Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Forbidden fruit (or Summoned By Bells)

This post is based on a comment I made on one of Nicky's recent posts (which she called 'My biased views'). The basic subject was male impersonators and one's reaction to them. I wrote:

My Mum always found Danny La Rue very funny, and admired the makeup and costumes he wore. But he made me cringe. And I generally found overt campness embarrassing, as in the 'Carry-on' films, and yes, Dick Emery and John Inman. I wondered why I wasn't laughing, and felt very awkward. When old enough I went out rather than see these things.

There was also something disturbing about depictitions of men dressed up as women, even if for a deadly earnest reason - as in war films: escaping prisoners, say. I didn't understand that either.

Then were three things I saw on TV during the 1970s and 1980s that made me have a more complicated and less knee-jerk reaction, and began to set me thinking a lot. One was a early episode of 'Casualty' on TV, in which an MTF transsexual prostitutute got beaten up and admitted to hospital, to the concern of one of the female nurses, who begs 'him' (not 'her') to give up what 'he's' doing because of the danger. Horribly reminiscent of modern transphobia. But I was fascinated by the idea that here was someone living as a woman who had 'crossed the line' so to speak. She couldn't 'give it up'. Then two films. One was 'Triple Echo' a 1970s film starring Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed about an army deserter who is taken in by a lonely woman, convincingly disguised by her as her 'sister', and then finds that he likes the sensation of looking and acting a like a girl. His undoing is a yearning for a good time at the local dance, with the inevitable exposure and ugly retribution. The other film was 'Tootsie', and whatever its limitations, I thought Dustin Hoffman (playing a perfectionist actor desperate for work, who lands a starring role in a hospital soap as a feisty female adminstrator, raising all kinds of issues) found something in the role beyond farcical situation comedy. The film showed the practical difficulties of clothes, makeup and babycare, an insight into a woman's feelings and position in society, and handled the attitudes, roles and emotions of several very different men 'she' encountered. I thought there was much that was deep in that film, and almost for the first time I pondered seriously on how much I hated being male. It was a risky role for Hoffman. Several reviewers thought they detected an empathy with the part that went beyond what a good actor might be expected to achieve.

Strangely, these three rather random experiences (all fictional; I had completely internalised all my proto-trans thinking and emotions) made me feel easier about the Danny La Rues of this world. And I coped better with office chortles and ribaldry about anything that was 'deviant' or 'unmale'.

I neglected to say some other things about those three instances. I found them enthralling and yet disturbing. Had I been asked why I was watching so rapty, I would have blushed. They were forbidden fruit. They rang loud bells in my mind, a clamour that took some time and willpower to silence. Putting things away into sealed, soundproof boxes was my typical coping strategy. I learned it early, pre-school. By the 1970s I was an expert in suppressing all inconvenient emotions. I had the temperament to do it so well. But it meant no emotional development. My therapists saw that. How novel and liberating it now is to open these boxes and examine the contents without shame!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I had a kind of grim fascination for female impersonators in the was the only portrayal of gender ambiguity on tv and the only way it could exist was by making it an unthreatening parody. The costumes were OTT, the characters were cliches, it was as if the person inside the clothes was colluding with the audience to say how ridiculous (and thus perhaps funny) such an activity was.

    'Triple Echo' is a very powerful film. Have you read the book (H.E. Bates - it's only short)? The way in which the character who cross dresses begins to absorb the reality of the person he is becoming and the tragic denouement is very topical and effective.

    I am usually very wary of tv (pardon the pun) portrayals of trans people...they are usually risible. There is a 'brave' but entirely misguided 'comedy' running somewhere on Radio 4 about this middle aged crossdresser at the moment, repeated from 2001. It has absolutely no insight at all...and continues really to just play it for laughs.

    'Breakfast on Pluto' is however, tremendous. As is the 'rock opera' 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' (very moving).

  3. "an MTF transsexual prostitute got beaten up and admitted to hospital, to the concern of one of the female nurses, who begs 'him' (not 'her') to give up what 'he's' doing because of the danger. Horribly reminiscent of modern transphobia." but don't you think that the nurse had good intentions and was acting out of ignorance, because she had no way of understanding? – not to mention the script writer.

