Isreal Luna’s “transploitation film” Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives is now the target of a GLAAD campaign to get the film pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival because, “its title and its marketing misrepresent the lives of transgender women and use grotesque, exploitative depictions of violence against transgender women in ways that make light of the horrific brutality they all too often face.” I agree that the film’s deliberately provocative and far from perfect, but most of the people speaking out against it haven’t even seen the entire film yet and are missing the larger point. The film could do more to progress trans-issues in film than any other film before it and at least 8 ways that GLAAD — which has seen the film — should have considered.
1) TRIBECA’S ALREADY DECIDED TO RUN THE FILM NO MATTER WHAT: When trans San Francisco blogger Gina got wind Luna’s flick — which Queerty reviewed in January — was accepted into the Tribeca Film Festival, she got a bit ticked-off herself. The problems? You name it: the offensive word “tranny” in the title; the trailer references real-life trans-bashing victims Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado and Angie Zapata to promote Luna’s comedy-slasher-action flick; portraying trans-women as campy drag performers. Gina mentioned a Facebook page urging a boycott of TOTWK and contacted several other trans bloggers (such as Autumn Sandeen from Pam’s House Blend) who contacted gay governing watchdog GLAAD. Yesterday, GLAAD issued a call to action and a petition to get the film pulled from Tribeca. That’s great, except Tribeca has already said it’s not gonna pull the film. Nor should they, because GLAAD is, once again, over-stepping in haste.
Perhaps the most egregious evidence that GLAAD is A) late the game; B) in reactionary mode; C) irrelevant; and D) hypocritical arrives with this Tribeca Film Festival statement:
The filmmakers provided a copy of this film to GLAAD in February, and for weeks the organization had been supportive to the filmmakers. In fact, GLAAD representatives advised the film’s producer, director and cast on how to describe the film to its core constituency. Tribeca is proud of its ongoing commitment to bring diverse voices and stories to its audiences, and looks forward to the film’s premiere at our Festival next month.
2) THE GLAAD CAMPAIGN AGAINST TOTWK HAS HELPED GUARANTEE ITS SUCCESS: GLAAD and transbloggers weren’t really concerned that the film was showing at Tribeca—the cro-magnon thugs who’d beat up transfolk because of such a film aren’t the sort who attend artsy-fartsy film festivals anyway. No, the bigger worry was that Luna’s film would score a distribution deal at Tribeca, and then become available to anti-trans thugs around the world, something the campaign against the film has ironically guaranteed.
Before the campaign to get it pulled, Tribeca film-goers might have seen the film for what it was (a B-movie slasher) and skipped it, letting it pass into obscurity. Now that everyone’s hearing about the controversy, Tribeca’s inclusion means sold-out screenings and mad press.
Queerty loves ourselves some free speech—both Luna’s right to make the film and the trans-community’s right to speak against it—but both Luna’s film and the outcry against it are problematic.
3) GLAAD HAS PROVED ITSELF TO BE A POOR ARBITER OF TASTE: GLAAD’s right up there with the Human Rights Campaign in its irrelevance. GLAAD accepts money from the very media outlets they’re designed to police (without seeing a problem with it); they frowned on CBS’s anti-gay Super Bowl ad policy without any ultimatum; they snubbed the most important piece of gay cinema in the last year (Kirby Dick’s Outrage) despite the fact that the film met all four of their Media Awards’ criteria; they criticized the South Park “faggot episode” and then withdrew the criticism when it became apparent that no one cared, and many gays disagreed with their black-or-white stance.
Now their campaign to pull TOTWK from Tribeca suggests such a film should never have been made, let alone seen — which is retrogressive.
4) TOTWK COULD URGE THE TRANS-COMMUNITY TO SUPPORT A TRANS-DIRECTOR TO TELL THEIR STORY: Sandeen raises legitimate worries about TOTWK‘s deleterious effects: Luna’s film could create an unflattering portrayal of transfolk as knife-wielding psychopaths (much like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs and Elliot/Bobbi in the 1982 film Dressed to Kill).
According to Sandeen, Luna’s film comes at a time when we’re finally making progress on trans-inclusion in ENDA, getting more realistic portrayals of trans-people in TV and having real political discussion about real trans-people. Sandeen also worries that if Israel’s film got pulled from Tribeca—which it won’t—that it would deepen divisions between the LGB and T communities. LGB folk would scream “censorship” and suggest that “humorless transfolk” simply get over it. And the T-community—tired of transphobia from their queer counterparts, exclusion, and demonization and ghettoization by the populace at large—would have to band their smaller numbers to fight the problem at the heart of this battle: transfolk only ever get depicted by cisgender men who control queer narrative at the expense of others.
Any LGB person inclined to cry “censorship” or “it’s just a film, get over it,” should remember the gay outcry against the 1980s film Cruising. At the time, the gay community was getting blamed for the AIDS epidemic and being portrayed as leather-kink-psychos with murderous daddy-issues certainly didn’t help. Many New York gays worry that the film would only increase gay bashings. A key difference: Cruising presented homos as the villain, whereas TOTWK presents the transfolk as the vigilante heroes—both criminal deviants, but to different ends.
Maybe his problematic depiction of transfolk will actually crack open the door so that a trans-filmmaker will emerge and create a stronger, less campy representation of trans-issues that will have as much voice and presence, and will receive as much recognition as Luna’s film.
