Escapism (a Caitlin On … post)

24 September, 2012

Sundays are by tradition a day to relax. Trade your heels for a ratty pair of sneakers, put your hair up in a ponytail, and bum around in a pair of sweats. On Saturday you ran your errands and on Monday you go back to work but now, for a lovely twenty-four hours, you are responsibility free. Some people chose to spend that time in worship, others with family, and still others at the local gym getting buff and hot or at least checking out those who are. Ultimately people are opting to hide from the every day by engaging themself in activity that leaves weekly stressors behind and engages them in the now. For me that now-centred activity is movies. Old or new, A-list or B-cheese, black and white, Technicolor, or digital doesn’t matter; just give me a plot and a character to root for. It’s my escape, my chance to leave my world behind and slip into someone else’s. So it came as quite a shock this last Sunday when the exciting suspense/horror film I was watching thrust me back into my world.

A friend and I went to see House at the End of the Street. This was a four star suspense piece; the writers set complications and clues up in advance, revealed back story at key moments, and provided several throw your popcorn everywhere scares. I cannot in any way fault the writing. On near equal level were the actors. Lawrence and Shue were excellent and Thieroit was very James Dean (they even allude to Dean in one scene). But the big suspense-filled twist is what knocked me head first down the basement stairs landing me with an abrupt crash back into my world.

Those of you who do not wish to have the end of the film revealed should stop reading now. If you don’t plan on seeing this flicker, don’t mind spoilers, or are just painfully curious, feel free to read on.

I’m not joking; I’m going to give away the end.

… Shh! Spoilers …

The film’s final twist hit me in the spot I use films to escape from: my dysphoria. (I’m serious this your last chance to stop before I give aways the big reveal.) When Josh was little, he was damaged in a way that plays on the Norman Bates motif. He witnessed his sister’s accidental death and, after druggie dad buries her in the woods, crack-addled mom, in a new twist on forced feminisation, declares Josh is Carrie Anne and forces him to live as her for ten years before he, inevitably, murders his parents. This reveal did not so much knock me out of the movie’s world as it did merge it with my own and raised two major issues for me.

The first is the essential nature of transsexualism, that is dysphoria, living your life as one person while knowing you are someone else. I imagine this plot twist would be particularly triggering for trans men. The distressing image of a little boy in a dress pleading “I’m not Carrie Anne” will resonate with the darker natures of their pasts and dysphoria. As a trans woman, I also found the scene dysphoria triggering, as I recalled moments from my past that, though reversed, were equally damaging.

The second is how feminisation of the masculine is depicted as an act of insanity. Now, it cannot be argued that what mom did was sane or rational, clearly she was broken by crack and grief, but the use of this forced feminisation as the back story for the demonisation of Josh was difficult for me to see. In part because Josh was victim to a process that runs an uncomfortable parallel to fantasies from my past. A lot of trans people don’t talk about the gender swap fantasies they had while growing up; they are uniquely personal and can often be a source of shame or a hinderance to the process of transition. In fact, I know almost nothing of the swap fantasies of trans men; this is not a belittling of trans male struggles but a recognition that these struggles are so personal there is a reluctance to discuss them, even with those who would be likely to understand. I know more about trans feminine swap fantasies because I had them and because brave authoresses (like Bornstein, Serrano, Boylan, and Connelly) have written about theirs. It seems the scenario painted by the writers of House at the End of the Street is typical of the male to female swap fantasy, that is, the feminisation is almost always forced. This is not because we don’t want to transition but because the social stigma of someone perceived as male acting female is so great that we cannot admit, even in our fantasies, that this is something we want. In the fantasy the feminisation is forced because it frees our minds of having to accept responsibility for what we are feeling and we can enjoy the result without the guilt of acknowledging we are rejecting the “gift” of masculinity. The film’s demonisation of feminisation gives its fatal thrust in Josh’s last scene where, locked in his padded room, he accepts he is Carrie Anne.

These are the thoughts that intruded on my quiet Sunday movie escape. But, that’s the thing about escaping, eventually you need to return. As much as we say we want to get away from our weekly stressors we cannot help dragging them into our idyllic free time. Worship can leave us feeling we haven’t been doing our best (“forgive me for what I have done and what I have left undone”), our families drive us crazy with their when are you getting married and can you do me a favour questions, seeing McBuff at the gym reminds us why we had to go to the gym to begin with, and a good movie always leads you back into the world you thought you had left behind.

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