Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Well, This Pissed Me Off Today...

That's a tweet from earlier today from Frank Conniff, who was a key contributor to what I'd argue is one of the best shows to ever air on television: Mystery Science Theater 3000. I adore his work, and our political views strongly overlap. I'm very predisposed to like this person.

Then he tweeted that. Ugh.

Ann Coulter is a detestable figure, whose right-wing ravings often verge into something resembling performance art. I understand why she provokes frothing rage on the left- I really do. What I've never understood is the widespread impulse among liberals to look at Coulter and think "Wow! You know what would be a hilarious diss/slam/burn? If I pointed out that Ann Coulter looks like she might be transgender!"

I expect this sort of bigotry from the right. Go type "Michelle Obama Transgender" into a google search and stare slack-jawed at the disgusting fever swamp of racism and trans-misogyny they've spawned. They sure aren't saying "Michelle Obama is a t---y" as a compliment, are they? But once again, I expect as much from a group of people who are actively working to make the lives of transgender people more difficult and dangerous. I've given up on them. I just hope we can keep them out of political power until "generational replacement" inevitably alters public opinion on transgender rights.

But all too often, some on the left seem eager to throw us trans folks under the bus. It's stunning to see people celebrate progress for LGB rights one moment, then make lazy transphobic jokes the next. Conniff himself is a fierce advocate for same sex marriage. It's particularly disappointing to see people who should know better spouting what amounts to hate speech against trans folks.

Let's break down that "joke" for a moment. First of all, liberals have been hurling this insult at Coulter for over a decade. Aren't there about a MILLION much worse things about her you could make fun of? But you pick "She kinda looks like she might have been a dude!" What does that say about how you REALLY feel about a deeply marginalized, vulnerable population? At best, you reveal that you don't actually view trans folks as "real" people. You've never taken the time to consider them as a variable in your world. At worst, you reveal your own ugly transphobia (like LGB fave Roseanne Barr has done more that once).

This is a symptom of a larger problem, and it goes deeper than transphobic attempts at humor aimed at political enemies. We see the same mentality when trans-exclusionary radical feminists work with the Duggars of the world to keep us from going to the bathroom in peace- Or when trans men are allowed into traditionally women's colleges while trans women are excluded- Or when prominent LGBT organizations give the trans community at best lip service and at worst active neglect.

The message? Trans women are not full citizens, not fully human, not really women.

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty fed up with this shit. I'm not going to suffer this silently. I hope you won't, either.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

MOVIE REVIEW: "Pitch Perfect 2"

In a epoch dominated by the notion of "franchise-building," where the goal is to create film dynasties that evolve into perpetual motion cash machines fueled by reboots and sprawling "cinematic universes," it's almost quaint to happen upon an old-fashioned sequel- One that was greenlit simply because the original film became an unexpected hit.

Pitch Perfect was a modest box office hit back in 2012, but then found a gigantic and fiercely loyal following via home video/incessant cable showings. Like Austin Powers 15 years earlier, what began as a cult classic spawned a sequel that outgrossed the ENTIRE run run of the original in its opening weekend- Unlike the second Powers film, Pitch Perfect 2 largely recaptures the magic of its predecessor, despite sounding a handful of badly off-key notes.

The first hurdle PP2 has to surmount is the most basic of sequel problems: The first film is a solidly self-contained story with coherent character arcs and conflicts that are decisively and satisfyingly resolved by the time the credits roll. How do you demonstrate that there is another story that needs to be told? The opening sequence is a pale facsimile of the pre-credits scene that jolted audiences to attention during the first film- What happens resets the Barden Bellas as underdogs, and ratchets up the stakes (if they don't win the Acapella World Championships, the Bellas will be permanently disbanded... Long story.), but lacks the visceral punch/shock value of Anna Camp's complete and total barf-o-rama in PP.

22 Jump Street wrung huge laughs from pointing out and deconstructing every sequel trope in the book last summer, and PP2 takes a stab at similar insights while refusing to go as "full meta" as Lord & Miller's smash hit. The film is surprisingly effective at delivering the enthralling musical numbers fans demand while simultaneously whispering "Hey, it's kinda ridiculous that all these people are treating singing mash-ups of hit singles like it's a life-and-death struggle, aint it?" Even the German group that is set up as the Bellas' main antagonists are less villainous than possessed by a Richard Sherman-level of confident intensity. One of the film's best running gags is Beca's repeated attempts to insult her counterpart in "Das Sound Machine," only to hear odd, flirtatious compliments spill out of her mouth at every turn.

Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson stand out positively from the ensemble cast even more than they did in the first film, and the movie loses momentum when its focus wanders away from them (particularly due to a handful of new characters that largely fail to make an impact- The big exception is Keenan-Michael Key as an exasperated music producer). First-time Director Elizabeth Banks is given a largely thankless job: Give the fans what they want (Big musical numbers! Snarky/PG-13-ish smutty humor! Female bonding!), without the result feeling like a retread of the original film. On balance she succeeds, but not without a few significant missteps: There's a pointlessly transphobic gag (ugh), and a new Latina character veers into laugh-free ethnic caricature. The first film wasn't exactly free from racially questionable humor, but the sequel regrettably fades in the wrong direction.

The massive box-office success of an entertaining, well-made, woman-centric film is heartening, though. Male characters are de-emphasized in PP2, and largely exist as current or potential love interests for the Bellas. The boys in Pitch Perfect 2 are primarily relegated to cheering on and supporting the Bellas, which is an oddly satisfying inversion of the gender dynamics typically seen on the big screen.

If you enjoyed the original film, there's no reason to wait until the inevitable basic cable replays to see Pitch Perfect 2. It's solidly entertaining and just distinct enough from the original to justify its existence- Though it does beg the question: Who will the Bellas face off in the inevitable Pitch Perfect 3? Will they have to defeat space aliens in an epic riff-off to save humanity?

Oh God. That's going to happen, isn't it?

Grade: B

Sunday, May 17, 2015

MOVIE REVIEW- "Mad Max: Fury Road"

The single, seminal movie that would define my taste in films came in the mythical Summer of 1982 (a spectacular season that saw gave us Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing, Tron, Conan The Barbarian, Poltergeist and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, among others). I was only seven years old back in '82, so I wouldn't see films that would become obsessions for me until later (Blade Runner, for example). The movie that captured my imagination and forever molded my taste in film would be E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. Steven Spielberg's blockbuster deeply resonated with me, to the extent that I made my parents take me to see it SEVEN TIMES. I became so obsessed that I became angry at Mohandas Gandhi when E.T. lost out in the race for Best Picture. Not mad at the film "Gandhi," but mad at the actual historical figure (I wasn't the most level-headed child). To this day, I cry every time I see it. E.T. falling ill still just WRECKS me, and the emotional catharsis at the end is still overwhelming. 

The larger effect of E.T. on me was the creation of a life-long fixation on that rarest of film achievements: The successful combination of big-budget spectacle with an emotionally arresting, well-told story. Say what you will about Spielberg (especially in terms of his problems with endings), but at his best he's the MASTER of this tricky alchemy (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of The Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Minority Report all spring to mind). I am capable of enjoying low-budget indie films, and even occasionally empty effects-laded blockbusters, but I was beginning to think that this was becoming a lost art (even the recent Champion of this sort of wizardry, Christopher Nolan, faltered with his recent misfire Interstellar). 

In a larger sense, I had started to worry that I was losing my ability to be truly awed by films any more. I could make coherent arguments about why this was happening: Television as a story-telling medium is ascendant, and the major Hollywood studios have become obsessed with creating massive multi-film franchises and wringing every last monetizable cent out of any familiar property they can get their hands on. This, combined with an overabundance of computer-generated effects have robbed big studio films of any sense of unpredictability or danger. 

When you watched Avengers: Age of Ultron, did you have any sense that any of the main characters were in actual danger? When you know there are a dozen related Marvel films yet to come, you also know that there will be no concrete resolution to any of the movie's conflicts. The stakes plummet. The mayhem on screen starts to look like a particularly well-done cut scene from a video game. A depressing sameness sets in (Don't believe me? Behold that Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy have the EXACT SAME ENDING). To paraphrase Christof in The Truman Show, we've become bored by special effects. At least that's what happened to me. The last Hollywood film I truly loved was Her. I started to believe that at age 40 I had become a sour, curmudgeonly bitch. 