5) HOWEVER, FILMS “FOR US BY US” WON’T SOLVE ALL THE PROBLEMS OF TRANS-REPRESENTATION There’s also Sandeen’s concern that Luna (who identifies as bisexual) has made an exploitation film and used trans-actors as players in his own transphobic vision:
One of citable problems with many black exploitation films of the ’70′s was that most of the time it wasn’t African-Americans who were writing, directing, and producing the films. Black community was more often than not being defined in those films by film people who weren’t black…. the person who is most responsible for this film apparently doesn’t identify as transgender, so it’s someone outside of trans community who has created a film about another minority group.
Does Sandeen mean that films about minorities can only be made by members from those communities? Of course not. After all, three out of five of TOTWK’s transgender characters self-identify as such and Sandeen has stated that she’d stil have a problem even if a trans-person had made Luna’s film. She’s just implying that a trans writer/producer/director might have been more cautious about using an epithet in the title, and exploiting very real, dead community members to market “a comic thriller.”
6) TOTWK IS A REVENGE FANTASY, NOT A REALISTIC PORTRAYAL OF TRANS-VIOLENCE: In an ill-considered attempt to make his film relevant, Luna propped up his action movie with two horrific instance of real-life transviolence: a clash in tones and a choice in poor taste. He should have let his film’s fictional and cartoonish display of violence stand up on its own instead of aligning it with the real-life horror experienced by our trans brothers and sisters.
I mentioned that one of the transgender characters drives a lime-green stiletto through her attacker’s eye with a dying headbutt—violence played up for gory fun. In contrast, when Boner’s bashing in trans-skulls with an aluminum bat, Luna has made sure that it’s terrifying and not funny. But Gina and Sandeen make a good point—there’s nothing inherently funny about a transwoman actually fighting for her life. Why camp it up with high-heels at all? If Luna really wanted to connect with cis-audiences and empower transfolk, why not portray the life-or-death struggle accurately in a way that would truly everyone understand the true tragedy and horror of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado and Angie Zapata’s deaths?
But it’s obvious that Luna set out to make a Tarrantino-esque horror-slasher fantasy with comic elements (not a serious or “depressing” drama, in his words, like Boys Don’t Cry). He might also suggest that if transfolk want to see a movie with a more realistic depiction of trans-issues, they should make their own movie. Granted this ignores the lack of financing, technical skill, and mainstream viability that an independent trans-created film would face. If Luna had made a revenge version of Boys Don’t Cry, who knows if it would have gotten this much attention or even been elevated to the international stage by being included in Tribeca.
7) BRINGS ISSUES ABOUT TRANS-VIOLENCE AND REPRESENTATION INTO THE MAINSTREAM: Sensationalism sells, and even exploitation films of the 1970s opened the door for American society to discuss deeper issues about minority representation and artistic inclusion. The most important social art has always been met with extreme disagreement and this follows in that vein. By making a deliberately provocative film, Luna has at least gotten people talking about trans violence and clamoring for more balanced portrayals which are sure to follow.
8) THE ENTIRE TRANS COMMUNITY ISN’T AGAINST THE FILM:It’s a mistake to assume that all transfolk agree with Sandeen, Gina, or GLAAD’s assessment that TOTWK is wholly offensive, especially since GLAAD’s the only organization besides Tribeca that has viewed the film in its entirety.
Presumably the trans-actors in Luna’s film think more highly of their work and I’m betting there are probably others transfolk who will find it beneficial instead of insulting. Krystal Summer, who stars in the film, tells Queerty:
I am a transgender woman and one of the lead actors in ‘Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives.’ Our film does not promote hate or violence against transgender women. It is not a documentary, but a work of fiction and a revenge fantasy. I would never partake in a project that made light of the appalling acts of hate that we, as transgender women, encounter nearly every day. I urge you not to judge the film based on a trailer, hearsay or the recent statements from GLAAD, which received a copy of our film in February, and for weeks, supported our filmmakers. In fact, GLAAD representatives advised our film’s producer, director and cast on how to describe our film to our audience. The transgender community is always asking that people not judge us by our exterior and take the time to look deeper– I hope that you will do the same with our film.
* NEVERTHELESS, THE FILM STILL HAS VERY REAL PROBLEMS: But to understand the biggest negative, let’s return to the continued furor over the title. Some consider “trannies” on par with “faggots” or “niggers.” In her post against the film, Gina wrote:
How about this idea Mr. Luna… a campy, trashy film about Matthew Shepard, but played for laughs. You could call it “F*gs Fight Back” and if anyone in the gay community doesn’t like it, explain to them how they have no sense of humor, two of the actors in it are actually gay and you’re just trying to make something to entertain people. Perhaps you should call up Judy Shepard and run it by her. I’m sure she’d appreciate your brand of activism and not feel as if you’re trying to exploit her son’s murder.
The gay or black communities would probably object to films entitled “Faggots with Firebombs” or “Niggaz with Nailbats.” And they should.
While at the SXSW Film Festival, I caught a documentary about the historical depiction of Native Americans in film called Reel Injun. The depiction of Native Americans in film had real political consequences. They weren’t just “action movies,” they shaped the mainstream conception of Native Americans at a time when tribes were still fighting life-and-death battles for their autonomy.
Luna’s film is arguably the most mainstream depiction of transfolk yet and whether his transwomen are heroic vigilantes or not, they’re still just Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives. It’s hardly flattering, and I worry along with Sandeen that its immediate effect will be causing deeper resentment between the LGB and T communities despite his efforts to empower the latter.