Must-watch film: Gender Troubles—The Butches

I finally got to see Gender Troubles: The Butches after a whole year of waiting! This film has been made available for the next two weeks for free as an International Women’s Day present! It can be accessed here.

Gender Troubles: The Butches is a documentary that interviews five butch lesbians on a variety of issues affecting butch lesbians. Here is the filmmaker’s statement:

“I felt a need to make this film because as a butch lesbian myself I have experienced so much isolation. I often felt that I was the only one like this. Growing up in a rural area I had no role models. I could not find a future for myself in the women in my life. Not in my family. Not among friends or at school. Not in the adults in my world. Not in newspapers, magazines, television or the movies. I was left to figure it all out by myself. I don’t want other butches, especially younger ones, to feel like they have to go through it all alone too.

When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area when I was in my 20s after college I discovered others similar to myself there. I was relieved. But 30 years later I still find that many of the myths and stereotypes about butches like us persist. We are still battling for our right to exist and to be ourselves. Insults, insinuated or shouted, still occur. I continue to find degrading caricatures of people like me. Realistic and positive images of butches are still lacking in the media.

My butch friends had gone through many similar situations but we had rarely shared our stories, often out of shame. As a result we didn’t know how common our experiences were. And we had been under the erroneous impression that we each had to bear these burdens alone. My butch friends inspired me to do something for us and to acknowledge and appreciate our own lives.

So with the help of my friends, we made this film to validate other butches, most whom we would never meet, and to let them know that we know what it is like. They aren’t the only ones. We have been there too and they are fine just the way they are.

With this film I feel we are like the citizens of Dr. Seuss’s Whoville who shout all together
​“We are here! We are here! We are here!” so we can be heard and claim our space.”

I am so happy to see positive, authentic representation of a group of butch lesbians who are proud and happy with who they are. What a treat!

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Lesbian film: If These Walls Could Talk II (2000)

The idea behind If These Walls Could Talk is that the same experience happens with different people in different time periods all in the same house. The viewer sees how the experience changes over time. In the first film, three different women have abortions, the first one when it was still illegal. In the second film, three different lesbian relationships occur all in the same house, but in different time periods. It’s like watching three short films in a row all with a common theme. If These Walls Could Talk II is one of the good lesbian films. This one is a mainstream, Hollywood film, and it’s full of celebrity actresses you will recognize. It portrays lesbians in a positive light and has a happy ending. Or at least, the second and third sections have happy endings!

The first segment, set in 1961, tells the story of an elderly lesbian couple who have been hiding the true nature of their relationship their whole lives. They are living together and love each other but other people view them as a pair of friends and maiden aunts. Now don’t panic about me giving away a spoiler, but one of them dies. The real story is not about the fact of her death but about the aftermath and how difficult it is to grieve alone when no one understands the nature of your relationship. Absolutely clueless family members come along and disrespect the surviving spouse because they have no idea the two women were in love. There is no legal protection giving her ownership of the house she helped pay for and lived in for many years of her life. The film expertly explores the endless consequences of heterosexism and the invisibility of lesbians. It is very well done and is definitely the highest quality segment of the film. However, it is heartbreaking and hard to watch.

The second segment occurs in 1972, when a group of four college-age lesbian friends are living together in the house. They are cheerful and upbeat, they are out and proud, and they are working on the feminist revolution. This segment deals with the conflict between the college-educated lesbian feminists and the butch/femme lesbians from the bar scene. I wasn’t around in the 1970s, but from reading Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers I know that this was a real conflict. (For more information, see chapter 8 of her book.) The lesbian feminists are dealing with a “lavender menace” type situation in their feminist group on campus. The straight feminists are scared of being viewed as a lesbian group, so they don’t want to work on lesbian issues. Tension and drama erupts. The next conflict is when one of the friends meets a butch woman in a lesbian bar and starts dating her. The feminist characters believe she is being repressed by wearing a tie and that she is “dressing like a man,” even though she is actually just dressing like herself. Tension and drama erupt again. These are really interesting historical situations, and this sort of conflict still does happen. There is still a disagreement among lesbians about whether butch/femme are roles based on heterosexuality or whether they are natural personality types that have nothing to do with men. In the film, it is portrayed in a rather simplified way. Naturally, since it’s a mainstream Hollywood film, it doesn’t get into the specifics of feminist theory, and it basically portrays the lesbian feminists as a bunch of jerks who don’t want women to wear ties. Despite the oversimplification, I really enjoy this segment. It’s by far my favourite of the three stories. (This might be because the story is interesting, and it might have something to do with the really hot butch/femme sex scene.) *shifty eyes*

