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Why playing trans people for laughs at Tropfest is lame

On the weekend, Bamboozled was awarded the best film prize at the Tropfest. It has sparked controversy for its homophobic and transphobic narrative devices. The film portrays an encounter between Peter…

Bamboozled won best film at Tropfest on the weekend, causing much controversy. Tropfest

On the weekend, Bamboozled was awarded the best film prize at the Tropfest. It has sparked controversy for its homophobic and transphobic narrative devices.

The film portrays an encounter between Peter and a man who introduces himself (implausibly) as Helen – an ex-girlfriend of Peter’s – before explaining that he now lives as Harry, having had a sex change.

The film goes on to depict the intimacy that develops between the two as they go on for a drink to catch up.

Cut to the following morning: the two have ended up in bed, when suddenly a camera crew led by “the real” Helen bursts in on a mission of revenge. It has all been an elaborate set up. Harry is not Helen. Peter has “actually” slept with a guy. He has been “bamboozled”.

Shamed and exposed, the humiliated Peter recoils from the camera, which lingers on his denuded buttocks. Audience laughter. Applause. And credits.

Were it not for these final moments of the film, a generous reading might praise the affirmative and unusually open-minded portrayal of the potential flexibility of male sexuality.

Peter’s openness to developing some form of intimacy with Harry – an unmistakably masculine man who happens to have a transgendered personal history – would open up expanded possibilities for identification and connection.

A caricature of transgender identity

But is Peter supposed to have connected with Harry because Harry is “really” Helen, or because of Harry’s transgendered trajectory, or is he attracted to Harry’s masculinity and self-presentation in the present?

Any of these possibilities would be conceivable, but the film’s woeful caricature of female-to-male (FTM) transgendered identity and its minimal attempt at character development make the answer to all of those questions unclear and bamboozling.

The film makes no attempt to engage with the realities of gender transitioning.

Harry tells the astonished Peter that his transformation included facial reconstruction to take on a “Mediterranean wash”. The film trivialises the difficult process of gender transition as though it were an overnight decision.

Then it brushes off its unconvincing representation of transgender self-presentation by making comedic reference to the cliché of “it’s amazing what they can do these days”.

Surely this is all just a bit of good fun? The sort of harmless play-it-for-gags style that Tropfest repeatedly engenders?

The prejudice trans people confront everyday

This would all be fine, perhaps, if trans people didn’t confront stigma, prejudice and the threat of ridicule, humiliation and violence on a daily basis.

Trading on public ignorance and anxieties around trans experience for laughs only compounds these pressures and is pretty lame and gauche in this context, all things considered, and not very interesting: a cheap laugh at a vulnerable group’s expense.

When attraction develops between trans individuals and their prospective partner(s), each must negotiate normative expectations around gender, sexuality and intimate relationships. The film makes light of the challenges involved in this process in a a clichéd montage of scenes of developing romantic intimacy.

In the real world, Harry would in fact be brave to take a chance on Peter and face the risk of potentially violent rejection (that is, if he were actually transgendered). Similarly, the film’s decision to portray a young man, Peter, as willing to acknowledge and act upon his attraction to such a man would be refreshing, were it not for the conceit – implicit in the narrative – that Peter’s attraction is based on believing Harry is “really” Helen.

Just how open-minded, then, is this exploration of intimacy? What exactly has been exposed here? What does the shame of the film consist of? Are we meant to believe Peter is attracted to the woman Harry has moved on from in his process of transition?

Is this what would make his attraction to this person OK?

The threat of exposure

In the words of the Bamboozlers, the shame consists in the fact that Peter “slept with a guy” and enjoyed it. Norms around sexuality are shown to interlock with norms around gender, but the film makes little attempt to dismantle this apparatus of shame or its system of reinforcements.

The film depicts the “real” Helen and the camera crew as nasty sorts of people, and this depiction at least is warranted and fitting. The exposé sequence that serves as the climax of the film is frighteningly accurate in its depiction of how sex and gender norms exert much of their disciplinary force in our society.

The ever-present threat of exposure and humiliation in the face of a moralistic public gaze is what keeps many people from acknowledging and exploring their sexual and gendered variability.

What a shame that Tropfest and the film makers cannot see how Bamboozled itself participates in this apparatus of gendered and sexual shaming.

I would have been much happier if, at the end of the film, Peter had eye-balled the camera and said, “So what? I was attracted to this person and enjoyed what I shared with him”.

This attraction would be valid if it occurred on account of – or despite – their gendered trajectories or gender identity. Any of these positions would be perfectly legitimate.

Having the courage to explore one’s attraction to individuals in a way that confronts the coercive pressure of sex and gender norms – and challenge them where necessary – is something to be proud of – not an inevitable source of humiliation.

