• Saturn In Retrograde: Gender Swapping As Horror And Desire

    by  • May 12, 2012 • People & Events, Reviews • 11 Comments

    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.

    Except there totally are.

    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” 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.

     

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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”.
    5. “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
    6. Although be aware: It’s not gory, but there is some strong content, including rape.
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    I'm a queer trans woman who lives somewhere in Michigan with my cat Rufus. Yes, he *is* named after the cat in Re-Animator, how kind of you to ask.

    11 Responses to Saturn In Retrograde: Gender Swapping As Horror And Desire

    1. avatar
      Dymphna
      May 12, 2012 at 19:41

      (Let me preface this by saying that I skipped a few paragraphs right after the word “spoiler,” because I love horror too and I really want to see this movie! )

      Sex change as a form of body horror is definitely one way that our culture views transgenderism. Comedy is another, especially as far as a male-to-female transformation is concerned. (A man in a dress is a punchline to a joke; a woman in pants is trying to get people to take her seriously.) But it’s interesting how comedy and horror are related. Both of them deal in transgression and violation of expectation, and with any transgression, there’s a point at which it stops being funny and starts being scary. A man who unwillingly transformed into a woman has lost power and social status, which I think lends itself to horror than the reverse — a woman transformed into a man, sadly, has taken a step up in the world in some respects.

      As far as gaming goes, I have typically seen gender change as played for comedy — the uber-macho fighter in a beer-and-pretzels game puts on a Belt of Giant Strength only to discover that it’s actually the infamous Girdle of Gender Reversal. Uber-macho fighter is all freaked out, and everyone has a laugh at hir expense, they find someone to take it off (as these things are generally considered a “curse”). But the mere existence of a Girdle of Gender Reversal raises a few questions that could actually have interesting answers in a more serious game. What would the party do a non-”cursed” one (in mechanical terms, this means a girdle that could be taken on and off at will)? What if it was a legitimate tool for self-exploration? Who made it, and for what purpose? A novelty prank item seems like a strange investment of 20K gp. Maybe a famous historical personage was transgender?

      I had a Girdle of Gender Change actually play an interesting role in a Planescape game I ran once. One of the PCs was intersex, and changed gender presentation depending on how zie felt that day. An NPC wizard had a crush on the PC, who assumed that the PC was an effeminate gay man who occasionally dressed in drag. When he found out the truth about the PC, he offered hir a Girdle of Gender Change, assuming that zie would actually want to pick a binary gender. There was a very interesting roleplaying moment where the PC talked to other PCs and tried to sort out hir feelings on the matter (the other PCs were aware and supportive), and it was an interesting roleplaying moment. (The PC eventually kindly refused the NPC’s offer.)

      PS: Bacchanal sounds fascinating. Do you happen to know off hand if it is still available? The website leads to a 404 on the free version, and I’m wary about just buying it outright by sending money off into the ether.

      PPS: Regarding transgender stories: One of my favorite transgender stories is “Transamerica” because it’s neither tragedy nor broad comedy.

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      • avatar
        Renee
        May 12, 2012 at 21:16

        Hmmm, so much to respond to!

        Sounds like a fantastic game. I definitely think rpgs present a pretty great opportunity to explore gender transgression…both at the meta level (by playing a character that’s not the same gender as yourself) and the in-game level (as you describe here). The Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay game I’m currently running is pretty heavy with these themes. I wish there were more games that explicitly tackled it in a serious way, though. I think Kagematsu does so explicitly, but offhand I can’t think of any others.

        Comedy and horror are totally two peas in a pod (there’s a reason Re-Animator is my favorite film of all time). I won’t even get started on gender swapping comedies though; I’m not going to say there aren’t ever any thoughtful or interesting comedies of this sort (I do rather like Some Like It Hot), but yeesh, they’re awful so much of the time that it’s hard for me to think straight about it.

        I think Bacchanal is still available. I’ll have to ask Paul. I’ll get back to you.

        Transamerica is an interesting thing. Although it generally gets high marks for being an earnest attempt at telling a trans story, there are a lot of us (myself) included who don’t really care for it. The problem, of course, is that it’s a film about a trans person filtered through a cis filmmaker’s lens…it obsesses with the details of Bree’s transness and transition, which it can’t hope to get right, and in that, it fails to resonate. I mean, Bree is so sad in that film, but in truth, the majority of us who have reached the point she’s at when the movie starts, we’re just starting to see joy in the world through proper eyes, starting to really feel like ourselves for the first time, and it’s positively euphoric*. This, to me, says that the filmmaker couldn’t imagine a trans person as anything but joyless and kind of pathetic** until such time as they achieve some sort of cis-mandated standard for “happiness” (in this case, putting your affairs in order with your family and getting GRS). Of course, I know lots of trans people who like Transamerica, so mileage varies. For my money, though, I much prefer Breakfast On Pluto, where the protagonist’s transness is almost secondary to the proceedings. And although it’s a documentary, Gwen Haworth’s She’s A Boy I Knew is the best trans narrative I’ve ever seen; it’s the story of Gwen’s transition as seen through Gwen’s camera, via interviews with her friends and family, animation, and video of herself. It’s absolutely beautiful.

        * I should note, I have no scientific evidence to back up this statement, just a lot of anecdotal evidence. The first couple years of living “full time” are often thought of as the good years, or the “high”.

        ** I’ve been thinking a lot about this perception, which is pretty widespread. It’s not like Duncan Tucker came up with it on his own…it’s been around forever. I suppose all marginalized people go through this, to one degree or another…we’re seen as angry or sad or pathetic, or all three. And sometimes we inadvertently encourage that. I know I find lots of time to wallow in pity on the internet, about how my career was yanked away from me and now I can’t find work, or how exhausting it is to constantly be girded against other peoples’ stares and comments. But I rarely find time to talk about how much more connected I feel to the world around me, or how much better it is with those that do love me that they love me for who I really am.

        • avatar
          Dymphna
          May 12, 2012 at 23:29

          Cool, I’ll have to check out _Breakfast on Pluto_ and _She’s a Boy I Knew._ It’s been a few years since I’ve seen _Transamerica_, and I hadn’t considered the things you mentioned in your post — the cis- filmmaker’s perspective, the weird focus that cis people tend to have on SRS. Honestly, I was really just excited to see a movie that starred a transperson that didn’t end with the lead character getting beaten to death by rednecks, so I guess my standards were pretty low.

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          • avatar
            Renee
            May 13, 2012 at 00:00

            Oh yeah, I get it. It’s pretty rare to find a film where a trans person isn’t portrayed as a victim or a psychopath. And it’s not like Breakfast On Pluto doesn’t come with some of this baggage. But it wins me over with its protagonist’s lack of cynicism and sheer joyfulness.

      • avatar
        Renee
        May 13, 2012 at 22:31

        Per Paul, there are a few print copies of Bacchanal left. So no, your money won’t be wasted.

        http://halfmeme.com/buybacchanal.html

        Also, the free version is here:

        http://www.1km1kt.net/rpg/bacchanal

    2. avatar
      Vivian Abraham
      May 13, 2012 at 14:12

      This was a really fascinating article! I need to see that movie now :) I agree that dealing with gender transformation is an often poorly handled subject in gaming and other media. I was in a Planescape campaign (a long time ago) where someone cast a “mirror image” spell in an area where magic was awry. Mirror image usually creates several illusionary duplicates of you, so that bad guys have a hard time hitting the correct person. In this case, actual real people duplicates were created of one of the PCs, but all were slightly different in personality (and of course, one was evil). The GM had each of the other players in the game roleplay a duplicate, and I, without a heck of a lot of thought, played mine as the female version of this male character. The whole scenario was mostly done in a very humorous way, and it was not until many years later, when my male friend came out of the closet as gay, that I realized that I probably should give some thought to these things before throwing them out there!

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    3. avatar
      bookscorpion
      May 14, 2012 at 13:01

      When I started roleplaying, I quickly began to play only male characters exclusively. These days, everyone I game with doesn’t even think about it. I’ve used RPGs to explore gender and I’ve enjoyed myself immensely, especially since a couple of male players do the same thing – they play female characters much, much getter than I would. We’ve had romance and marriage between those characters, but even the simple act of playing a gender that is not my own has never lost its appeal for me.

      I’m definitely not trans (I gave it serious thought for a while, though, as a teenager/young adult), although I’m also not what many people expect from a woman (ooh, can of worms there). So maybe that has something to do with it. A friend of mine once told me that gender swapping in RPGs is kind of like an empathy orgasm. He was only half joking and I know what he means.

      And of course I’m female anyway, so let’s have an adventure and play a male (straight or gay, depends on the character). So far I never encountered anyone who had a problem with this, although I’ve met people online who were met with much less understanding by their group.

      Forced gender swap…hmm – that would be interesting.

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      • avatar
        Renee
        May 14, 2012 at 22:06

        Interestingly, I’ve never felt that freedom. Before I transitioned, playing female characters seemed dangerous to me…what if the other players got suspicious? What if I enjoyed it too much? I GMed a lot, almost exclusively in fact, but I still veered away from female NPCs except in a cursory manner. I can only remember playing one female character ever in a game, and that was during the My Life With Master Playtests…which wasn’t too terribly long before the Bacchanal game I describe above.

        Now that I have transitioned, I might be inclined to play male characters, except that as people shift rapidly between in-character and out-of-character speech, sometimes pronouns get messed up. And pronoun slippage is still one of my biggest triggers. It gets better with time though, and I have played male characters when necessary (in a more recent playtest of yet another Paul Czege game). I don’t imagine this is a problem that will stick with me forever.

    4. avatar
      May 14, 2012 at 16:05

      I love horror and gender. Clive Barker ftw. The movie you’re citing sounds awesome. Horror has more room to deal with lots of these things because, well, my interpretation is that a lot of these issues of gender and sex are still extremely taboo (in our western American puritanical culture, right? Speaking from personal experience). So the combination of fear + taboo in horror seems a perfect fit for a lot of our culture’s shame ridden questions about gender. Have you seen Dead Girl? It doesn’t deal with swapping gender, but it definitely deals with some serious issues. I liked it a lot. Made me really uncomfortable in a good way.

      Renee, I have a question for you. Does Rocky Horror fall under the forced transformation/body horror category for you, or the comedy side? What about Divine?

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      • avatar
        Renee
        May 14, 2012 at 20:38

        Yeesh, tough questions.

        I have seen Dead Girl, and I didn’t like it. But it was central to a major essay I wrote once, about misogyny in horror, and how fuzzy the line of “acceptability” is for me. For example, Dead Girl, with all of its rape and objectification of women (they’re made into zombies, which is a kind of object), didn’t work for me. On the other hand, Human Lanterns, which also has rape (though it’s not at the center of its story) and objectification (the characters are literally made into objects…Chinese hanging lanterns) is one of my favorite horror discoveries of the last ten years. And then there’s Martyrs, which doesn’t involve rape but fills the screen with brutal and realistic violence against women…it’s not a film I recommend, it’s not one I want to sit down and watch again, but I know the filmmaker shares my sentiment in that regard and so I can at least trust that it’s there for a reason, which makes it it easier to appreciate as art (it’s not entertainment…I’ll never call it that). The exact opposite of that, for me, is Bloodsucking Freaks, which fills the screen with equal amounts of misogyny, but revels in it…when a filmmaker seems to be having too much fun torturing women and only women, that’s where the line stops being fuzzy.

        For me, Rocky Horror is pure comedy. Die hard conservatives might disagree though. :p An interesting thing about the Rocky Horror Picture Show: Most people, I think, assume that Richard O’ Brien is a gay man (I did for the longest time), but zie came out as trans* a while back. I’ve always liked the Rocky Horror Picture Show just for being audacious and boundary smashing, but learning this about Richard gave it a whole new coat of paint for me. Suddenly it was a movie made by one of my people, and it’s been fun re-watching it with that in mind. If you’re a fan of RHPS, I recommend the five part interview Richard gives that’s available on Youtube. The first part is here:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omeUM1UoAk8

        To be honest, I’ve never spent that much time with Divine, or John Waters for that matter. What I have seen I still consider comedy, though a very particular kind of comedy. And maybe it does cross the line at certain points. The IMDB lists Female Trouble as Comedy/Crime/Horror, and no one argues with the IMDB, right?

        FWIW, the master of trans body horror is David Cronenberg. Of course, Cronenberg is the master of all body horror, and I could probably make the argument that all body horror is at least vaguely trans related. That said, Cronenberg is often very explicit about it: Rabid and Videodrome play around with tons of gender stuff, and even Seth Brundle understands that merging with his girlfriend is the key to his salvation.

    5. avatar
      Anna
      May 14, 2012 at 23:39

      I love all kinds of horror! I look forward to your articles!!

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