The third section takes place in 2000, when a happy lesbian couple is trying to get pregnant using a sperm donor. The revolution has concluded and lesbians are just regular people living their lives and having families. The stars of this section are Ellen Degeneres and Sharon Stone, and it really reflects their sunny personalities. All the jokes are very Ellen, and Sharon Stone is downright silly. It makes a very happy ending to the film, especially when they dance to the song Everlasting Love. Despite how happy this section is, I find I don’t like it very much. It’s a bit too silly for my taste, and I find it annoying that Sharon Stone acts like a clown.

Most of the time when I pick up this DVD to watch it, I only watch the second segment. I have seen it so many times I can sing the lyrics to the songs that are in the soundtrack.

One of the things I like about this film is the historical footage that occurs between the segments. I suppose this is a minor detail, but I really like that the viewer is set up for each time period with videos of social issues from that period. The footage of women’s liberation marches, Gloria Steinem speaking from a podium, and early gay pride parades is really cool to see. It reminds you that these things really happened, even though the films are dramatizations.

Some of the other actresses you will recognize are Natasha Lyonne, who regularly plays lesbian characters (Orange is the New Black, But I’m a Cheerleader), and Chloe Sevigny, who was also in Boys Don’t Cry. Apparently Michelle Williams is known for Dawson’s Creek. I never watched that show but I sure like her in this film!

I think you can watch the whole thing right on Youtube. I found one poor-quality video of the entire thing, and lots of sections of the film with better quality. This is definitely worth owning on DVD though!

Lesbian film: Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011)

This is on the list of good lesbian films because it was created by women for women and stars an actual lesbian! As well as being a lesbian film, it’s also a sci-fi B movie, so if you don’t like that genre then it might not be for you. My partner and I loved it—we were totally into its quirky and geeky humor, and we actually watched it twice in the same weekend. The second time, we made a friend of ours watch it and she didn’t laugh at all, she thought it was weird. Some people just don’t know how to appreciate a really good bad movie!

This is the story of three lesbian space aliens who are kicked out of their home planet because their big emotions are bad for the ozone layer. The idea is, on Earth, they will fall in love and get their hearts broken and then they will no longer be full of emotions that will damage their home planet. Each of the three aliens has a different approach to dating. One of them dates an Earthling, Jane, (played by lesbian comedian Lisa Haas), another one goes on as many dates as she can with different women, and the third is hopelessly in love with another alien and isn’t interested in anyone but her.

While the aliens are trying to fall in love and get their hearts broken as per the instructions from their home planet’s government, their movements are being tracked by a pair of men-in-black characters whose job is to prevent alien-human interactions. One of the men-in-black is a “dumb cop” character and the other is smarter and although he’s a trainee, he is much better at his job than the trainer. The two have lots of time together while sitting in the car doing surveillance, and the conversations they have are full of weird, deadpan jokes. At one point they are talking about donuts, and it seems to be just a conversation about donuts at first, but when one of them says he won’t eat Boston creme donuts because he doesn’t like when the creme hits him in the face, all of a sudden the double entendre of the entire conversation becomes evident. It’s so deadpan though, you almost can’t even tell if it’s deliberate. I’m still giggling over that donut scene. 🙂

The alien characters do a parody of monotone speech and expressionless faces that comes from the bad alien movie genre. At first it seems as though the monotone speech is going to be annoying, but I feel like the actresses do a good job of letting their feelings show even while trying to be expressionless. What they’re feeling shows in their eyes even though their movements are purposefully stiff. I think they did a good job with the acting.

