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Back You are here: Home Sex, Gender & Sexuality Diversity - [Archived] Queer Ticked off Trannies with Knives: Homage or damage?

Ticked off Trannies with Knives: Homage or damage?

TOTWKweb2pinkyIsrael Luna’s ‘transploitation’ movie ignited a firestorm of outrage from the trans community in the US last year. As the film gets its debut screening in Australia this month, Katrina Fox reviews the controversy and examines why it failed to impress.

13 February 2011

Trans people are ‘en vogue’, it seems. The New York Times declared 2010 the ‘year of the transsexual’ and Brazilian trans model Lea T is currently the darling of the fashion world, making appearances in several high-profile runway shows and featuring on a magazine cover in which she and British supermodel Kate Moss locked lips.

Gay male film-maker Israel Luna cashed in on the zeitgeist last year with his ‘transploitation’ movie Ticked off Trannies with Knives (TOTWK), which he declared an homage to the exploitation films of the 1970s.

Billed as a ‘trans revenge fantasy’, the film features a group of trans women (who may be transsexual, transgender or drag queens – it’s not explicitly stated) who fight back after being viciously beaten, raped and left for dead by three redneck thugs.

When the trailer was released last year, the shit hit the fan. Luna was derided for appropriating the real-life murders of Angie Zapata and Jorge Mercado, who were victims of trans hate crimes, to promote his film. He subsequently re-edited the trailer and removed their names.

His use of the term ‘trannie’ also raised the ire of many American trans women, who consider it to be derogatory. This is a whole discussion in itself which is taking place online – see articles by Roz Kaveney, Joelle Ruby Ryan and Kate Bornstein for an overview of some of the arguments for and against.

As if that wasn’t enough, TOTWK has also been lambasted for its portrayal of trans women. In an article published on the Huffington Post, Ashley Love from anti-defamation group Media Advocates Giving National Equality to Transsexual & Transgender People (MAGNET) wrote:

The film portrays all trans women as hyper-sexualized, jokes, murderous and/or unstable. This is not only inaccurate; it's offensive and incites further misunderstanding and violence. Some of the drag queen characters have a ‘trans face’ act that is comparable to ‘black face’ of decades past, when white men painted their faces and depicted black people as minstrels and subhuman.

Likewise, ‘trans face’ is just as dehumanizing to actual trans women. Their ‘trans face’ act is hyper-sexualized, vile-talking, flamboyant, gay man with women's clothes on.

MAGNET protested the screening of the movie at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival and held an educational rally outside the premiere last year. Love told The Scavenger why:

We protested this film because society is uninformed that women born with a transsexual and/or intersex birth challenge have had their medical legitimacy usurped, misrepresented and appropriated into a gender deconstructionist reservation against their will, starting with misogynistic transvestite males such as Virginia Prince, then backed by Gay Inc, via Janice Raymond, and now by the newer transgender ideology mandate, which problematically cages these women with gay male drag queens, genderqueers and cross-dressing males with little to no education to educate of the differences.

Other organisations weighed into the debate, including the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which stated:

Because of its positioning as a transgender film, viewers unfamiliar with the lives of transgender women will likely leave this film with the impression that transgender women are ridiculous caricatures of 'real women.' It demeans actual transgender women who struggle for acceptance and respect in their day-to-day lives and to be valued for their contributions to our society.

TOTWK has now arrived in Australia and will be screened this month as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Film Festival.

I watched a preview screener of the film with my partner, Tracie O’Keefe, a transsexed woman who said:

There are some things in life that I choose not to engage with because I have only so many years left to enjoy. One of them is trash movies. By this I mean a film with a poorly devised plot, bad directing, and more violence than entertainment. TOTWK is such a project.

The actors are overly aware of the camera in a bad way, its mainstream fake tackiness is unconvincing, rendering trans people as either stupid or vengeful. Most of the street sisters I hung around with when I was younger would have killed their attackers long before the tea break and not dragged it out until the credits.

Unlike O’Keefe, I don’t mind the occasional trash movie. A bit of low-budget, high-camp, horror schlock featuring super-vixens with sensational cleavage in the vein of Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill go down a treat with vegan pizza and a gaggle of pals with an appreciation of the warped.

I occasionally warm to a revenge fantasy film too, like I Spit on Your Grave. Originally released in 1978 (the version I’ve seen), and remade in 2010, it tells the story of a female writer who is repeatedly gang-raped, humiliated and left for dead. She then hunts each of her attackers down and exacts her revenge by various methods including stabbing and disembowelling.

The gang-rape scenes are hard to watch – one of the reasons why radical feminists vehemently protested against the film in the ’70s – but there is at least some kind of ‘pay off’ at the end when the rapists get their come uppance. Even Guardian columnist Julie Bindel, who took part in the picket of the film’s screenings 30 years ago, recently admitted she was wrong about I Spit on Your Grave, arguing that it is “less exploitative than sentimental fantasies of justice” portrayed in films such as The Accused, in which rapists get a lengthy prison sentence.

As a cis woman, I found the scenes in TOTWK in which trans women were brutally bashed, kicked, punched and raped disturbing. What made my skin crawl the most, however, was the threat of violence.

In one scene, a trans woman is restrained in a chair and asked to pick a card. Her attacker then describes in chilling detail how he plans to kill her. Depending on which card she chooses, he will either batter her to death with a hammer, or cut out her heart with a knife, promising to relish in her screams and agony as she’s slowly tortured.

The trans women – who have acquired superpowers after taking a martial arts course – fight back, inserting knives and pistols into their attackers’ anuses before stabbing, shooting and battering them. But for me there was no satisfaction in the revenge.

