a little east of reality

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Last night I watched the pilot episode of a TV show called Pretty/Handsome. It stars Joseph Fiennes as Bob, a married gynecologist with two sons (10 and 18) who works at a family practice with his dad. Their crowd is old money and conservative. Which is why Bob is working so hard to hide the gender dysphoria he feels. At first I thought this was going to be a story, a comedy even from some comments I'd heard, about a cross-dresser. But there is nothing comedic about this story. Now I'm no expert on transgender experience or issues, but I thought they portrayed several things really well:

  1. the sense that his body feels 'wrong' to him
  2. the longing to be feminine (as he perceives femininity)
  3. the way he over-compensates by being scarily macho at times
  4. the fear of discovery and the pain of not being able to be honest
Seeing his life, it's undeniable that the moment he is open about these feelings, his world as he knows it will end. The possible (negative) consequences are shown in sharp relief in the episode through a FTM transsexual who comes to him seeking a hysterectomy. He lives with a post-op MTF transsexual partner. They are happy in their relationship, but their life is punctuated with quite hateful treatment from other people. The man has also lost custody of his children.

I'll freely admit I don't 'get' transsexuality. I understand it, and gender dysphoria, theoretically, but I don't really relate to it at all. I've tried to imagine what it would be like to feel like I was in the wrong body, but even if I imagine myself in a male body, the feeling that mostly comes is just the feeling that if it was the case I would deal with it. Given the extreme confusion and grief some people experience with gender dysphoria, clearly my imagination just doesn't stretch far enough. Of course I've never had anyone treat me as if I was a guy. Maybe it would be easier if I'd experienced that kind of confused response to another person's assumptions about me.

Also I grew up in a family where being a girl didn't equate to a lot of confining gender role rules. I was never limited in what I wore, the sports I played or the careers I was encouraged to pursue. I don't have any strong feelings of propriety over traditionally 'girlie' stuff and I kind of like it when guys branch out and wear makeup, etc. Other traditional gender-related behaviours, like expecting a man to take control or stifle his emotions, or a woman wanting a man to 'protect her', irritate the hell out of me. I like being a woman, but I reject anyone's attempts to define for me what that means. I've tried to define it myself, because the question interests me, but in the end it's always a bit like trying to nail water to a wall.

Some of the things I think or have thought in the past about transsexualism are:
  1. that more research should be done into curing gender dysphoria, rather than assuming that changing a person's body is always the answer. There are other disorders where dysphoria is experienced and some where people feel disconnected from the world, or even from their own bodies. To assume that this kind of dysphoria is indicative of a correct state, when the other kinds aren't, seems illogical.
  2. that there is too much emphasis on defined gender roles in this world and that transsexualism seems to reinforce those roles. I watched a video the other day with a transmale and a transfemale talking side-by-side. It wasn't that interesting to be honest, but one comment made really irked me. The woman talked about how long it took to get ready and do make-up etc and then said, 'but we're girls, that's what we do.' Immediately I thought 'whatever'. This is where my lack of understanding of transsexualism begins, because none of those things...make-up, dresses, heels, etc... are what makes a woman a woman and I don't understand why they, after doing those things, don't see that.
  3. that less emphasis on gender roles might mean that people don't feel they have to alter their body in order to be allowed to behave in ways that are considered the domain of the opposite sex.
  4. that in the end it is not so much about being a woman, or being a man, as been acknowledged as one or the other and being treated like one or the other. People do act differently towards men and women, even if only on a subconscious level, and their expectations of the responses they'll get are also influenced by that person's gender.
  5. At one time my feelings about transsexual/transgendered people was much more negative. I felt like they were some sort of aberration. A few years ago I realised that this kind of thinking was pointless. It doesn't matter what I think is or isn't normal and it doesn't matter what I think about their choices regarding their bodies ~ these are real people for whom this way of feeling is normal. This is their normal and the dysphoria they experience is real and at some point you have to acknowledge that your opinion one way or another cannot be allowed to be as important as your compassion for other people.
I hope it's clear that I am not trying to convince anyone on any of those points. They're just thoughts I've had on the subject and I've already acknowledged my total lack of experience in this area. I'm just kind of laying a bunch of ideas out there because I'm interested in what other people think. (NB: Negative comments are fine, but any comment expressed in a hateful way will be deleted.)

In the end what I know for sure is that I don't understand the hatred some people feel/show towards transgendered people. Even if you don't understand it, even if it freaks you out a little, why does that translate into painting 'die freaks' on their house? (That's what happened in the show.) 'Freaky' often just means 'something I would never do' or 'something I don't understand' and that isn't enough reason to hate on someone. It just isn't.

Apparently the show isn't being picked up. I think that's a shame. They seemed to hit the right tone with it and my gut feeling is that they would have handled the subject well. There's one part in the pilot where Bob gets to dress as a woman in public (Halloween party). For the outside eye, he plays it for laughs, but it's really easy to see the freedom and relief that exists for him in openly dressing as a woman, even if just for one night. It's so obvious the next day that his suit and tie are the costume he wears every day pretending to be everyone's idea of what a man is.

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