People who know me know that horror, particularly horror cinema, is my thing. People sometimes ask why, as if being a horror fan needs some kind of explanation (does anyone ever ask why someone is a fan of dramas or comedies?). But still, I wonder myself sometimes. As a young closeted trans woman, I found werewolf mythology utterly fascinating; the idea of change and transformation, and that there’s this powerful force tearing away at who you really are…that was a monstrosity I could relate to all too well1. But even werewolves weren’t my earliest contact with the horror genre; that belonged to Saturday afternoon creature features and the endless stream of Godzilla and dinosaur movies they ran. I loved dinosaurs, and Godzilla, and monsters in general.
It was this love of monsters that led me to roleplaying. I was in third grade when I got the redbox Basic Set for Christmas 2. And even though I didn’t quite “get” the game at that young age, I was obsessed with the monster descriptions, eventually creating my own simple boardgame using them. To this day, even though I kind of despise most of the 3.0+ D&D variants, I get a lot of joy perusing the various Monster Manuals and Bestiaries.
So this little column, which may or may not appear with any regularity, will talk about my horror inspirations, and if I’m really good, I’ll bring it back to some kind of loose association with gaming at the end.
Beware, spoilers abound.
So my favorite horror movie of 2011 was one that likely escaped most USian’s notice. It draws on everything from Frankenstein to the Hammer gothics to Eyes Without A Face to the modern torture porn genre. That film is Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In.
There’s no way I can talk about this movie without really really spoiling it, so I’m just going to do that now3. This is a story about a deranged plastic surgeon, Robert Ledgard, who gets revenge on his daughter’s (possible?) rapist by kidnapping him and forcing him to undergo gender reassignment surgery. But as with all such things in movies like these, things do no go as planned, and a strange romance blossoms between Ledgard and the newly-christened “Vera”.
In some ways it’s an odd choice as a “favorite” anything for me. I’m astoundingly hard-to-please when it comes to transgender-themed movies, and frankly, I can’t tell if I’m giving this one too much latitude. I like Almodóvar and I like horror movies, and so I enter this one a little bit biased.
At any rate, this isn’t a movie review per se; I’m going to talk about some very specific things and wander pretty far afield. But for those interested in a proper review, I direct you to my friend Christianne’s blog. She and I are of one mind on this subject…so much so, she threw in a couple quotes from me. Look for my cameo.
One of the questions that comes up regarding The Skin I Live In is whether it’s actually a transgender movie or not. I maintain that it is, but not generally the way people think.
A “typical” transgender narrative, meaning one that we often hear from real-live trans* people, goes something like this: Person is coercively assigned a gender by a doctor, person is forced to perform this gender against their will, person rebels against prescribed gender indoctrination, person is punished for rebelling, person eventually decides to play along for own survival. The details change, but that’s the rough framework; that is what a lot of us go through. And it’s exactly what Vera goes through in The Skin I Live In. Vera is trans* not because Vera “used to be a man”, but because he actually is a man, and he spends the majority of the film trying to protect that core of who he is from forces bent on taking it away from him.
And here’s the thing: Cis audiences viewing The Skin I Live In will not fail to recognize it as a horror movie. Judging from the reaction of the two crowds I saw it with, I’d even go so far as to say it was an effective one. The shocked gasps, the moans of disgust, the uncomfortable laughter…these things are telling. Having one’s gender stripped away is horrible and terrifying, and it should engender that kind of a reaction. Fortunately for most of the audience, once the credits rolled, they could walk away, safe in the knowledge that it’s all make believe. Something concocted from the dark recesses of a feverish mind. After all, there are no mad men out there who want to take a person from their home and force them to be something they aren’t.
It doesn’t really make me happy to suggest that trans* stories are horror stories. And really, saying they are is horribly reductive. We’re so much more than victims, or even survivors, of our circumstances. But our culture – and yes, the medical community is completely complicit in this – grants others an immense amount of power over our identities. And when I say “our” I mean our, as in all of us, trans and cis alike. We are not as in control of who we are as we would like to believe. I don’t know what’s going on in Pedro Almodóvar’s head, but he gets this. I wish more cis people did.
That said, I think it’s obvious too that there’s a not-so-well hidden component of desire (both erotic and not) in these kinds of stories. It’s just an observation of mine, but it seems like cis people are kind of curious to see how the “other half” lives. I know I’ve been asked, more than once, what it’s like to have seen “both sides” 4. In games, both digital and analog, men explore female genders all the time. It wasn’t that long ago that a certain prominent lesbian forum was rocked when it was discovered that some of its higher-placed members were actually men who had created incredibly plausible alter-egos and perpetuated a charade that went on for years. And as much as I hate to admit it, trans pornography is hugely popular on the internet. Gender transgression may be taboo, but we are fascinated by it. Heck, I am. In truth, I think it’s pretty natural to be curious; it’s just unfortunate that our culture is one that really doesn’t want gender to be poked and prodded.
