queer film

Rayon, Ja’mie, and the Transitioning Face of Oscar?

27LETO1_SPAN-articleLarge-v2We’re conditioned to assume that identity and labels go hand in hand.

As consumers we pick at endless rows of grocery store displays, weaving in and out of a sea of familiarity in dozens of uniform rows across the immediate horizon.

Everything is there, and everything is convenient.

The way we digest movies largely follows the same pattern all the way through to awards season. Films are produced, they’re released, and they’re marketed to specific audiences. They succeed or they fail.

It’s funny that studios seem to process us the way we gobble up their films. We fall into demographics, clusters of numbers, ages, attendance figures and statistics; labels placed upon us so they can determine which standards of beauty to uphold and which norms to re-enforce. Anything to make a buck on the status quo.

Oscar campaigns seek to funnel those we see onscreen (and those who craft the fantasy from behind the lens) into their respective categories, to be voted on by the Academy, which bestows a prestigious label on one member from each category: victor.

One thing that hasn’t been a luxury of convenience is the avenue of expression the minority voice has at its immediate disposal. In 2014, teenagers in Florida are being murdered for being black and listening to loud music; in Texas, those who oppose the state’s ban on same-sex marriage face majority opposition to the tune of 57% percent (according to a survey by Public Policy Polling).

As much as movie studios and television networks treat their demographics like guaranteed, sliced-and-served morsels, people are not wonderbread slapped onto a shelf or saccharine pudding fudged into tiny plastic squares.

Labels have become a tool for both sides of the debate. For the oppressed, labels identify their “other”-ness and embrace it; for the oppressor, they’re used to alienate.

It seems that the very industry within which minorities often find their voice also comes under the most scrutiny for upholding societal standards. Big-budget films and the studios which release them generally funnel their products into four affective categories, films that:

a) Ignore minority existence, whether intentionally or unintentionally

b) Bolster traditional gender, race, and identity roles because that’s what the dominant majority is used to

or

c) Both

2013 saw the release (and triumph) of three prominent black-themed, black-created films that bucked the system: Lee Daniels’ The Butler proved that “black” subject matter has commercial staying power; Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station won the hearts of audiences and critics alike, storming critics circle awards at the end of the year; Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is on the verge of potentially becoming the first black-themed film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The clout is undeniable, and the tide seems to be turning in the favor of a “New Black Cinema” movement of sorts.

The voice of the LGBT community is one that shares the spotlight of inequality, yet is often misunderstood by the dominant majority far more than racial minorities. For every The Butler, there are twelve Blue is the Warmest Color controversies; sexual stigma follows simply follows gay-themed films, and we as consumers and critics have ourselves to blame.

The Oscars aren’t innocent on this front, either. So blatantly was the tide of 2005’s awards season turned against Brokeback Mountain when Crash took the Academy’s top honor out from under it. Is the Academy ready to hear the LGBT voice beyond decorating heterosexual actors taking on the “ever-courageous” task of playing *gasp* a gay character?

Dallas Buyers Club, a 2013 film nominated for six awards at the upcoming Oscars, seems like the perfect transitional film for a still all-white, still prominently-heterosexual, still predominantly-male voting base not unlike the one which upset Brokeback Mountain at a time when history could have been made.

Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), a homophobic, bigoted man in Texas who contracts AIDS as a result of his promiscuous, drug-using ways.

Using Ron’s homophobia as a base, the film then systematically deconstructs his fear of the LGBT community as he copes with his diagnosis. His struggle with AIDS is closely mirrored by that of Rayon’s (Jared Leto), a transwoman he met while at the hospital. Initially hostile toward her, Ron’s relationship with Rayon is further founded on the prospect of business (he eventually uses her to sell non-approved treatments for AIDS-related ailments on the street), and the hostility he feels toward the gay community lessens to the point where he actively campaigns against the FDA and its regulations.

The film sort of passed with the Academy because of the general “safeness” of its plot. In their eyes, it’s ok for old white men to like this film, seeing as its protagonist is a heterosexual male who “enters” the gay community for personal gain, using a transgender woman as a tool for business instead of, say, enjoying her company. The gay community is seen as an impenetrable barrier or obstacle for Ron. He doesn’t want to associate with it, but bites the bullet for a quick buck.

