things to think about

today i am thinking about: ticked-off artists with other people’s stories
April 10, 2010, 10:39 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Maybe you’ve heard about the controversy surrounding Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives. Oh, you haven’t? Let me summarize:
1) There’s this movie, called Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives (TOTWK from here on out), that markets itself as a revenge fantasy for trans women. It’s screening @ the Tribeca Film Festival.
2) The trailer makes the movie out to be one big film about trans women getting killed. It’s fucked.
3) The first draft of the trailer in fact specifically invoked real women who had been killed by transmisogynist assholes: Angie Zapata and one other woman specifically. (I saw the trailer after it had already been revised.)
4) A bunch of people, many of whom were trans women, were like HELL NO and also NO YOU DIDN’T JUST INVOKE MY MARTYR WHILE SMEARING MY NAME.
5) This activism somehow pulled GLAAD in, and there was a boycott and protest called, along with a call for Tribeca to pull the movie.
6) Then a bunch of people, many of whom were NOT trans women, were like HELL NO and also NO YOU DIDN’T JUST TRY TO CENSOR ART.

So a friend of mine decided to have a screening and some of us here in New York got to actually watch the film and see what we thought. Then we had a discussion and we recorded it.

A lot of people have said a lot of smart things on both sides of the argument — Rebecca Juno at Trans Group Blog about the movie just not being very good, TransGriot on the protest, GudBuyT’Jane on the appropriation of trans women’s narratives, Rozele on the need for better protest and revenge, Tom at Trans Group Blog in defense of the film as a film that shows trans women as people, Constintina on whether or not people other than trans women have a right to this fight, Jos at Feministing about the basic problems with the film, and that’s just some of it. A lot of people have written about the film itself, whether it’s good or not, whether it’s harmful or not, whether boycotting is right or not.

It feels dishonest to talk without putting my two cents in regarding THAT controversy, so I will: I am not a trans woman. As not-a-trans-woman, I feel like I am actually not really in a place to decide how harmful a film this is or isn’t to other trans women. To me, I feel like the trailer was incredibly misleading in terms of how much the women in the film are victimized vs. fighting back; the actual film was much more nuanced. Everyone was very judgy of the film’s quality, but you know what? People were laughing. A lot. There were genuinely funny parts. I don’t think this film should be pulled from Tribeca — I think the reason it is there has a lot to do with sensationalism and transmisogyny, but that the film itself is in fact more complex. I don’t think it is right to pull the film without seeing it, and I also don’t think it’s right to sit back and criticize the activism of women who are more directly involved. I am INCREDIBLY suspicious of GLAAD, though, to the point that when I heard it got involved I assumed that it meant that the activism of trans women had been completely supplanted.

Watching the film was hard. It brought up violence I have experienced — way less than what happens in the film, admittedly — and more than that the threats of violence I get pretty often for some combination of my gender and my sexuality. As I watched, I found myself wanting more FIGHT. I wanted the women to kick ass. I wanted them to fight back hard, from the beginning, and take the shit out of those dudes. I wanted their revenge plot to be gigantic and public and brazen, not quiet and honestly incredibly sadistic. I wanted a fucking REVENGE STORY, something that gave me an answer for what to do with that gross, horrifying, impossible feeling I get every time I hear another woman got killed, or someone I know gets bashed, or I hold my tongue from sassing back because I just don’t want to risk getting followed home from the train. I wanted catharsis. I didn’t want to have to sit through a 30 minute realistically styled “trans women get beaten up” scene. It was 25 minutes too long, and by too long I mean “completely unnecessary to telling the story.” I wanted to watch women who get victimized find their own strength and tear open everybody who got in their way.

I have gone on the record saying it needed 3x more revenge and 5x less victimization and I stand by that.

The questions I find myself chewing — the questions I haven’t heard an answer for yet — have to do with the roles and responsibilities of the artist to represent the world, and what stories are ok (and not ok) to tell.

You know, I’m making my own media these days, and my first thought after watching this not-satisfying-enough, racist, classist, ableist movie was “well shit, I guess now I should plan to make a little bash back short of my own.” Why not, right?

And I realized something: per these standards, the movie I need to make is the movie about some fat lez who gets bashed, and fights back. This movie, and the reaction, is telling me that the only story I can tell is the one that is mine, or one that is about people I “know enough about” to cover — which generally means people a lot like me. My first reaction to that is repulsion — how boring! How limiting! Isn’t that effed up?

