This post is part of a collaborative Crossover Event with the famed and deadly Dolphin Assassin, Monica Maldonado. We’ve both written on the same general subject today. Please head over to her blog, TransActivisty, and check out her thoughts.
In the absence of positive representation in one’s culture, when one feels invisible under its appraisal of who does or does not count or deserve acknowledgment, when one is starving for any figures through whom you can see yourself, you find them where you can. You build them out of subtle hints, possible (and often unintended) suggestions, little cracks in conventional characterization… or you recontextualize the negative representations. Turn perspectives around. While those in society’s privileged interiors have trouble understanding marginal perspectives, we understand theirs entirely. We need to. It’s a necessity to survival. But we don’t have to play along, and we certainly don’t often see things exclusively through their terms. You find your pride where you need it, even in the hatred.
And what often feeds an even more dire necessity for recontextualizing what few (typically negative) representations is the need to understand oneself, who you are, what you’re feeling. To articulate your experiences back to yourself. This is painfully true of young (in all senses of the word) trans people. Our culture doesn’t (or at least didn’t) hand us any tools for understanding what we were going through and defining it for yourselves, or understanding our needs and the options for having those needs met. But we found them anyway.
You find your identity where you need it, even in the hatred.
For a lot of us who grew up in a certain part of the world, in a certain span of time, one of the places we found some understanding of ourselves bleeding through the cracks in the mainstream cissexist narrative was the horrible 1994 “comedy” Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. While it’s unquestionably an immensely hateful, privilege-fest of a film which is totally lacking not only in basic empathy and humanity but also in any level of real humour, quality or storytelling, what it did was provide, for the first time to many of us, an image of what was possible, and a character though whom we could articulate our desires, needs and feelings to ourselves. If not the first character reflecting the possibility of a “sex change” we had found, she at least was often the first such character reflecting the possibility of a “sex change” wherein you become an actualized woman, not some “pathetic” cartoonish “man-in-a-dress” there for a cheap punchline. Not only that, but an accomplished woman. A strong woman. A woman in ownership of her sexuality. A woman with goals, depth and humanity… that (perhaps incidentally, perhaps not) far exceeds the level of characterization offered to any other character in the film, all of whom are comparably (and comparable to almost any character anywhere ever, actually) paper-thin cut-outs with completely unexplained, incomprehensible, inexplicable, unexplored motives and inner lives. Or more accurately, no motives or inner lives whatsoever, just inexplicability.
This character, Lois Einhorn, was unquestionably presented as the “villain” of the film, who gets her due comeuppance for being the evil, bitchy, icky tranny. But despite all the hatred and cissexism of everyone involved in the film (except perhaps Sean Young, who portrayed Einhorn), almost a whole generation of young trans girls, starving beneath the rules, standards and expectations of a cis-dominated culture, saw in her a reflection of who they wanted (needed) to be, and used that to inch just that little bit closer to ultimately being able to enact and embody our desires and identities. “So what if she’s the bad guy? She’s gorgeous and a badass and totally did what I want to do!”
It’s better to see yourself in a “villain” than to never see yourself at all, I guess.
Talking about this with Monica while I was visiting with the trans-feminist crew down in Seattle last week, we ended up having a series of realizations about the nature of her character. While we remembered the way the film’s story, and particularly its brutally transphobic ending play out, we also remembered enough to view the story very, very differently now that we were adult trans women, being able to place our experiences into our understanding of the film where once as kids we were clamoring for any scrap of representation.
In retrospect, from what was now an experienced, adult trans woman’s perspective, Lois Einhorn not only became a lot more understandable in her motives and as an actually rather strong, admirable character in several regards, but also the shift in vantage point led the story to being grossly incompatible with its presented genre, not being in any way comprehensible as “comedy”, but instead a deeply disturbing tragedy, named not for its hero, but for a titular villain, a perfect representative of the callousness, contempt, disregard, arrogance, entitlement, immaturity and heartlessness of privilege. Not only a vicious transphobe, but a walking embodiment of everything a trans woman (like Lois Einhorn) fears. He exhibits no empathy. His motivations are inscrutable (in one scene, the film effectively mocks the audience for wanting to know). He seems to exist only to inflate his ego by cutting down others and mocking them even without any provocation, and to do so he happily exploits any vulnerabilities he perceives in others without a second thought, or any regard to consequences, safety or privacy. He is completely willing to be unspeakably brutal to achieve his vague, shifting goals. He can’t be reasoned with, or even pleaded with. He abuses even his friends whenever the whim strikes him. He has no concept of others safety. He is deeply misogynistic, homophobic, sizeist, ableist… everything. And he gets away with it, because he’s the cis, straight, white guy. The “hero”. Completely unaccountable for his actions, and behaves as exactly the monster such lack of accountability produces.
