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.”