[Content note: mention of graphic violence, transphobia]
On 27th March of this year, 23 year old C. Acoff was murdered in Cleveland, Ohio. The murder was incredibly brutal. She was stabbed multiple times, then tied with a rope to a block of concrete and thrown in a pond. She was one of the many trans people who have been murdered in the last year. The brutality of her murder isn’t even that unique. November 16th marks Transgender Day of Rememberance and you can go here to see one list of victims. There are 67 people on the list, but it is by no means comprehensive, being based on a collection of news items mostly from the USA, Brazil, Mexico and Malaysia. Another list contains 238 victims. If you extrapolate that to the rest of the world, the number becomes even more frightening.
It’s important not to forget the brutality that comes as a result of transphobia. Rarely is there a form of hatred and discrimination that is responsible for such violence. To be trans in many parts of the world (which includes western countries) often means having to consider “will I be violently killed” before every single place you might go.
It seems clear that the graphic nature of violence that’s often committed on trans people has something to do with the perpetrators’ hatred and disgust. One of the common excuses given is when a trans person’s gender identity is somehow seen as a direct threat to the perpetrator’s sexuality. For example, if someone the perp considered a cis woman “actually” turns out to be a trans woman (or in the perp’s mind, a “man”).
Because of this, dehumanising trope that trans people (especially trans women) are out there to “trick” cis men into having sex with them is particularly serious business. It’s contributing to a culture of incredible violence. I actually think it’s very comparable to the relationship between the Blood Libel and anti-Semitic pogroms. The various cliches of trans people being “deceptive”, engaging in “sex by false pretenses” and so on are also used as pretexts for the trans panic defense (similar to the more commonly known gay panic defence). The idea being that for a cis man, discovering that a woman he was/is/intended to be with is trans is so objectively horrible that torture and murder is the only natural response. The “sex by deception” meme also happens to be common in popular culture, being one of the strongest ones associated with trans people in mainstream media.
You’d think that with all this being true, a film-maker who wants to use the “sex by deception” trope in a short film would be really really fucking careful. They’d carefully consider how they’d set it up, what connotations they would explore and how their presentation is likely to be received by a general audience (where the majority of people are likely to be transphobic). You’d of course be really fucking wrong, because I’m talking about last night’s winner of Australia’s Tropfest. To summarise the movie:
In Bamboozled, Pete bumps into his ex at a bus stop. The twist? His ex has had a sex change (a really tasteful use of the year’s theme, ‘change’) and is now a man. They catch up over a few (hundred) drinks, rehashing the two years they spent together. Their connection is clear. The next morning, Pete wakes up next to his ex (a man) and he clearly regrets his decision. Yes, their shared history and obvious chemistry is null and void because, ‘Ew, gross, I slept with a boy.’ Cue audience laughter. Then, he finds out it’s an ‘elaborate hoax’, and instead of sleeping with a Helen-turned-Harry, he’s just slept with a Harry. And he’s shamed for it. Cue more audience laughter. [Source]
The thing has already played out in the media and there have been lots of responses. The best one to start with is this article by Jez Pez which deals specifically with the transphobia in the movie.
The director has already commented and defended himself. It’s always enlightening to see someone angrily assert that “I’m not a bigot therefore I didn’t do anything wrong”. That’s what happens when we let people self-label as non-bigots. There is no magical guarantee that you won’t fuck up — not if you single-handedly founded every civil rights organisation ever.
He also explained that he meant the movie to be sweet because Pete doesn’t care about the gender of this person, just that it was someone he likes. Now, if that doesn’t signal the death of the author then nothing does. It feels weird to say that the director is objectively wrong about the meaning of his own movie but here I just can’t help it — it’s really not doing what he claims. This is a premise for an interesting movie but not for Bamboozled.
Ultimately we still have a variation of “sex by deception”. Even though it’s not the most blatant version of it, it still enforces the association in a society that murders trans people. That’s our society in case you were wondering. The film still invites cis people to evaluate trans people based on the cis people’s sexual responses to them. Fuck that x infinity.
And of course the people that say “it’s just a movie” (or “political correctness gone mad” or “people are too eager to be offended” or some such) don’t actually have to consider whether or not they’ll be beaten to death tonight.