No, not exactly. The further I stray from a story that is not about me, the more I am going to have to rely on my imagination. The more I have to rely on my imagination, the easier it is to dwell only in stereotype and use cliché instead of real characters. I think this was especially apparent in this movie inasmuch as the best developed character is a nice nuanced white girl who is surrounded by the poor white friend, the mama black friend, and the two quickly-killed Latina friends. The nice white girl gets to have growth and self respect and some amount of character growth. The sidekicks are actually not SO bad as stereotype sidekicks go, but they’re still stereotype sidekicks.

It isn’t hard to imagine how that happens. It isn’t hard to see how stereotypes fill in, either. What’s a serial rapist and murderer like? Oh, I have my imagination, and I imagine someone…kind of creepy! And maybe he has long hair! Oh, and…maybe he’s a redneck! And then suddenly he’s white, and poor, and all of these assumptions get made out of hand. That kind of imagination isn’t actually imagination as much as it is pulling up from the stock characters we all have on hand. Those stock characters by their nature are going to tend to be racist, and classist, and misogynist, and transphobic.

I do a lot of work as a clown, and clowning is ALL ABOUT stock characters. Clowning is all about big gestures to get people the gist that you can then have fun with the quirks and specificities of your character. It’s nuanced, and it’s careful, but it’s also easy to get into the land of the ridiculous and inappropriate cliche — ESPECIALLY because so much clowning is about quick and in-the-moment choices and listening to your impulse. I find myself constantly having to challenge myself to find a better impulse. This is part of being relatively new; it gets better with age and experience. But the further you go into the stratosphere, the harder it is.

I want to end with an anecdote. I’m doing a workshop this spring, and we are working a lot out of Theater of the Oppressed/Boal’s stuff. This is a workshop for activists and artists. This is a workshop that is majority not-white and full of people who are actively working against oppression. One of Boal’s exercises — at the end of a long morning of theater exercises, our first full day together — is a follow-the-leader exercise. We were told to get in single file lines and follow the leader. Then the leaders were told to act like Brazilian Indians. And you know what, in that room full of activists and artists, it started by diving right into a hooting, hollering, fake-bullshit-stereotype of an Indian person that was way more based in myths of American Indians than anything Brazilian.

Three or four people into my line, we started getting a little quiet and, through our choices, calling out what was going on. In my line was a woman, Laura (I think), who is actually South American and used to hang out with actual Brazilian Indians — I can’t remember where she is from exactly — and what we did do when she came up? We walked around. We stopped and watched people making asses of themselves. We were talking about it later, and she was like “I just thought about what the people I know would do if they came in and saw all this ridiculous ruckus, and I did that.”


today i am thinking about: amateur hour, NYC star-to-be
April 7, 2010, 12:44 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

In writing my post about Times Square, I had to look on YouTube to find a good copy of the “NYC” song. (obviously!) But one of the best parts of YouTube by far — at least, one of the parts I get the most pleasure out of — is the part where every single person on the internet puts their own work up, their own webcam recording or recital track or what have you.

It makes me think of myself at 10, dancing into the mirror and singing into a hairbrush. If I had had access to YouTube — if YouTube had even existed — I would’ve been one of those kids who recorded and posted EVERYTHING. And I mean everything. I was a little girl in long curls and party dresses who sang to myself constantly, hoping people would overhear. I did ballet in the grocery and always stood in fifth position in hopes that someone would realize I was a ballerina. On some level my whole kid years can be summed up by just how badly I wanted to be discovered. So I have a big and generous heart for all these other hopefuls with their big voices and tiny, tinny-sounding cameras. This post is for them. This post is for the dream.

today i am thinking about: TIMES SQUARE TRIVIA
April 6, 2010, 12:38 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

After my love affair post of yesterday, I felt that it would be useful to get you some basic information on Times Square.

First things first: about all the people.

* On Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009, from 8:30am-1:00am, there were 84,392 people counted on Broadway between 45th and 46th. (PDF) This puts that block of Times Square between Bellingham, WA (YEAH BELLINGHAM!) and Gilroy-Morgan Hill, CA in terms of population. (Thanks, Wikipedia.) It  is also bigger than towns you might’ve actually heard of, like Napa, CA and Santa Fe, NM.

* Hey! Maybe you want to rent some ground floor retail! There are some real bargains out there (PDF): $40/square foot/year (only $100,000!) for Broadway between 49th and 50th; come on down between 45th and 46th and you can pay a big $1,500/square foot/year ($1,815,000!). Hey! Or, putting it differently, if you want that space, each of those 84,392 people better come in and spend $21.50 just for you to make rent. Or, putting it differently, if there are 8,760 hours in a year, you would only have to make $207/hr to make rent if you are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

* There are 33,630 households in Times Square. 71% of those households are under 50. The median income of the residents age 25 to 34 is $71,000. (Wow, I am not in the right industry.)

