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Kate Bornstein: When Bad Movies Happen To Good People


Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives is a bad film with a few good things going for it -- and a lot of angry people going after it. When I first heard about the film, I couldn't wait to see it. Even the problematic first version of the trailer (more on that later) made it look to me like the film would be just the right blend of camp, politics, heart, sparkle, and blood, and I wrote as much online. I also wrote that some people would need to be warned about the film so they wouldn't freak out or trigger a trauma -- I warn people about some of my own work for the same reason. But I had no question in my mind that I was about the see a kick-ass, tranny-empowering film on the big screen. Sad to say, I find that I'm the ticked-off tranny.

The movie is billed as an homage to '70s exploitation films. Director Israel Luna describes himself as a 'big fan' of the genre, and that explains a lot of what does work in this film. The cinematography is pretty damn good: the over-saturated colors, the post-noir camera angles, and the awesome street-level long shots following one great pair of gams after another in stiletto heels down dark concrete alleyways at night. The soundtrack is just the right flavor of cheesy, and the music sneaks up on you and scares you even more during the blood-and-gore scenes.

And the film does not stint on the blood and gore, no siree. The boilerplate plotline demands blood and gore and revolves around trashy girls who are out for fun and end up getting more than they bargained for. Or maybe they asked for it. In either case, they're beaten and raped. A few of them die. The survivors train in martial arts techniques and then go back to exact revenge from the men who attacked them. It's what's become known as a classic female revenge fantasy -- a genre developed and carried forward almost exclusively by cisgender (not transgender) men.

Luna cast a bevy of gorgeous, talented trans women to star in his film, and they shine as only divas can shine -- and darling, that is fabulously! In the few moments of the film when the ladies are not being savagely attacked, their Brechtian detachment from character is both enchanting and seductive -- it's the very essence of camp. But Luna permits no camp in the initial attack scenes. You see -- and you get to feel -- real transwoman pain and real transwoman fear. It can be overwhelming. Luna's use of camp/no-camp makes the film little more than a two-trick pony.

Trick One: Beat the crap out of trans women for what seems like more than 80 minutes of film. Use lots of blood and bits of flesh and hair sticking to a baseball bat and make us wonder: Did you mean that as camp? Did you mean that as funny? What's more, the strikingly fit trans women could easily have overpowered their wimpy attackers. But the film doesn't examine or explain the powerful visual of five trans women scared to the bone by three little guys. And when the ladies do try to run, they don't even take off their stilettos! They run all over the movie wearing those things -- and honey, they run well -- but really, we all know you take off your heels and then you run.

So, by director's choice, we've got these trans women as helpless bimbos, because in none of these attack scenes do the trans women attempt to protect themselves from an assortment of knives, guns, bats, hammers, and broken glass. Nope. The women were directed to just sit there and be scared -- with the excuse that it's part of the genre. Speaking as a person of transgender womanly experience' ouch.

Trick Two: The incompetent defenseless trannies finally try to exact revenge -- in the last 10 minutes of the movie. But now, Luna inexplicably switches styles: The attack scenes are now all about camp. Luna makes it clear that none of the men are afraid of their attackers. Ha, ha, ha. It's all nudge-nudge-wink-wink. In the film's earlier scenes, if a girl went down under a baseball bat or a knife, she stayed down. Two of the five trans women die in the first attack. But the revenge scenarios are all French farce. Every time a trans woman hits one of her attackers, he somehow survives a death blow and comes back at her. It's like whack-a-mole. Break a tranny's head open, she dies. But the men survive every manner of weapon shoved up their butts. No, really' guns and switchblades encrusted with' is that blood and poop? Whoops, spoiler. No, I take that back. Nothing could spoil this film more than it is spoiled.

Actually, I take that back. There's worse.

Sandwiched between the rape/bludgeoning/slicing of the trans women and the joke of their revenge, there's a terrible five minute scene where the girls -- wearing varying degrees of beautiful geisha makeup and drag -- learn martial arts. And the martial arts master? He's reminiscent of -- but not nearly as talented as -- Mickey Rooney in his horrifyingly racist portrayal of Holly Golightly's Japanese upstairs neighbor in the film Breakfast at Tiffany's.

