In In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005), J. Halberstam devotes a chapter to an expansion of an article advancing the idea of a transgender gaze in cinema, previously published in Screen. In “The Transgender Look”, Halberstam compares three movies featuring transgender characters: Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999), The Crying Games (Neil Jordan, 1992) and By Hook or by Crook (Harry Dodge and Silas Howard, 2001). Halberstam’s goal is to examine whether these movies can be said to deploy a transgender gaze (or look) or whether they simply reproduce a heteronormative white male gaze, merely using the trans body as an icon of otherness.
The transgender film, Halberstam points out, presents a paradox of visibility and temporality: “whenever the transgender character is seen to be transgendered, then he/she is both failing to pass and threatening to expose a rupture between the distinct temporal registers of past, present, and future” (77). The transgender gaze therefore hinges on “complex relations in time and place between seeing and not seeing, appearing and disappearing, knowing and not knowing” (78).
Halberstam’s comparison of the three films is helpful to show not only different treatments of the trans subject, but how the cinematic apparatus itself becomes vehicle to different—ideologically-charged and morally invested—gazes. Halberstam’s analysis of The Crying Games serves well to show how the trans body can ultimately serve to comfort and re-center the (Anglo) white male gaze. In the film, the transgender character “never controls the gaze, and serves as a racialized fetish figure” in a charged political conflict (81). Halberstam convincingly demonstrates the films’ shortcomings and its inability to ever adopt—or even imagine—a transgender gaze. Dil—the transgender character of the film, indeed remains associated throughout with otherness, rigidity deceit, while Fergus is aligned with normality, humanity and flexibility. This is exemplified, for instance, in the trans body being used as a shocking, sickening reveal (Fergus vomits at the sight of Dil’s penis), and in Dil’s penis standing in as a signifier of Dil’s truth.
While Boys Don’t Cry skillfully adopts a transgender gaze in most key scenes, it also finds itself reverting back to a problematic either/or gender binarism by its conclusion. Here, Halberstam shows two important things: 1) how Peirce achieved a cinematic transgender look, and 2) how this look is ultimately betrayed. The first is exemplified with the film’s bathroom scene, in which Brandon is assaulted and forcibly undressed by John and Tom. Prior to this scene, the film sets up a short interlude between Lana and Brandon, an interlude whose pace (slow), rhythm (quiet) and length establishes not only the primacy of a female gaze (Lana’s), but also “a refusal to privilege the literal over the figurative” (87): “The female gaze, in this scene, makes possible an alternative vision of time, space, and embodiment” (87). This scene is violently followed by the attack and the “violent mode of looking” associate with a male gaze focused on “the factual, the visible, and the literal” (88). During this attack, Brandon “escapes” by momentarily regaining control of time and space—by adopting Lana’s vision of time (slow-motion), space and embodiment (figurative). Halberstam’s focus is on this challenge to the violence, inquisitive male gaze made by Lana’s female gaze, but also by Brandon’s split point of view. Indeed, Halberstam points out, Brandon appears to have an out-of-body experience, which allows him to situate himself, fully clothed, among the onlookers, looking at his naked, assaulted, body. This “look divided within itself”, which offers a “point of view that comes from two places at the same time”, Halberstam asserts, is the transgender gaze. Contrary to the male gaze, which uses the shot/reverse shot pattern to secure the viewers’ gaze into the male characters’ position, the transgender gaze’s use of the shot/reverse shot pattern “serves both to destabilize the spectator’s sense of gender stability” and to confirm the trans subject’s gender despite the narrative factual—genital—reveal.
Halberstam then goes on to show how Boys Don’t Cry ultimately fails and abandons its transgender gaze. I was particularly glad to read this section, which confirmed my own sense towards the film’s conversion to a gender binarist, girl-on-girl homosexual narrative, which comforts the viewer back into a (most likely) male, voyeuristic gaze. The final lovemaking scene between Lana and Brandon always struck me as illogical and inconsistent with Brandon’s character and the film itself. Ultimately, Halberstam concludes, “the double vision of the transgender subject gives way to the universal vision of humanism; the transgender man and his lover become lesbians, and the murder seems to be simply the outcome of a vicious homophobic rage” (91).
Halberstam concludes the chapter by looking at Dodge and Howard’s By Hook or by Crook, a film—an excellent film, I should add—fully committed to deploying the transgender gaze. Here, transgenderism and butchness are fully associated with wit, humour, style and, perhaps more importantly normalcy and humanity. This is achieved through the creation of a butch narrative and cinematic space: a world, in other words, where, to a large extent, butch rules. Negating the existence of the straight world allows the filmmakers to go beyond the standard story of trans characters dealing with their gender and sexuality, and instead taking these for granted and moving forward from there.
Ultimately, Halberstam argues that while the trans subject is flexible and fluid, it “also represents a form of rigidity, an insistence on particular forms of recognition, that reminds us of the limits of what Martin has called “flexible bodies” (77). These three films show that the trans body can serve different functions in film and can represent various things for audience. A closer study of the gaze deployed by the film is central to understanding the function served by the trans body.
Anchoring my project on Dorothy Arzner is an exploration of gender through Trans Studies. Here I post snippets of my research on the theoretical aspects of Trans Studies.