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.”



6 Comments so far
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I feel a little funny that the link to my post characterizes it as being about whether or not people other than trans women have a right to this fight, cuz I’m not even sure what that question means. It’s a sentence fragment blog link, I’m not faulting you for failing to capture all the nuance and digression and typos of my post in their full glory, it just made me wince so I thought I’d throw that out there. And I don’t have a better sentence fragment synopsis to offer, so I’m not complaining.

I think questions of how artists make art about people different from themselves is an interesting and important one. On the one hand, the old adage “writers write about what they know” is a useful one, on the other, that can easily become an excuse to make safe, insular art about more or less the same people who are always seeing themselves reflected on screen/in print/whatever. I mean, how many more movies do we need about frustrated upper/middle class heterosexual cis men who once had dreams and ambitions but now feel stifled by their comfy lives and thus DO SOMETHING (roadtrip?) that provides the structure of film. A lot of writers have written about what they know to bring us this endless parade. One obvious answer to the problem is working on access, who gets to make art that gets seen, but I don’t think that’s the only thing. I absolutely DON’T think artists should stick to making art about themselves AT ALL. I DO think that when artists create characters unlike themselves, they need to think about things like what their attraction to creating the character is, what their relationship to the character is, what their source material is. Imagination is only part of it, artists research shit all the time, formally and informally.

I think about this stuff a lot. I have a main project going that is very directly rooted in my own life, and a side distraction/procrastination project that I mentioned in my post, which to a degree also is, but also involves me researching monsters and things. I’m trying to transition into making art for a wider audience, and as I do this I’m starting out with material that I know really, really well, more because I may as well do that while I get my feet wet than because its a political decision. I feel like, I’m already writing a hundreds of pages long book, which no one ever taught me how to do, in a genre I have never taken, like, a class on how to do, knocking on doors and trying to sell myself in an industry I know little about, really flying by the seat of my pants. I’m trying to write the best book I can, but I hope to god that I write much better books in the future, when I know what I’m doing a bit more. I don’t think I’m a very good writer, but I am trying to become one. To a degree I’m looking at this book as the first batch of pancakes. I’m hoping it’ll be a tasty first batch, but I don’t have my masterpiece hat on. However, hopefully it’ll be a good enough batch that people will want to represent me and sell it for real money and people will read it and like it and tell other people to read it. How this connects is: with all that going on already, it makes me a lot more comfortable knowing that at least I’m writing about shit I really know inside and out.

That said, I hope that in the future I’ll branch out more, because much as I like myself, I really don’t want to make a lifetime of art all about the marvels and mysteries of fascinating me.

I like where you took this post, because I think these questions are a lot more interesting than another round of “What’s yr take on TOTWK?”

Comment by Constintina

1) Ok. I will think of a better fragment on my way home or something. It was definitely a first stab in trying to make a mess of summarizing.

2) I keep coming back to maybe what you, or someone at any rate, said about Tarantino and Inglorious Bastards — that yeah, he was telling this intense Jewish revenge story, but he went and hung out with lots of Jews. He worked inside the community as best he could. That feels so key to me. Imagination is key but yeah, exactly — research your imagination.

3) But then, and conversely, I admit that part of my udgyness with the critiques of this film is that there IS overlap between some gay man cultures and some trans woman cultures. Those women were in fact women who were a key part of my community as a queer youth and who honestly helped me learn something about growing up. Israel Luna sounds real douchey from everything I read, to be sure. I guess this is a sidebar and one I have officially talked to the end of my authority regarding.

4) I like the idea of starting simple and with what you know and sprawling ever outwards. I like the idea of making something ever bigger and better and getting better at taking risks. I am doing some big new things onstage — it’s DIY MFA time, time to push my own luck — and it’s scary, but it’s necessary.

5) I think what you’re doing with your book is awesome, PS. Very awesome.

So much more to say but that’s all I got for now.

Comment by arielariel

The trailer of this film made my hard ass cry. Thats all i’ve seen of it. GLAAD and all the other criticism of the content by itself I don’t really give a shit about. I care about the fact that its a cis gay dude whose proven he doesn’t give a shit about accountability, exploiting violence against trans women.

and I’m not saying cis ppl can’t make films about trans ppl (tho yeah there usually utter shit) but *this* movie did need to be made by trans women/female sprectrum and/or transfeminine spectrum ppl. They are the only ones who should be profiting off of a movie like this. Not some asshole who jokes about killing hookers in video games.

Comment by estrobutch

They are the only ones who should be profiting off of a movie like this. Not some asshole who jokes about killing hookers in video games.

THAT is one of my favorite arguments about all this. If you’re gonna kill trans women on screen, trans women sure as hell better have the creative control and better get the glory and the publicity and, if there ever is any, the money. WORD.

Comment by arielariel

Ariel, thanks for writing this. I keep coming back to this issue of other people’s stories. Some of the obvious answers are pretty harsh for writers who are white, straight, cis, non-immigrant, able-bodied, etc. and want to write about something outside of themselves, to tell new stories. One of the big problems I had with TOTK, the film not the trailer, was that there isn’t a body of similar genre work by trans people to which it could be compared.

In a slightly more perfect world, perhaps if people made art only about themselves, movies by cis men about cis men would get boring and limiting and that would naturally create space for other less privileged voices to tell their own stories. Maybe then, when we’ve each been given the chance to make our art about ourselves, maybe then we could tell other stories without fear of silencing anyone.

That answer really sucks for creative, well-intentioned artists striving to make new works right now. It really does. But maybe the challenge of overcoming that boredom and limitation is the price of privilege.

Comment by Paige of Quarrel

In a slightly more perfect world, perhaps if people made art only about themselves, movies by cis men about cis men would get boring and limiting and that would naturally create space for other less privileged voices to tell their own stories.

Ding ding ding. I think you hit the nail on the head here. It’s who takes up space, right? Especially inasmuch as the closer you are to being normative, the more free reign you have. I think a lot about this in re: queer artists, both cis and tran. So often we just tell our own stories over and over again — talk about our queer experience. Is this what all artists do — it’s just some internalized ish around who gets to be unmarked and who is marked? Or is it that we are forced by dominant culture to only talk about this one thing, while straight artists get to move on already?

That answer really sucks for creative, well-intentioned artists striving to make new works right now. It really does. But maybe the challenge of overcoming that boredom and limitation is the price of privilege.

I think I agree. I am chewing on it, still. Maybe we all just need to make more art about boring straight white men. I hate to think the answer is restricting or pausing — I think it is more about strategic excess. But I am not sure that strategic excess actually works in the marketplace/theater/viewscreen/whatever of ideas, where there really is only finite room.

Comment by arielariel

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