But wait! There's even more racism in rapier wit lines like, 'Why's his ass all greasy?' 'Because he's a Mexican.' This film is bad and tasteless on so many levels.

But because Luna loftily frames TOTWK as an 'homage to '70s exploitation films,' he managed to sail his film into the respectable New York Tribeca Film Festival. And that's when the political poop really hit the fan.

The film's trailer sparked fires across the trans Internet. Luna -- emulating Ed Wood? -- opens the original version of the trailer with somber text that invokes the memories of Angie Zapata and Jorge Mercado -- two real-life victims of transgender hate crimes. Positioning his film along with their names was seen as an appropriation and mockery of transgender culture's communal grieving. Several activist organizations pointed this out to Luna, who quickly got the message that he was offending the very people he was trying to stand up for. So, he changed his online trailer. But the cat was out of the bag. There ensued online firestorms, e-mail bombs, and picket lines protesting the film and calling for the festival to withdraw TOTWK from its schedule. And even though THIS FILM ISN'T WORTH ALL THE TROUBLE, I've now got to address its political ramifications.

The list of groups protesting the film is impressive: GLAAD, Families Against Hate, The International Foundation For Gender Education, The New York Trans Rights Organization, Remembering Our Dead, and MAGNET (Media Advocates Giving National Equality to Trans People). The grounds of the protest were more or less on the basis of the film's inherent transphobia. The film festival and the film's producers countered by calling the transphobia an inherent ingredient of the film's self-proclaimed homage to '70s exploitation films. Defenders of the film's right to be shown -- myself included -- asked that protesters cease calling for censorship of the film.

Protesters countered, saying in a statement by MAGNET:

'We are NOT advocating 'censorship'; we are advocating 'anti-defamation protections' and exercising our 'freedom of speech.' The dignity, humanity, safety and proper education about trans women means more to me than some gay man's 'right' to exploit an oppressed community for a few harmful laughs and financial profit.'

As of this writing, neither side has backed down from the struggle. The fact that the political struggle isn't resolving is a clear indicator that there are core issues that haven't been addressed or examined.

I've read the protest blogs and the press releases denouncing the film. For the most part, they're well-reasoned and justifiably passionate. And still, the bulk of activist response to this unworthy film has been myopic in its concern for the 'respectability' of trans people. Look, not all trans people want to be considered respectable citizens of a culture that would rather see us as dead as the trannies in Luna's film. In light of that, please consider this statement from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation:

''while some of the actors in the film identify as transgender, the characters are written as drag queens, 'performing' femininity in a way that is completely artificial. The very names of these over-the-top female caricatures (Emma Grashun, Rachel Slurr, et al.) drive this point home.'

Excuse me, GLAAD. You're lovely people. You do GREAT work. But until you add T to your name, please stop telling me and my people how to perform femininity or masculinity. Please stop driving a wedge between transgender and drag queen. It's a classist and often racist thing to do. Yep, many of us have taken chosen names. Some of our names are funny and brave and fierce and that is in the tradition of our queen mothers and king fathers. I owe my trans-soul's allegiance to Doris Fish, 'Tippi,' and Miss X. The denigration of our drag royalty is a sign of just how far the U.S. antisex culture has permeated today's sex-and-gender mainstream activists. The drag queen moments of the film are among its most touching elements.

GLAAD continues'

'Because of its positioning as a transgender film, viewers unfamiliar with the lives of transgender women will likely leave this film with the impression that transgender women are ridiculous caricatures of 'real women.' It demeans actual transgender women who struggle for acceptance and respect in their day-to-day lives and to be valued for their contributions to our society.'

Whoa. Ticked-Off Trannies isn't airing on PBS. It's not being hosted by Rachel Maddow or Oprah. It's a midnight showing at a downtown New York film festival. Just who the heck do you think is going to go to see this film? People who are concerned about the genuine portrayal of the lives of transgender women? Hell, no. It's going to be an audience hungry for the kind of girl-gets-revenge story that men have been making up since forever.