I’m not even being remotely hyperbolic here.
So, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, we decided to rewatch it. We both knew going in that it was going to be cissexist, triggering and painful as fuck. But I still badly underestimated it. Through the first half of the movie I was mostly just incredibly bored, my mind wandering to questions like “Why is it that this alleged comedy hasn’t managed to elicit even a single smirk from me?”, “How do you set a movie in Miami without including a single Cuban-American character? Why is Tone-Loc, as a hyper-infantilized sidekick, the only non-white character who gets any lines, most of which are just about how ‘awesome’ Ace is?”, “What the fuck is Tone-Loc, the guy who made the disgustingly transphobic song “Funky Cold Medina”, doing in this movie? That CAN’T be a coincidence!”, “Wow… racism, sizeism, ableism, misogyny and homophobia too!”, and “God I’d love to see a Dexter / Ace Ventura crossover”.
But by the time the story started moving towards its third act, and began exploring Einhorn’s backstory, I tensed up and started shaking. I didn’t stop shaking until nearly two hours after it was all over.
It was worse than Silence Of The Lambs. Worse than Psycho. Worse than Sleepaway Camp. It cut very, very, very deep. And perhaps because it was ostensibly a comedy. The horror wasn’t contextualized as horror. It was contextualized as funny. And that makes it a thousand times more horrifying. You’re not just watching transphobia and hatred. You’re experiencing it. It isn’t just enacted through the characters, it permeates the whole film itself. The act of the film. The act you’re participating in.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective isn’t cissexist in a simple way. It doesn’t just present a trans villain. And the audience, even, aren’t just being asked to be complacent in the cissexism and transphobia. What makes it so much more disturbing is how the film relies on the audience’s cissexism and transphobia to function. In order to be recuperated as the “comedy” it presents itself as, the audience MUST participate in the hatred, MUST embrace the transphobic perspective its built on. And must not question it, either. It’s not that Ace Ventura is just a transphobic movie. It’s that transphobia (and other forms of bigotry) are the very principle on which it operates.
For instance, remember how I said Ace is given no real characterization or motives? And how the ONE scene where he and Courtney Cox’s character (whose love for Ace, despite his consistently misogynistic and abusive treatment of her, is exactly as inexplicable as everything else in the movie… except for Lois Einhorn) are having a “tender” moment and his actual inner life is seemingly investigated ends in a joke, seemingly slapping the audience in the face for ever wondering what exactly makes this character do what he does? Well… the film asks us to excuse a tremendous amount of morally fucked-up things that Ace does throughout. This is the kind of thing an audience is typically willing to offer a protagonist, even when they do horrible things. Take for instance the aforementioned Dexter. But to excuse their fucked-up actions, it’s generally required that a character be sympathetic in some way. We need a reason to root for them. This film never, ever gives us an actual reason to sympathize with Ace Ventura other than his positioning as protagonist. Certainly not enough of a reason to forgive how he spends the entire 90 minutes treating every human being that crosses his path like shit.
But the film assumes it doesn’t need one. Ace is the sympathetic character simply because he’s the white, cis, straight guy. End of reasoning. Furthermore, in order for the humour to function, in order for us the jokes to work, we need to regard him as sympathetic. The fact that “we” are rooting for Ace is the ONLY thing preventing the movie from transforming from a light-hearted family comedy into a brutal, disgusting tragedy that, well, leaves people like me or Monica crying or shaking for hours afterwards in a severe anxiety attack. In fact, it being labeled PG-13 or whatever, despite featuring similar content to Boys Don’t Cry, paints a pretty stark picture of the level of privilege, bias and bigotry inherent in the MPAA rating system.
A word about genre and expectation: there’s never anything INHERENT to genre. There aren’t really any qualities that can be pinned down that render something “comedy” vs “tragedy”, or “sci-fi” vs. “fantasy”. What genre is is basically a set of expectations that a reader or viewer has going into a work, and an understanding on the part of the creator to work with those expectations. Sometimes meeting them, sometimes playing with them, and sometimes defying them, but always interacting with them. It’s in this sense that Ace Ventura’s (or, more accurately, Lois Einhorn’s) story being presented as a comedy speaks to something particularly terrifying about our culture. That the idea of a trans woman being horribly abused by a callous monster of a protagonist could ever work within the framework of expectations that define a comedy says something unspeakably dark about who is and isn’t considered human by the culture that could feel their comic expectations were met by that story.