Then a reboot/sequel (it's never explicitly laid out) made by a 70-year-old director came along and totally renewed my faith in the creative potential of Hollywood. Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action film of the decade so far, and easily the best film of 2015 (it might just hold onto that crown all year- It's that good). It's not just a mesmerizingly blood-spattered, nitro-fueled, two-hour demolition derby- It's a capital-I Important film that subverts expectations and subtly delivers a deeply feminist/humanist message. 

Another film from the Class of '82 was George Miller's The Road Warrior, the 2nd film in his original Mad Max trilogy. The movie made Mel Gibson an international superstar, thrilled audiences with its death-defying stunts, and created a cultural short-hand for "post-apocalyptic wasteland." Another sequel would follow in 1985, but plans for another Mad Max film stalled after that. Miller's focus wandered to children's films like Babe: Pig in the City and the Happy Feet movies, and Gibson's star fell after he revealed his sexism and antisemitism to the world. Miller struggled to secure backing for another tale of the Wasteland, and finally got Warner Brothers to shell out $150 million for a new film starring Tom Hardy in the role of protagonist Max Rockatansky. 

The film is ambiguous about whether this is a "reboot" of the Mad Max story or a sequel to the original films. but Miller pointedly kept Global Thermonuclear War as the apocalypse that "Killed the World." Post-Cold War that seems like a retro choice, but it turns out to be crucial in at least one character's arc. The big surprise? While Hardy capably fills the role of Max, he's not the main character in the film. That's Charlize Theron, as Imperator Furiosa. She's a trusted lieutenant of local warlord Immortan Joe (Never let it be said that Miller doesn't have a flair for names), and is sent on a mission to retrieve fuel and ammunition for Joe's "Citadel." Joe controls the local population by monopolizing the water supply and via an army of "War Boys" who are brainwashed into suicide-bomber levels of fanatical loyalty. The Immortan's prize possessions are his five "wives," who are enslaved as "breeders." When it dawns on him that Furiosa is actually on a mission to help the wives escape, the chase is on. 

And what a glorious chase! The vast majority of the film consists of elaborately staged automobile chases across the irradiated Australian outback (actually filmed in Namibia), and Miller is constantly upping the ante without losing narrative cohesion. The chases are breathtaking and (relatively) free of CGI, which lends them the feeling that the actors on screen are in actual danger. The effect is exhilarating, but Miller's most impressive trick is that the viewer is never left thinking "Who's that? Why are they doing that? Huh?" Just based on its technical merits, this is one of the best action films of all-time... But Fury Road delivers much more than one long mind-melting chase. 

Theron gives one of the best performances of her career (it's hard to reconcile that she was also the vapid Mavis Gary in the brilliant Young Adult), and hopefully she'll get an Oscar nod like Sigourney Weaver did for her work in Aliens. Furiosa instantly stands with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conner among the best female characters in the annals of action/sci-fi cinema, and anchors one of the most blatantly feminist films to ever come out of a Hollywood studio. 

While most Hollywood films struggle to even pass the Bechtel Test, Fury Road goes far beyond that and deconstructs/implodes the typical structure and visual language of male-centric, testosterone-fueled action films. Without giving too much away, the film takes a sledgehammer to patriarchy and sexism. A question asked more than once is "Who Killed The World?" Fury Road's answer seems to be: Boys stunted by Toxic Masculinity

Importantly, Miller makes it clear that this toxic culture poisons EVERYONE. It doesn't just harm the women who bear the brunt of its effects- From Immortan Joe to his War Boys to Max himself, sexist assumptions lead to catastrophic decision-making. Another common refrain in the film is "We are not things." It is only when the characters work together collaboratively and view others as people rather than things do they succeed- Max is described as being motivated solely by survival, but he quickly figures out that lone-wolfing it action-hero style is a losing play.  

The shorter version: Come for the astounding action, stay for the astonishing gender politics. 

The stunning contradiction at the heart of Fury Road is that even though it's a throwback component of a decades-old franchise, it feels like a huge gulp of pure oxygen. It feels vibrant, new, and one is left with the feeling that every big summer blockbuster that hits theaters for the rest of the summer will be left looking superficial, superfluous and downright silly. How can I take Jurassic World seriously after this? How you gonna keep them on the farm once they've seen Fury Road? 