His tune changes, though, and he quickly forms a friendly bond with Rayon. In one powerful scene that takes place as the pair shop at a grocery store, surrounded by uniform displays and generic products soldiered next to each other in perfectly-aligned fashion, Ron forces a bigoted former-friend to shake Rayon’s hand. It’s a beautiful scene which cements the equal-plane understanding of each character. Rayon shows Ron a side of himself he didn’t think existed, and Ron shows her an equal ally in the battle against discrimination, as he now knows what it’s like to be discriminated against.

It’s not merely the presence of a trans character that makes Dallas Buyers Club such a revolutionary film. Rather, it’s the screenplay’s unwillingness to let Rayon become defined by her status as a transwoman that allows the film to thrive.

Whereas a film like The Crying Game (an Oscar favorite in its respective year) toys with gender identity as a thematic device to give the film some edge, Dallas Buyers Club‘s screenplay never bullshits Rayon’s existence, doesn’t shove her into any boxes, and certainly doesn’t confine her to heroic status because of her identity. She is not a object of LGBT championing, nor is she an “other”: she’s simply a character.

Rayon is defined by her attitude, her assholish (if you will) demeanor, and the fact that she’s allowed to be herself, which is an imperfect person not merely defined by her sexuality. The fact that she’s allowed to be flawed beyond what the hetero-normative perspective would immediately label a “flaw” (her transsexuality) is where the character succeeds as a positive presence for the LGBT community in film.

While Ron’s’s relationship with her deepens as the film goes on, it’s never motivated by anything more than the bond of friendship.

While Ron is doing a service to gay community, Rayon is never seen as needing a straight man to save or defend her. She’s secure in herself enough to maintain a grasp on equality within their relationship. Issues of “queerness” aren’t at the forefront of her character. She sees Ron as a friend, doesn’t let his sexuality (or what his demeanor and dress would suggest about his “straightness” to a stereotypical mind) precede him, and initially approaches him out of kindness without fear as they both lay in hospital beds, for disease knows no socially-coded bounds.

Rayon’s eventual death is deeply disturbing. We spend so much time with Rayon, absorbing her flaws, watching her paint her face and create the reality she desires that the world won’t let her have without burden. In her dying moments, she remains true to herself. We see quick, abstract shots of her reaching for a mirror and makeup; not as a means to put on a fake face, but to cement her life’s purpose with the identity she embraced, even in death.

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Another unlikely face that (sort of) destigmatized the LGBT community in 2013 was Australian writer-director-actor Chris Lilley and his brilliant mockumentary series “Ja’mie: Private School Girl.” 

The series follows Ja’mie King (Lilley), a 16-year old private school student and her attempts to garner her institution’s most prestigious award, the Hilford Medal. Of course, Ja’mie’s pursuit is offset by her miserably evil ways. The show comes off at once as commentary on the ever-increasing superficiality of the world’s youth, but never emphasizes the fact that its title character is played by a 40-year old man.

Most American critics bashed the series, labeling it a transphobic assault of sorts, insisting that it prompted viewers to see Ja’mie as a monstrous other simply because a male actor happened to play her part.

First of all, the American media and entertainment industry hardly carry the torch for the LGBT community in a way that gives them the right to suddenly defend what they perceive to be unfair representation. Second, the genius of the series lies within Lilly’s abilities as an actor, not his creative decision to don women’s clothing.

There’s a brilliant believability in his mannerisms as he encapsulates and transforms into a 16-year old girl. From the way he maintains childish aura to the attitude, the dialect, the cultural understanding of a younger generation gone sour is embodied in the character. It’s not drag for the sake of poking fun at a man in women’s clothing, it’s simply appealing for Lilley’s ability to become a character he’s created. It’s acting in its finest form. 

The show insists on not placing Ja’mie in situations where the gender-bending would be an easy joke. Instead of seeing a person of trans identity, we’re forced to see Ja’mie as the terrible, manipulative, angry, evil, juvenile, judgmental person that she is. Her actions transcend her physicality. The show doesn’t rely on its lazy, would-be crutch to succeed. 

Whereas Rayon represents the progressive face of transpeople in cinema, Ja’mie’s appeal lies more in how the character is digested by audiences versus the content of the show. The de-emphasis on the fact that it’s “drag” has audiences focusing on more important aspects of her character: how she treats people, how she manipulates every dynamic of her life, and the pure comedic wit of Lilley’s writing.

