Archive for January, 2014

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Frozen’s Elsa as Trans Woman Representation

22 January, 2014

Disclaimer: This is an expository piece on Disney’s Frozen and the connection I, a trans woman, felt with Elsa. Though much has been written about the racial representation and choices made by the Disney Company in regards to Frozen, this essay will not be addressing that topic.

Trigger Warnings: Transphobia, Internalised Transphobia, Transmisogyny, Abuse

Spoiler Warning: Frozen

In Disney’s Frozen, a film loosely based off Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Snow Queen,” Elsa conceals what she believes to be a terrible and dangerous truth about herself. She understands, at an early age, that she is different from others, but in the exuberance and open-heartedness of youth, that difference is neutral, lending her neither a special place nor a villainous one. That changes while she is playing with her younger sister Anna when she accidentally hits her sister with a magic ice shard that threatens her life. With the help of a rock troll Anna is spared, but Elsa is told that her powers are dangerous and expressing them will put others, most especially her sister, in jeopardy. She is taught to conceal her powers and stuff her emotions, which can trigger them, down so deep she becomes numb to them. “Conceal; don’t feel” is her mantra and she becomes a girl numbed by cold isolation and closed doors. The Disney Wiki describes Elsa as “traumatized” by these early experiences and states “Elsa forcibly spent the rest of her life distanced from the kingdom, including Anna, trying to keep her powers from growing out of control and harming those she cares about.” And this fear, according to director Jennifer Lee, is what drives Elsa.[1]

Having grown up as a trans girl in hiding, I found myself relating to Elsa’s story. I have always understood myself to be female. Like Elsa, I did not think of who I was as different or unusual, until outside events forced me to confront how the rest of the world saw me. In the early eighties I sat with other girls my age on a ratty, beige, shag carpet stained mud brown by the tromp of little feet shod in velcro Stride Rites, Winnie-the-Pooh rain galoshes, faux-leather Mary Janes, and pointy-toed cowboy boots. The teacher readied us for lunch by dividing us into two lines, each to march on opposite sides of the hallway, one of girls and one of boys. I lined up with the other girls. The teacher stood in front of the closed door and frowned at the class. “I won’t open the door until everyone is where they belong,” she said. She waited. It took a minute before I felt the eleven pairs of kindergarten eyes staring at me as though I were the village idiot. The teacher walked between the two lines, straddling that divide between little girl and little boy that only adults dared to stand above and stopped in front of me. “You are in the wrong line.” Panic welled up from my four year-old chest into my throat, where it squeezed my voice box shut. It was my first experience with a crippling anxiety that would numb my body and lead to the concealment of my feelings and who I was. Several decades later, I would learn terms like gender anxiety and gender dysphoria, but growing up I could only describe it as being frozen inside myself.

A few years later, I sat on the edge of the flower garden that ran along the side of my grandparent’s stuccoed duplex. The bruises where my cousin and a neighbour kid had beaten me up already appearing as dark splotches on my arms and chest. The beating was a punishment for having caught me playing house with the girls who lived down the street; I was the mother. These young teenage boys who considered themselves strapping examples of manhood stood over me scowling and said my kid brother would be really “fucked up” if I didn’t learn to behave like a boy and not a girl and my father would hate me for being a sissy. The lesson was clear. Conceal who you are so you don’t hurt your family; don’t feel anything or you will expose yourself and hurt the ones you love. It was a hot a summer day and my white t-shirt was plastered to my bruised and aching chest by sweat, but it could have been winter because I was ice inside. Like Elsa, I was numb to everything except the anxiety and fear of what would happen to my family if I didn’t hide who I was. “Conceal; don’t feel” was my mantra.

For Elsa, the conflict between who she is and who others believe her to be comes to a head at her coronation and she has what trans activist and gender theorist Kate Bornstein calls a splatter moment,[2] when two or more identities come in conflict and the result is a terrific splatter. The stress of keeping her powers secret begins to crack and seep through the image of calm, component queen that she is portraying. She begins to freeze the scepter and globus cruciger at the cathedral. At the coronation ball a confrontation with her sister results in such intense anxiety and fear that shards of ice rise from the ballroom floor and cut her off from everyone. Her secret is out and Elsa has to deal with the consequences of a world that knows who she truly is. The conflict drives Elsa to flea Arrendale and sets off a winter storm that freezes the town and harbour. Splatter.

