Feeling It Out

I knew that, on camera, when you walk into a room in your own home, you must know where the light switch is. You can’t need to look. Or else it’s a lie, which is like giving the audience a pinch of poison.

When you tell a story, you have to take liberties. You compress time. You create composite characters. You jump years ahead or flash back. Art is not life. But if your character has a longtime girlfriend and you’re tentative or formal with her, touching her as if she’s someone you just met? Another pinch. The audience might not be consciously aware of these little pinches, but if you keep doling them out, they’re reaching for the remote, or they’re walking out of the theater. They’re sick of the poison. They don’t want any more. They’re done.

They might not even realize they’re responding to inauthenticity or sloppiness in storytelling. It’s not the audience’s job to articulate the reasons. It’s their job to feel.
-- Bryan Cranston, A Life In Parts

“It’s not the audience’s job to articulate the reasons [they find the storytelling sloppy or inauthentic].  It’s their job to feel.”

When women view the world, the first thing they sense is the emotion that others are carrying.

We love watching animals play because we read their emotions.   In studies of arousal, women said that watching animals copulate didn’t arouse them, but sensing the body’s response showed differently; the animal emotion was powerful and enthralling, though not on the level of language.

How can you be a mother without first reading the emotion of your children?   One of the most important jobs parents have is to help kids learn to use their words, finding ways to express what can be conflicting and intense emotions, and you can only do that if you first get the emotion without precise words.

“As an audience, it’s their job to feel.”   While that sounds like boilerplate you use with an acting class, it does contain received wisdom about the desires and choices that an audience make.   If a performance doesn’t engage them, make them feel deeply, connecting with their emotions, they walk away, without any obligation to say why.

The scope of feeling, though, is always limited by the emotional map that the audience already carries with them.

When we create stories for children, for example, we know that sophisticated and nuanced adult emotions will fall flat with them.    They understand the basic emotions, but have not yet explored the bittersweet and complicated emotions that come with maturity.

Setting the emotional tone of a story to trigger only primal emotions, the sensational and basic, allows us to reach a wider audience, though with a corresponding limit in the depth and detail we can convey.

Transpeople have to engage with an audience to survive in the world. We know that creating a context which fits into the emotional map of those around us is the only way we can express ourselves beyond social norms and group pressures to assimilate.

Those who assign us as stigmatized objects in order to defend gender boundaries which feed their own beliefs, trying to locate the worst & most challenging in our choices to demonize us in an effort to play on the fear know that the battle is played out on the emotional map of the wider audience.

The most important thing any transperson can do is to create a story that protects and empowers them in society.   It needs to both feed our understanding and work as an explanation for our choices that other people can grasp and accept.

There are a huge number of story strategies we have used, from “I only do it as a hobby to honour women” to “It’s just a little fetish” to “Just for the show” to “I was born a hermaphrodite” to “I am doing this to rage against the oppression of gender” and on and on and on.

All of these tales are true enough to get us some of what we need, but each one of them is also limited by the bounds of the emotion we are trying to create.   They are shaped to eliminate the “noise” that “poisons” the audience because they feel anything they see as a contradiction to be a “lie.”

There are so many audiences to satisfy nowadays that almost anything can be identified as the emotional “lie” that “poisons” our performance for them.   For example, to find support we almost always have to take a political position, much like we did when doctors only wanted to provide support to “true transsexuals,” those who met their expectations of gendered compliance.   It wasn’t enough to “want to be a woman,” you had to already be a woman to get their services.

Today the political positions are hardened to match the coarsened public discourse in an age of polarization where compromise is identified as pathetic, sick and weak.

I figured out in the 1990s that a solely intellectual approach to talking about trans would not get me where I needed to go.   Unless I found ways to express the emotion of a trans life, the deep feelings bound up in the experience of living trans in this culture, I would never be able to get the kind of mirroring, empathy, understanding and valuing that I needed.

My journey, though, has taken me far from the conventional emotional maps that people carry with them.    It has demanded blending thoughts and feelings in a way that often seems to be just noise to those who haven’t been to the same kind of paths I have had to walk.

My stories, therefore, often challenge the tales others have created to defend and rationalize their own life, the emotional armour that they believe is working for them.    Understanding that shell is both a protection and a limitation, that trying to stay in the emotional zones of convention by avoiding the sharp incisiveness of thought can keep us broken, well, that’s not something they can get their heart around at this moment.

Having parents with Aspergers, the emotional maps I needed to navigate were very different than the conventional.   It was thought that broke through, not emotion, so rather than playing out my emotions and finding connection, I had to learn to suppress and manage my emotions.   My heart had to stay hidden.

I am often surprised, though, than when they hear me speak other transpeople find something resonant and powerful in my voice, responding as if I spoke for them.   I can answer the hard questions others ask with sharp thought, but they respond to the emotional truth of my answers, the authenticity in my voice.

This doesn’t come across in writing, I know, because it doesn’t carry the same set of emotional cues.

Still, people who have not had the trans experience usually find my voice challenging and difficult because I offer emotional power that lies outside of their comfort zone.   To them, I seem to bristle and threaten, pushing emotional buttons that they find so disquieting that they need to find a way to dismiss and marginalize me.

Trying to find a place where I can engage the emotions of the audience without shutting them down is the challenge of becoming product, of effectively returning the gift of my own journey.

If the audience’s job is to feel and that breadth of that feeling is bounded by their own inner emotional maps, how do we expand those horizons without tripping their sense of inauthenticity, lies, threats, challenge and noise?

How do we ever connect with an audience that is just not read or willing to go there?