Australian audiences adore the series, as their audiences are generally able to understand the appeal versus identifying its most superficial parts and ripping them apart because it’s easy to. American audiences–especially those watching movies–could benefit from adopting this mindset.

So, does Jared Leto’s status as a frontrunner in the Best Supporting Actor category speak more to the Academy’s diversifying tastes, or does it speak more to the Academy’s long-standing view of straight men playing queer characters as heroic or stepping beyond their bounds?

I think it’s easier to gauge the Academy’s stance by looking at the Best Actor category, where Matthew McConaughey is currently predicted to win by nearly every major Oscar pundit. In a sense, Ron is the Academy. He represents the old-fashioned, traditional way of thinking that’s made the Oscars a confluence of the same opinion for the past 85 ceremonies.

Dallas Buyers Club represents a point of reference for these members. They can reject his transformation, or accept the minority voice the diversifying Academy around them is attempting to amplify.

Until the envelopes are opened, let’s hope they inspect the mirror as carefully as Rayon and Ja’mie do, or force audiences to do.

No one likes the old white boys’ club label anymore, anyway.

Mother Knows Best: The Identity of Evil in “Bates Motel” vs. “Psycho”

bates_motel_101Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

What ruins Norman Bates?

It’s the question on everyone’s mind as they tune in (in record numbers) to A&E’s drama series “Bates Motel,” the “before” to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. As we approach the series finale (airing Monday), are we any closer to identifying the source of Norman’s otherness—or at least a probable catalyst which makes Psycho a credible “after” for one of the most prominently disturbed characters in cinema history?

At what point does a slightly awkward, attractive, brainy do-gooder of a teenager become a sexually confused, murderous social deviant? The answer has yet to be found within “Bates Motel,” which is just beginning to find its legs as a drama as we come to the conclusion of its first ten-episode season.

If Psycho is Hitchcock horror at its finest, “Bates Motel” is a few Asian sex slaves ahead of being a watered-down Nancy Drew mystery, with the ending already set in stone nearly fifty years ago.

Psycho teaches us that evil has an inherent home within his mother, after all.

…that has to be it, right? We need someone to blame, and if Hitchcock’s extensive filmography has taught us anything, it’s to never trust a woman.

But, the assumption that Norma’s ways are cloying and possessive (damagingly so) has implicated her since the release of Psycho. “Bates Motel” hasn’t exactly shown us otherwise, and for good reason. It’s a classic argument made against the infamous maternal presence in Norman’s life, which is never anything more than a corpse and sloppy-drag incarnate in Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece, but a much more tangible presence in “Bates Motel,” as Norma Bates’ relationship with her son serves as the framework for the series instead of a thematic crutch. If “Bates Motel” were in clumsier hands, the ideology of the 1960 classic might have bled into the contemporary cloth. Norma isn’t worth exploring as a character; she is now and has always been the pre-established burden of femininity; the bane of Norman’s existence; the origin of blame and the source of Norman’s life and his demise. But it’s time we view such analysis as archaic, much like Alfred Hitchcock’s objectification of women in nearly every film he ever made. It’s time to move past old assumptions because, frankly, “Bates Motel” is in some ways the worst potential multi-season narrative ever conceived. With a conclusion that’s become common knowledge far outside just the film community, how does a series earn its legs as a prelude for an already-exposed ending? The answer lies in its treatment of gender and its disregard for Hitchcock’s ideologies.

“Bates Motel” doesn’t incriminate Norma as a woman, but rather as someone on, in the simplest terms, an intense power trip. Having the series set amidst a modern backdrop (complete with iPhones and high school raves) alleviates the foreboding presence of old-timey perspectives on the issues of transvestitism, motherhood, and gender identity which made Psycho at once a blessing and a curse for the queer identity in cinema and society. The time is here and the time is now; dressing Norman up in women’s clothing simply wouldn’t have the same immediately-othering effect as it did in the 60s.

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The strength of “Bates Motel” lies in its insistence on not equating anything, from convoluted morals to pure murderous evil, with gender. Whereas Hitchcock’s Psycho epilogue seeks to explain, bit by bit, Norman’s psychological and gender-based transformation from a man’s mentality to a woman’s, “Bates Motel” instead sifts through the psychobabble bullshit and delivers a pure representation of actions without generalized implications.