The special effects are bad on purpose too, keeping with the genre. The spaceship they fly in is a takeout food tray, and it flies comically across a fake starry sky. I just love it.

According to the Internet, this film is available on Netflix. It’s not available on Netflix in Canada though, and I could only get it by ordering it on DVD. It came from Germany for some reason, which is cool because now I have an envelope that says “Priority mail from Düsseldorf,” which I find very cute. In the U.S.A. you can rent it on Amazon for $5. Totally worth it.

Lesbian film: Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

I am writing a lesbian film series, and typically I will only write about films that depict happy lesbian stories, however this film cannot be left out of the discussion even though it’s a tragedy. Many films kill off lesbian characters or make them go back to men at the end just because the creators of the story don’t like happy lesbians and assume the audience won’t either, but this film is not like that. This is a true story and the reason it ends in tragedy is because Brandon’s life really did end in tragedy. It’s not a fictional cautionary tale about how you should not become a lesbian or else you’ll go crazy and die, it’s a real-life case of homophobia/transphobia killing someone and it brings to light that injustice.

My review series contains lots of older films, and obviously since this one is from 1999 I assume many of my readers have seen it already. Feel free to discuss it if you want to; I’m sure you have thoughts on it.

Brandon was a young working-class lesbian living a rough life of alcoholism and crime, and she moved to a new area to start over living as a man. She made friends with a new group of troubled youths and dated other girls all without them finding out she wasn’t really male. This worked for a period of time until her new friends finally found out that she was female. What followed was an onslaught of homophobic abuse mostly coming from men, and it didn’t end well.

Popular belief is that Brandon was a trans man who was subjected to transphobia. I believe she was a lesbian subjected to misogyny and homophobia. Carolyn Gage wrote an excellent essay called The Inconvenient Truth about Teena Brandon which can be accessed here. If you have any interest in this story, this is the essay you should read about it. Gage points out that Brandon was a survivor of incest and that her behaviour can be more accurately described as the behaviour of an incest survivor rather than an “innate gender identity,” as the transgenderists want to believe. Gage cites research on the female child’s response to incest that is relevant here. Incest survivors will sometimes identify with the aggressor and imitate his behaviour in order to become the powerful instead of the powerless. They also dissociate from their female bodies which are a source of trauma and powerlessness and create new personas for themselves. As Carolyn Gage reports:

“Brandon is reported telling Brodtke [her therapist] she wanted to be a male, “to not have to deal with the negative connotations of being a lesbian and because she felt less intimidated by men when she presented herself as male.” (Jones, 83) If this is true, what Brandon told her therapist was not that she felt like a man trapped in a woman’s body, but a woman trapped in a world where it was dangerous to be female, and especially dangerous to be lesbian.”

Brandon’s mother was harassing her and trying to out her as a lesbian and she had to file a complaint with the police. She was nowhere near being able to live safely as a lesbian.

“Jones’ book does not record any attempt on Brodtke’s part to challenge Brandon’s internalized lesbophobia. There is no record in her narrative of efforts to supply Brandon with information about lesbian culture or lesbian history, information about lesbian coming-out groups or groups for young lesbians. There is no record of her attempting to connect Brandon with an adult lesbian who could counsel or mentor her. The “gender identity disorder” (GID) diagnosis reflects the historical heterosexism of the mental health field, which has traditionally understood gay and lesbian desire as evidence of the desire to become a member of the other sex.”

After a brief time in therapy, and without ever treating her trauma related to sexual abuse, the doctor referred her for sex change surgery. Apparently, the answer to helping a girl with sexual trauma is to perform surgery on her genitals.

“Instead of a diagnosis related to trauma, the therapist apparently sent Brandon home with information about “gender reassignment” surgeries, which would include such procedures as suturing the vagina, removing the breasts, ovaries, and uterus, transplanting the nipples, constructing an appendage using skin grafts from the thighs, and administering steroids. Brandon’s friends reported that Brandon expressed a marked ambivalence about these recommendations.”