Kate Bornstein nails the reason why. Writing in Out magazine she says:

Luna inexplicably switches styles: The attack scenes are now all about camp. Luna makes it clear that none of the men are afraid of their attackers. Ha, ha, ha. It’s all nudge-nudge-wink-wink. In the film’s earlier scenes, if a girl went down under a baseball bat or a knife, she stayed down. Two of the five trans women die in the first attack. But the revenge scenarios are all French farce. Every time a trans woman hits one of her attackers, he somehow survives a death blow and comes back at her.

In other words, the violence against the trans women is graphically realistic, while the revenge of the ‘ticked off trannies’ is all just a giggle and framed as ‘not likely to ever happen, so don’t worry guys, you can bash a tranny without fear of reprisals’.

But, like most things, it’s a matter of personal taste. What will outrage and offend one person will delight another. Cindi Edwards, a Sydney-based trans and intersex woman enjoyed TOTWK. She told The Scavenger:

First and foremost I am a fan of exploitation cinema. In a world where everything is very seriously real it’s just nice sometimes to just indulge in pure fictional black humour. I’m not going to label this film transphobic because I’m trans. I love revenge in films – always have. This is special because it’s tranny revenge. Watching it was like therapy. I’ve seen so many movies and TV shows where the trans folk are miserable, pathetic and always die in some horrible way or they are perverted murderers or something like that. This doesn’t happen in this film.

Edwards also takes issue with criticisms of the films by trans activists that appear to set ‘real’ trans women apart from and above those who may be part of the drag scene:

The film starts off in a club with showgirl trannies. They do exist you know. Trans woman do become showgirls. For some it’s par for the course but still keeping in mind this film is fiction. The jokes are cheap and crass but that’s all part of the scene.

When I first transitioned a lot of girls were sex workers and showgirls. That’s the trans world I came into. I wouldn’t change that for the world. I have lifelong friends and a world of experiences that is part of who I am today. I read something somewhere where a trans woman suggested it’s not even a real depiction of trans life.

Well sorry honey pie, but for some it is and was. I’m sorry to break this to you tadpole but some of us came through that way. It angered me that there seems to be a denialist movement regarding how some of us transitioned. Not too long ago the drag and trans scene was all mixed up. I worked with many of the Les Girls and lots of them are trans.

On the violence depicted on screen, Edwards says she found the revenge scenes empowering:

I remembered all those times that I’d been physically and verbally assaulted. And yes I was viciously attacked by five men but this is like 15 years ago. I remember I had all sorts of revenge fantasies about getting some justice but they were just personal musings. I loved all the revenge scenes in the film. They were fun and, in a twisted way, empowering.

The violence towards trans women was here long before this movie came out. It’s a revenge flick, not a ground-breaking masterpiece
.

On that final point, most will agree. As Bornstein astutely points out, the film is more than just about transphobia. Like other movies in the exploitation genre, it offends just about everyone:

If this film was worth it – and if the transgender protesters really wanted to put together an effective protest campaign – they could have opened the cause from transphobia to the larger issue of misogyny. Then they could have invited all the people who are told they’re not man enough or woman enough. That’s misogyny.

And that includes anyone whose race, class, age, looks, ability, and religion, sexuality, citizenship, language, and/or family and reproductive status impacts their status as real men and real women.

In Ticked Off Trannies, Luna manages to offend everyone who’s oppressed by any one of those hierarchical systems of oppression. But because the lightening-rod word Trannies is in the title, the film is mistakenly perceived as a single-issue problem, thus forcing the hand of an old-school single-issue political activism.

They say the best publicity for a film is to be banned or protested against and the controversy surrounding TOTWK has ensured that it will take its place in the annals of ‘transploitation’ film-making. Let’s hope future efforts take on board the criticisms and create movies that appeal – rather than repel – the very community they seek to pay homage to.

Ticked off Trannies with Knives screens Monday 21 February, 8pm at the Oxford Hotel, Sydney. Visit the Mardi Gras Film Festival website for more information and bookings.

Katrina Fox is editor-in-chief of The Scavenger.

Comments   

0 #4 Jay 2012-04-14 23:22
"If this film was worth it – and if the transgender protesters really wanted to put together an effective protest campaign – they could have opened the cause from transphobia to the larger issue of misogyny. Then they could have invited all the people who are told they’re not man enough or woman enough. That’s misogyny. "
I'm not okay with people saying this. By saying this, it's as though the struggle of trans* people isn't real enough until other people are involved, until more important people are involved. That's bullshit. It's a film about trans women, and trans women are allowed to be upset without inviting other people to join their fight, because then their voices will just be over shadowed anyway.
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0 #3 Cindi Edwards 2011-02-17 08:51
whilst Ashley and i dont see eye to eye we both recognise a well written balanced article. TRANS -X-U-ALL was my intro to trans literature. :-)



Cindi xo Still Fierce ;-)
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0 #2 Israel Luna 2011-02-17 08:34
Katrina,
Great article. You were very fair in presenting both sides of the controversy of my film.

Just for the record: when GLAAD came out against my film I issued a statement to the press stating that GLAAD had a copy of my film for 2 months and even gave me media training on how to market it. GLAAD didn't respond.

We tried to conduct a panel at TriBeCa with transwomen, me, trans-actors from my film and GLAAD but GLAAD never contacted us. We tried this again in Seattle but they never responded. Since their initial statements GLAAD has never talked about my film again.

israel luna
writer/director
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0 #1 Ashley Love 2011-02-13 16:03
Thank you for ensuring the transsexual and intersex communities also had a say in why the film TOTWK was protested in your article. I hope to meet you and your partner (she's a hero of mine) one day! :-)
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