    It’s only in the past year or so, since finding Josephine’s blog that I’ve learnt what trans really means. I remember reading an article in a magazine years ago about a transsexual woman who was living with her female partner and I thought to my self ‘imagine just going to all that trouble only to find out you were still attracted to women after all’. The article didn’t talk about feelings, it just focused on the ‘operation’. It was all beyond my experience. My ex brother-in-law came out when my little sister was pregnant, so I have always been able to understand the mess that comes out of trying to fit into the ‘male role’. I hope I’m making sense and not offending anyone. My point is that most people just don’t know. That’s why your blogs are so important. I wonder how many times the bloggers that I know of are read by someone searching to understand their feelings.

    I’ve tried to make sure that my family, especially my sons, understand and respect what it means to be transsexual.

    Josephine, I remember that series about the crossdresser, I could never understand just what point they were trying to get across.

  4. @Anji:
    The transphobia remark referred to the people who gave her the beating. My failure to express what I meant! I absolutely agree that the nurse was showing compassion, also ignorance of the victim's mental state - but how could she be aware as a modern nurse might be?

    Thanks for the information. I thought that 'Triple Echo' was a film that could have been taken a lot further, but it was made in 1972 or thereabouts. I'll see about reading the book.


  5. @ Anji...You are right, there is still a MASSIVE amount of misinformation. And the reason is this. In my view...

    Until about 50 years ago, the idea of someone 'changing' sex was simply beyond the (Western) comprehension. Then, in an age when modern society was basking in technological and medical advances of many kinds, the concept of the 'op' appeared. It predated modern society's interest in psychology - which only really started in the 1980s, and thus the reason and meaning of surgery was never given any context in the public imagination.

    It was simply 'out there', in the public domain, unexplained, weird, and pretty much the ONLY thing that anyone 'knew' about the trans condition.

    It became symbolic, wedged in place. And there it remains, because nothing about transsexuality could ever stick in the public mind to the same degree ever again. It stuck particularly in Anglo-Saxon societies because of a particular shame/obsession that the Brits developed in the culturally incredibly powerful 19th century about their private parts (the era of covering the legs of sofas lest they be regarded as obscene).

    This is why all trans people, certainly TS ones, endlessly get asked about surgery, about whether they have, or will have, their genitalia rearranged (or if it's a man asking it's usually couched in barely suppressed horror about 'cutting things off'). And it's why the media obsess about and it and objectify us as freaks.

  6. @ Lucy

    I never minded serious, respectful impersonations of females, it's always been the clowns that made me cringe. I thought Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Tootsie, even though laced with humor, was respectful of women, and quite brilliant, but Robin Williams' Mrs. Doubtfire absolutely horrified me, as did Martin Lawrence's Big Momma, and Tyler Perry's Madea. The same goes for Barry Humphries' Dame Edna, Eddie Izzard and all the other clowns. The one farcical exception is Monty Python, but only because I love the all the players so much, especially Michael Palin.

    @ Anji

    Re: My point is that most people just don’t know. That’s why your blogs are so important. I wonder how many times the bloggers that I know of are read by someone searching to understand their feelings.

    Most people don't know, because they simply don't have an interest in the subject, until it strikes close to home. There just aren't that many of us, compared to the general population, and so many of us are still in the closet.

    When I came out to my sister a few months ago, she admitted that she understood very little about the subject, and was initially full of questions, despite the fact that she had a TS woman apprentice in her hair salon back in the eighties.

  7. Thanks for the reminder and title of the movie "Triple Echo". I remember seeing on TV a long time ago and thinking what a lucky guy. That was until he got caught. But the whole idea really brought back the dreams of being a woman.

    Count me as one who cringes at female impersonations to get a laugh. However I never saw Eddie Izzard as doing it for laughs. It was just part of who he was as a person I give him kudos for having the courage to come out as a crossdresser.

    I remember when Maude came out with Bea Arthur and all the speculation of her being TS or a male. I was rooting for it to be true because she was smart and funny. Boy was I let down.

    It's nice to finally start seeing some positive portrayals of trans women.

  8. I was amazed how much we are alike when I read this, Lucy. I share your thoughts on this subject.

    Calie xxx

  9. When I was growing up the limp wristed flouncing gay man saying me duckie and such was still a staple of tele humor things have moved on though not as fast for trans. There was Crocodile Dundee with the trans out to trick guys to Moving Wallpaper more recently. Drag queens seem to be in decline though with there tired parody of femininity. I have only heard one of the repeats of The change (which is the show I think was referred to earlier) didn't find it funny but thought the show challenged myths and presented the transvestite as a very sympathetic character without being a victim who loved the wife and family.


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