19
Apr
10

Tribeca’s Controversy Kerfuffle

Here we go.  Good morning and good afternoon dear readers, I have a few somethings to say.  It’s possible, if you’re a regular follower of this blog that you read my recent post in support of the boycott of Ticked Off Trannies With Knives.  It’s also likely, if you are a follower of this blog that you are at least passingly familiar with my activism in support of transgender rights.

Now normally, I try to stick to the brass tacks real world, food, shelter and basic human rights kind of activism.  I wade into the contentious fray of language politics and media representation only with trepidation and care.  There are plenty of other folks who make a mission of being the watchdogs of our image as transgender/transsexual folks.

I care a great deal about these things myself, but I lived and worked in Hollywood for too long and know too much about the media machine in general, to often get behind that uphill-bound boulder.  I generally let Sisyphus handle that thankless task hirself.

But my friends, sometimes there are things about which I feel compelled to speak up.  Things that represent too much of a tipping point to ignore.

The whirlwind of controversy that has been surrounding TOTWK is one of those things.  If you’d like to read details of what I’ve had to say about the film itself, please see my previous post “Ticked-Off Trannies With Blogs”.  In summary though, after weighing the positives and negatives of the film and it’s presentation, I found it not to be “transploitation” so much as simply exploitative of trans people and the very real dangers we face.

I realize that I have based this assessment simply on the trailer that is available online and the commentary offered by those who have seen it or who were involved with the production.  That said, c’mon, we all have seen movie trailers that made us exclaim afterwards, “Well, guess I’ve seen the whole movie now!” or “D—n!!  I’m glad I didn’t waste 12 bucks and two hours on that piece of s—t!!”

And don’t tell me all you armchair Eberts out there haven’t said even worse on less info!  The simple fact is, we all do it all the time.  There is such a barrage of information and “entertainment” that we are bombarded with almost every minute of every day, that the only way to survive in this data cloud of a world is to make constant snap judgments about what we like and what we don’t like.

Quite enough is presented in the trailer for and the media representation of TOTWK for me to say with confidence that it is offensive to transfolks and insensitive to the issues we face everyday.  And besides all that, it’s really the media presentation of the film and the image that it is trying to project that are the basic problems for me.

If this movie was called “Dangerous Drag Divas With Daggers”, I’d probably even shell out my 12 bucks to see it!!  I like some cheesy-ass movies y’all!!  John Waters is an idol of mine!  And one of my all time favorite movies is “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka”!!  Not exactly high art.  And heck, I absolutely love Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” movies!  Raging gore fests and great fun!!!

But TOTWK tries to rep itself as a “fun” message movie.  A retro camp, “…homage to the exploitation films of the ’70s and ’80s….Inspired by the devastating increase in brutal hate crimes against people in the transgender community…” – Roya Rastegar in the Program Notes for the Tribeca Filmguide.

An argument could be made for the artistic merit of this movie as the much respected transgender actress Alexandra Billings has done on her blog, and reprinted on the website for TOTWK.  And I’m afraid she has the advantage on me of having actually screened a copy of the film.  Nonetheless, I must respectfully disagree with Ms. Billings.

As I said, I believe this film represents a dangerous tipping point in the public image of transgender people.  Simply by it’s inclusion in the Tribeca festival it has gained a notoriety that virtually guarantees it will be viewed by a great many potential allies who have never previously had any experience of an actual flesh-and-blood transgender person.  The image presented of transgender women in TOTWK will contribute to the shape of their impression of us as a whole.  And it is a false one.

If there were a wealth of positive images of transgender people out there already, this would not be such an issue.  But there is not.  Even now, I still often meet people whose primary knowledge of us comes from Jerry Springer.  Who assume that just because I tell them I am a performer that I must do a killer Judy Garland impression and have a wardrobe filled with rhinestones!  I’m a pretty fabulous woman mind you, but I don’t do Judy (or Streisand or Madonna or Marilyn…) and I have kindly requested that if any of my friends ever spot me in rhinestones that they simply shoot me on sight.