Elsa terrified of who she is.[3]

Elsa’s powers manifest.[4]

This is the coming out moment; where who you are and who you are pretending to be can no longer exist in the same space and everything is forced to the surface. I had two major splatter moments and, like Elsa, what set them off was a reality I could no longer suppress. The need to be who I was grew inside me, just as Elsa’s powers grew stronger over time. It seeped out of me in moments when the dysphoria was too intense to handle. Little things like putting on one of my mother’s dresses or some of her makeup when no one was home. Like young Elsa accidentally freezing her window sill, my reactions after these “slips” were fear of and disgust with myself. The older I got the stronger my need to be myself became, until it took tremendous effort and isolation to keep it contained, but it still leaked out until I was caught by my wife and family and who I was created a wall between us and the resulting storm that shook my family and friends. Most of them reacted like the Duke of Weselton did to Elsa, they referred to me as a “monster” and demanded that my transition be “put to an end.”

Elsa isolates herself in the mountains and sings “Let It Go,” which deeply resonated with my coming out process. As she widens the distance between herself and Arrendale she says, “The wind is howling like the swirling storm inside. Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried. Don’t let them in. Don’t let them see. Be the good girl you always have to be.” This is what it feels like to deny and burry who you are. I knew I had to do it but it was so difficult to wear the costume of the perfect little boy, the perfect man, that everyone needed me to be; to keep them outside and not knowing who I was truly was. It created an intense sense of loss and isolation and when the secret was finally out I was scared and relieved that I could finally let it all go. Elsa sings, “Don’t let them know. Well know they know! Let it go! Let it go! Can’t hold it back anymore!” She and I both recognise the freedom that our splatter has given us but also the price that this freedom bares. She continues “Let it go! Let it go! Turn away and slam the door! I don’t care what they’re going to say. Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway.” She sees the cost of being herself as complete isolation. As character design supervisor Bill Schwab said, “She’s finally free–even if she is all alone.”[5] But then, she has always been alone, so if the cost of freedom is isolation, it is a cost she can bare. The line “The cold never bothered me anyway” is perhaps more accurately captured by the French translation of the song, “le froid est pour moi la prix de la liberté” which means “the cold is for me the price of liberty.”[6] She’s willing to pay the price of isolation for her liberty. And as I watched friends and family fall away, I realised they never knew who I was to begin with and that even while they were around I was intensely alone. The isolation that my transition created was an acceptable price because unlike my isolation before, I was now free to be myself.

For a time Elsa believes she is a monster. The idea is reinforced in her by the news she has cursed Arrendale with a winter storm and injuring her sister with her powers. She sinks deeper into isolation and into depression (her physical environment, created by her powers becomes darker and heavy with ice shards). Then Hans and soldiers from Arrendale attack the palace with the intention of killing Elsa. She is forced to defend her herself proving, in the words of Hans, that she is the monster they think she is. This is the insanity of her situation. She is attacked in her home and defending herself, fighting back against those who would kill her, but she is seen as a monster and her attackers as innocent and justified in their reactions.

Elsa’s environment darkens with her depression.[7]

Provoked by Hans and the soldiers, Elas defends herself.[8]

This is what happens to trans women across the world. This is what happened to CeCe McDonald. This is what happened to me. I have been assaulted and keep a bat by my door in case the people who did it come back; I have had my home vandalised, with the word “TRANNY” scrawled across my door; I have been verbally harassed and stalked on the street, in stores, and at my place of employment; I have been sent death threats. All because of the storm of discomfort just seeing me creates within them. I have filed reports with police and human resources and building security and every time I am told there is nothing they can do and, more egregiously, that being who I am, I bring it on myself.

