story of gross exploitation and abuse of emotionally needy and terribly vulnerable queer kids. It does make a compelling argument for why it is gay male adolescents are more vulnerable to sexual assault by men that het ones. We are vulnerable to men who are out as gay or by men who are just interested in abusing young people regardless of gender. And lest we forget--and most males I know who are deeply concerned about the sexual abuse of boys often do--surrogate or biological father-daughter incest remains the most common form of child sexual abuse.
How do these assaults shape each of the twin's lives? The rapes, in this film, exist in a social-psychic vacuum. We are not to question whether there's any relationship between someone getting sexually assaulted and wanting to have their genitals removed. While this is a question we are not encouraged to ask, I'm going to answer it: I wanted to dissociate from my genitals after being sexually assaulted. I am asexual today because of that need for dissociation. I once very seriously contemplated having sex-reassignment surgery. Were it not for radical lesbian feminist understandings of assault and the aftermath, or were I to grow up, through my teens and twenties, now instead of when I did (at a time when radical lesbian feminist perspectives flourished and were regarded as wisdom not just as bigotry), I'd likely be out as transsexual instead of out as pro-radical feminist. It wasn't just that I dis-identified with my male genitals. I also identified more with women's genitals in some ways.
A woman--someone who grew up as a girl--once called me out on the misogyny of me fantasizing about having female genitals. From my mid-teen years on, I fantasized about having a vulva and vagina, and of being able to possibly seduce teen het guys and later het men, to have sex with me: PIV sex, as it is sometimes termed online. Penis-in-vagina. I wanted that. I never really desired anal intercourse with men. What I wanted was for men to penetrate me vaginally.
But a few years ago, one woman dared to speak up about how this was typical of men (or, in my case, an intergender male): to appropriate and fantasize about having parts of women's bodies as if they aren't parts of women's bodies. As if the parts all belong to men or to males, to try on, to violate, to appropriate, to exploit, to fantasize about, and, when possible, to rent or to purchase and possess. To do whatever with, other than respecting that female genitals are parts of women's bodies which are whole, part of a girl-to-woman's physical-psychic-emotional-social-political-spiritual being, not a collection of fetishised parts as if from some pornographic Ms. Potato-Head game.
It's funny (although not ha-ha funny) how, even while intergender and allied with women politically, I never fantasized about menstrual cramps, missed periods, or the dangers of contracting HPV (in terms of being more likely to develop cervical cancer), or the problems of endometriosis or ovarian cysts. No, I got to pick and choose which aspects of "having a female body" would most meet my needs, my very male supremacist needs. I also wanted to be able to breast-feed a baby, but not worry about breast cancer.
I want to publicly thank that radical feminist woman for calling me out. I doubt she's welcome me to tell you her name. But if she's reading this, she surely knows I'm acknowledging her act of truth-telling to me and for demonstrating what solidarity with girls and women sounds like.
To indulge the kinds of fantasies I was having, without considering what that said about my own male supremacist understandings of women's bodies, was grossly misogynistic of me.
We don't get to talk about such things in Queer community, in my experience. The dudes don't really want to talk about our male supremacist entitlements to appropriate and misuse representations of women, including in fantasy, in stage performance, as well as directly using and abusing actual women.
We who are male also don't generally want to discuss being molested and raped by men; not that women love doing so--but women have broken down the barriers to being able to discuss sexual violence and abuse against girls and women. I believe one function of gay and bi (and, of course, HET) males not readily discussing how abused some of us were by men is that we want to protect the rights of men to be abusive to everyone else, including to children.
No one is allowed, currently, to question why it is someone who is a survivor of sexual trauma and violation might dissociate from their own bodies--especially the aspects of our bodies associated most with "sex"--which is what the predators and assaulters always believe they're having. How does being sexually abused, when the victim is male, combine with male privileges and entitlements to use women? Is this not one of many elephants in the room of the movie?