I have seen it asserted that at least 3 of the 5 lead roles in TOTWK are played by actual transgender women.  I have no reason to deny this or attempt to disparage the “authenticity” of these women.  In fact as an actor I congratulate them on getting a paying gig.

Just because they are authentic transgender women however does not mean this is an authentic representation of the transgender experience.  It does not necessarily lend credibility to the filmmaker or the whole cast and crew.  It simply means they got cast in the flick.  Which, okay, is big all on it’s own, but that’s another issue.  Just because an actor gets cast does not mean the film is going to be good or the roles respectfully written.

See, for example, almost every role written for African –American actors in the first half of the Twentieth Century.  Or check out the book “The Celluloid Closet” for a great history of the roles that were available for Gay and Lesbian actors for much of the history of cinema. Also it is worth noting that while these transgender women acted in the film, the words they speak belong to the writer.  A cisgender gay man.

I’m sure the actors had some artistic input, but the overall content sprang from the mind of Mr. Israel Luna.  I cannot fault them for or assign merit to the content based on these women’s presence in the film.  Gods know, I’ve done some stuff myself that I thank my lucky stars everyday has not yet seen an audience larger than would fit in a living room….  Those are the hazards of being an actor.

My impression of this movie is that despite the presence of 3 transgender actors, the parts they play are very much Drag Characters.  Again, no dis-respect to drag artists, it’s a perfectly legitimate art-form.  But it does not represent the actual experience of transgender women.  Drag Queens are fabulous, entertaining and bigger than life.  But they are generally based on caricatures of women.  And more often than not, they identify as men who are playing women.

Which brings me to Willam Belli.

In all the controversy swirling around this movie what I was finding missing was the voices of the actors actually playing these transgender women.  I read the comments from the filmmaker Israel Luna, himself a proud gay man.  But what I wanted to know, as an actor and a transgender woman myself, was what these actors who represented TOTWKs sole claim to community authenticity had to say.

The first comment I came across was a fairly reasonable statement in the New York Times by Krystal Summers who identifies as a transgender woman and is one of the lead actors in the film.  I found her portrayal of GLAAD’s involvement with the film to be somewhat misleading, but sympathized with her point in asking people simply to see the film before passing judgment.

Again, I sympathize, but do not necessarily agree.  Still, it was nice to read her point of view.

After that, my own life went back into high gear and I lost day-to-day track of the controversy.  I do a great deal of outreach and activism in and for the trans community.  I serve on the boards of a couple of non-profit orgs.  I perform whenever I can.  I write a regular column in an honest-to-gods printed on paper LGBT newspaper that distributes throughout New England.  I have a day job to pay the bills.  And I also make appearances as Miss Trans New England.  Plus all the business of friends and family and just life as a transwoman trying to get through the day in an often hostile world.

Basically I keep pretty busy.

So the next time any of this came back into my consciousness, aside from the odd facebook update, was when it was pointed out to me by a regular reader of my blog that I might take a look at this Willam Belli guy and the things he’s been saying all over the interwebs.

Willam Belli it turns out is one of the actors in TOTWK.  You might also know him from his star-raising performance in Nip/Tuck.  He is not a transgender woman, as you may have guessed by the sudden appearance of male pronouns associated with his name.

I was curious, so I started surfing links.  He’s got a pretty solid website and the IMDB page of a hard working actor doing everything he can to break out and up.  Some pretty decent roles in stage and film, a lot of gay male characters and Drag Queens.  I liked his reel.  I remembered his performance on Nip/Tuck as being pretty good.  It certainly f—ked me up when I watched it.

From there he seems to have made a big push to play more transgender characters, continuing to develop a very drag queen-esque persona.

I’ll be honest with you friends, as I poked around his work and personal website, I was kinda starting to like the guy.  This, despite the fact that I had been told he was attacking friends of mine in the community.  I even kind of enjoyed some of his work.  A clip of his cabaret act called “Choose your Own Adventure” was cute and funny.  Additionally, he seems to be well-liked by several transwomen whom I greatly respect.

