We live in interesting times. While the 20th century marked the rise of the labour movement, female emancipation and racial equity, the 21st century will probably be remembered for its interest in the sexual politics of gender. Sexual minorities, both liberated by and trapped within the term LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer), are speaking up and celebrating their existence, politically and socially on a global scale. The topic has, in all its complexity, become an inspiration for several filmmakers. International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) pays extra attention to their work in the programme ID: gender.net.
By Mounir Samuel
A wave of transgender stories, TV shows, movies and models made 2015 into a breakout year for the 'T' in LGBTQ, creating a momentum that continues into 2016.
If autumn is the new spring, trans is the new gay. When Caitlyn Jenner officially came out as trans, a media hype began that made the word 'transgender' sound sexy in a way it hadn’t before. Every media outlet reported on her transition from male to female, including ones in non-Western cultures. Dutch people, too, were surprised, fascinated and intrigued by stories of those who decided to change their body and/or appearance to match their inner world; stories that are now being told publicly in a way they never were before. Their quick adaptation to and acceptance of transgender culture exemplifies the open mind the people of Netherlands are so well known for.
It's often overlooked how difficult a gender transition is for the person going through one. Personally and physically, but also socially. Girls Lost, by Scandinavian filmmaker Alexandra-Therese Kleinig, does not pay much attention to that side of the story. In her film, three girls eat a magic mushroom and briefly turn into men. If only things could be that simple. The lonely and painful journey many transgenders have to embark on, filled with social exclusion and misunderstanding, won't be improved just by a magic mushroom, though this film works well as an artfully shot, magical thought experiment.
How do you 'do something' with gender?
In reality, our society has a hard time directly addressing the meaning of gender and bridging the gap between male and female. What is more, even in this day and age, advertising openly reinforces gender stereotypes. Men are depicted as burly and strong, almost incomplete without a big beard and flannel shirt. They are lone wolves, hunting for meat (in the shape of a female or otherwise), in no way bothered by a sense of responsibility and commitment. Women, meanwhile, are more feminine than ever. Their hair is long (very few young women nowadays ever seriously consider a short haircut), they wear dresses, floral perfumes and are fixated on being thin and having a healthy body (one that ideally won't age, even after they turn 50). It’s no different in the gay scene, which shows less and less tolerance for outwardly 'gay' or 'lesbian' behavior, as if to say: it's OK to be gay, but do you have to be so obvious about it? Not being recognized as gay by non-gays has become the greatest compliment of all. Sure, we want to be different, but we don't want to look that way.
In short, we're living in a time that is hard to navigate for people who don't want to (or cannot) conform to any one gender. Even transgenders are being stereotyped, because if you claim to be a man, you won't be taken seriously unless you act and look 'manly'. The more polarizing, catchy and meta the word gender becomes, the more companies and media become involved with it. We need to do something with this, seems to be the common thought shared by journalists, policy-makers and people working in PR. A development that raises the question: how do you 'do something' with gender?
The hype around gender has turned the word into something that can be applied almost randomly; from fashion to a way to experience sexuality and from an identity to a biological 'malfunction'. However, an honest and public debate about the way our binary society is organized and how it functions, is too painful. So we like to talk about transgenders – who in TV shows are presented to the rest of the world as people who just happened to have been born in the wrong body – but they have little interaction with gender queers like me, who feel like a man and a woman, or who don't identify with either sex. Why is this? It's just way too complicated, not to mention too uncomfortable, within our neatly organized society, which determines that women care about beauty and men strive to rule.
The world we live in is made up of extremes: rich and poor, educated and illiterate, man and woman, black and white. The grey spaces in between, anything that's different from what society considers the norm (homosexuality, pluriformity when it comes to gender and racial diversity within the highly educated so-called upper class) is considered a direct assault on the establishment, which in our part of the world still consists of white, straight men. For this very reason, bisexuality is still viewed mainly as a desire to have one's bread buttered on both sides, within and outside of the gay scene, and drag queens and transvestites are increasingly likely to encounter violence within their own community. It's considered not-done for a man to dress up as women (and even make an art out of it), but not identify as female or have plans for sexual reassignment surgery.