If a sequel is made, I’d like to think it might explore the process through which the character of Peter comes to this realisation. But that would require some brave and intelligent filmmaking.


Further reading:
Bamboozled wins Tropfest by turning gay sex into a dumb joke
Has Tropfest gone troppo? Implications for Australian film

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16 Comments sorted by

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  1. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. Darren Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Roger Lane

      Roger, your comment is just as overblown as you accuse the author's argument to be. Not sure whether I am offended by the video, but I did think it was pretty lame with a creative sensibility that reeked of the smelly sock pubescence of 13yo boys.

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  2. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    Is it a requirement to be involved in the sociological and humanity fields to be totally devoid of a sense of humour?

    And heaven help if a short film makes a joke about a particular event without a deep exploration of the backgrounds and life stories of the main characters, or provides an ending which is to someone's preference.

    There is an old saying about being able to laugh at oneself. Unfortunately it seems to be in short supply.

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    1. Kane Race

      Associate Professor at University of Sydney

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Humour is no problem Mike bad lame humour and cheap gags should be seen for what they are. There is actually some brilliant comedy based on FTM trans experience, for example check out http://ianharvie.com You might learn something worth learning.

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    2. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kane Race

      Hi Kane

      'Bad, lame humour' is all in the eyes of the beholder, is it not?

      I think that's the whole reason why there is such a diversity of what passes for comedy. Some people find fart jokes hilarious, while others would turn up their noses at them. And I don't listen to comedy in order to 'learn something worth learning'. But that''s just me - you are obviously different.

      In simplistic terms, there is a lot of comedy that you or I might find 'offensive' or simply not funny - and vice versa. So if you don't like it, don't listen to it. But don't over-intellectualise it. It's target audience finds it hilarious.

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  3. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    It was evident from the start that given the maleness of the supposed sex change character, that this was clearly a ruse.

    The guy was so obviously a forever gut and not a sex change person.

    I think this film is being over-intellectualised somewhat.

    To me the ending probably seemed like a good idea at the time, by (presumably) heterosexual writer/director.

    But what he thought as funny and a "twist" ended up biting him somewhat.

    There are worsedaily examples of stereotyping in cinema, tv, media, advertising that could be addressed with the same fervour, but seem to get passed by.

    This film is relatively harmless as most people will find find it hard to believe the "he" was once a "she".

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  4. Casey Schapel

    Social Worker

    So, I don't find the tropfest winner homophobic. I get that it is not actually a comedic short but rather a satirical comment on homophobia in media. But it's cheap and tacky. Furthermore, it's unintentionally but undeniably transphobic. Using gender change to comment on homophobia is shit. Sure, you could argue that it is also trying to make the point on the trivialisation of the trans community in the media but this is where it fails. The director comments that "...he was completely willing to…

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  5. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    "...its minimal attempt at character development make the answer to all of those questions unclear and bamboozling. The film makes no attempt to engage with the realities of gender transitioning."

    Wasn't it a SHORT FILM?

    Still, if you want to be offended, I guess this proves you'll always be able to find a reason.

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  6. Joe Gartner

    Tilter

    So ... comedy should be didactic? Or just inoffensive?

    i don't think that reinforcing the stereotypes of 18 year old homophobes is an egregious crime against anyone, except good taste. Comedy has and always should be exempt from righteous fingerwaving.

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Comedy should push some boundaries, but I guess some limits should apply.

      At some point a boundary gets crossed for all of us.

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    2. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      That's the problem Stephen, they are your limits, not mine.

      So should we set the limits so that no-one's boundaries are crossed? Or do we accept that there is going to be someone who is offended by some things? And if the latter, where do we set the boundaries and who gets to decide?

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Well there are legal lines for a start, and cultural perhaps.

      Would a film lampooning Indigenous Australians as latter day savages eating swamp rat and seaweed be crossing a boundary?

      This film?

      They are not my limits, the film did not offend me in the slightest degree.

      I don't know your limits, but as I suggested, we all have limits.
      If you feel you are "limitless" you are kidding yourself.

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  7. Stefan Treyvaud

    Marcomms Specialist

    Putting aside any deep analysis (over thinking) of the alleged prejudice and phobias in this short film - it just wasn't funny or clever or remotely intelligent. Bamboozled? More like Bafooned!

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  8. Nickipee Nickipee

    logged in via Facebook

    Jeeesus. "Norms around sexuality are shown to interlock with norms around gender, but the film makes little attempt to dismantle this apparatus of shame or its system of reinforcements." Its a stupid little short film, I don't think its really meant to "dismantle" anything.

    "The exposé sequence that serves as the climax of the film is frighteningly accurate in its depiction of how sex and gender norms exert much of their disciplinary force in our society." Were you *really* frightened Kane…

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  9. Comment removed by moderator.