It becomes something very, very different if when watching this “comedy” the character you see as yourself isn’t Ace Ventura, but Lois Einhorn. Which is why I broke down completely when he begins smashing her face repeatedly into a metal support beam. I’m not the victor, I’m the one being beaten, stripped, sexually assaulted and outed, as my entire life comes crashing around my feet, my cocky abuser laughs and mocks me in the process, and the entire police force, my employees, sit idly by watching it happen and then, ultimately slut-shame me as a final act of humiliation. All in front of the person I hate more than anyone in the world.
Fuck no I don’t blame her for trying to stab him.
A bit on Lois Einhorn’s story:
So, she’s the police lieutenant in charge of investigating the disappearance of Snowflake The Dolphin, the mascot of the Miami Dolphins, that Ace Ventura is also investigating. She’s presented as a “bitch” or “ballbreaker”, which I suppose is meant to both villainize her and (super sexisty) define her as “mannish” and “masculine”, but really reads a hell of a lot more like “Wow, this is a strong, confident woman! Fuck yeah!” and “At last! A character who is not just inexplicably putting up with Ventura’s cruel, juvenile bullshit!”. She’s actually the one responsible for the crime. See, she used to be a star kicker (“Ray Finkle”) who was drafted from college as a mid-season replacement for the Miami Dolphins. In the Superbowl, though, she misses a final field goal while the Dolphins are down by one point, costing them the game. She blames quarterback Dan Marino, who failed to listen to her request that he hold the ball laces out. This triggers an obsessive hatred of Marino.
It’s not hard at all, from a trans perspective, to read this backstory in a much more sensible and meaningful way than how the film superficially presents it. It’s extremely common for trans women to pursue hyper-masculine professions or hobbies as a means of “curing” or suppressing their transgender feelings. And when these efforts are proven to fail, often by very specific triggers (such as, oh, losing the Superbowl for your team and thus feeling like a failure as a football player and therefore a failure at being a man and thus having to confront your gender identity directly instead of burying it beneath your aspirations of being an ultra-masculine star-kicker for instance), they can be driven to suicide, breakdowns or…well, transition. I have a friend who tried to hang herself with her martial arts belt after the steroids she was taking to bulk up and be more masculine made it such that she could no longer fit into her favourite dress that she would wear in secret. This kind of thing actually happens to trans women. It’s not even uncommon.
Following this event Einhorn is institutionalized. Something else that happens to trans women all the damn time. The film presents the typical “room full of crazy” trope as a means of justifying this, but one can’t help but wonder: was it her hatred of Dan Marino, and inability to cope with the loss of the game, that had her institutionalized? Or was it the (far more likely) possibility that she was brought in on account of a suicide attempt or her gender identity issues themselves? It bears noting: Ace Ventura gains access to the psychiatric facility in question by disguising himself (in highly ableist ways) as a vaguely “crazy” person ex-football player. Part of his “disguise” is a tutu, coding in the notion that gender variance is indeed being perceived as “mental illness” in this context.
Einhorn escapes from the institution (likely to pursue transition, which in 1994 would have been completely impossible while confined to a psychiatric hospital under involuntary treatment) and assumes the identity of a missing hiker. She then manages (very impressively, I might add!) to work her way, under the new identity, to the top of the Miami police force in a very short span of time. She became a successful, confident, beautiful, strong woman, and probably would have continued on as such if she hadn’t been triggered by the Dolphins again making it to the Superbowl.
She also ends up dating Roger Pedacter, who has some kind of footbally management position or another. Earlier in the film, Pedacter is murdered in a what Ace proves to have not been a suicidal fall over his balcony. It’s ultimately revealed, in the painful finale, that his likely motive wasn’t discovering Einhorn’s role in the kidnapping of Snowflake The Dolphin, but instead that they’d had an ongoing romantic, intimate relationship, and the motive was probably simply discovering her trans history and genital configuration.
Now, Roger is a big dude. A great big footbally dude. Given what you and I know about what often goes down in situations where straight, cis men with macho hang-ups find out their partners are trans, how fucking likely is it that Lois “murdered” him by chucking him off a balcony, and how likely is it that there was a struggle (a scream was heard inside the apartment, and blood was found on the railing. It was never determined whose scream or blood either was) and he was thrown off the balcony as Lois defended herself from his attack?
Like seriously, guys?