Elsa moves through the pain and loss in her life and her story has a happy ending, part of which is achieved by her realisation that love is the emotion that allows her to control and use her powers. She moves past her fears and finds a way to incorporate her powers into who she is; they are a part of her but they do not define her. My story, I hope, is far from over, but like Elsa, I have learned that love and compassion for those around me opens the doors for my own happiness. I am not always happy nor am I always the person I aspire to be, but the love that being myself has allowed me to find has opened the door to happiness. It has allowed me to develop friendships I could never have had before and it has opened me to receive the love of a woman who I have been blessed with the chance of sharing my life with.

It may seem odd that a children’s movie about two princesses loosely based on a short story written nearly 170 years ago should speak so intimately to my heart and experiences. And that the deuteragonist of this animation should unintentionally serve as a positive form of trans representation demonstrating how stories can be told that reflect the lived realities of minoritised groups should put poorly written, intentionally representative films such as TransAmerica and Dallas Buyers Club to shame. Trans lives are not difficult to represent and give honour to, you just have to understand that people are people and we all have the same fears and aspirations.

UPDATE: for further reading on this, check out Aoife’s piece discussing the association of trans experience with Elsa’s and look at the Japanese translation of “Let It Go.”  Elsa and Trans Iconography: The Snow Queen’s Gloves Come Off

[1] “Elsa the Snow Queen – Disney Wiki.” 2012. 22 Jan. 2014 <http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Elsa_the_Snow_Queen>

[2] Bornstein, Kate. My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely. Routledge. 1998. <http://books.google.com/books/about/My_Gender_Workbook.html?id=NjH32xMTu7kC>

[3] http://static4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20140112132348/disney/images/c/c5/Young_Elsa_afraid.png

[4] http://static2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20131029223116/disney/images/f/f6/Fullscreen_capture_10282013_71432_PM.bmp.jpg

[5] “Elsa the Snow Queen – Disney Wiki.” 2012. 22 Jan. 2014 <http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Elsa_the_Snow_Queen>

[6] “Let it Go – Disney Wiki – Wikia.com.” 2013. 22 Jan. 2014 <http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Let_it_Go>

[7] http://static1.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20131004094510/disney/images/2/2d/Movie_Screenshots_47.jpg

[8] http://static4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20131222033739/disney/images/8/8a/Elsa%2C_Frozen.png.jpg

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Is Grelle/Grell Sutcliff a Positive Trans Woman Portrayal

6 January, 2014

The question of whether or not Grelle/Grell is a trans woman (please remember it is proper to put a space between trans and woman) is one that is not up for debate. In the text (the manga) it is specifically stated by her “I’m a lady,” that she is upset to have been assigned male at birth (AMAB), and her “biggest complaint since birth” has been she was not born with a female body and she believes “god made a mistake” in giving her a male body. She adds, “That is why right now, the thing I want to do most is have a sex ❤ change ❤ I’m serious, you know?” She even adds she is serious because she knows that people will not take her seriously, as she hasn’t been taken seriously by anyone in the continuity of the story-verse or by most readers.

Here are links to the pages I mention (the first is a two panel spread with the appropriate sections highlighted and the next two are individual close-ups):

Two page spread (highlighted)

Page one close-up

Page two close-up

Therefore, the issue is not whether or not Grelle is a trans woman, but rather, is Grelle a positive representation of a trans woman. The most stated complaint about this is her obsession with Sebastian (or with sex), which might lend to the depiction of trans women as hyper-sexed (an inaccurate accusation hurled at trans women by opponents from the medical community, gatekeepers, second wave feminists, and the general populace). I will admit, that I was, at first, bothered by this as well. As a full-time trans woman, who has completed her transition, achieving my transition goals was difficult. It was compounded by medical accusations of autogynephilia by the doctors and therapists I first sought treatment from and accusations from friends and family of my really being a gay man who wants to trick straight men into having sex (this is the definition of “trap” and the reason why that is such a vulgar and offensive insult to many trans women). Because of my personal experiences transitioning I was first inclined to see Grelle as a negative stereotype.

