I’m Supposed to Relate to This? A Trans Woman on Issues of Identification with Trans Moving Images, by Valérie Robin Clayman; illustrations by Kat Verhoeven. AnteBody Press, 2016.

imsupposed-2This is an interesting addition to the discussion on how trans people have been represented in film and television. Originally a Masters thesis, Valérie Robin Clayman’s analysis of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Dallas Buyer’s Club and Transparent is augmented by Kat Herhoeven’s illustrations, creating a kind of “graphic thesis”. It’s a curious design decision for a book that is at times academic in nature, but it does pad the book out to 120 pages.

Clayman describes her approach as autoethnography. Although she did not originate the term, in this case the autoethnographic method “allows trans people to be researcher and not simply the research.” In her thesis, Clayman reflects upon how she interpreted the above filmed works as she moved through the stages of her life: being closeted, accepting herself, coming out, transitioning and living as a trans woman. As Clayman’s life progressed, she found that characters she initially accepted as being trans looked less and less so.

This is the case in Clayman’s interpretation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Dallas Buyer’s Club. Of Hedwig, she writes:

Like the mainstream viewer seeing the film through the male gaze, I was transing Hedwig and the Angry Inch from my spectator position in the closet; as an out member of the LGBT community, I no longer feel the need to. My trans-self ponders Hedwig from a different position. Does she complicate common definitions of what is trans (and make things harder for trans people) because she chooses gender rather than gender choosing her? Does a gay boy submitting to a sex change make him trans?

Clayman deconstructs Jared Leto’s character Rayon in Dallas Buyer’s Club in similar fashion. “The language used in the film implies the viewer to see Rayon not as trans but as a gay man in drag.”

While she initially believed the films she chose “would be easy to tear down and use as fodder to further the discourse on Hollywood’s lack of realistic trans representations.” She realized that “my analyses would necessitate a re-assessing of what I consider to be trans moving images in order to re-situate myself as a trans spectator.”

It would be nice if we could simply eliminate all negative stereotypes of trans characters by asserting they’re not really trans, but if the mainstream audience continues to believe Hollywood’s simplistic portrayals are indeed authentic trans people than we are obviously no better off. Ultimately it’s still in the filmmaker’s hands, and the more trans people there are involved in the creation of the work, the better off we all are.

It is perhaps not surprising then that Clayman sees herself most in the TV series Transparent, which at the time of writing had 20 crew and 60 extras that were trans folks.

I’m Supposed to Relate to This? makes for a thought provoking examination of the complex business of representation, identification, and perspective in films. A worthy read for film buffs and those interested in the representation of trans people in moving images.

July 2019