And excuse me once again, GL(noT)AAD, but' 'actual transgender women?' You actually said "actual transgender women" in opposition to drag queens? No, no, no. Transgender does not equal only trans men and trans women who make themselves and their lives as close as they can to you. Transgender is a experience shared by countless people with a limitless number of gender expressions. Drag queens and drag kings are transgender people, family, tribe. It's a tactic of power politics to divide and conquer. The last thing we need is an ally like GL(noT)AAD unintentionally driving a wedge into our tribe along class lines, with transgender being a higher class than drag queen and therefore a more respectable identity. That's just not true. If anything, the opposite is closer to the truth.

Drag queens and drag kings are transgender tribal royalty -- they bravely go where few men or women have gone before. Why do you suppose we call them kings and queens? They are breathtakingly brave, gorgeous, and fierce. Please keep in mind, it was the chicks with dicks and the bull daggers who led LGBT people into revolutionary battle at Stonewall in 1969. Our queens stood on the front lines for us. Do you get it, GL(noT)AAD? Without drag queens, you'd have nothing to be glad about.

Yes, yes it looks like I'm picking solely on GL(noT)AAD. The sad truth is they're not the only folks who parrot a decades-old essentialist gender separatism grounded in the paranoid theories of transphobe Janice Raymond. A 1970's scholar of note, Raymond claimed that ALL trans women are ridiculous caricatures of real women. Ouch.
Cisgender people with a stake in the essentialism of a bipolar gender system use mean, bully language like that to put themselves in the position of being the arbiters of real-gender-is-cisgender and fake gender is anything else. That's a heady privilege -- naming yourself as the gold standard for real men and real women. It puts you right up there at the top of the heap.

Through their no doubt kind intentions, GL(noT)AAD acts like protective parents. They believe they have the right to speak for all transgender people. Their nonconsensual parenting reifies the notion that we are as weak and as defenseless as the tranny characters in the film. And this brings the real failure of the film back into focus: misogyny, that old feminist bogey man that refuses to go away because' well because misogyny refuses to go away.

If this film was worth it -- and if the transgender protesters really wanted to put together an effective protest campaign -- they could have opened the cause from transphobia to the larger issue of misogyny. Then they could have invited all the people who are told they're not man enough or woman enough. That's misogyny. And that includes anyone whose race, class, age, looks, ability, and religion, sexuality, citizenship, language, and/or family and reproductive status impacts their status as real men and real women. In Ticked-Off Trannies, Luna manages to offend everyone who's oppressed by any one of those hierarchical systems of oppression. But because the lightening-rod word Trannies is in the title, the film is mistakenly perceived as a single-issue problem, thus forcing the hand of an old school single-issue political activism. Now I have to unpack the word tranny. Curse you, Israel Luna!

The word tranny comes from 1960s and '70s Sydney, Australia. The Aussie queens and transsexuals invented the word to unify their community despite their differences. An argument can be made that the word has become a pejorative word, much like 'the n-word' for African-Americans. I don't think so, but that's an entirely different debate that's raging within the transgender world. The point in this context is that the word tranny makes people think that the only social crime committed in the film is transphobia, when in fact the film is far more offensive than that.

The film is born of rage, and I'm all for rage in art -- expressed as graphically as the artist wants to express it. However, the question for the artist who wants to work with rage is this: How do you trigger the rage in your audience? The mainstream way to trigger rage is to reinforce misogyny, racism, classism, and all the other -isms that fester in our gender-rigid antisex Western Culture.

There is nothing new, transgressive, startling, or innovative about TOTWK. So why exactly did Luna make this film? Why did the otherwise respectable Tribeca Film Festival accept it into their lineup of possible award-winning films? Well, there's just no accounting for political na'vet', bad taste or the ka-ching you hear when you market violent misogyny to the dominant culture of the U.S. of A.

In the hands of a better filmmaker, the '70s exploitation campiness would have made Luna's point: Hate crimes suck. But, he failed. He wound up making a film that a large part of his potential audience considers a hate crime in and of itself.

Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives plays at the Tribeca Film Festival April 23'May 2. For more information, visit the film's official site here.

For more on the developing story regarding the controversy surrounding the film -- including a discussion with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black about TOTWK -- visit The Advocate's website.

For more information on Kate Bornstein, including upcoming appearances, visit her official site here.

Send a letter to the editor about this article.

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Kate Bornstein