Trans vs. Drag: A Clash of Terms

Workbook5

Left to Right: Manila Luzon, BenDeLaCreme, Pandora Boxx, Jinkx Monsoon

In the wake of the “Female or She-male” controversy surrounding RuPaul’s Drag Race and transgender activists, in which the segment was deemed degrading and offensive, ThinkProgress writer Zach Ford penned a very comprehensive and balanced article titled “The Quiet Clash Between Transgender Women And Drag Queens” where he delved into the growing tension between the transgender and drag communities concerning terminology and representation. Transgender activists were upset by the nature of the “Female or She-male” segment and its use of the word “shemale,” which asked the contestants to look at pictures of bodies and they had to guess if they were biological, cisgender women (“Female”) or drag queens (“She-male”). Although LogoTV and Drag Race addressed the controversy by pulling the episode and cutting out the “You’ve Got She-Mail!” intro, Ford writes that “the incident has continued to be a flashpoint about how the visibility of drag culture on Drag Race impacts public understanding of what it means to be transgender. Questions about the appropriate use of words like ‘shemale’ and ‘tranny’ speak to a larger conflict over media representation and the authenticity of identities.”

Ford then incorporates interviews with four Drag Race alumni (pictured above) and a genderqueer individual, who speak about the usage of these terms and what it means to be in that conflict. He then goes on to discuss the conflict of representation and identity, in which it is said that because of the visibility of drag queens (and their usage of words like “tranny” and “shemale”), those not in the LGBT community are not privy to the nuances, and therefore can confuse transgender women as drag queens (a.k.a. men in dresses). This strips transgender women of their identity. The questions provoked by this are “Are transgender women drag queens?” and “Are drag queens transgender?” In regards to the former question, transgender women are not drag queens, unless they participate in drag as a profession (much like transgender performer Kylie Sonique Love). As for the latter, the answer is a bit more complex. Ford writes that the answer “[depends] on who is considering the question and how, the answers “Yes,” “No,” and “Sometimes” could all be accurate. That’s because the word “transgender” can mean different things in different contexts.”

Kylie Sonique Love

Kylie Sonique Love Click Here for Kylie’s opinion on the RPDR controversy

Les Feinberg wrote in “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come” about the ever-evolving nature of terminology within the transgender community, with words and identities going in and out of fashion and shift definitions. this can be plainly seen in the complexity of answering the aforementioned question, in which transgender is both the term for people assigned a gender at birth and realize that they identify with another gender and transition and as “an umbrella term, the “T” in “LGBT” has also been long-used to encompass all gender identities that are nonconforming to society’s gender norms. […] These various interpretations accommodate gender identities and expressions that are not easily measured by a man-woman binary.”

Ford then brings in various voices from the transgender community, like transgender activist Riki Wilchins who states that “Transgender was intended as an umbrella term, then a name of inclusion. But umbrellas don’t work well when one group holds them up.” This is the opinion of those who were outraged by the “Female or She-male” mini-game, who believe that the transgender community is just for transgender men and women. Other transgender activists, like Harper Jean Tobin, Director of Policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, who addressed her position in her keynote speech at the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, discussing the complex overlap of “transgender” identities. She touches the place of gender nonconforming individuals (genderqueer, agender, genderfluid, etc.) and all forms of gender expressions outside the binary within the Transgender community. She states that “there is also a fear, I think, on the part of some trans men and women that even acknowledging the existence of non-binary identities will threaten our right to be recognized as the men and women we are. We must resist the fear that there is not enough dignity and justice to go around. Our movement must recognize and elevate the voices and the rights and the leadership of trans folks who are not men or women.”

Casey Plett

Casey Plett

Casey Plett blogs about this very issue, and seems to be able to see both sides of the conversation, acknowledging the history of these terms and also the pejorative uses of these terms and how they can invalidate transgender identities. She states that she has a connection to terms like “tranny” that is positive. She seems to be in the middle of this conflict, though “the vocabulary game can’t be won.”