That brings us to forced feminization stories, which The Skin I Live In is a classic example of. The structure of forced feminization tales is remarkably simple: A person, usually a man, through accident or design, is forced to take on a life as a member of the “opposite” sex5. The “transformation” is usually painstakingly realized, and there’s often a mentor character of some sort. In a large portion of them, the character is required to not just adapt to a new gender role, but also a new sexual role. The protagonist generally puts up some sort of fight, but in the end accepts, possibly even embraces, their fate. Most, but not all, of these stories are of an erotic nature. Some are sweet and fairly chaste. Some are hardcore and graphic. Some are reputedly based on true stories, while others are pure fantasy. Some revel in clueless misogyny, while others prove surprisingly insightful. They often intersect other genres, including crime dramas, spy thrillers, comedy, and yes, even horror stories. They are, for lack of a better phrase, the perfect embodiment of our guilt-wracked obsession with gender and those who transgress it. We can not just want to explore gender; we have to be made to do so, be tortured over it, and suffer totally for our inquisitiveness.
And if not us, then our literary/cinematic surrogates.
My contact with the subgenre comes mostly through trans-focused websites like Fictionmania. Forced feminization literature has immense cachet in the trans* community, particularly among pre- and non-transitioning trans* women. In fact, much of it is written by trans* women for trans* women, and I would be surprised if we weren’t the biggest consumers of such stories. That might seem odd, but the truth is, if we’re not transitioning yet, it’s often because we’re paralyzed with fear and haven’t been able to get over the hump yet (some of us never will). Whether it’s accurate or not, transition is usually framed as a choice…and it’s a choice that comes with a potentially steep downside. And the older you are, the harder it is. Spouses might leave, families might disown you, and bosses might fire you. In fact, it’s common advice from those in the trans* community, as well as the medical community that serves us, to consider transition as a very last option, the thing you do when you’re only other option is to die. Remember what I said about not being able to want to explore gender, but having to endure torture and suffering first? Yeah. Maybe you can see why the fantasy of having someone come along and make that decision for you is so incredibly enticing.
So it’s with somewhat different eyes that I viewed The Skin I Live In. I get the horror, but I get the fantasy too. I understand the strange, tortured wish-fulfillment that this represents for some people. It makes Almodóvar an even more interesting, or at least curious, figure in my mind.
I only ever created one forced feminization story of my own, and it was never written down.
I don’t remember what year it was, but Paul Czege had finally convinced me and Danielle and Matt and Tom to playtest this new game of his, Bacchanal. For context, this was prior to my transition. And for those who have never played the game, it’s basically a turn-taking story game in which each participant tells an erotic story, partially constrained by the roll of a set of customized dice, against the backdrop of a rioting, orgiastic city under the thrall of the god Bacchus. Anyway, I hadn’t given the game much consideration prior to play…admittedly, I was playing more as a favor to Paul than anything else. But once I was into it – there was a moment where I had to decide what to narrate, to go in one specific direction or not, and I remember saying to myself, “Oh fuck it” – there was no coming back. I went deep into my Fictionmania well that night. It’s kind of interesting to note, in retrospect, that it was the two women at the table who created the most successful erotica; Danielle with her tale of doomed love between two young boys, and me with my young husband futilely pursuing his equally-young bride-to-be across Puetoli…only to trade his own gender to a cult of female impersonators for one last intimate encounter with someone who looked remarkably like his fiance. Throughout, and for a while after, I was visibly shaking; the adrenaline was fierce…I was sitting there with my friends playing a game, but I felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff. The protagonist in my story may have lacked agency, but I could hardly have claimed the same…this was coming from a pretty personal place. It was as much vulnerability as I had ever allowed myself (up until that point), and I was doing it in full view of four other people. At some point Paul asked me how I came up with the inspiration for my story. I can’t remember how I answered him; I’m sure I made up something ridiculous.
But I went home and couldn’t get it out of my head. Any of it. They hadn’t reacted poorly; in fact, they kind of dug the story I told. I think maybe they were slightly amazed by it, that it came out of me. It felt odd, but kind of empowering. It wasn’t long after that I explained to Danielle how I really came up with the story, effectively coming out to her. Her reaction was positive and supportive, which got the snowball rolling. The rest, as they say, is history.
See, I told you I’d bring it back around to games at some point.
Now go see The Skin I Live In6.
- Oddly, for a period of time I wanted to be a werewolf. Yes, I know that makes no sense, particularly given the degree of hatred I have towards body hair. But it scarcely seemed worse than being a boy, and the bullies would have to think twice about beating me up on the bus. Plus, howling at the moon. ↩
- My grandmother understood me better than anyone, I think; I often wish she had lived long enough to see me transition, because monsters notwithstanding, she was the one who encouraged my inherent sensitivity and “girlishness” the most. I’m sure she had at least some inkling that something was going on with me. ↩
- Will there ever come a day when the whole “she used to be a guy” thing isn’t considered shocking or spoileriffic? I really hope so. ↩
- It probably goes without saying, but this is generally a bad thing to ask a trans* person unless you happen to know them pretty well, and even then, maybe not. The thing is, we can’t even give you the answer you want because the question is grounded in all sorts of cis* assumptions; all I can tell you is what it was like to have live as a man, which is quite a bit different than knowing what it’s like to actually be one, and my answer will always be, “It was terrifying and sad”. ↩
- “Opposite” is in scare quotes because, in truth, it’s a really problematic term. Women are not the opposite of men, men are not the opposite of women, and gender is much less binary than this terminology allows for ↩
- Although be aware: It’s not gory, but there is some strong content, including rape. ↩