So of course white- and male-dominated Queer and non-Queer film festivals are heralding Red Without Blue as an unproblematic cinematic and social success story. Because dominant Queer political agendas can only exist in their liberal ways if they are white and male supremacist. And classist as hell. And not held to account for any of it. Just because a movie reveals some of the emotional complexities we face as trans and intergender people, or as queer people who are neither, doesn't make it painfully honest enough if the oppressive power and entitlements exercised by characters in a film are rendered completely invisible.
To all my Queer sibs:
Please call out the classism, the racism, and the misogyny (including the anti-lesbian misogyny), of the rampant white and male supremacy, and of the denial of what child sexual assault and gross emotional neglect does to us, including in Queer and Trans communities. It is emotionally neglectful of the most silenced among us to support each other going to the dominant industries and institutions that were designed to harm us--such as the Academy, the military, prostitution, pornography, psychiatry, and surgery, without noting how each will seek to disallow radical, revolutionary interrogations and challenges to society and one another, and how each exist to maintain the heterosexist, gynocidal, and genocidal status quo.
From what I find in correspondence with non-queer women and with trans and queer people without many privileges: queer and trans people who are living in poverty; people who are working class or who are not living with "First World" protections from government warfare; people of color who are not living with white protections from prison and police brutality; people who are marginalised, ostracised, abused and neglected not just inside dominant English-speaking white society, but within one's society of origin; and girls and woman globally across class, region, ethnicity, and race who are targeted for abuses specific to that class of people.
What I find is that the less privileged among us can't afford to pay the price of our too often willful ignorance of our own abuses of power and support of systems of harm and atrocity that the main characters in Red Without Blue demonstrate. The twins in this movie will never have to encounter the systematic abuses and forms of neglect (such as not being regarded as human or socially existent due to one's skin color or ethnic heritage) up-close and personal, let alone as members of a religious, regional, political, or ethnic group, as people of color do, as Jews do, as Muslims do, and as Indigenous people and women of all colors and sexualities do.
The people in this movie do go about living their very classist lives: they discover "who they are" as they move around from North America to Europe and back again as they please, or by jumping across the U.S. to live in NYC or San Francisco because of course "people" can just do that to improve their education or enhance their sense of "being in the world" that is "ours".
Not just any people: only class- and region-privileged ones, folks. And those of us who are part of a those privileged communities need to ask ourselves: with that kind of privilege, to move into other people's places with the assumption that we get to try out belonging and possibly staying wherever we decide to go--a privilege not afforded most poor people of color who don't speak English as a first language, and not afforded most immigrants of color in the white West either--what do we also assume can be ours for the taking or ours to inhabit indefinitely? How about parts of women's bodies as well as their identities?
"Woman" is a political category born of patriarchally atrocious actions committed day by day and night by night against people who live in female bodies from birth to death. Some of those women's bodies are intersex, surgically altered in infancy or childhood or later to "appear" more female. The intersex activists I know vehemently object to surgical interventions to make intersex people fit the oppressive gender binary.
I am calling on those of us who are intergender, intersex, and otherwise gender non-conforming, queer, or transgender, female, male, or neither, to stand in solidarity with women raised as girls in identifying their political identities as theirs. Because theirs is the identity of being girls-then-women who are never structurally privileged with male entitlements to take what they want and go where they want; theirs is the social identity that combines with a physical-political body for men to degrade and use as sexxx-things, nursemaids, housekeepers, and child rearers by thinking of them as parts not ever comprising a whole human being, beginning on day one and ending at the point of cremation or burial, if lucky or respected enough to be buried after death.
I am asking that we honor our sisters as we honor ourselves, in all our complexity, by working however we can, in alliance, to rid this world of male supremacist entitlements to disproportionately and specifically abuse and appropriate female human beings and coercively, shamingly, or violently rob them of their capacity to say "NO!" to accommodating anyone else's wishes, needs, or demands, or to name who they are as a specifically oppressed gendered group: girls and women.
We know the abusers, intimately, interpersonally, institutionally, and industrially are by and large, across the globe, wealthy men, white men, and non-queer men. Let us break all alliance and allegiance with those groups of men and any others who defend and protect misogyny, and stand instead with girls and women as they define themselves and as they continue to resist globalised racist patriarchal oppression.
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Here are two places online to view the documentary in full: