Paleo Retiree writes:
For no particular reason, The Question Lady and I spent a couple of recent evenings watching docs that we found on Netflix Instant about trans people. The first one was about a transvestite while the second concerned a female-to-male transsexual.
James Rasin’s 2010 doc is about Warhol superstar Candy Darling, who was born a boy on Long Island, who went to NYC to fulfill his fantasy of himself as a woman, and who died before turning 30. It’s interesting and informative in a fairly standard-issue (not a criticism) way: it features interviews with many well-known survivors of the era (Fran Lebowitz, Bob Colacello, Gerard Malanga, Julie Newmar, Holly Woodlawn, John Waters) as well as lots of others; and it highlights a ton of miraculously-turned-up archival stuff. The film does a good job of making clear Candy’s originality as a drag queen, which was that while onstage or onscreen she didn’t create a grotesque parody of a woman, she really, via willpower and self-belief, attained a sort of womanhood. She invested her dreams of being Kim Novak and Marilyn Monroe with such fervor that her delusions could sweep you along — assuming you were open to such an experience, of course.
The picture doesn’t seem to leave much out; when I did some online research after it was over I didn’t discover much about Candy that the movie hadn’t told us about or at least hinted at. The one big question the movie doesn’t go much into: did the hormones Candy was taking cause the cancer that killed her?
Candy had one very peculiar life: she may have had a few years when she enjoyed closeness to Warhol and access to the cool-kids’ tables at Max’s Kansas City, but she was generally poor, on speed, lonely, often begging friends and family for money, sleeping on sofas, and sometimes turning tricks. The film is a vivid reminder of what grotty lives many of these now-well-remembered people lived, and of how tattered and dangerous a place New York City was back in those particular glamor days. It also made me have another look at my view of gay lib. It can be tempting to say that gays hit more peaks of dizzy genius back when they were still mostly in the closet than they do in these banal, very out days. And couldn’t we really use more genius and less in the way of cardigans and white picket fences? But, pre-liberation, gays really were in near-constant danger of being ridiculed and beaten-up, and on a simple human basis who would wish that on anyone?
Candy’s ride was a very short one but she packed a lot of living into it. Her dad was a brutal alcoholic while her mom was supportive; she discovered Hollywood movies, makeup and costumes at a very early age. She got to attend, as a movie star, a movie opening in her dreamed-about Hollywood; she appeared on magazine covers; and she acquired near-legend status in certain small circles. She also believed Warhol’s “we’re a movie studio” proclamations and felt crushed when he dropped her and moved on to exploiting other oddballs and freaks. She hit bottom with a huge thump. Where do you go, and what do you do with yourself, if/when you’ve burned up your allotment of luck as well as everything you have to offer in the way of talent and skill by your late 20s?
The film employs a framing device that’s rather tedious: Candy’s good friend Jeremiah Newton, who has kept her ashes and artifacts for decades, is arranging to bury the urn alongside his mother’s in a small upstate cemetary. I could have used fewer of these scenes, but since Jeremiah is one of the film’s co-producers maybe that was the price of having him on board. And it is fun comparing Jeremiah’s portly, bent-over, white-haired working-class-esque current physical self to his thin-as-a-rail, proto-punk/dreamboat young days, when he looked like a member of Television. What the years will do to a body …
The Question Lady and I teased each other a lot as we watched the film. She, a ditzily glamorous six-foot blonde, could easily have had a Warhol-girl phase, while I (in type, an arty-intellectual punk/hippie postgrad hanger-on) would have had a very hard time spending more than an evening in that particular crowd. I’m as gay-friendly as can be, but the Warhol world of the ’60s and ’70s was something a little too special even for me. All those drugged-out, meandering attempts at being campily witty and brilliant; the pathos and the giddiness; the solipsistic raptures; the mirrors, costumes and dressing rooms; the upside-downness of the sex roles; the whimsicality, degradation, grotesqueness and arbitrariness; the backstabbing, psychodramas and drama-queening … So far as real life goes I’m about as enthusiastic about spending time in that universe as my wife is about hanging out in the Earth First! eco-fringes and arts-geek blogging circles where I’m most at home.
We let ourselves get fascinated by this 2011 doc about Cher’s daughter as she initiated and lived through her “transition” (the word “transition” is used a LOT) from Chastity to Chaz, from lesbian woman to sort-of-man. We visit doctors, old lovers, hospitals, and rallies; we hang out in the kitchen and bedroom of Chaz’s cute, sunny little L.A.-area house. We learn that creating-a-penis surgery still isn’t very advanced or appealing, though, who knows, maybe that’ll come along too.
A lot of the film focuses on Chaz’s relationship with his girlfriend Jennifer, who isn’t consistently thrilled with the goings-on (and who, as I learned via the web after we finished the movie, broke up with Chaz not long after a sequel to this movie was finished). Jennifer had fallen for and moved in with a woman, after all. She wasn’t looking for a guy — and now here she is sharing a house with, if not a guy, a somewhat guy-like creature. Jennifer makes efforts to be supportive but she didn’t sign up for this, you know? Plus: she has her own dramas and issues — and where’s the space in their new life for them?
The movie, directed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, is very proficient if also anything but deep. It’s done in the current reality-TV style (mostly: real-ish-seeming events shot handheld with multiple cameras, crosscut with later interviews about those events), and it doesn’t do a lot of questioning of or musing about what it portrays. Modern PC-media attitudes dominate the film, and you’re assumed to be happy — like all well-meaning and up-to-date people — to go along with them.
That didn’t stop these particular viewers from doing some marveling and wondering of our own, though. About Chaz, for one thing. What does Chaz do with himself, exactly? It’s hard to tell. No job seems to be part of his life. In early adulthood, as Chastity, she had a band but recorded a grand total of one song before giving up on music. At another point she fell into depression and spent two years not doing much more than playing videogames. She became an addict and went through rehab. Chaz doesn’t, and Chastity didn’t, seem to have a lot that’s productive or even postive going on, to be honest. So what does the eagerness to execute a sex-switch really signify? And what does her obesity, let alone her collection of ill-mannered, yappy little dogs and creepy hairless cats, represent?
In Chaz’s mind, having his/her breasts lopped off and going on testosterone shots is the only way she has to solve her big general case of life-unhappiness, and the film encourages us to think so too. (Chaz was one of the film’s producers.) The Question Lady and I couldn’t help discussing some hunches the film doesn’t endorse, though. Maybe Chaz is the not-very-driven child of an overwhelming diva-mom who, when Chaz was little Chastity, regularly brought her onto her hit TV show to boost ratings. You could be excused for wondering if Chaz is someone who just doesn’t know who he is in a larger sense, and who’s maybe desperate to feel special. And maybe what the surgery gives him, after a lifetime of feeling like nothing in particular, is some sense of a bold identity as well as — who knows? — some time of his own in the limelight as a star. (Take that, mom.) The press and the public make a fuss out of Chaz’s transition, Cher has a hard time handling it, friends throw parties to celebrate it, Chaz is invited here and there to be an inspirational speaker on behalf of the trans set … How delicious it all must be for him. But for how long is the exhilaration likely to last? Chaz has a lot of issues in his life that seem unlikely to be completely solved by a sex-change treatment, however dramatic and telegenic the gesture may be.
Another topic is one that I thought about more than The Question Lady did: we’re told over and over that post-op Chaz is now a man, but is he really? Speaking as a representative of that unfashionable group, namely men who have spent their entire lives as males, I have my misgivings. But first, a moment of wishing-everyone-well: while I have almost zero real-life experience of trans people, I’m happy to accept as a fact that a small percentage of people really are born unhappy with the sex of the body they’re in and would like to do something about it. I genuinely hope they figure out satisfying ways of coping; I don’t imagine that life is easy for them; and I’m happy to play along with whichever pronoun they want me to use, though I do hope they won’t switch ’em around too often. It gets to be annoying and inconvenient. But whatever Chaz is (and whatever it is he wants us to think of him as being), as a bunch of practical facts he has — unlike me and my entire born-male cohort — two X chromosomes, a vagina, no dick and no balls, zero experience of having lived his young life as a boy, and testosterone in his system that has never had any way of getting in there except via hypodermic needle. These strike me as deep and extensive differences between him and we folks who have traditionally been thought of as male. I don’t feel a big need to decide whether Chaz is a woman or a man, btw. I’m happy thinking of him as “a lesbian who has had her breasts removed, who is on a lot of testosterone, and who wants to be referred to as ‘he’.” What’s wrong with that as a classification?
The film also offers, without making anything whatsoever of it, lots of evidence for the biological basis of sex characteristics. After he’s spent some time on testosterone, for instance, Chaz’s skin coarsens, he grows hair on his face and his butt, and he becomes much more aggressive and short-tempered. So, as PC as it is in other ways, the film undermines the usual PC case for sex, er, gender, er, whatever as a socially-constructed thing. Hey, amazingly enough, men and women really are different. Another small subversive thought that occurred to me: perhaps Chaz’s newfound happiness, or at least assertiveness, has more to do with the testosterone therapy than with the sex-change surgery. Maybe all Chastity really needed to jolt her out of her depressive sluggishness was to start wearing a testosterone skin patch.
The trans set has developed its own vocabulary, its own account of life and its own preferred social agenda. And — while wishing these people well on a personal level — I disagree with much of it and see no reason why other everyday people should submit to it either. For example: As Chaz becomes a symbol and a spokesperson — finally, a purpose! — we meet a group of parents of young children who we’re told are trans. Chaz visits them and happily babbles about how these kids (thanks to the pioneering efforts of people like Chaz) won’t have to go through the miseries previous generations of sexually-confused people have had to endure. Instead, they’ll be put on hormone therapy at 10 and will start with the surgeries as teens. At this point in the film my eyebrows shot to the ceiling. At 10? As teens? Really? Adults can do what they want with drugs and surgeries as far as I’m concerned. But kids are still kids, and kids are unavoidably prone to glomming onto fads and styles, they have phases they go into and then emerge out of, and they have moods, plans and passions that come and go like the weather. It’s not like I don’t sympathize with youngsters who are genuinely unhappy with their bodies and who are impatient to do something about it. But what about those other kids — the ones who convince themselves at 12 that they’re in the wrong bodies, who submit to hormones and surgery, and who then, at 25 or 35, wake up to the fact that they were mistaken all along? Seems like quite a likely scenario to me, especially given how eager many parents and teachers are these days to nurture their charges’ neuroses, fantasies and anxieties. So I’d put a minimum age of 18 or 21 on beginning the process. Besides: haven’t we got too many of our children on drugs already?
All in all, in these days when trans people and the trans cause are making the headlines near-daily, and when the trans agenda has imposed itself on the larger public discussion, we found “Becoming Chaz” an interesting doc to expose ourselves to. Reality TV-style shows don’t have to be great to deliver some interesting sights and information, or to spark off some fun-to-wrestle-with thoughts.