Carolyn Gage describes how to help a traumatized female recover, and it involves reintegration with the self, not continued dissociation. Sex-change surgery effectively affirms the alternate persona that the traumatized female has developed as a coping skill and brings her farther away from reintegration. Gage also points out that labeling the traumatized female’s PTSD responses as an innate gender identity protects her perpetrator (abuser) because it takes him out of the picture. Her essay is spot-on, and of course, her pro-woman analysis really angers the transgenderists.

I discussed Carolyn Gage’s essay with my partner, who was a bit skeptical. My partner pointed out to me that homophobic doctors have long assumed that homosexuality was caused by trauma or sexual abuse, and so diagnosing a transgender identity as coming from sexual abuse may be just as inaccurate. Fair enough. I cannot state for certain that Brandon’s gender dysphoria is a result of trauma, but neither can anyone state for sure that her dysphoria wasn’t the result of trauma. I think at the very least this issue needs to be explored before a transsexual diagnosis is made—traumatized individuals need to first be treated for trauma before being referred for surgery. Not all traumatized children will grow up to be transgender, and not all trans-identified people have a history of trauma, however, when someone in fact has been traumatized, we should not be jumping right into a gender identity diagnosis without addressing the trauma symptoms.

In the film, even though Brandon is assumed to be a trans man, there are noticeable references to her being a lesbian. Near the beginning, her cousin says to her, “Why can’t you just admit you’re a dyke?” When she is outed as female among her new group of acquaintances, they don’t become violent because she’s trans, they become violent because she’s a lesbian: the violent men specifically say they are going to go and fix some dykes. (By fix, they of course mean beat and rape.) If this was transphobia, and not homophobia, wouldn’t they have used the slur “tranny” instead of “dyke”? The film presents specifically homophobic violence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the real-life men who did this to her had specifically homophobic intentions as well.

Once it is known that Brandon is female, the homophobic bullies turn toward her girlfriend, Lana, as well. Lana stands by her “boyfriend,” insisting that she is male, and doesn’t think of herself as a lesbian. But there are a couple of details in the film that raise questions about Lana. I cannot say anything about the real-life Lana who dated the real-life Brandon, but the Lana in the film is presented as though she may not have been straight. At one point when Brandon and Lana are having sex, Lana sees down Brandon’s shirt and notices the top of her breasts that are showing over her binder. I’m pretty sure a real-life FtM would make sure to bind tighter than this so that her breasts do not show. It seems to me that this is an attempt by the filmmakers to make us wonder whether Lana realizes that Brandon is female. Later, when the two men are forcibly pulling down Brandon’s pants and forcibly holding Lana’s head toward Brandon, telling her to look at her “boyfriend”‘s parts, Lana refuses to look. Is she just being polite, knowing that Brandon doesn’t want to be looked at, or is she refusing to confront the fact that her lover is female? I was left suspicious that Lana knew Brandon was female and was refusing to consider the possibility of being a lesbian.

This reminds me of something I heard second-hand from a Facebook friend. Apparently there are online butch/femme communities where women talk about specifically wanting to be with FtMs. These women obviously don’t want to be with biological males, or else they would be, but they don’t seem to want to be seen as lesbians either. I haven’t met any of these people personally, but this seems to be a thing. While watching the film I wondered about Lana. The filmmakers subtly implied that Lana was one of those women who likes to be with a man who is female, who doesn’t see herself as a lesbian but gets to be with a man who is less dangerous to her than a biological male would be. We could get into long arguments over whether these women are lesbians or not, but we won’t come to any conclusions other than this one: lots of females who love females don’t want to call themselves lesbians these days.

I don’t think I can possibly say this often enough. I am a proud and happy lesbian; I love masculine women as women and I don’t think they need to change or pass as men. I am happy to be with a woman who defies the patriarchy’s expectations of women and I think her version of womanhood is fantastic. It makes me sad that there are quasi-“femmes” out there who want their partners to transition. If someone really, really needs to transition, then fine, but right now there is incredible pressure on tons of women to transition even though they’d likely live happily as dykes. This pressure on everybody to transition is rooted in homophobia.

At the end of Boys Don’t Cry I cried hot tears of rage. It’s infuriating the way Brandon was treated and none of that should have ever happened to her. She deserved to be allowed to be herself and dress the way she wanted and love other women and live safely and free from violence. This remains true whether she was a lesbian or a trans man.

After Boys Don’t Cry, my partner and I discussed the case of the trans man who was assaulted by a taxi driver recently. It’s the same situation. A woman tries to live as a man, but as soon as the biological males around her identify her as female, they subject her to corrective sexual assault. This is because men want to remind rebellious women that they are female and will be treated as such, no matter how they identify. The whole “bathroom debate” has oversimplified the fight for transgender rights. It’s one thing to allow a trans man to use a male bathroom, but it’s another thing to address the fact that if she doesn’t pass she will be subjected to male violence against women on the basis of her female biology. Transgenderists aren’t going to liberate trans people from oppression without addressing patriarchy and male violence.

Although Boys Don’t Cry is a sad story with a tragic ending, it is an essential title in the lesbian film collection, because this story is extremely important and we need to make sure that this sort of violence stops happening.

Lesbian film: But I’m A Cheerleader (1999)

This film is a very silly satire that makes a point about gender roles and heteronormativity. I think you’ll either love it or hate it, and I can’t predict which it will be. The Wikipedia page about this film is excellent, and after reading it I feel like I don’t even have anything else to add, but here are my thoughts anyway.

I’m one of the ones who loves this film. It was directed by a lesbian and it’s definitely for a gay/lesbian audience. The satire works for me, and there is some good chemistry between the lesbian characters. Seventeen-year-old Megan is a cheerleader and a typically feminine girl whose family and friends realize she is a lesbian (even though Megan doesn’t realize it yet). They stage an intervention the way you do when someone is an alcoholic, and they send her off to a residential treatment center that “cures” homosexuality. The intervention is full of stereotypes about lesbians. For example, one of the items that proves she is a lesbian is that she’s a vegetarian, and her dad holds up tofu inside a ziploc bag like it’s an evidence bag in a crime. Like I said, it’s very silly. Then the treatment center is even sillier. It’s painted in very tacky, cartoonish bright pink and blue like a Barbie house, which represents the silliness of gender roles. The gay boys who are there are taught masculine activities like chopping wood and fixing cars, and the girls are taught to take care of dolls and do domestic chores. They do silly therapy activities to try to determine what made them gay and to try to become straight. It’s obviously not working even though they pretend it is, which is part of the satire.

Megan tries her best to become straight, not wanting to disappoint her parents, until a group of ex-ex-gays shows up at night to help them secretly sneak out and go to a gay bar. (Yes, that’s right—ex-ex-gays, meaning gay people who went to treatment to become straight and then became gay again.) Megan gets to see the alternative to what she is being taught, which is to accept her sexuality and live with it. She also falls for another lesbian in the program.

The depiction of gays and lesbians is very stereotyped, but in this film, that is exactly the point. We are meant to laugh at the cartoonish pink and blue and the boxes people are forced into. This film is for you if you like silly satire, but if you are sick to death of stereotypes you might just find it annoying.

Lesbian film: Portrait of a Serial Monogamist (2015)

Portrait of a Serial Monogamist is a cute and funny film that I have absolutely nothing bad to say about. You will definitely enjoy this movie. It was written and directed by a team of two, one woman and one man, and the star of the film is a lesbian in real life.

The “serial monogamist,” Elsie, is a Jewish lesbian who works in Toronto’s television industry. She is always in a relationship, although not always the same one. At the beginning of the film we learn that she hates being dumped, however, she has a tendency to break up with her girlfriend when things get rough and then find a new one right away. This time when she breaks up with her girlfriend, her friends urge her to stay single for a while and work on herself before getting into a new relationship. What follows is Elsie clumsily learning how to be single, while dealing with the aftermath of her breakup and while still meeting interesting new romantic prospects.

Elsie is a successful woman in her forties, which is refreshing since so many lesbian films are about really young women. I think even straight women would love this film since it positively portrays middle-aged women, who are often invisible in mainstream films, in a charming and relatable way. If you’re looking for some feminist-friendly lighthearted entertainment that passes the Bechdel test, check this out.

You can purchase or rent it on ITunes in both Canada and the U.S.A.