But let’s scale back and stop just reporting on this weird world of Disney.

* Times Square is in fact named after the NY Times. It used to be called Longacre Square.

* Times Square used to be synonymous with seedy sex stores. Here is a bunch of articles about that, and its reform, from the Times over the years, some of which are behind a paywall. Samuel Delaney’s book Time

s Square Red/Times Square Blue, about the cleanup of Times Square. Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York on adult bookstores, and another about Show World.

* This is a hell of a thread on Wired New York. Lots to read.

* And The Times, Then/Now: Times Square.

Times Square represents the 100 ways in which New York was cleaned up and made less interesting. It stands for the cleaning of the crime and the porn — come in, big brands! Giant billboards! Rather than celebrating what is uniquely New York it now stands for everything in all of America, just bigger.

I think of Times Square as a representative of New York’s rapacious possibility. It makes me think of that song from Annie — “NYC, Just got here this morning — three bucks, two bags, one me.” It is obvious that the grit has been sand-blasted — brand-blasted — off the buildings and anything seamy has been taken away. But I love the grotesque of Times Square, even as I am annoyed by how much it has become amateur hour; I love that possibility, all of those tens of thousands of people at all times on all days. I’m able to divorce my horror at what it is from the way in which it is exciting to watch so many people have their tiny experiences inside the microcosm.

This is the question that I always wonder about: New York has changed, and it has changed in ways that homogenize and simplify, just like Times Square has gotten simpler and more straightforward. But really, it has just done this on the surface — under the covers it is as roiling and complicated, tricky and demanding as ever. At least, that’s what I think; I’m not sure I’m right all the time. Is there still a place in this city for that kid — three bucks, two bags? Is that a hopeless case? Has it always been a hopeless case? I want to see clearly, not be clouded by nostalgia for something I’ve only experienced through movies and stories.

This is a research project I am hoping to undertake. And I leave you with the audio track (note: Sutton Foster as the star-to-be at 2:58):

today i am thinking about: the roar of the crowd
April 4, 2010, 11:31 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I had a hard day trying to shop and failing in Herald Square. I ended up sitting in a diner, tired with my shopping friend, eating french fries and a bunless turkey burger. He got on the train and I was stuck, walking around, feeling restless, wanting something more.

And uptown I went, up Broadway, hating everything and cranky about the world. That stretch of Broadway is pretty much hell on earth — crowded with people who don’t know how to walk on the sidewalk, vendors, and assorted street show ridiculousness. It opens into a place most actual New Yorkers don’t bother with come hell or high water — good old Times Square, neon and glitter, tv screens and stock tickers. A 24-hour Walgreen’s! Toys-R-Us! Times Square represents pretty much everything wrong with American culture: the excess, the mass-market appeal, the safety, the pretend-edgy repackaging of the same old things.

I know I am supposed to hate Times Square but I find it so comforting. All those people, as much as they drive me insane, are actually really satisfying. I feel safe and invisible; just some freak-haired New Yorker walking in my yellow hoodie, completely irrelevant to everyone experiencing NEW! YORK! CITY! I don’t want anything from anyone there, and I don’t feel accountable to anyone there; I just get to be another face in the crowd. It’s the one place in New York where everyone is staring constantly, gaping, slack-jawed.

My favorite place in Times Square are the steps above the TKTS booth. They are made for sitting on and some of my favorite tourist-watching in the city. Today the evening was mild and the steps were full – literally, actually full. I stood to one side and watched the story. Even in the glitz, even in the destruction and desecration, even in the surreal fakeness of this palace to late capitalism, I still feel good in Times Square. It is good to remember that you are just one little star in the sky sometimes.

Sometimes I have a hard time with people one on one. I feel too prickly and uncomfortable, especially in a mood. But I believe in people in crowds — even though all research says we’re just some other kind of awkward monkey making bad choices. I believe in the rush of all the different stories. I used to throw parties and the moment of satisfaction for me was the moment I got to look out at the dance floor I helped create to see everyone moving together, talking, touching, bringing each of their individual stories along with them but subsumed in something great.

Times Square is so far from those little secret dancefloors. For the most part, the New York of Times Square is in fact antithetical to the New York of my secret parties. And yet I can’t quite fall out of love with it. It’s the same thing as those dance floors — so many people, each with their own complex worlds, jaws agape, trying to make sense of the thing.