A Gendered Perspective of the film, Transamerica (2005)

transamerica, bree, transgender, sexuality, gender, review, identity, film, butler, essay

A Visual Text Challenging Our Perception of Identity

Transamerica (2005) portrays the journey of a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual , Sabrina alias Bree who suddenly learns of fathering a son eighteen years ago. Bree defers her sex-change operation to face up to her past and goes on a road trip with her son Toby.

Sabrina and her bisexual son Toby’s subcultured identities are explored in this film against the backdrop of normative discourses of gender and sexuality prelevant in Western society.

The modernist/conservative discourse of sexuality suggests that sex determines the gender of a person and one’s gender is fixed since human selves have a universal and biological inner core. According to this view, the genitalia or birth sex (chromosomes) permanently determines ones essential identity as man or woman. Trying to violate this divide is impossible, unnatural and unhealthy (Beasley 2005).

On the other hand, according to the Postmodernist view, sex is biological and gender is a socially and culturally constructed identity, performative in nature. Gender is fluid, instable and independent of sex, so that man and masculine might signify either female or male body, and vice versa (Butler, 1999). 

The context of Transamerica is twenty first century’s American society. Gender in the modern West usually refers to two distinct and separate categories of human beings, the division into men and women, as well as the division of social practices into masculine and feminine. This binary nature means that to be man, is to be not-woman, and vice versa (Beasley 2005). Social norms as such makes transgenders the “others” in society, since they demand recognition for a sexed identity/gender different from the anatomical sex/gender.

Transgenders are described as ones seeking to change their bodily sex hormonally or surgically. This transgression threatens to dismantle the categories of gender and sexuality such as gay, lesbian, heterosexual, male and female. For instance, Bree was formerly known as Stanley and deemed a man in her college. She was sexually active with classmate Ema Wilkins and defined that relationship as lesbian to her therapist, even though it resulted in the birth of their son, Toby. Her fluid sexuality not only complicates her identity as something in between heterosexual and lesbian, but also challenges the notion that homosexual relationship is non-procreative

Transamerica (2005) explicitely points out how central our embodiment is to our subjective sense of selves, so that we let traditional gender roles regulate our bodies and conform to either masculinity or femininity.

‘Through the organisation and regulation of the time space and movements of our daily lives, our bodies are trained, shaped and impressed with the prevailing historical forms of selfhood, desire, masculinity and femininity’ (Bordo, 1997 cited in Alsops, Fitzsimmons & Lennon 2002).

As a result, masculinity and femininity becomes constituted by the surface presentation of the body. Bree abides by these gender norms when she chooses to dress up in pink and purple-conventional ‘girl’ colours.

Interestingly, the disciplining of our bodies extends beyond clothing and make up to the way we move,  sit and smile.  Bree’s body language shows that she wants to live within a particular gender continuum, femininity. Her posture makes her look smaller, she sits with her hands folded on her lap and crosses her legs. Bree makes desperate efforts to appear ‘womanly’, by trying to put on fake smile as she speaks, keeping her fingers extended and moving her chin sideways every now and then.

For the protagonist of Transamerica (2005), becoming woman is a journey in which she breaks social stereotypes and taboos. Such deviations from social customs causes extreme pain of gender fragmentation in Bree. When she is labelled with gender dysphoria (a clincal term of transexuality), Bree asks her doctor how such a mental illness will be cured by plastic surgery (reference to her sex change operation).

This signfies that our understanding of anatomical differences, mediated through cultural frame, shapes how we perceive gendered identity. We view biological factors as requiring a binary division into male and female, because of a socially constructed gender to which heterosexuality is central.

For Bree, turning her genitalia inside out does not alter her gender; rather her deeply felt sense of femininity leads her to achieve a gendered realness through body modification. Bree’s gender is not a simple case of “either/or”. It is biology-as-lived and exhibited by countless signals, from clothing to cosmetics, hairstyles, conversational styles, body language and much more.

While sex is a polarity of anatomy, gender is a polarity of appearance and behaviour. However, transsexuality blurs these definitions. Bree’s transgression highlights that sometimes what one feel on inside doesn’t match how other people see him/her on the outside. Transamerica (2005) makes us wonder whether there is a ‘middle ground’ between identity and fluidity, between the competing claims attached to modernist ‘essentialism’ and postmodernist ‘instability’. It forces us to think about how we as a society should treat each other based on identity and appearance.

This is excerpt from a paper I wrote for a cultural studies (Visual Culture) course. Transamerica (2005) was my case study. If you have watched the film and liked/didn’t like it, would like to know your views.

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Onchitas Blog Contents (Texts, Images, Videos) by Onchita Shadman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on work at www.onchitas@wordpress.com.

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