10 Years Ago, No One Knew How To Talk About Transamerica

Photo: Courtesy of IFC Films/The Weinstein Company.
Ten years ago, a movie called Transamerica hit U.S. theaters. It did okay business for an indie, grossing $9 million in North America. The film stars Felicity Huffman — then at the peak of her Desperate Housewives fame — as a transgender woman named Bree who must reconnect with her estranged teenage son before her therapist signs off on a sex-reassignment surgery. Their bumpy reconnection happens over the course of a cross-country road trip. It's not a perfect movie, but it's darkly funny and tender, and Huffman is convincing. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and won a Golden Globe.

But the shiny statuette doesn't tell the whole story of how the world saw Transamerica when it was released in December 2005. It's hard to remember now, especially after a banner year for trans visibility in pop culture (Transparent, Caitlyn Jenner, The Danish Girl, Tangerine, etc.) — but back then, few people even understood what it meant to be transgender. We lacked the vocabulary to talk about trans issues. We were rude without knowing it. We insulted the community even as we tried to bring awareness to it.

That ignorance is reflected in the way we talked about Transamerica, the first cinematic representation of a trans person to grab mainstream attention in the new millennium. Revisiting how movie critics wrote about the film turns up a fascinating lack of trans awareness — and underscores the progress we’ve made in the decade since the film's release. I sifted through the reviews of Transamerica, positive and negative, and what I found blew my mind. Here are a few jaw-dropping excerpts that show what a different world we lived in only ten years ago.

"Like a preoperative transsexual, Transamerica is neither one thing nor the other. It yanks at the heartstrings too much to qualify as an edgy comedy-drama, but it's far too bawdy to make it to the Hallmark Channel," wrote Kyle Smith of the New York Post. Smith probably thought this was a clever metaphor. But it's hard to think of a more dehumanizing way to describe a trans person than as being "neither one thing nor the other." Bree isn't even dignified with misgendering here; she is denied one altogether.

"Transamerica stars Felicity Huffman as a man who feels compelled to become a woman," Roger Ebert wrote, sharing most critics' point of view that Bree is still a man. The assumption that Bree has yet to become a woman because she's not yet undergone surgery popped up in nearly everything I read, as that was a common misconception at the time.

This gem has a little bit of everything: "Writer-director Duncan Taylor's debut feature is a flawed but nevertheless endearing father-son road trip with a distinctive twist: Dad is a pre-op transsexual who's one cut away from becoming a woman, while sonny boy is a crank-addicted, underage male prostitute who has no idea that the 'woman' behind the wheel is actually his father," Ken Fox wrote in TV Guide. Where to begin with this one? There's the conflation of the terms "transgender" and "transsexual," which was rampant in the reviews I read. There's the insistence on labeling Bree as "pre-op," reflecting a fixation on genitalia that takes away from Bree's personhood. The language of Bree being "one cut away from becoming a woman" isn't just grotesque; it robs Bree of her self-determination. And of course, there's the misgendering: referring to Bree as "Dad" and only calling her a woman in quotations — indicating that she isn't really one.

"Huffman is a woman playing a man in the process of transforming into a woman — a prim, conservative tranny, in fact, with a preference for boxy, church-lady suits," wrote Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum. "Transamerica is To Wong Foo but with a pre-op tranny protagonist and a strained parent-child dynamic," Nick Schager wrote on Slant. Ten years ago, we threw around the slur "tranny" with little thought of its impact.

Less overtly offensive but equally significant is the fact that reviewers were so unfamiliar with the idea of a trans character that they didn't know how to describe Transamerica on its own terms. Review after review leaned on the idea of the movie being a "twist" (or "spin") on an established genre. "Transamerica is a routine road-trip comedy-drama with a twist," Roger Moore wrote in Orlando Sentinel. "Impressively realized on all levels, this transgender spin on the road trip boasts an extraordinary central performance," Sheri Linden wrote in The Hollywood Reporter. The problem with that is, of course, that it propagates the idea that a trans person’s road trip is inherently different than a cis person’s, precisely because he or she is trans. By this logic, a trans character is an oddity tacked onto an otherwise “normal” plot.

The point here isn't to dig up skeletons and deride critics for not possessing the awareness or vocabulary that so many of us lacked back then. It’s hard to imagine any respectable critic using similar language now, which is heartening. But when it comes to trans awareness and equality, we've still got a long way to go.

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