After puberty has kicked you in the balls, the realisation that you are trans prompts a re-evaluation of your life up to that point. It is an overwhelming experience in which multiple, contradictory emotions can hit you all at the same time. There’s the rush of relief mingled with the intense fear of how friends and family will react; the ecstasy of a new, happier chapter in your life is tinged with the regret of denying yourself that happiness for so long. Then for me, there is also the immense guilt over all the misogyny and homophobia I absorbed and reproduced, growing up in an all-boys school. Some days all these feelings would collide so violently that it would leave me bed-ridden.
In the midst of this maelstrom, it was comforting to realise how my formative reactions to pop-culture finally made sense. Eight year old me had been obsessed with the shape-shifting assassin Zam Wessel in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Going even further back to my earliest memories, I recall watching The Wizard of Oz at four, and being enthralled by Margaret Hamilton’s performance as the Wicked Witch of the West. She was the hero, not the useless Dorothy, nor the mean Glinda who said only bad witches were ugly.
Today I read Glinda as a TERF bolstered by the transphobic world of Oz. This sugary society of Munchkins always felt artificial and sinister to me as a child, and now as a woman I have the words to express that discomfort. Fast-forwarding to 2018, and I have been living as a woman for over two years, in which time I find myself returning constantly to the Hollywood high school movies I enjoyed as a teenager.
It is a bittersweet experience because, having gone to an all-boys school, these films portray an adolescence that could never be mine which leaves me feeling robbed. The girls in these movies are pretty, rich, and live in the most beautiful houses. The crane shot that introduces Julia Stiles’ Seattle neighbourhood in 10 Things I Hate About You never fails to elicit a longing sigh. I’m a sucker for picturesque suburbia. Yet what I am truly yearning for when watching these films is a space in which I could have worked out my girlhood.
“I create my own representation by reading transness into my favourite characters, relating to girls who fall just outside of the feminine ideal.”
In reality, my own adolescence was closer to the grotesque indie film Welcome to the Dollhouse, which technically took place in junior high. Viewing more mainstream high school films, I found myself making my own representation. Films rarely have trans characters, and even positive portrayals feel patronising, like the recent made-for-classrooms effort Just Charlie, which told the story of a British trans kid. Since any kind of portrayal is few and far between, hearing cis critics rave about the latest trans film can feel wearing rather than hopeful. I love Chilean cinema but I feel apprehensive about the upcoming A Fantastic Woman, starring trans actor Daniela Vega. This is because if I don’t like it then I must wait another year before the next big trans movie comes along, and the process starts all over again. Many marginalised groups combat this through creative online culture. For myself I create my own representation by reading transness into my favourite characters, relating to girls who fall just outside of the feminine ideal but whose womanhood could never be questioned.
Think of Brittany Murphy as Tai in Clueless. She is introduced as a tomboyish figure who is tutored in the ways of fashion and etiquette by main character Cher and her best friend Dionne. It’s easy to read Tai as a newly out trans girl whose friends help her to socially transition. The montage sequence where Tai is given a makeover by Cher and Dionne makes me emotional, plus the party scenes always remind of the first time my friend took me out in girl mode. Yes, it is idealised but Tai’s transition from clueless to clued-up offers both a temporary reprieve from harsh realities, and reminders of the tangible kindness shown by my friends.
Tai is an admittedly imperfect vessel to project my transness onto. Cher and Dionne also reject her attraction to Travis and attempt to suppress Tai’s inner tomboy in service to a more palatable femininity. To go back to Oz for a moment it would be like if the awful Glinda gave the Wicked Witch a makeover. As such I often find myself identifying with slightly more cynical characters like Veronica in Heathers. Played by Winona Ryder, Veronica is an honorary member of proto-Plastics the Heathers, a mean-girl group with 80s’ shoulder pads. Drawn to their social power, but turned off by their malicious antics, Veronica is both inside and outside of the group. This inbetweeness is where I see her transness.
Still waiting to hear from the GIC about hormones, my dysphoria often makes me feel stuck between being male and female, leaving me feeling frustrated. Transphobes sometimes pathologise people like me by calling us auto-gynephiles that fetishise the experience of being a woman. In truth, I don’t seek to replicate some abstract ideal of cis womanhood, as there is plenty about it that doesn’t appeal to me, just as Veronica is revolted by the cruelty of the Heathers. Outside of these tenuous trans connections, Veronica influences a lot of my outfits, and like her I also fell into the orbit of a sociopath who may have tried to blow up the school. Reading Veronica as trans therefore deepens the connection I already feel towards the character. Trans women have personalities outside of their transness. I can be a bit of a cynical dickhead like Veronica, though admittedly I am nowhere near as cool as Winona Ryder.
“To see myself in Allison only to watch her bow to cisnormative expectations saddens me.”
Honestly as a teenager I was more of a weird doofus like Allison (played by Ally Sheedy) in The Breakfast Club, which is perhaps the most overrated high school film ever. Like Allsion I was a shy, parkour-wearing weirdo with bad dandruff. You might assume I see transness in her transformation at the end of the film, when she is given a make-over. It’s an affirming sight of how she’s really a beautiful girl right? Rather it betrays how writer John Hughes just does not get the type of person Allsion is, and his perspective as a cis man overpowers the character.
Allison emerges wearing a white dress that shows off her long-hidden figure. The moment of reveal is framed by the boys’ reaction to her: their mouths agape in awe. It’s a credit to Sheedy’s performance that she sells this moment by conveying the character’s initial awkwardness, but it’s clear that she is skewed by a male gaze. It reminds me that women are more easily respected if they are attractive to straight men. More specifically, I know that I will have to prove my womanhood to various healthcare professionals by wearing dresses. Being trans is about me feeling good about myself, not looking good for others, and it certainly isn’t about wearing dresses. To see myself in Allison only to watch her bow to cisnormative expectations saddens me.
These are just a handful of ways I try to see transness in the films I watch. It speaks to the dearth of quality trans representation in films. I don’t want to watch fucking Eddie Redmayne or Jared Leto in po-faced sh*t like The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyers Club. I don’t see anything of myself or people like me in those films. They are completely inauthentic. Yet it’s possible to find fragments of truth in these silly high school films, whether their creators intended them or not. It empowers me as a viewer, moving beyond the passive pose of a content-starved demographic lifting their arms up to cis film-makers begging for meagre scraps.