Film review: Jane Anderson’s Normal

Park City, Utah-- January 21, 2003

[editor’s note: unlike every single review and press release I have seen regarding this film, I will respect what the transsexual character would wish and refer to her as Ruth and use female pronouns.]

Today I had the opportunity to attend the premiere of Normal at the Sundance Film Festival. I went in fully expecting to hate it. After all, most films about transsexual women are terribly off the mark in terms of accuracy, or creativity, or both.

I was not heartened by the image of a line of panties on a clothesline used on the promo card being passed out at the festival, and I was even more chagrinned when it appeared over the credits in the movie. The notion that transsexualism can be symbolized by clothes stems from the common conflation of our condition with crossdressers, who have a fetish for certain types of clothing.

Yet another male actor playing a male-to-female transsexual left me feeling pretty apprehensive, too. Out transsexual actors are rarely allowed to play others in our community, let alone non-transsexual roles. I doubt I’ll live to see the day an out transsexual actor plays a lead role in a movie put out by a major Hollywood studio. We’ll see what we can do, though!

As I braced myself for the worst, it never came. In fact, after that, it just got better and better, with what I consider to be one of the most sympathetic portrayals of late-onset transition I have ever seen. Issues of marriage and children are rarely issues for women who do this at an early age, but it is probably the most difficult part of this for older women. It’s the emotional equivalent of someone transitioning in her teens telling her parents.

Writer/director Jane Anderson’s great script (adapted from her play “Looking for Normal”) has a surprising amount of appropriate humor, and the lead role was acted superbly by Tom Wilkinson as Ruth. I was especially taken at how well the British native did the non-descript male role many transsexual women adopt to fit into American society: likeable, yet unremarkable, since they have suppressed a huge part of who they really are.

Jessica Lange plays Ruth’s wife Irma, and she is fantastic as a small-town wife struggling to reach acceptance in fits and starts. I can see this film being very helpful for older transsexual women who lived much of their adult lives in a male role. Watching it with their wives and talking about it afterwards might make a difference in acceptance. While it is becoming more and more likely that a marriage can survive a sex change, it is still the exception to the rule. Perhaps this film will help with that.

I feel Normal did an outstanding job of illustrating the main difficulties faced by blue-collar transsexual women in small towns: lack of access to resources, and an almost crushing pressure to conform to the expectations of family, church, and community. No wonder so many of them go into deep denial, only to have their feelings emerge at a time when it is much more difficult to make a physical transformation that conforms to society’s expectations of “female.” The fact that they do not shy away from issues of suicide was important. The pressures facing women in this situation are incredible, so it's great to see a movie showing someone getting through the hard times, bottoming out, and reaching a happier place in her life.

In terms of following Ruth’s example, Normal is also a textbook case of how NOT to go about the practical aspects of transition, if you ask me. When Ruth first starts to deal with her feelings, she shows up at work at the farm machinery factory with perfume on, without having done a single thing—no facial hair removal, no grown out hair, no hormones, no therapy, nothing. The guys on the line aren’t too receptive to this, as you might imagine, and things worsen when she wears earrings a few days later while still looking completely male. Luckily for Ruth, she has always been an exemplary employee and has an understanding employer who moves her off the floor to an office job following a fight in the locker room.

As I note in my section on setting up your timetable, perfume, painted nails, earrings and other female accessories early on are the best way possible to get fired and lose your source of income. It will also only bolster the idea in many peoples’ minds that you are a crossdresser. It’s also not a good idea to sing in falsetto to the radio as Ruth does. It teaches you bad habits that make finding your female voice harder to do. Ruth goes from a frumpy middle-aged father to even frumpier middle-aged woman, a sobering reminder that you’re probably going to end up looking like your own sister in most cases. If you’re reading this and considering transition, time’s a-wastin’! Make sure you have realistic expectations of what you can expect as best and worst case scenarios, and make sure you’re willing to live with that.

Above: Ruth and her wife Irma going out to hang panties on the clothesline.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film was the attempt to seek guidance and acceptance at church. Both are very active members, and watching the agony of them being slowly ostracized from that fellowship was unfortunately far too accurate. (The week of the film’s premiere, the Catholic Church released a secret doctrinal statement denouncing transsexuals.) Randall Arney plays the Protestant minister brilliantly. After Ruth divulges her feelings during a marriage counseling session, the minister searches for guidance in the Bible (he quotes Ephesians 5:28-9 and other commonly recited passages). When this and other attempts to discourage Ruth fail, the minister resorts to ostracism and eventually tells Irma she is allowed to leave Ruth without sin. Having the minister start off working to save their marriage and in the end trying to dissolve it was a perfect way to expose the hypocrisy of many so-called Christians who seem to forget John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” The most important word in that passage is whosoever.

Hayden Panettiere does a standout job as the tomboyish daughter, as did Clancy Brown as Ruth’s salt-of-the earth yet accepting boss. One of the more interesting twists in the film is one some late-transitioners have reported: giving their spouses permission to have sex outside the marriage. Ruth’s boss ends up getting involved with Ruth’s wife in an interesting triangulation of desire. I often wonder if the motivation for this is more than just altruism, but a way for a certain vicarious thrill for the late transitioner, imagining herself as one or both partners in the extramarital affair they themselves can’t or won’t have.

The truly brilliant dramatic turn in the film is the parallel between Ruth’s transition and another type of transition happening to Ruth’s father, a cruel and domineering man who tried to beat and humiliate Ruth’s gender feelings out of her as a child. As the film progresses, the father slowly wastes away with dementia, changing from cantankerous old man to whimpering invalid. In the way Ruth’s wife is able to stay in her marriage, Ruth’s mother is able to stay in her marriage despite a transformation into someone very different than the man she married.

Perhaps this film will help by shattering some stereotypes. It’s certainly not realistic to expect any single creative work to represent such a diverse group of people as male-to-female transsexuals, or even to represent late transitioners with complete accuracy. Overall I feel this is a fine film and one I would highly recommend, especially if you are married or over 30.

The most interesting and frustrating part of the Sundance premiere for me was the question-and-answer session after the film, when everyone, audience and director alike, referred to the transsexual character by her former name Roy and used male pronouns. When writing this review, I had to rack my brain to remember her female name (I finally recalled it was the Biblical character who showed such compassion). Even in a place as open-minded and accepting as Sundance, it was not possible for people, myself included, to get past appearances and think of her in terms of female name and pronouns. It shows how far we all have to go before the visibly gender-variant will move beyond having mere tolerance to having full acceptance in mainstream society.

Normal is scheduled to premiere on HBO Sunday, March 16, 2003.