We are animals, and pay attention to others we do not know with our most basic drives- are they threat, prey or sex-object? Seeing the person as a sex-object, only interesting as a potential partner rather than a whole human being with gifts and qualities, is the basis of the objection to the “male gaze” at women, in films and television. Women are devalued and objectified.
If we are sex-object, that may be a threat, as trans panic defences are still argued. In Gwen Araujo’s first trial, the jury deadlocked: the murderers had had intimate relations with their victim, and claimed that when they found she had a penis they “flew into a rage” or “shock provoked them into a heat of passion” fitting manslaughter not murder. The defence is based on “dominant norms of hegemonic masculinity” and so harmful; but people still think that. A conviction is no compensation to the victim.
But we may also be seen as prey, as a matter of sexual competition. The hegemonic male sees the trans woman as an inadequate man, and proves his own manliness (to himself, at any rate) by humiliating her. That pointed scrutiny may indicate a man about to bully you.
In film and TV, however, trans women are not the victim of this as younger cis women are. Feminists complain that female actors are portrayed for the pleasure of the male viewer. Trans characters tend to be portrayed sympathetically. Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl is an interesting character in an interesting situation, not a sex object or a matter for derision: she is portrayed as embarrassed and frightened at being seen, and as a victim (when dressed male) of gay bashers.
This is a blog, not a news site. Often I think things through as I type here.
That scene. Yes, it happens, that people are read as gay and victimised. We might object to the story- we don’t want just to be seen as victims having a ghastly time, but as people making our way in the world. Watching the scene, I saw what was going on before Lili starts to flee. Is that because of the way the camera dwells on her? Or the muggers? Or the music- there are ways to portray such a thing. I feel the audience’s sympathy would be with Lili, and the film-makers’, as well-
I don’t feel anyone who would want to see the film would think “Good, the pervert got what was coming”. And- now I have the concept of the “gaze”, I wonder whether there is something objectionable.
What of Maxine Conway in Wentworth Prison? There are main characters which are more or less sympathetic, and Maxine is allied with the more sympathetic ones. She is large, with a male figure: the makers chose a character who was obviously trans. Well, many of us are, and how can I say that does not make me ridiculous while complaining at Maxine being ridiculed just for that?
I am not here making a clear distinction between gaze, the way the camera dwells on an actor, and the whole way we tell stories about trans people. I never watched Boy meets Girl, but it is comedy about a man and a trans woman being romantically involved, starring a trans woman. The Daily Mail hated it, as an instruction manual about what to say, think and feel about sex changes. The trans woman gets read, but those who don’t sympathise with trans women won’t like the show.
Can the viewer identify with a character? There are so many action films where we are invited to identify with a male action hero, Jason Bourne or John McClane. In The Danish Girl it seems easier to identify with Gerda Wegener, Lili’s wife.
I was asked about this one. I am not a film critic, but have an eye for composition. What do you think?