However, as I thought more about the show and what was happening with other characters, I realised this was not a stereotyping of trans women as much as it was a consistent portrayal of the story’s reoccurring characters. All of the characters have an obsession, that’s part of what the story is telling us about people.  Ciel is obsessed with revenge; Sebastian is obsessed with eating Ciel’s soul; Mey-Rin, Finnian (Finny), Baldroy (Bard), and Tanaka are obsessed with overcoming their past traumas and serving the young master; Elizabeth is obsessed with making Ciel happy and seeing him smile again; Lau is obsessed with power and self-gratification; Madam Red is obsessed with her inability to have children (to tragic ends); Arthur is obsessed with learning the truth; Queen Victoria is obsessed with the love between her and King Albert; William T Spears is obsessed with rules and order; and Undertaker demonstrates a peculiar obsession with jokes and laughing. Even minor characters such as the Indian Prince, Soma, and his servant, Agni, demonstrate obsessions with pride and loyalty, respectively. So, of course, Grelle demonstrates an obsession and, I suppose, sex—like orderliness and laughter—is an archetypal, primal, obsession appropriate to the Reapers.

Another argument raised against her as a positive depiction of trans women are some of Grelle’s more violent aspects. These are not a condemnation of trans women as violent or having male privilege but are part of the Reaper nature necessary for performing their allotted function in the story-verse. This is not a characteristic limited only to Grelle, though in her young, quirky way she seems to relish it more than her older counterparts in the job (in their final battle William T Spears seems to enjoy it quite a bit, as well).

A final argument I have heard raised against Grelle being a positive portrayal of trans women is her flighty/flakiness. Yes, she is quite flaky, but this is not a representation of transmisogyny, but of the misogyny inherent in the show. Elizabeth, Mey-Rin, Madam Red, and Elizabeth’s serving girl, are all depicted as flighty, incompetent, and incapable of completing actions on their own (with an obvious exception for Mey-Rin late in story). I’m not excusing this depiction of women, but I am stating it is not specific to the trans woman only.

So, are there positives to this inclusion of a trans woman in the story? I believe there are. First, she is a dynamic character with self-autonomy. It is rare to see a trans woman depicted as anything other than a sex object, a “trap,” or a joke and Grelle is none of those things. She actively pursues her interest in Sebastian instead of being the focus of his interest; she is upfront with other characters about who she is stating she may have been AMAB (as much as we can apply the term to a Reaper) but she is woman, and not just any woman, but “a lady;” though she is made fun of and misgendered by the other characters in the show, she does not waver in her convictions or her self-identity. She is a strong, independent trans woman, and for that alone she can be seen as a positive representation.

Second, she is conventionally attractive. Although I do not believe this is a prerequisite for a positive character be they female or male, trans or cis, I think this is an important part of her character. She has worked at creating her presentation, she dedicated energy to gaining passing privilege, and the idea of being taken seriously as both a woman and romantic possibility. Further, she does this not for the sole purpose of “catching” Sebastian, but for the sake of herself and to be herself. She is a trans woman who works at being beautiful because it make her happy to be so. Again, independence and autonomy.

Third, and most important, she is likable. The audience, for as flamboyant and “out-there” as she is, cannot help but like her. She is engaging and relatable. She is someone who, despite her flaws (and she has some serious flaws), the reader/audience cannot help but desire success and happiness for. She is fun, a bit flirtatious, and, frankly, adorable. And, even in the day of Orange Is the New Black, a trans* character who the audience can relate to, is a rare thing.

As a trans woman, who rarely sees herself reflected in characters in stories and almost never in a trans character in a story, I’m asking you to consider what you are taking away from the trans community by denying or glossing over Grelle’s status as a trans woman. Is she the most perfect representation? No, but none of them on the show are. Is she a character that I can gpoy? Again, no, but I can still see aspects of myself and my strengths in her. By ignoring who she is, by ignoring the canonical fact she is a trans woman, you are taking what little representation there is for trans women away from them. You are saying, your personal feelings matter more than their right to be represented in the media they enjoy.