Then I watched the trailer for a show pilot called “Tranny McGuyver”, that is described on YouTube as being “conceived by Willam Belli … & Patty Wortham.”  On his IMDB page he is listed as Writer (Creator) and Executive Producer.

However in the comments section of the YouTube page, apparently as part of a discussion of the word “tranny”, under the screenname “noextrai” he has this to say: “maybe that’s why it never made it to series. i didn’t write it or come_ up with it. just acted and improved in it. Tranny is derived from the word TRANSVESTITE (which most drag queens are), not Transsexual. it’s not meant to offend anyone”

This flatly contradicts the description below the video, which was also apparently uploaded by “noextrai” so presumably he should fix that if it is indeed false.  But since it also contradicts almost everything else I found about “Tranny McGuyver” I’m guessing his statement was simply “creative reality”.

As for his statement that, “Tranny is derived from the word TRANSVESTITE … not Transsexual.”  Really?!?!!?  I’m kind of a word geek myself, I used to read the dictionary for fun when I was a kid and to this day cannot look up a word without becoming fascinatedly side-tracked.  And just to be safe I did a quick Google search for “tranny etymology” and got not one single definition that agreed with this statement.  In fact few of them completely agreed with the others either.  Most defined the word as coming from transsexual, transgender and/or transvestite.  But I digress.

Getting back to “Tranny McGuyver”.  I’ll let the dialogue from the opening of the trailer speak for itself:

Female uniformed officer speaking to a distraught woman: “Ma’am, can you please describe the assailant?”

Woman: “He was tall.  Athletic…”

Officer Mac (Belli’s character): “He sounds cute!”  (Woman begins to sob)

Officer Mac to Woman: “Pull it together Rapey!” (Then speaking to the female officer) “She’s a girl, you talk to her.”

“Rapey”!!?!?  Really?!?!?!  I’m not exactly the PC Police myself, but in what universe is that okay or even funny?????  I think even Lenny Bruce would have frowned on that.  If a line like that was delivered onstage in a live show, I’m sure the audience would do that quiet look around awkwardly and shuffle in their seats thing I’ve seen happen during uncomfortably offensive moments.

The rest of the trailer left me simply nonplussed.  Even if it had been absolute genius, I doubt I’d have enjoyed it after an opening like that.

From there I went link surfing, looking up all the things Mr. Belli had to say in regards and response to the controversy surrounding TOTWK and the conversations going on around it.  What I found was quite a bit of ugliness.  Belli is quite prolific in his commentary.  He seems to have taken up the torch of Defender of TOTWK and manages to comment on just about every mention of the movie I have found.

As I started pouring through all the rants, discussions and diatribes, I tried to remember to put myself in Belli’s shoes.  This seems to be his highest billed role to date.  In a film that is being featured in Robert friggin’ DeNiro’s much respected and influential Tribeca film festival no less!!  I know I’d be excited!

And now his big break is suddenly being threatened with criticism coming from all directions.  Is it any wonder that he’s a little defensive?  He’s backed into a corner.

To be quite honest, speaking not as activist Lorelei but as Lorelei the actor, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have done the movie myself if I had had the opportunity.

I felt like he was being a little bit of a bully in his commentary though and the more I read, the more I thought this.  There wasn’t any one instance where I could say he was completely out of line.  He seems savvy enough to avoid that.  But overall, the tone and tactics of his comments did not paint a pretty picture.  More often than not, he shuts down his opponents with sarcasm and bitchiness rather than intelligent argument.  I could quote any number of comments, but nothing I could quote is really specifically damning.  It’s more of an overall tone to his remarks that got under my skin.  I encourage you dear reader to fire up Google and check it out for yourself, his comments are easy to find.

Still, I was having difficulty deciding whether to say anything.  I had begun writing this piece, but was stalled.  I have little desire to find myself in the middle of all the nastiness and name calling flying around.  I also don’t want to appear as if I am attacking anyone myself.  Willam Belli did go after a number of my friends and associates pretty viciously I thought.  But on the other hand, they did put themselves in the line of fire.

