The first thing that I want to say is that I do not want to be perceived as being judgmental of the people in this documentary and those that made it, especially judgmental in a negative sense. However, the task at hand places me in a situation in which I must pass judgment of some kind about what I feel, so although I am not for or against the lifestyles of the people documented, I do have some issues to bring up.
I’ll start with some of the notes I wrote as I watched the film, using these as my basis.
Early in the picture, I noticed the emphasis on social gender roles. One of the first notes I have written states:
“Bonfire Scene: The headshake thing that [Robert] does to [Max] – was this an over-done attempt at ‘masculine’ activity?”
I always have my doubts when watching television shows and documentaries, which probably stems from the over-production of “reality shows.” Like the majority of people, I question whether the actions that someone does on camera are true to their character, or whether the camera becomes an incentive for them to “act out,” for lack of a better term. In the scene, the whole group was gathered together, sending a very family-like impression to the audience. And with that family mood, Robert definitely seemed to take a dominant role in the scenario, and by acknowledging Max and then shaking his head, he has placed himself in the dominant position over Max, who was submissive to this action (in social context). All of the people documented were aware of the cameras. This action seemed a bit over the top to me. It seemed exaggerated, like a way for Robert to reassure the audience of his masculinity by using very easy to observe social keys. This immediately brings up the idea of The Other. Knowing that there is an always present (in this case highlighted by camera crew) “societal eye,” actions are taken to erase doubts of false gender.
Later in my notes:
“Gender roles: Each time Robert and Lola are shown, they are doing really gender specific (and stereotypical) actions. Robert washes his windshield while smoking, Lola bakes muffins. Does this not go against the idea of transgender or gender-roles? They have changed to be the other gender and then reinforce gender stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.”
First, I want to talk about the gender specific actions. Robert seems to always be smoking. In just about every scene, he has a cigarette. This isn’t necessarily an action that is exclusively masculine, but with the lifestyle of their surroundings it comes off as very masculine to me. When I see Robert smoke and hear his southern accent, I kind of think of a cowboy, and then I associate that with some character like the Marlboro man, a very masculine character. And with the smoking, Robert always seems to be leading a conversation. He is a central piece in the group, and he can assert himself at will. This is a very alpha-male type of thing (asserting oneself and leading conversation, socially speaking) and goes back to the scene of Robert placing himself in a dominant position over Max. The specific scene I wrote this note about started with Robert washing his windshield, and then went to Lola baking muffins. It was a noticeable juxtaposition. There are several of these. After these two images, Lola and Robert go on to have a conversation where Robert takes on the masculine role and Lola takes on the feminine. Their relationship seems to follow this constantly. Max and his partner are similar, but his partner’s actions are not as “submissive” or “feminine” as Lola’s. In fact, during the scene where the two are laying with each other, Max is in the submissive (“feminine”) position in terms of heteronormative signals that our society often accepts.
Second, I’ll attempt to answer my question in the note. I am honestly not completely sure with what I meant when I asked if these actions (if indeed stereotypes) go against the idea of transgender. I think what I was getting at was this: these people, before any changes occurred, felt like they were the other gender. Robert felt like a man when he was known as the girl and woman Barbara (sp?). By undergoing physical change, they live as the gender that they feel they were supposed to be, but reinforce this by using stereotypical social actions. In this light, the importance is placed on social norms. In short, Robert is male because he is doing male things. I am not sure if this even properly answers the transgender question I posed, but I think it better answers the one of gender roles. It seems that the people of this documentary, especially Robert and Lola, are reinforcing certain gender roles that others may not agree with, like the submissiveness of Lola (and thus other women) to the masculine person.
It seemed as though the person who filmed this documentary was aware of these dynamics and pursued them. To me, the scenes aforementioned were very telling of this. I’ll end this long passage with one other note of mine that caught my attention. I was confused at times in this movie, like about the sex shared between the partners, the body orientations of each, etc. But going on, there was the whole ordeal about Max and his partner wanting to help Robert with the speech about intimacy at SoCo. Robert says “Max doesn’t know anything about intimacy, only sex.” Then, when the two talk to each other to work out their differences, I believe Robert tells Max, “we [Lola and Robert] have a male-male intimacy, not female-male… like you.” This really struck me. Earlier in the film, Robert talks about never feeling like a lesbian woman when he was Barbara. He always felt like a heterosexual male. But at this moment, he acknowledges the fact that he is in a “male-male” relationship, and if not that, he experiences “male-male” intimacy, which would be homosexual from a male orientation. So, does this make Robert a homosexual male? A heterosexual female with male characteristics and/or orientation? I really don’t know, but it was something that caught my attention.