Gender in Avatar: the Last Airbender

Gender is explored in many ways in the Nickelodeon show Avatar: the Last Airbender. The show was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and ran from 2005 to 2008. It is an animated series that was created in the U.S. but draws inspiration from anime styles. The show is set in a fictional world where certain people, called benders, can control an element; water, fire, earth, or air. In this world each “nation” of bending ability co-exists with the others peacefully until one nation, the Fire Nation, goes to war with the other nations to dominate the world. The Avatar is one person who can control all four elements at once. When the Fire Nation goes to war with all other nations the main character Aang is only 12 years old and is told that he is the avatar. Due to the pressure he runs away and gets caught in a storm and is frozen for 100 years while the Fire Nation wipes out the Air Nation, a nomadic people who embrace nonviolence. Aang is awakened by Katara and Sokka, who are from the Southern Water Tribe. I will focus on Aang, Katara, Zuko, and Toph as representative of prominent male and female characters depicting gender differently.

In the show gender is explored in a way that queers normative culture by challenging gender roles, prominent depictions of gender, and traits that typically correspond to gender. Through its diverse cast of characters the show depicts female characters that embrace masculine traits and feminine traits, and femininity is not depicted as submissive to masculinity. There are also male characters that embrace more feminine traits and defy the idea of heroic masculinity.

Katara embraces feminine characteristics in the show by becoming a motherly figure to other characters. She dresses in a feminine way and is nurturing but she is also very strong. She defies patriarchal institutions as well, asserting herself to become the student of a master who only teaches men. Toph is the opposite of Katara, she is rough and aggressive and does not dress in a feminine way. She is smaller than Katara but equally as strong. She was introduced to the show as an earthbender fighting in an underground competition where she beat out many huge and aggressive men. She also defies her parents who only see her as a delicate little girl by running away. This clip shows her defying her father’s and master’s expectations of her by defeating multiple enemies and saving Aang.

Zuko and Aang, two main characters who are male, help to deconstruct the heroic masculinity ideal presented by Halberstam. Halberstam presents that the typical heroic masculine character is a straight white male who is very one dimensional and depends upon others to prop him up. Aang and Zuko are the exact opposite of this. Aang is the avatar and has to resolve the worldwide conflict but he comes from a nomadic culture and typically avoids violence when he sees another alternative. Zuko is a much more aggressive character and is initially the villain of the series, but throughout the series he becomes less violent and eventually helps Aang defeat his father Firelord Ozai. Zuko was banished from the Fire Nation by Ozai because he showed sympathy for Fire Nation troops. The empathy and sympathy shown by Aang and eventually Zuko as well defies the idea of heroic masculinity. They are both heroic characters who are masculine but are well developed and complex character who also embrace nonviolence and understanding, traits more often seen as feminine.

Tomboy

Listen. I am not doing this to hurt you or to teach  you a lesson. I have to, do you understand? I don’t mind you playing “the boy.” It doesn’t even make me sad. But this can’t go on.

During the recent increase in support of the Transgender Rights Movement, the French film Tomboy was released in 2011. Only one year before the movie came out, France emerged as the first country to declare that Transgenderism is not a mental illness. In the year following the film, the French senate voted to prohibit discrimination specifically against those who identify as transgender. After such a long time in the shadows, daily struggles encountered by trans* people were finally beginning to surface in the mainstream, heteronormative world of both film and government. I believe that the timing played a large role in not only the creation of the film, but also with its success. Céline Sciamma, the director and writer of the film, pointed out in an interview that although France is viewed as one of the most LGBT friendly countries in the world, the film was still very unique for its time.