Later Lois has her men kidnap Dan Marino, where she probably intends to kill him (representative as he’s become to her of her failure to ever live up to the oppressive, stifling, cissexist expectations under which she was raised by her rednecky, shotgun-toting, Floridan, All-American father, and led to her feeling obliged to unsuccessfully pursue a masculine identity through football). This is not something that’s justified, but it’s certainly understandable, especially when placed in contrast to the total lack of any reasoning behind Ventura’s atrocities. The worst of which comes next:
Ventura arrives and confronts her, saying he knows of her identity. She then calls her police force, telling them he’s the one responsible for the crimes. A fight then ensues which seems to operate under the Poison / Roxy principle of male-on-female violence: It’s okay if she’s “really a man”! This is all but stated explicitly in a sort of winking aside to Dan Marino’s obnoxious and incompetent cameo “You don’t understand! She’s…”. He proceeds to horribly violently pound the shit of her as she ably attempts to fight back. This is where the moment arrives that he begins smashing her face into a support beam and I begin to seriously, seriously lose my composure. Eventually the police arrive. She orders them to shoot Ventura (again, totally understandable).
But he then tells them the story. He outs her. She desperately cries out that he’s lying. He says he can prove it.
He grabs her hair and pulls back violently, unsuccessfully trying to reveal a wig.
The police do nothing but watch.
He rips open her shirt, unsuccessfully trying to reveal false breasts.
The police do nothing but watch.
He fumbles for an explanation, then finally rips off her skirt, revealing what appears to be a normal female genital area.
The police do nothing but watch.
He laughs in embarrassment, until Dan Marino invites him over to whisper something in his ear. He then walks up to Einhorn who is now near tears, looking utterly devastated, being in the process of being sexually assaulted and outed, looking like she’s about to just beg him “please don’t”, and he violently spins her around, revealing her penis tucked between her legs. He then loudly, derisively mocks her in triumph, having just utterly destroyed her life without even a blip on his conscience. Nothing but self-satisfied preening.
“The Crying Game” begins to play. All the police officers she’s kissed at some point begin spitting and vomitting, simultaneously slut-shaming and trans-shaming her en masse after just having allowed her to be sexually assaulted and then apparently deciding the crime was no longer a crime since it happened to a trans victim.
She lunges at Ace with a shard of broken glass and he flips her into the water, leaving her completely destroyed. The only thing Ace can say at this point?
I don’t think I’ve ever been so triggered by a movie. Ever.
The worst part is, of course, that we’re meant to laugh. That the movie needs us to laugh. That it expects us to be at least as heartless and lacking in empathy for the dehumanized tranny as the “hero” himself is. That it at no point ever takes into consideration a viewer like… well, like me. Or Monica. Or you.
And it worked. It was wildly commercially successful, if not much loved by the critics. The pop cultural lexicon became saturated with references to it. ALLLLRIGHTY THEN! It was a definitive moment in early 90s pop culture.
It needed the audience to be completely unempathetic to a trans character, and see her as fundamentally less than human, for whom its impossible to view anything through her eyes. It needed the audience to forgive the brutality of the titular character for no reason whatsoever beyond the rudimentary facts of his privileged identity. It needed us to be just as monstrous as the actions it was presenting in order to be sold as comedy.
And it worked.
But there’s something in how much it hurt that conveys a small glimmer of hope.
It couldn’t possibly have been as painful as it was if it weren’t for Sean Young’s performance. At every point she presents Lois Einhorn as utterly, completely human. She never stoops down to the level of the script, or the director, and at every step emotes every ounce of fear, anger, desperation, devastation, pleading, sexuality, poker face, everything. The film dehumanizes Lois Einhorn every chance it gets. Sean Young keeps her human anyway.
It’s largely her performance that made it hurt as much as it did, and made it as disturbing as it was. But it was that performance that asserts a capacity for that empathy to exist. She alone, of everyone involved in the film, (perhaps the studio, production, marketing, rating association and audience alike), refused to see Lois Einhorn as less than human simply because she was trans and arbitrarily positioned within the stories frame as “villain”.
She probably understood just how easily the exact same story could be told as a tragedy, with Einhorn as the protagonist. And in her acting, she subtly told that story.
Painful as it was, it makes me realize that perspectives don’t have to be limited. We don’t have to participate in these perspectives…. even if we are cis. Or white. Or male. Or able-bodied. Or het. We can turn them down, and be human anyway, in not allowing convenience or an easy laugh to ever lead us to forgetting the humanity of those around us.
Or maybe not. Maybe that wasn’t there. Maybe she was dialing it in and that’s just the hope I want to see.
But as I said, we find these things where can, when we need them.