Grade? A

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Mother's Talk

I didn't celebrate Mother's Day.

Mother's Day is a rough holiday for untold legions of trans women. They might have tenuous or even abusive relationships with their own mothers. They might lament their inability to carry a child of their own, or even contribute their genetic material to the creation of a pregnancy. As a trans woman who has already "fathered" children, but transitioned afterwards, I face my own unique set of challenges.

On social media, multiple people offered me warm "Happy Mother's Day" wishes. I appreciated those gestures, but I was still deeply uncomfortable with them. My 5-and-9-year-old children still call me Daddy (while doing their best to switch to female pronouns). They have slipped up and called me "Mom" more than once (and my son has started occasionally calling me "Ramona," which is both encouraging and something I need to check him on), and while that's awesome in some ways, it also makes me wince. I didn't carry them for nine months. I didn't have the difficult pregnancies that my ex-wife endured. I'm not the custodial parent. My ex-wife shoulders the VAST majority of their care, and she's doing an excellent job. My children are bright, friendly, and loving- For that, their Mom deserves an immense amount of credit.

So I viscerally recoil from being called "Mom." If I'm being honest, I don't feel like I "deserve" it. But that's my own mental hang-up- If you think about it, I have every RIGHT to want to be called "Mom," even if I personally find the idea psychologically uncomfortable. Here's why...

One of the most pernicious ideas out there is gender essentialism, which is the idea that there are innate, biologically encoded traits that separate men from women. This is the main notion that motivates trans-exclusionary radical feminists like Roseanne Barr, and it has myriad negative effects on everyone under the transgender umbrella. It has been the engine behind efforts to prevent trans people from going to the bathroom in peace and the (thankfully collapsing) efforts to exclude trans women from women's colleges. It's also behind the coercive mutilation of intersex children- Our society is so invested in the idea that vagina = women and penis = man that those who fail to conform are shoved (often violently) into one box or the other.

Sidebar: You wouldn't believe the mountain of shit I've had to put up with from people (including other trans folks) who can't fathom that I don't want "bottom surgery." It's so ingrained in people's minds that surgery is the holy grail for ALL trans women that I'm often made to feel not just that I'm "not a real woman" if I don't get surgery, but also that I'm "not really trans" if I don't want surgery. Ugh.

Julia Serano has basically smashed the underlying assumptions of gender essentialism to pieces. She persuasively argues that given "variation among people of different genders and a lot of overlap between the genders...  biology, culture, and environment all come together in an unfathomably complex way to create the gender diversity that we see all around us." (Both of her books- Whipping Girl and Excluded- are essential reading, by the way)

It's harmful and exclusionary when we make assumptions that genitals = gender. It may seem benign to a cis person to assume that everyone who needs to see a gynecologist is a woman, for example- But that ignores the reality that "women's health" issues can (and do) also impact many trans men. Trans men can (and do) get pregnant and bear children (and face very specific problems during their pregnancies), so to assume that pregnancy + bearing a child = motherhood is not just problematic but inaccurate.

Beyond that, as a society we have decided (rightly) that women who adopt children, or use a surrogate to carry their child, or are the partners of a woman who bear the couple's child, are "Moms." If you ran into someone who claimed that a woman who adopted, raised and nurtured a child had no right to claim the title of "Mother," you'd rightly be labeled a raging asshole. The same principle applies to trans women, I believe.

I remember when my son was born- It was only months after I had come out to myself as trans. When my ex-wife was pregnant, I thought to myself "Having a child will make you 'normal'." After he was born, I held him. I expected to feel like a father. I expected it to snap things into place for me. It didn't. It just heightened my dysphoria, because the immediate connection I felt with him, the boundless love that bloomed in my heart the second I held him in my arms, felt more like motherhood. It was a moment that was simultaneously the best of my life and one of the most terrifying- Even this gigantic life moment of "becoming a father" didn't make feel like I could live an authentic life as a man.

I am evolving every day, and so is my relationship with my children. Eventually they'll probably both decide they want to call me something other than "Daddy." I don't know that I'll ever be comfortable with them calling me "Mom," but I know that's because of my own personal shit rattling around in my brainpan. To my trans sisters: Don't let anyone ever tell you that you can't be a Mom.