Transamerica, a gendered perspective!
Sunday 18 July 2010, by
I first caught Transamerica about 15 min in, on a tiny television set in a small family-run hotel in St Malo. That was back in 2006, about a year after its release and I was working as a tour guide in France. In the first few minutes this is what I thought was going on: a very masculine-looking woman teenage hitchhiker are driving through the US. What I didn’t get was whether it was a man or a woman playing Bree. It was only when the credits rolled that I realised it was Felicity Huffman.
Transamerica doesn’t really fit in any particular genre, part road movie, part melodrama, part offbeat comedy and so on. To sum up, the film follows Bree, née “Stanley” (Felicity Huffman), as she sets out to complete her transformation from man to woman. Just before she goes through the final surgical procedure, she learns she has a son, Toby (Kevin Zegers) from her unsuccessful dabble with the opposite sex back when she was Stanley. More or less bullied by her psychiatrist into meeting him, she picks him up from a New York police station where he was held for a minor drug offence. Instead of telling him who she is, Bree explains to Toby, a street hustler, that she is affiliated to a local church and was sent to bail him out as an act of Christian charity. Somehow reluctantly, she ends up offering him a lift to LA as he plans on embarking upon a career in the porn film industry.
This film raises particularly interesting questions in regards to representations of the body. Huffman and Zegers brilliantly and subtly embody two opposite relations to theirs. Feeling estranged from her masculine body, Bree sees it as a work in progress that is to be controlled and wrapped up. Every inch is covered. She goes to painstaking lengths to be able to present it in public, from layers of foundation to hormone pills, scarves to surgery. Conversely Toby is careless and negligent when it comes to his appearance but, and perhaps unsurprisingly considering his occupation, instead of camouflaging his body he constantly exhibits it; aware of its earning potential, first as a hustler and soon as a porn star.
The issue of gender brought up in Transamerica is particularly interesting. There is a lot to be said for its portrayal of gender performativity, developed in particular by Judith Butler. She argues that “One is not born female, one becomes female; but even more radically, one can if one chooses, become neither female nor male, woman nor man” and one becomes both or neither through performance. Basically, according to her “queer theory”, you have a body, you perform an identity, you may have desires. This is particularly obvious in Bree’s daily ritual of voice placement, make up and dress we witness at the start of the film. She constructs the image she wishes to project as a woman. Huffman delivers a stunning performance as every detail is measured so that we clearly feel that Stanley, in the early stages of his transformation, is performing a woman. Toby’s sexual identity is equally blurry (or all-encompassing); he has a body with sexual potential, he performs whatever identity he feels will earn him a living/ get him out of trouble/ allow him to fit in and expresses ambivalent desires.
What I found particularly original in Transamerica is that despite this subject matter, sexuality and transexuality are not really what it’s about. They’re just part and parcel of the characters’ identities. Gender identity is simply a “work in progress” to use Bree’s words, secondary to the characters’ journey itself and the growing bond between them, as director Duncan Tucker explains in the commentary. The film is beautifully shot and stands out especially for the consistently excellent performances and the very appropriate soundtrack.