Transamerica (2005) is one of the most acclaimed trans movies. This comedy-drama tells the story of Bree (Felicity Huffman), a transgender woman who, a week before her vaginoplastia, discovers that she is the mother of a jailed 17-year-old boy. Obliged by her therapist, she bails him on the ground that she is a Christian missionary who helps ‘lost sheeps’; and together, they will undertake a journey of self-discovery. The film is claimed to make an accurate portrayal of the transgender community:
It accurately depicts the obstacles put in the way by different institutions, from the medical community (in that she needs the approval of three psychiatrists to undergo sex reassignment surgery (Transamerica 2005)) or the administration (when she has to face the uncomfortable situation of giving account of her gender condition to the officer from the juvenile detention centre or a police officer (2005)). This does not only show the several hindrances from government agencies, but the institutionalized transphobia (“The American Psychiatric Association categorizes Gender Dysphoria as a very serious mental disorder” (Transamerica 2005)). Notwithstanding, she challenges this belief when she ironically says: “Don’t you find it odd that plastic surgery can cure a mental disorder?” (2005).
It also portrays the social stigma and rejection of ‘transgenderism’ in a faithful way. In fact, she is not accepted by her family, especially by her mother (“(Father) Your mother and I both love you… (mother) but we don’t respect you”; “Don’t do this awful thing to yourself, I miss my son” (Transamerica 2005)). Her son, Toby, also makes some transphobic comments throughout the film (“She’s not even a real woman, she’s got a dick”; “You’re a fucking lying freak!”; “She’s not a she, she’s got a dick. For now at least.” (Transamerica 2005)). The last comment shows society’s expectation of transgender people to adjust to sex dimorphism, the separation of humans into two different and opposite male and female biological categories (Braithwaite & Orr 2017, pp. 65-66).
Other topics addressed in the film are the struggle of transgender women to adjust to the high feminine standards imposed by society, especially by the media (When she appears at the beginning of the film trying to modulate her voice to make it sound more feminine, or when it captures an image of a women’s magazine, Glamour, whose cover depicts a stunning female model (Transamerica 2005)). This puts pressure on transgender women who, in order to adjust to such beauty canon, undergo a number of plastic surgeries and concern inordinately about their physical appearance (When she asks Toby if her breasts look too small (Transamerica 2005)).. Likewise, she repeatedly tries to reassert her femininity (“Don’t you have something less butch?”, or when she makes several references to women’s restrooms (2005)). This need of some transgender people to undergo surgery and hormone therapy to adjust their sex to the gender and to adopt an exaggeratedly feminine appearance “yokes femininity and women as much as patriarchy does” and “undercuts a major plank of feminist politics” (Gupta 2013).
Furthermore, the movie deals with social ignorance about trans issues. For instance, when her sister confuses ‘transgenderism’ with ‘cross-dressing’ (Transamerica 2005), or when the hitch-hiker confuses her biological sex with her gender identity, assuming that having male genitalia makes her automatically male gendered. Furthermore, it shows social pressure on transgender people to label and identify themselves as something (‘preferably within gender binarism’). This can be seen in Toby’s outrage for Bree not disclosing her biological sex, to which she replies: “Just because a person doesn’t go around blabbing her entire biological history to everyone she meets doesn’t make her a liar” (2005). Finally, it also addresses the sense of shame and self-rejection that many transgender people suffer (“I’m sorry about those ersatz women”, or when she talks about her past in a third-person (2005)).
All the aforementioned prejudices are the cause that the average life expectancy of transgender people is 23 years, in addition to the higher rate of discrimination, homelessness, precariousness, incarceration, violence and even suicide (40% of trans people have attempted suicide at least once in their life (Beresford 2016)) (Women’s Law Project 2011). In fact, the protagonist herself tried to commit suicide when she was young (Transamerica 2005). Therefore, veracious representations of transgenderism in the media like this film are essential to both counteracting this harsh reality by informing the audience and creating positive trans role models.
Beresford, M 2016, ‘Study finds 40% of transgender people have attempted suicide’, PinkNews, 11 December, retrieved 10 May 2017, <http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2016/12/11/study-finds-40-of-transgender-people-have-attempted-suicide/>.
Braithwaite, A, & Orr, C 2017, Everyday women’s and gender studies : introductory concepts, New York : Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.
Gupta, R 2013, Transgender: the challenge to feminist politics, OpenDemocracy, 16 April, retrieved 10 May 2017, <https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/rahila-gupta/transgender-challenge-to-feminist-politics>.
Transamerica 2005, film, Sebastian Dungan, Linda Moran and Rene Bastian, United States.
Women’s Law Project 2011, ‘Critical Trans Politics and Transformative Social Change’, Women’s Law Project, weblog post, 23 March, retrieved 10 May 2017, <https://womenslawproject.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/critical-trans-politics-and-transformative-social-change/>.