A Transamerica Essay

This essay aims to comprehend the idea of gender reassignment in society as it is shown in the film Transamerica (2005). The research looks at how gender reassignments are portrayed, their effects, and potential future solutions.
The terms "sex" and "gender" are used to distinguish between variations resulting from social, cultural, and psychological systems and those that are biological in nature. People who do not identify with the two traditional genders have become more prevalent in recent years and are referred to as transgenders. Therefore, gender reassignment refers to the process or technique through which transgender people change their current physical and sexual features to match the gender they identify with. This paper explores whether the film Transamerica reveals a positive or negative outlook on gender reassignment. The paper further examines the impacts of the representation on the society as well as whether there is any change in perspective from the filmic representation. The paper deploys both feminist and queer theory perspective in its examination of the cultural workings. Detailed evaluation of the film coupled with dissertation analysis to interpret the underlying messages within a selection of reviews of the films is also employed in the paper.

The analysis reveals society’s scepticism when perceiving gender reassignment. Consequently, mass media productions of the said groupings remain encapsulated by disapproval and misinterpretation. It is apparent that the increased prominence of this ostracized society does not lead to the enhanced acceptance. This perception is likely to remain unchanged until the prevailing discussion within the social order open up to a new perception of gender that is not divided by the twofold categorisation model, meaning to be masculine of feminine.

Gender Reassignment

The subject of transgenderism and gender reassignment has seen multiple interpretation and controversies in the last few decades. At a biological level, there is a general agreement that men and women have obvious differences that support their chromosomes and reproductive capacities. However, there are various debates and controversies as to what degree being masculine or feminine follows from their physical nature.

An array of conflicting sentiments and depictions from queer theory to queer cinema and trans identities have been a major staple for mass media production. Caroline and Gamman (1995) explain that “representation is an arena in which meanings about gender can be and are contested and constantly renegotiated”. The increasing acknowledgment of trans-identity and gender reassignments, especially in the film industry, enables to question the evolution of trans-gender issues in the society. The term “new queer cinema” has recently been used to describe any film that explores formal boundaries and narrow-minded classificatory thinking, resulting in more mainstream feature productions as the filmic genre continues to push the limitations of society’s understanding of gender, transgender and gender reassignment . There is so much to learn by looking at how films depict sex and gender. Seemingly it is not just about representation of truths but about new paradigm of examining the perceived “truths” and how they are constructed and maintained (Cowan, 2009).

It is for this reason that the following analyses of Transamerica aims to examine the cinematic portrayals of trans identity in relation to their resourcefulness in regards of the aims and the aspirations of trans lives and the overall cultural impact of these productions.

Transamerica (2005) is a perfect case of a film that has elicited a form of critical excess and merits more recognition than it has generally been accorded. This is due to the tendency to lose sight of the far issues pertaining to gender, particularly concerning transgenderism and gender reassignment. Transamerica follows the life, travels and travails of Bree Osbourne, a southern Californian transgender. Bree, formerly known as Stanley Chupak, is about to undergo a gender reassignment. However, her therapist Margaret will not allow her to undertake the critical procedure without confronting her ghosts of the past.

Incidentally, she receives a call from a hippie in New York named Toby Wilkins who is in search of his biological father. Prior to the telephone conversation, Bree knew nothing about Toby since he was a product of relations from his hey days as Stanley in college. Toby is a petty criminal and hustler who seems to be troubled with drugs and apparently lonely. He has nobody to look upon since his mother had already committed suicide and he is estranged from his sexually abusive stepfather. He desperately needs someone to get him out of jail. Concealed as a Christian social worker, Bree bails Toby out of jail. Without disclosing Bree’s real identity or transgender status, they set out on a journey to Los Angeles, where Toby hopes to reconnect with his biological father and fulfil his dreams of becoming a pornographic actor.

Through their journey, Bree and Toby encounter numerous fascinating and perturbing experiences. On arrival at Toby’s stepfather place, Bree is dismayed by their relationship and opts not to leave Toby with him. They sojourn further to Bree’s parent where they are subject to mixed emotions by section of the family. It is here that Bree discloses her identity to Toby. The latter is generally disappointed by Bree and leaves after robbing Bree’s parents. Bree reconciles with her parents and returns to Los Angeles to conduct her gender reassignment surgery. Later, Toby reappears, and they have a wonderful reunion.

Transamerica film reinforces and challenges the contradictions emerging from sex and gender perceptions in the society. Traditionally, transgender people were expected to mask their struggles and challenges. This film, however, looks to demystify this phenomenon by openly documenting Bree’s past and her need to reconcile with her past before her gender reassignment procedure. Bree struggles to blend in to this environment and is unsuccessful. At the beginning of the film, Bree tells the therapist that “I try to blend in, keep a low profile. I believe the slang terminology is living stealth.”

Critics argue that the film places too much weight on the labelling of Bree’s condition and on her desire for surgical transition and incidentally disregarding a window to depict trans identities as a norm. The general feeling advanced by the film is that the failure to conform to the normal is viewed as the development one and illogical deviation. From her therapist’s perspective, Bree is suffering from gender identity disorder, which is until today considered an illness according to the Diagnostic Statistical manual of mental disorder. For this, she has to take medication.

