Monday, April 18, 2011

Transsexuality and the Farrelly brothers

So at some point in my life, I saw the movie Shallow Hal.

I honestly have no idea when, or in what context. Quite possibly I watched it on a bus, during my high school band's annual trip down to Branson, Missouri. (Yes, really.) But somehow I saw it, and there's a scene from it that's always stuck with me.

Let me begin by noting that Shallow Hal is by no means a good movie; it is in fact pretty terrible. Basic plot summary is as follows: Jack Black, the eponymous Hal, is a shallow guy (shocking!) who judges women entirely on their appearances. Due to a stuck elevator, he ends up hypnotized by a motivational speaker such that he now sees inner beauty, as opposed to the outer kind. Where everyone else sees a woman with, say, bad teeth or a lazy eye, Jack now sees her beautiful heart and her positive karma and so forth. Which is why he starts dating Rosemary, who looks like Gwyneth Paltrow to him, but looks like Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit to everyone else.

The scene I'm interested in takes place late in the film. Jack and Rosemary are at a restaurant when the booth collapses under Rosemary's weight (Jack, of course, assumes this is due to shoddy construction). He goes to complain to the hostess, a petite woman with a Mary Quant haircut and a pretty smile. She apologizes profusely and gives them their meal on the house. At this point, Jack gets a phone call from his friend Mauricio (played by Jason Alexander), who has discovered the phrase that will break Jack's hypnotism. He says this phrase over the phone to Jack—who has no idea what it means—and then hangs up. When Jack turns back to the hostess, he is surprised to discover she has been replaced by a six-foot-tall beefy man with a stubbly chin, but with the exact same haircut and outfit.

For those of you having difficulty keeping up with my terrible summary of this terrible movie, the woman is, in fact, a transsexual man.

Now, there are two elements of this scene that I want to talk about. The first is that, according to the rules laid down earlier in the film, Jack sees the "inner beauty" of the people he meets. The nice but enormously fat woman looks like a slim, and therefore pretty, woman. The adorable children with hideous scars and skin grafts in the burn ward (where Rosemary volunteers) look like uninjured, unblemished adorable children. The hostess looks like a giant burly man to the rest of the world, but to Jack she's a cute young lady. Assuming I'm understanding the dense metaphysics of this cinematic masterpiece correctly, that means that the hostess is not just a man pretending to be or acting like a woman, she is a woman, deep down.

I am by no means an expert on the transsexual experience, having been born biologically male and perfectly happy to stay that way. I only have one vague acquaintance who is not the gender that they were born in. (I don't even know if that's the right terminology; for all I know I'm being accidentally insulting.) Virtually the entirety of what I know about transsexuality comes from media: books, movies, etc. But one of the things I am pretty sure about is that it is not just some passing whim or experiment; people genuinely feel that they are somehow wrong, or rather not who they should be, and they will do whatever they can to correct this.

For the Farrelly brothers, noted raunchy types who have made their careers on being offensive towards various groups, to depict a transsexual person as someone who is not a "sicko" or "pervert" but is actually someone of the opposite gender on the inside, is pretty progressive. So, thumbs up for that.

The second element, though, is more complex. I wonder: is this scene funny? Or, rather, is it supposed to be funny?

Shallow Hal is ostensibly a comedy, and so you would expect every scene, every line, every character interaction, to in some way provide humor. (That it largely does not is immaterial to this question.) So this scene, logically, should be funny.

One can legitimately debate whether it is possible to create a joke (or any humorous situation) that is not at the expense of someone or something: a person, a profession, a nation, a concept, even the speaker or listener themselves. That's a question for another day, though. Right now I'm taking it as a given that it is not possible; that is to say, every joke must have a "butt," an object (person, idea, etc.) of mockery that is essential to the humor. If this is the case, then where is the "butt" of this joke? Whom or what are we meant to be laughing at?

Do we laugh at Hal, who is confused by the switcheroo of the petite woman for the burly man? This, to me, seems unlikely; Hal has a legitimate reason to be confused, not simple ignorance or prejudice.

Do we laugh at ourselves, for being uncomfortable in this situation, confronted by a person who is clearly trying to be true to themselves but unable to do so? I would like to think so. This seems the most positive interpretation: that the Farrelly brothers want us to confront our own prejudices and narrow-mindedness by placing us (by proxy of Jack) in this situation. But this also seems to be too subtle, too high-minded a joke for the Farrelly brothers, who, you will remember, also directed a movie starring Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear as conjoined twins.

Do we laugh at the transsexual person, who is attempting to "pass" but clearly failing? This, unfortunately, is the most probable. A man believes himself to be a woman, and tries to dress and act and seem like one despite his physical limitations. We are meant to find this spectacle amusing (a man in a dress! hilarious!). We are supposed to laugh at someone who is trying and failing to be true to themselves.

In the trans community, there is something known as the Real Life Test, in which a therapist will, before prescribing hormone therapy to trans individuals, will ask them to live as their target gender full-time, in public. Of course, because these individuals don't have access to hormones, they have almost no chance of "passing" as their target gender, and will instead look like a man in woman's clothing or vice versa. They will be misunderstood, laughable, an object of ridicule. This seems incredibly cruel to me, and I can't understand the kind of therapist who would recommend this course—it sounds more like an attempt to discourage these "poor, sick people" from pursuing their "perverted fantasies." It would expose a person to exactly the same kind of humor that I think the Farrelly brothers are trying to evoke in this scene.

If this scene is meant to be humorous, and the butt of that humor is meant to be this woman, then I think the joke fails horribly, by the very nature of the way it's constructed. We see, first, a pretty woman who seems very nice and happy, good at her job and ready to help. We like her, because she seems like a genuinely likeable person. Then we see that she is a transsexual person, born male but female on the inside—but still, regrettably, male on the outside. This person whom we liked a moment ago is now meant to be an object of ridicule. This goes contrary to our very nature: how do we laugh at someone with whom we sympathize?

The answer, of course, is: we don't. Unless we're the Farrelly brothers, apparently.

P.S. It's entirely possible that I'm not giving the bros. Farrelly enough credit and we really are meant to laugh at our own prejudices and misconceptions. But until I get a copy of the DVD through interlibrary loan and am able to watch the various making-of videos, commentaries, and other special features, I'm going to assume the worst.

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