Tomboy is an artistic and heartfelt film about Mikael, a transgender boy, and his summer experience exploring his gender identity in his new community. The film begins with Mikael and his family settling into their new apartment. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, Mikael’s gender becomes a topic of opposition; the tomboy-560-x-342audience is both introduced to Mikael as a boy among his new friends, and as a girl among his family. Mikael explores his gender identity by participating in stereotypically male activities such as sports and getting into a physical fight while among the local children. In contrast,  his mother pulls the audience’s, as well as Mikael’s, attention back to his biological sex by constantly referring to him as a girl. Although his family is supportive towards his “tomboy” qualities, allowing him to dress gender ambiguously, have his room painted blue, and cut his hair short, they are unaware that he has all of his friends believing that he is a boy. The film shockingly ends by revealing how his family reacts and attempts to “correct” Mikael’s choices.

I chose to include this film in our digital archive for a few reasons. Firstly, I thought that Mikael’s experiences speak to queer experience more broadly. I think that his struggles with fitting into the normative dichotomy of gender, fearing of how others would react to his gender expression choices, and acting in a way which is not conformational to his biological gender norms align with many topics of queer culture. Mikael’s choices about his appearance, his preferences in activities, as well as his interactions with others contradict normative culture by defying gender norms. Secondly, I chose this film  because it gave a slightly different perspective to queer culture. I feel that a large majority of queer culture revolves around adults and teenagers, and children are often left out of the picture. I felt that Tomboy did a great job of revealing the struggles with identity and gender nonconformity that can affect children. People often feel uncomfortable when there is not a distinct separation between children and topics relating to sexuality, which could be why we do not hear about childhood gender nonconformity frequently. The film reveals that children can have complex identities, which may not fit within the constraining pink and blue boxes that our society assigns children into at birth. It attempts to break down the expectation that one’s identity is always easily discovered through a normative direct path leading from biological sex to gender.

Lisa came by looking for you… She came looking for Mikael. Why are you doing this? You pretend to be a boy.

The film is constantly challenging the audience’s conceptions of the role of gender in the interaction of relationships. The opening scene of Mikael’s father teaching him how to drive, as well as the scene where his father offers him a taste of his beer, embodies the cliche developmental milestone of the coming-to-age interaction between a normative father-son relationship. I think that the importance of these scenes lies within the implication that gender roles are attached to an expectation of how people of a specific gender should interact with others and form relationships. I think that Mikael’s relationship with his father reflects what our society expects out of a father-son relationship, which allows the audience to feel more congruent with Mikael’s masculine gender identity.

tubShortly after the movie begins, there is a scene in which Mikael is bathing with his sister. Mikael’s little sister uses the soap to form Mikael’s hair into a masculine associated Mohawk. As Mikael exits the tub, the audience can see the primary sex characteristics which define and restrain Mikael as a female. The bathtub scene questions the audience’s idea of where the line is drawn between gender and biological sex, where they are correlated, and where they are opposed. So much of the story revolves around Mikael’s masculine gender identity, emphasizing the possible variance of gender expression people can have, which is not dependently restricted by one’s sex. The film reveals that there is no one correct way in which to express gender, and that we should not limit our self expression and identity to restrictive normative roles. In the “TransLiberation: Beyond Pink and Blue” article, Feinberg describes the importance of difference in gender expression.

“We are a movement of masculine females and feminine males, cross-dressers, transsexual men and women, intersexuals born on the anatomical sweep between female and male, gender-blenders, many other sex and gender-variant people, and our significant others. All told, we expand understanding of how many ways there are to be a human being.” -Feinberg

Feinberg is trying to express that everyone is different, and instead of trying to diminish that difference, it should be something that is embraced, encouraged, and accepted. Tomboy is a beautiful and touching portrayal of the variation within childhood gender identity and expression, which leaves the audience more conscientious and welcoming to the possibilities of gender differences.

 I have a big brother, which is way better (than a sister). Cause a big brother can protect you. You know, once my brother fought some boys that were bullying me. He punched them really hard cause they were rude to me. That was in our old home. He was the strongest boy in the neighborhood.

(- Mikael’s sister bragging about Mikael)