Further, I myself have defended the use of the word tranny.  I use it myself and I like it.  I believe in the repurposing of words that have been used against us.  However I also know that many other people find it offensive and I think it’s important to respect that.  I actually got a question during a live Q and A I did last week about whether “tranny” was okay to use or not.  My answer boiled down to, “When in doubt ask.  And then use it accordingly.”

I do not believe that the film TOTWK, the filmmaker Israel Luna, or Willam Belli has followed this guide themselves.  Metaphorically speaking, they have never asked whether “tranny” was okay.  They have dictated terms themselves.  They have said, essentially, we are using this word whether you like it or not.  Rather than respect the experience of transgender people and the realities of our day-to-day existence, they have proclaimed themselves grand arbiters!  They will control the horizontal and the vertical, so get in line or get off the boat!!  At least that’s how it seems to me.

By this evening I had pretty much talked myself out of finishing this blog posting.  There are simply so many variables.  I have supported the boycott, and feel that there is good reason to do so.  But I’m not totally comfortable with having not seen the film myself.  I could be totally wrong about it.  I’ve been wrong about things before and I’m likely to be again.  Maybe it’s actually awesome and empowering or at least too much fun to seriously protest.  I doubt it, but it’s possible.

But then tonight I read a particularly well thought out and insightful negative critique of TOTWK on Advocate.com by transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox, star of “Transform Me” on VH1.  She makes some great points.  And apparently she’s seen the movie too!

Then, low and behold, right down at the bottom in the comments section is a remark from Willam Belli, following just the same pattern as his other comments.  It was time for me to say something.  Thanks for the push Willam!

Finally, I want to encourage you dear friends and loyal readers to check out the available information about this movie yourself.  Watch the recently re-edited trailer (thank you Mr. Luna).  Examine the opinions so dynamically expressed on both sides of this issue.  Most of all, Think for yourselves.

If after doing that, you find this film and the arguments supporting it to be lacking, join the protest.  Write your own blogs.  Tell your friends.  And if you can, go to NYC on April 23rd and join the Opening Night Education Rally being organized by trans-advocacy group MAGNET!!

And then follow the best advice I have seen from people on both sides of this issue.  Get out there and make your own movies about transgender people!  Make art about the trans experience!!  Write or produce TV shows about all things trans!!  Just go do it!

If you need an actor, you know where to find me!!!

Slainte!

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2 Responses to “Tribeca’s Controversy Kerfuffle”


  1. April 20, 2010 at 1:08 am

    hi hi.
    i’m a huge John Waters fan. did you see the part on Out.com where he said his favorite word in it was “Tranimal?” i came up with that! was super excited.
    The part you wrote about Lenny Bruce spinning in his grave. lol.
    I love you for that. I’m happy if something offends someone or push a boundary because otherwise, it’s all been done and it’s status quo.

    Laverne and I have had really good dialogues and she and all the squirrels are hoping to meet up while there for Tribeca. really like that girl.

    If you email me, i’ll show you all the comments the vitriolic statements Ashley Love wrote about me then deleted. I screen capped them. Advocate asked me to write a follow up to Laverne’s piece too. It details the lies that were spread which i defended (and am glad I did).

    WILLAM
    p.s. i’m not after drag/trans or any parts in particular (other than fun ones that pay). I say YES to almost everything. Hell, I just did a vampire nazi movie. If you put your face by the a gutter and look down at the bottom, you’ll find my taste level.

  2. 2 Erisis
    April 20, 2010 at 2:35 am

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting Willam. I do appreciate it. I have read the John Waters blurb and, awww hell, what, like I’m going to try and argue with John Waters about taste?!!!? Every time I read the word “tranimal” all I can think of is that cheesy 80s tv show “Manimal” and then it’s just a pop-culture downward spiral…
    I look forward to reading your piece for The Advocate. I still have some pretty strong feelings in regards to TOTWK, but will really have to see the movie before I can reliably say much more about it. I’m also looking forward to Kate Bornstein’s review for Out.com though! I have great admiration for her and was privileged to meet her at a lecture she did at Amherst College a few weeks ago. Wonderful woman.
    Vampire Nazis though, now THAT’s something I can get behind!!!


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