The outside world
How incredibly difficult it is to discuss and investigate all of these layers and facets of the gender issue, is reflected in the wide selection of films at IFFR this year. Many of them investigate the human body; the physical aspect of gender. There is Andrew a strong courageous warrior., an artistic and autobiographical film by A. Liparoto, who wonders how much of identity is fixed and clearly definable, if you can simply take on the characteristics of another gender. Shot over a period of nine months, we see how Abigail (a woman obsessed with cosmetics and lingerie) becomes Andrew. Beautifully photographed and fascinating, but what is his battle? And who is he fighting with? It's definitely not the world outside of his room, so how courageous is this warrior, really? The same can be said of the American documentary Outfitumentary by K8 Hardy. A self-proclaimed lesbian feminist has filmed the clothes she wore every day for the past ten years. Every style of clothing is represented and accompanied by the music of that time. Again, the story never leaves the four walls of her room (though the walls do change a few times over the course of a decade). The body in its clothed form can be an great subject to study, but such an investigation will only be truly interesting when conducted in the outside world, where the physical shape encounters the social norms and prejudices of society (or the viewer, but the film does not seek enough interaction for that to happen here).
A real conversation about gender diversity and inequality, in whatever shape or form, is not only difficult, but often unwanted. The loud and intense public debate that followed the attacks on hundreds of females on new year's eve in Cologne, Germany, strictly focused on the toxic combination of migrants, refugees and Islam. Very few words were said about the victims - who were assaulted and sometimes even raped, so what could be the possible reasons behind their unwillingness to speak up and why they were so slow to file a police report? - and the fact that sexual violence has become a worldwide epidemic. The quick ascent of women in today’s society, both socially and politically, followed by the increased visibility of sexual minorities (mainly in non-Western societies) and the speed at which women in non-Western countries are emancipating, is creating a new social equilibrium. Never before did women outnumber men in higher education (Iran sets the ultimate record with three female students for each male student). Never before were this many women the main breadwinner (within Egypt's lower social classes, more than sixty percent of breadwinners are female). Never before were this many young women responsible for taking care of and providing for not only their parents, brothers and sisters, but also their extended families.
Confused and emasculated
A social change of this kind is accompanied by a lot of tension. Confused and often emasculated, boys and men reach for the last weapons they have at their disposal: physical and sexual violence. They don't just target women, but unfortunately also feminine men and transgenders. If you ask me, the intense sexual violence in places like Egypt and India isn’t caused by religion or a culture that is somehow 'underdeveloped', but by the rapid rise of women and sexual minorities (and their attempts to rule both their countries and communities). Herein lies the real explanation behind the gang rapes on Tahrir Square in Egypt, the violent sexual assaults on young, female students and workers in India, the systematic sexual assaults on lesbians in the South African townships, the drugging and raping (sometimes to death) of American college students, the immense social pressure young teenage girls in the United Kingdom are under (causing most of them to first encounter sex in a non-consensual way), and the growing number of illegal prostitutes in China. The list goes on and on.
These kids weren't born in the wrong body, but in the wrong world
These incredibly complex and often contradictory developments are probably best explained in Strange Love, a film by Indian filmmaker Natasha Mendonca. Before the movie's title appears on the screen, Mendonca gives us a strong opening sequence: a long list of commands and prohibitions as prescribed by the Indian federal government. For instance: the famous beach town Goa has banned bikini's ('most importantly on women'), to make sure men aren't tempted by the sight of female flesh. It's a rule you’d much sooner expect from a country like Saudi-Arabia – or Germany for that matter, where the mayor of Cologne advised women to keep unknown men at an arms’ length distance, to prevent any further sexual assault from happening.
A step towards public debate
In his feature film Arianna, Italian filmmaker Carlo Lavagna addresses the body and male and female roles with both depth and painful sharpness. The movie goes far beyond the transgender issue, and brings up themes that the media and society have not been able to deal with yet. This coming-of-age story about a young woman who discovers she was born intersex (and not a girl, as she has been told), doesn't only inspire a debate about the concerns and considerations of parents and doctors, but also about society's inability to accept that some children are both male and female, and the gender of others is ambiguous. Society tells us a choice has to be made for these children, preferably the sooner the better. Truth is, these kids weren't born in the wrong body, but in the wrong world. One that won't accept the literal fluidity of their gender and can only see people as one or the other: male or female.
This programme at IFFR, featuring a wide selection of movies, takes a step towards a new public debate. Now, let's hope that we won't get stuck in the story of the 'extraordinary other', but actually dare to look in the mirror at own 'own self' in this world of pre-conceived shapes – pink and blue, Barbie dolls and fire trucks, current affairs magazines for men and fashion and gossip columns for women.
Mounir Samuel is an Egyptian-Dutch political scientist, opinion leader and author of several books. He blogs about gender and other issues at www.mounirsamuel.nl.