The series begins as Norma (Vera Farmiga) and Norman (Freddie Highmore) move to the fictional town of White Pine Bay, Oregon (a town with a local economy supported by Marijuana distribution and patrolled by corrupt police officers staking a cut), to start afresh after the demise of the family patriarch. Norma is a woman, but she’s also in a position of power, enough power and conviction to move her son across the country to build a placid state of blissful isolation from the past. Here, “mother” is not inherently synonymous with “possessive,” but Norma’s relationship with Norman is, at least we’re to believe, almost solely responsible for his social ostracizing in White Pine Bay. When Norma is in trouble (which happens shortly after the move), Norman’s life is put on hold. He needs to “be there” for her, as he often explains, which often gets in the way of his social land sexual progress. Norma is raped in the first episode of the season, and Norman aides in the fending off (and eventual death and disposal of) the attacker. Norma hides the evidence, and Norman assists. Norma is found out, and Norman puts his life on hold to assure her freedom. Whatever the circumstance, Norman is implicated alongside Norma by pure choice. It isn’t until the midway point that we come to understand that Norman’s clingy behavior is predisposed. He has a mental deficiency, one which makes him hallucinate, to see things that aren’t there. Often, it’s images of his mother telling him what to do. We’ve come to observe in waking life that Norma is far more subtle in her controlling ways. She likes to imply, to suggest, and to coax, but never command Norman to do her bidding. Their bond is assumed, and Norman has simply grown to subconsciously accept it as normal, even in the face of strong opposition to the relationship from his brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot), and English teacher, Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy). Norman is constantly overshadowed by people far more influential than he. Acting on the advice and whim of others is Norman’s specialty.

There’s only one explanation (or exposition, one might argue) for this that’s been given thus far. After guiding our suspicions onto Norma for the death of her husband, it is revealed midway through the season that it is Norman, in a fit of all-encompassing psychotic rage after his father harms Norma, who commits murder. This had apparently been going on for quite some time as Dylan, who left the family a few months prior to escape Norma’s manipulative ways, consistently reminds her of the turbulent marriage and its damaging effect on her sons. While Norman is directly responsible for his father’s death, he only did so because of Norma’s involvement. It is a subconscious trigger which fondles Norman’s psychotic nerve to protect his mother, manifesting itself in other ways in his conscious state, particularly within his skepticism regarding her relationship with Officer Shelby (Mike Vogel). The bond is psychological, physical only to the extent of Norma’s keen insistence that her son’s proximity remain consistently close. The bond is not gendered, but rather familial. Would these implications against Norma be any different if the roles were reversed? If Norma had been the physically abusive spouse instead of her husband? Understanding the bond and its balance between mental and physical (and Norman’s inability to accept casual affections from anyone else including Bradley, his crush and first sexual partner) is key to understanding the effects of possession itself versus lumping everything into the category of maternal smothering.

Although Norma is obsessively possessive of Norman, her power as a character is derived from her strong-headed will and conviction to her actions, not solely based on active sexual power or pull on Norman’s sexuality or any other man’s. We’ve been given enough information at this point to know that she’s more than capable of getting herself out of complex situations where coupling is only a loose connection versus a binding commitment. Shelby is a sexual deviant (he traffics sex slaves in and out of his house) Norma sees fit to use for her benefit only after he initiates an attraction. Norma falls into the right line of attraction at the right time. She doesn’t proposition him and serve her vagina with a side of deception, rather it is Shelby who pursues a relationship while Norma falls for him outside the net of intent she’d originally cast by complying with his advances; she grows more invested than simply indulging his desire for her own gain (and the opportunity he presents, on the opposite side of the law but willing to do things like steal incriminating evidence from the storage room to ensure it won’t be used against her), so her power over him transcends both of their sexual desires into something emotionally-based. He wants to protect her, and she is more than willing to accept the help without lording sex over his head; she doesn’t have to. “I love you, you idiot,” he tells her in Episode 4, and she smiles; they kiss as Shelby pushes Norma against her car amidst a backdrop of the misty bay. It’s almost sickeningly reminiscent of a romantic melodrama of the 1950s, indicating that Norma is able to have “real” relationships outside of the one she has with Norman. While sex might be a component, it’s not the definition. And Norma’s frustrations about her son’s budding sexuality seem to stem more from her knowledge of how she experiences sex as a would-be tool for manipulation rather than an all-out attempt to smother him. Again, this is not inherently a “gendered” issue, working against Hitchcock’s insistence on adorning Norman in women’s clothing and a wig as an immediate sign of othering.

