TRANSform me is a “reality show”. The premise? “Premise: A female contestant is given an internal and external makeover by a team of three transgender women stylists.”
Guest Post by Moira:
|A hipster girl from Brooklyn, Phaea, is about to get engaged. She’s having a party in a few days and feeling insecure because she doesn’t know how to have the kind of style she wants. Her mom was a hippie and never taught her to do makeup or do her hair or wear heels. She sent in a plea for a makeover to this show.
Play by play:
1.52 The transwomen arrive. Laverne grabs Phaea’s loose t-shirt. “Is this what you always wear”” Phaea says it’s a typical hanging around the house outfit. Laverne asks Phaea’s boyfriend Justin if this outfit turns him on. Not really, he says.
2.00 Laverne says that as transgender women they are uniquely qualified to “take the woman inside and bring her out.” Confusing being a woman with aesthetic choices? Charming, already.
3.15 Phaea: “I can’t imagine walking around in high heels.” Laverne, “Why can’t you?” She sounds sharp, almost offended. She thinks this is a requirement, non-negotiable.
3.38 Back at the apartment the backup trans women are going through Phaea’s things; one is tossing clothes out of her closet. Jeans and t-shirts, and “grandma sweaters” are heaped on the floor. “Boy stuff? Eww!” she says. What if someone had done the same to her closet, pre-transition, I wonder. How would she have felt if someone took her “girl stuff” and said “Eww!” and tossed it out?
3.55 “All that’s gotta go. Not in a female closet! Especially not in a female living in the 21st century.” My irony-meter just short circuited. The trans woman stomps on the offending clothes with her high heels on.
4.23 Laverne asks Phaea if she feels sexy. She says no; she says she has a friend who says boys love her underwear. Phaea says she asked Justin if he even noticed her underwear; he said he didn’t, then paused and said, “but you don’t have really great underwear.” Phaea says, “Oh god! I felt like such a failure.” Yes. A failure to have every minute aspect of your life dictated by a fetishized, porn-informed male gaze. What is the primary function of underwear? Is it to excite men? Is it to keep your tender bits clean and away from friction? Sorry, I was confused for a minute.
4.34 Redheaded trans woman asks Justin if Phaea ever “sexes it up for him” in “a sexy little, you know…do a little…” and she does a stripper move. No, says Justin. The trans women act outraged and then go through Phaea’s underwear, mocking it for not being lingerie.
6.00 They take off in an ambulance because apparently this is a fashion (or cultural?) emergency. A woman is about to get married to a man and she doesn’t own lingerie or strip for him! THE HORROR!
6.16 At a boutique, they measure Phaea’s bust. One trans woman says, “Look at you! This is what I wished for when I was born!” Because having boobs means wearing ridiculous clothes. Didn’t you know? And because this trans woman is jealous of your body, you have to objectify it the way she would do. Because you owe it to her. Because it’s more hers than yours. Because she would use it “correctly.”
6.36 One of the backup trans women: “I changed myself from this wimpy, introverted boy to this, like, hot sexy luscious mama. And if I can make myself look like this, I am sure I can make a ton of women–a TON of women–look like the women they should be.” The women they SHOULD BE? Really? Do tell. How very transgressive.
7.24 More of the measuring. “Boobie time! 35 and a half–perfect. Let’s see if you have man shoulders or not.” She doesn’t. They measure her hips too. “36 and a half. Look at you!” Approval. Sure. What’s the song? 36, 24, 36. They admonish her–”This is what I wished for when I was born and you’re just hiding yours! You’re not showing it–you gotta work it!” Because being born female means you gotta “show it.” It’s. Not. For. Men. This is so crazy. These are probably homosexual transwomen, who should have no dog in this fight–why does it matter to them if a woman conforms to the straight male gaze? Oh. Because in some way they still understand her body as belonging more to them than to herself.
Phaea tries on some clothes. She tries a blouse and skirt that she says she loves–she feels good in it. But one of the trans women doesn’t love it so she starts over.
8.31 Phaea tries on a flowy bronze dress–she says it makes her feel really, really good about her body and she feels very comfortable in it, whereupon the Laverne rejects it because it can’t be worn with a bra. Not painful enough!
9.32 Phaea tries on heels. She totters. They stop her and tell her she walks like a dude.
10.04 Backup trans woman Nina: “What dude looks sexy in heels? Except…” jazz hands at self..”Well, I wouldn’t call myself a dude, but…you know…” Yes, yes I do.
10.18 They teach her a “feminine” walk. She falls, gasps, “It hurts so much!” Redheaded backup trans woman Jamie snottily remarks that *she* never had so much trouble learning to walk in heels. They tell her she has to walk with a beat in her head, and shake her ass and hips. Turns out that walking is another one of those daily activities, like wearing underwear, which must now be undertaken with men in mind. So silly! I thought it was for physical mobility.
