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Why playing trans people for laughs at Tropfest is lame

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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