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Norma’s ability to have an onscreen sexual relationship with a man who isn’t Norman’s father only strengthens “Bates Motel” as a challenger of Psycho-era ideals of female sexuality. In 1960 her son is a social deviant, a feminized male demonized not only for his murderous ways but also because he kills under the guise of being a woman—of believing he is a woman, of actively making himself a woman. His mother, dead throughout the entirety of the film, lives on only in Norman’s mind. He becomes his mother, or whatever memory of her Norman keeps alive within his own psyche, an unimaginably taboo subject for an audience not nearly as socially evolved (or accepting) as the one watching “Bates Motel” today. With or without being a killer, Norman is othered purely by gendered deviance. The “normal” side of him is calculating and precise; he is fully aware that there is a hole in the parlor wall into the adjacent hotel room. He actively peeps through it, wanting to see a young woman undress, which ultimately triggers the maternal murders. The clothes don’t materialize on his body. It is Norman who puts the dress and wig on, who grabs the knife from its resting state, and plunges it into Marion Crane’s body. It’s a female-driven, female-executed act of male sexuality (even the word penetration resonates masculinity). In “Bates Motel,” we’re still exploring a Norman who is unquestionably uncomfortable with the murderous dreams he has of Bradley (Nicola Peltz), after she reveals that their one-night stand was in fact just a one-night stand. Norman still passively receives the thoughts from his subconscious.

Present-day Norman is not mentally unstable because his mother is a woman with similar mental complexes; it is authority, rather, and the convolution of authority above Norman, which contributes to his state of being. Norman’s father, as we glimpsed a few episodes back, is abusive; lazy; violent. His mother, pushed into a corner far too many times, retaliates. She wins. But she wins through Norman, as her victimization triggers Norman’s patricide. It is Norman rebelling against the male side he’s yet to fully explore (his budding sexual escapades with Bradley, confused emotional attachment to Emma, his acceptance of Dylan as a pseudo father figure, etc., each indicate that Norman is not yet a “man,” but very much still an inexperienced boy on the verge of technical adulthood). Gender plays a role in Norman’s transformation, but it is far from the defining factor of his psychological evils. Similarly, Norma’s relationship with Shelby is not deviant because it is sexual, but rather pathetic in its teetering between legitimacy and fraudulence. Norma enjoys the romantics, but the burden of murderous guilt (and the benefits screwing a crooked cop with ways to decriminalize her public name) prompts her to keep the relationship from gaining as much momentum as Shelby would like. Shelby desires a nuclear family. He wants to claim both Norma and Norman as his own. The problem is he already asserts himself as a dominant sexual force as a sex-slave trafficker. He owns “vagina,” but not “sexuality,” and Norma is far too concerned with preserving an ideal state of illusion to toy with a man predisposed with old-fashioned perspectives on female sexual and domestic possession.

I’ve heard many fans of “Bates Motel,” new to the world of Psycho or longtime Hitchcock savants criticize Norma’s newly personified presence in this TV series. “Sure, blame it all on the woman,” I remember reading on Twitter after the premiere episode, the budding feminist anger building to a slow boil as the show continues. If the viewer is angry that Norma is a convoluted person, or angered by the fact that she’s a woman, or interprets that anger as the show being anti-woman, that’s simply the viewer’s responsibility and lazy projection. Norma is not evil because she’s a woman. At no point does “Bates Motel” offer us any indication that women are inherently deceptive and smothering with the intent to turn their sons into serial killers; Norma’s gender is treated as happenstance, as an afterthought; she is simply Norma. Do we need someone to blame? Is Psycho going to be any less impactful if “Bates Motel” offers an alternative framework to the one we’ve believed for fifty years? More importantly, is it inherently evil of us to assume that a male’s source of deviant corruption can only come from his mother? She’s a mother with questionable parenting skills, but skills which can’t be seen as the sole ingredient in the murderous monster mix of an adult Norman Bates—that is, perhaps, until season 2.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi