I love Kate Davis’ film “Southern Comfort.” It lets transpeople speak for themselves in their own way, in their own time. I was in contact with Lola Cola while she was caring for Robert, so the movie is very personal to me, my friends lives.
Within driving distance from here this month is “Southern Comfort: The Musical.” Yeah; it’s a stage musical comedy version of the movie. I saw the write up in The Boston Globe with 5′ 3″ star Annette O’Toole in a wig, looking nothing as grizzled as Robert did in the movie. Testosterone will change a person, yes it will.
I sent the piece to my sister who immediately said “Let’s go see it!”
It’s one thing to watch a documentary film, even a bad film, that shows someone you love.
It’s quite another thing to see someone you love transformed into an archetype and then have that archetype polished for theatricality, especially in the very abstracted style of musicals.
I might go to a good musical about transpeople. But I don’t care that “Grey Gardens” was a success, I can’t go to a musical that takes people I love and turns them into theatrical characters. Maybe if it was “Sally Soda” and “David Egan” rather than Lola Cola and Robert Eads, I could take it better.
Can you imagine if someone took a story you lived and then turned it into a show that was designed to succeed on Broadway? Creeps me out.
I know what creative types do to transpeople. They manipulate images of us to show the audience what the creatives want to see. Felicity Huffman’s Bree in TransAmerica didn’t show any residual masculinity, while Terrance Stamp’s Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert didn’t show any femininity. Stamp would ask the director if they looked pretty, the director reassured them, and then told the cameraman to “light them like shit.”
In the hands of creatives we stop being complex individuals and become stereotypes, puppets to be manipulated. I actually liked both TransAmerica and Priscilla in their own way, but if those characters were meant to represent real transwomen, let alone my friends, I don’t think I would be as pleased.
Seeing transpeople as symbols, pawns in the stories of others, that’s hard. In the end, our lives are what we mean by them, not the meanings others want to make up for them. Bart Ehrman tells us that when looking at two different versions of the same text, Biblical scholars choose to believe the more complicated one is original, because the habit of scribes was to simplify stories they didn’t completely understand, eliminating ambiguity and meaning.
In the Globe article, the creatives for Southern Comfort: The Musical admit that the real life people the characters are supposed to represent aren’t really thrilled with the show.
They needed drama, so they changed the ending so the character of Robert stands against a transman who wants a phalloplasty, saying that people are defined by their heart.
That’s just real bad transtheory there, and against what transpeople know. Not something Robert did or would do. It diminishes the choices transpeople make to own their own lives.
But somehow, it makes the drama coalesce with a constructed conflict that allows a clean statement ending, much like the “purity” of Hedwig getting naked. Fuck that.
I engaged with Lola while she went from flighty girl to solid woman as she dealt with Robert’s death. And I remember her reaching out to me to share her experiences when she heard my parents were ailing. That’s messy, sure, but it’s real.
Make your shows with stereotyped trans characters playing out archetypes that are easy to sell to wide audiences in 90 minutes. You have that right.
But me watching these stories of yours cloaked in some kind of assumed documentary authenticity about real friends of mine?
Turns my stomach.