11.08 Laverne tears up thinking about Phaea wearing heels to her engagement party.
12.34 Phaea says she feels sexy when she’s with her boyfriend because of the way he looks at her and treats her, but on her own, she doesn’t feel “sexy.” The transwoman tells her that she needs to stop relying on her boyfriend for that feeling and it should come from within; that they’re going to do a burlesque photo shoot to “empower” her. Phaea starts crying and says she feels terrified and doesn’t even know why. Pressed, she says she is afraid she will look stupid.
There’s a lot going on here. First of all, Phaea, like every other female, has been indoctrinated from birth into compulsory heterosexuality and told that “her” sexuality doesn’t exist outside of the need to please men and be fodder for the male gaze. But apparently her mom tried to counteract this somewhat in her upbringing. So she has what’s arguably a healthier relationship to herself as a sexual being. She only notices feeling “sexy” when being intimate with her lover. She apparently doesn’t live in a constant state of sexualizing her body, but experiences herself as being sexually attractive pretty much just within the purview of times when she is actually being intimate. However, women in Phaea’s culture who don’t live in a constant state of hypersexualizing themselves are made to feel that they are failing at being “women.” That there is something wrong with them. Because they’re succeeding at being human, and indeed this puts them outside of the mainstream to a large and potentially alienating degree.
The stated goal–to make Phaea “feel sexy” all the time–is the wrong goal. Perhaps this is a source of Phaea’s terror; she feels she may be on the precipice of losing important ground. Perhaps she senses it will be dehumanizing.
Also, we have to consider why the scripted formula for what is supposed to make us “feel sexy,” looks curiously identical to a porn-inflected, fetishizing male gaze. Lingerie is someone’s idea of sexy, but certainly not everyone’s. What is Phaea’s idea of sexy? She’s trying to understand, but she’s being shut down–and perhaps this is also a source of Phaea’s terror. Instead of exploring her own erotics, she’s being told what they should be. She’s being told by someone who stands in as a transgressive figure–someone who is outside of traditional sex/gender roles–so perhaps she believed that this person might be open, experimental, and exploratory in their approach. Instead, the “transgressive” figure reinforces the stereotypical “sexy” template in the most unequivocal manner possible.
13:27 YES!! Signs of life from Phaea!! She’s in garters and fishnets but she’s shut herself in a bathroom. When they come to “check on her” she says this doesn’t feel how she wanted it to, how she imagined it would. Laverne snickers at her and tells her that a lot of people find garters and fishnets sexy–essentially, implying something is wrong with her if she doesn’t. But Phaea says something like, “It would be nice to feel *actually* sexy and not sort of fake, play sexy.” (!!!) How difficult it must have been for her to halt this production and speak this truth. And of course, a trans person should be the first to understand when the culturally-defined markers for her gender just aren’t what feels right for her–right? NO! ARGH! The trans woman gives her some incomprehensible speech about how when she transitioned she was expressing on the outside what she always felt on the inside. She gestures at the garters and says that Phaea’s body is just a shell–that she has to connect with herself on the inside first. What?! She has to internalize this image of herself as some tarted up porn star before it will “feel sexy” to her? Maybe Phaea can tell the trans woman that she needed to wear the butchest clothes she could until she really felt sexy as a man *inside* and see how she likes it. But no, the red-eyed-from-crying Phaea (surrounded by the trans women and the camera crews and whatever other reality show offstage people) lets herself be led to the boudoir for a photo shoot instead. With a male photographer of course. I might lose my lunch.
Phaea puts a game face on, complies, smiles and poses, making “sultry” faces–but you can see it’s put on. What speech did she get offscreen about holding up production? Who knows. Laverne and her backups practice lots of operant conditioning, encouraging her to ham it up by clapping and cheering. Is the the “actually sexy” feeling Phaea had hoped for? Does that feeling come from being (un)dressed like this and looked at by near-strangers and photographed? She keeps saying no–and they keep not listening. So she “lays back and tries to enjoy it?”
15:40 or thereabouts. Phaea’s going for a haircut. Much less loaded. Still, the disconnect is palpable. Phaea says how she loves her hair, but her hair is so thick she never know what to do with it and feels like a Ramone. Jamie explains to her that her problem was her hair being layered so that it was too *thin* and there was “basically nothing there.” It’s *almost* like they have to contradict, disorient and destroy her entire self-concept and install themselves as the arbiters of her reality instead.
20.18 Laverne: “The most important thing is that she continues to remember that she deserves it.” Oh yeah. I’m sure our culture will never let her forget that this is what she “deserves.”
Watch the horror here: http://www.vh1.com/video/transform-me/full-episodes/phaea-episode-8/1638069/playlist.jhtm
[photos and captions added by me-GM]