This section includes eighty-six short original essays commissioned for the inaugural issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Written by emerging academics, community-based writers, and senior scholars, each essay in this special issue, “Postposttranssexual: Key Concepts for a Twenty-First-Century Transgender Studies,” revolves around a particular keyword or concept. Some contributions focus on a concept central to transgender studies; others describe a term of art from another discipline or interdisciplinary area and show how it might relate to transgender studies. While far from providing a complete picture of the field, these keywords begin to elucidate a conceptual vocabulary for transgender studies. Some of the submissions offer a deep and resilient resistance to the entire project of mapping the field terminologically; some reveal yet-unrealized critical potentials for the field; some take existing terms from canonical thinkers and develop the significance for transgender studies; some offer overviews of well-known methodologies and demonstrate their applicability within transgender studies; some suggest how transgender issues play out in various fields; and some map the productive tensions between trans studies and other interdisciplines.
What Counts as a Trans Film?
This deceptively simple question has provoked heated discussion among festival programmers, film critics, and even filmmakers. Is a trans film one that features self-identified trans characters or characters that viewers would recognize as trans? One made by trans filmmakers or starring trans actors, regardless of content? Does it have to be meant for trans viewers, have a trans aesthetic, or just be open to trans interpretations? Who decides which of these criteria are important, in what contexts, and for what reasons? This last consideration — of the discourse around a film — is perhaps the most significant: when and why a film is talked about as a “trans film” tells us a lot about the current state of representational politics and community reception as well as trends and directions in film criticism.
Susan Stryker once quipped that transgender studies is queer theory's “evil twin” who “willfully disrupts the privileged family narratives that favor sexual identity labels … over gender categories” (2004: 212). The notion of trans cinema bears a similar sibling relation to that of queer cinema. Films that feature gender variance have always had a significant place in queer cinema, but considerations of trans issues have tended to be subsumed under the focus on sexuality. The recent emergence of transgender film festivals provides one corrective to this problem.1 The family feud over queer versus trans approaches to specific films has at times divided communities but also inspired constructive conversations. For example, the furor over lesbian perspectives on Boys Don't Cry (dir. Kimberly Peirce, 1999) that fail to honor Brandon Teena as a trans subject (Pratt 2005: 173–74; Halberstam 2005: 89–92) or the debate on the hostile queer reception of Cheng Dieyi's cross-gender embodiment in Farewell My Concubine (dir. Chen Kaige, 1993; see Leung 2010: 46) shows how film can spark rigorous discussion about the boundary and relation between queer and trans as interpretive categories.
The growth of trans-centric approaches in film criticism has contributed to more diverse ways of “seeing” trans on-screen. Analyses of stereotypes (Ryan 2009) expose the media dynamics that result in limiting and transphobic representations. Going beyond identity politics, adventurous critical approaches include the theorizing of transgender as a form of relationality between characters on-screen (Halberstam 2005: 92–96), the exploration of how cinema depicts bodily transformative procedures such as theatrical training and martial arts as forms of “trans practice” (Leung 2010: 94–106), and the examination of cinematic affect and trans aesthetics (Steinbock 2011). While textual analyses dominate the field, there are also important recent efforts to conduct theoretically sophisticated and empirically grounded studies of trans audience and community reception (Williams 2012).
On the production side, the most exciting development is an emergent wave of trans-identified filmmakers, most notably in North America, whose works are committed not only to telling stories meant consciously for a trans or trans-literate audience but also to aesthetic and genre experimentation. For example, Jules Roskam's Against a Trans Narrative (2009) critiques medicalized narratives of transsexuality as well as the dominant self-narration of trans-masculine subjects. Morty Diamond's Trans Entities: The Nasty Love of Papì and Wil (2008) is a form of “docu-porn” that redresses mainstream pornography's exploitative representation of trans people while challenging the absence of sexuality in the documentary genre. Kimberly Reed's Prodigal Sons (2008) displaces the story of her own gender transition with a poignant exploration of her brother's story of mental illness and adoption history. These filmmakers are trans auteurs in the sense that they consciously construct a complex relation between their trans identification and their aesthetic signature on screen.
Trans by Any Other Name?
Concerns have been expressed over the predominantly Western framework of trans studies that fails to account for forms of embodiment and identity that lie outside its purview (Roen 2006; Towle and Morgan 2006). The same challenge faces the study of trans cinema: How should we approach films that feature gender variance in contexts outside or predating the Western discursive history of “trans”? Should we speak instead of a kathoey cinema from Thailand that has produced such films as Iron Ladies (dir. Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, 2000) and Beautiful Boxer (dir. Ekachai Uekrongtham, 2004)? How should we approach the genre of films featuring premodern forms of cross-dressed embodiment in traditional theaters across East Asia, such as Farewell My Concubine and The King and the Clown (dir. Joon-ik Lee, 2005)? How do we speak of subjectivities that do not neatly differentiate between same-sex desire and cross-gender identification, like that of the protagonist in The Blossoming of Maximos Oliveros (dir. Auraeus Solito, 2005)? Engaging with these questions even as they query the parameters, limits, and raison d'être of trans film studies remains a challenging but crucial undertaking.
1. The impact of transgender film festivals warrants more attention in film festival scholarship, which, as evidenced in a bibliography developed by the Film Festival Research Network (2013), is focused predominantly on queer film festivals.