The suppressing of one’s biological sex in cultural history, as opposed to the film,

according to Ryan (2009), helps to ensure ‘trans subjectivity as totally invisible and as a

fleeting mode of being that indicated passage from one physical state to another’. However, Transamerica also establishes itself within the traditional twofold framework of male and female. The film’s success demonstrates that transsexuals who aspire to cross and pass are widely accepted by main stream media. Bree does not want to live as a trans person forever. This, therefore, calls into question the safe and comfortable classifications of male and female. The continuation of Bree’s journey towards gender reassignment surgery is augmented through a collective personal progressive narrative, stories of origin and completion, namely from wrong bodies to right ones, tales of professional and personal success (Agid, 2006). Accounts of switches from male to female and vice versa are portrayed as daring progressions of discovery and naming of one’s self. It is a subtle departure from epiphany to acceptance, pronouncement and obligation to transform. This transition is the personification of the renaissance and the early stages of new life and passing. It is during this process that some form of gender stability is required, along with an assuagement of the apprehension and discontent of gender dysphoria (Nataf, 1996).

The media have been partly or largely responsible for promoting the idea of transsexualism as a genuine condition for which gender reassignment surgery is an appropriate response. The movies have so popularised the idea of sex-change that the patient may come to the psychiatrist already sure of his diagnosis and treatment.

In one scene, Bree stumbles upon her former friends who are in a transgender grouping and seem to be at ease with their alternative gender. This instance mirrors the angsts and worries that many transsexual people face around concealing their birth gender and transitioning to their preconceived ones. In this respect to the above illustrations, Transamerica highlights a true-to life depiction of one’s trans issues. Bree, like any other individual, is trying to cut her niche and find a good and better life for herself.

Transamerica is not so much a transgender film but a film on family. After some devastating incident, Bree has to look up to her parents that are the only people in the area that she knows. She is faced with challenge of reaching out to her non-supportive and indifferent family to offer her support. This scene is well known to many trans people whereby one parent is reconciliatory and accepting while the other does not accept the true nature of the offspring while younger siblings are caught in the middle.

Bree's mother is the quintessence of a dominant; she is a person who cannot understand Bree’s actions and bring herself to respect her predisposed orientation. After meeting Toby, she is ecstatic since she feels she has the opportunity to raise a normal son. It was the possibility that she feels Bree robbed from her when she took off from home. Sydney, Bree's sister, captures the "overindulged yet loveable sibling" personality succinctly. She recognizes her mother’s behaviour and temperaments towards Bree. Despite feeling a sense of loss over the transformation of her big brother, she is always ready to lend a sympathetic ear.

From the film, one can also clearly deduce that there are significant issues of acceptability within the society. Bree is forced to take jobs that do not involve much of contact with the outside world in order to conceal her identity. She feels like she is not entirely normal and has to seek the help of her therapist to make the all-important choice of transitioning from male to female. This revelation reflects on a bigger challenge for trans people to try and fit in within the society’s preconceived notions of gender.

The film also presents gender reassignment as a moment of self-discovery and realisation. Before the sexual reconstruction, Bree has to reconcile with her past in order to reinvent herself. She takes up the challenge of connecting with her son Toby. She also explains herself to her family who were initially disapproving her transition from male to female. At the end of the film, one encounters stronger and reassured Bree unlike the character at the beginning. This acceptance depicts that societies are rapidly moving away from the traditional roles of man and woman. That Bree’s family finally accepts her position as trans individual and embrace her to show that others, through patient persuasion and sensitization, can accept this as normal as well.

It would appear that continuous skewed representations of specific social groupings have a relationship with their social status and power (Goldstein, 2009.) However, despite trans people being more visible in popular culture than they were ten years ago, they still have a long struggle ahead in re-situating and re-educating society when it comes to matters of gender alternatives, which the society as a whole has continuously stigmatized and repulsed primarily as a result of fear and ignorance.

However, as Angel Lin (2008) stated, ‘as long as there is social inequality and as long as the powerful groups of people in society continue to fix essentialist identities for others (or conversely, ignore or deny the existence of others who are different from them), there will still be the need for identity struggles and identity politics’ (Angel, 2008).

Whilst the media continue to battle and come to terms with the uncertainty and destabilizing that trans identities induce, one should never forget that changes in the media do not necessarily equal changes in life.

In conclusion, it is evident that Transamerica continually highlights the social, cultural and political inferences of gender reassignment. Questions such as sexuality, sex reassignment surgery and non-accepting family members are clearly denoted. Furthermore, concerns about discrimination, the twofold sexual categorisation and civil rights initiatives, which have been the primary emphasis of the transgender movement, are also depicted. This paper has clearly examined the portrayal of gender reassignment in the film Transamerica. The paper has also gone on an in-depth analysis of the impacts of gender reassignment on families, societies and individuals while offering concluding resolutions on the development of this social issue.


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Scherr R. (2008). (Not) Queering white vision: race, queerness, and intersectionality. Far from Heaven and Transamerica. Retrieved from http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc50.2008/Scherr/index.html.

Tucker D. (2006). Transamerica [video: DVD]. USA: IFC Films. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUOsYIYs7ls.

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