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Film review: Jane Andersons Normal
Park City, Utah-- January 21, 2003
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 Ill
live to see the day an out transsexual actor plays a lead role in a movie put
out by a major Hollywood studio. Well 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. Its the emotional
equivalent of someone transitioning in her teens telling her parents.
Writer/director Jane Andersons 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 Ruths 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 societys 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 Ruths 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
thingno facial hair removal, no grown out hair, no hormones, no therapy,
nothing. The guys on the line arent 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. Its 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 youre probably going to end up looking like your own sister in most cases. If youre reading this and considering transition, times a-wastin! Make sure you have realistic expectations of what you can expect as best and worst case scenarios, and make sure youre 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 films premiere, the Catholic Church released
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 Ruths 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. Ruths boss ends up
getting involved with Ruths 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 cant
or wont have.
The truly brilliant dramatic turn in the film is the parallel between Ruths
transition and another type of transition happening to Ruths father, a
cruel and domineering man who tried to beat and humiliate Ruths 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 Ruths wife is able to stay in her marriage, Ruths 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. Its 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.