“Exploitation Cinema”… it’s all in the name, isn’t it? One of those rare instances in which bigotry and kyrarchy brazenly names itself. And we, collectively, brazenly accept it as a legitimate aspect of our cultural discourse regardless.
How, exactly, is it that white male hipsters can go around describing themselves as fans of “exploitation film” and get a pat on the back for their “good taste”? Where the racism and misogyny of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino is accepted as “genius” so long as it remains filtered through “contextual” qualifiers of “retro-aesthetics”, “irony” and its allegedly “empowering” nature for whosoever is the target of the exploitation?
I’m rather reminded of how many people excused the incredibly sexist costume designs of many female superheroes as being examples of the “empowerment” of the fictional character in question (Starfire, Powergirl, Voodoo, whoever), and prioritizing the “empowerment” and “feminist pride in their body” of the fiction character above the actual affect these character designs had for would-be female comics fans… and for the way the young male readers came to conceptualize women relative to these portrayals. While “empowerment” or “that’s just who the character is” were the excuses trotted out publicly to place a flimsy “feminist” veneer over the blatantly sexist aesthetics that dominated the industry, it was nonetheless ultimately discovered (not so surprisingly) that the genuine reasons for such character and costume designs were simply to get a little boobs and butts into the comics to increase sales to their self-perpetuatingly male-dominated demographics. It was exploitation, called empowerment.
And yet, what we see from the critical adulation heaped on artists like Tarantino, that superficial excuse of “empowerment” isn’t even consistently necessary. Just as often, you can just say outright it’s “exploitation”, but say you “don’t really mean it” and aren’t “really racist” or “really sexist”, and the culture industry and media will give you the benefit of the doubt regardless. Such is the cultural contract of patriarchy and white-supremacy.
A few years back a film came out called “Ticked Off Trannies With Knives”, written and directed by a cis gay man, produced and financed by cis men. It billed itself as a “transploitation” film, and was shot with the same “ironic” and “retro” sensibilities of similar “neo-exploitation” works from directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez.
It was brutal. It was violent. It featured horrible things happening to trans women (the sorts of horrible things that really do happen to trans women, entirely too frequently, the realities of which goes almost entirely ignored by the culture industry and media). It sensationalized and reveled in that trans-misogynistic violence, which sold a lot of tickets to cisgender audiences to earn a lot of money for a lot of cisgender pockets. It was exploitation.
But it was okay, right? Because irony. Because retro. Because they didn’t really mean it. Just like Tarantino invoking a rather loaded racial slur in virtually ever film he’s ever made. Right?
I could write a lot about this movie. I could write a lot about what was wrong with it. But why put my focus there? After all, it says it’s transploitation. It markets itself as such. It never pretended to be otherwise. It was simply applying a “retro” type of exploitative culture to a different sort of marginalized group, who hadn’t yet been subjected to “exploitation” in the culture industry.
The aspect that I’ve personally found especially jarring about that film was the treatment of “transploitation” as a novel concept. The overall “pitch” of the film was that black people, women, sex workers, asians, gay men and so on had all been the subjects of “exploitation film”, but that trans women had thus far not been. Hence it was “new” and “innovative” to return to the aesthetics of 70s exploitation cinema, but positioning this heretofore “ignored” minority demographic as the focus.
The truth, however, is that transploitation was not, and is not, a novel or unusual phenomenon. It’s been a cultural institution since the time of “Glenn or Glenda?” and Christine Jorgensen, and has remained as such all the way into extremely contemporary examples, such as “Hit Or Miss” and “My Transsexual Summer”. Trans people have always been a fascinating and exotic pull for cis audiences, have always been easily taken advantage of (due to poverty, a hunger for visibility, a desperation to have our stories told honestly, and a hundred other reasons), have always been easy to ignore in terms of accuracy and our own wishes for how we are portrayed, and have always lacked the political and financial leverage to fight back against exploitation and misrepresentation. Transploitation is alive and well, and always has been. The reason the concept of a “Transploitation Film” in the style and aesthetic of 70s “exploitation cinema” seemed novel is simply because our exploitation was never restricted to that particular era (nor, to be fair, has been the exploitation of PoC or women, either). Transploitation was never limited to technicolor, and its soundtrack wasn’t Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Shuggie Otis and Isaac Hayes. It’s soundtrack was The New York Dolls, David Bowie, T. Rex and Lou Reed.
How much money do you suppose Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn ever saw from “Walk On The Wild Side”, “Candy Says” and the various Warhol films in which they appeared? I remember a particularly painful Warhol “candid” film, the name of which I can’t quite recall, in which Candy is there, beautiful and bubbling and full of life and enthusiasm, and everyone around her, including Taylor Mead, are wearing nothing but dull, vaguely uncomfortable expressions of patronizingly humouring her.
Transploiation thrived in The Factory and The Velvet Underground, and it thrived in glam rock. Playing with transness, as a dare, as a provocation… a little taste of the dangerous, exotic and erotic worlds of gender beyond the cisnormative binaries, safely restricted to 45 rpm vinyl. And don’t worry… none of them were really queer.
It thrived in the talk shows of the eighties…. the “is my girlfriend really my boyfriend?” specials of Jerry Springer and Maury Povitch. It thrived in countless similar “documentary” looks at our existence, buying our participation with cheap paychecks and empty promises of “a sensitive portrayal”, with our role, be it the “brave, inspiring tranny”, the “evil, deceptive, manipulative tranny”, the “pathetic, sad, misunderstood tranny”, or the “ridiculous, outrageous, can-you-believe-this-shit tranny”, always being fundamentally about the amusement and appeasement of the cisgender gaze.
It thrived in the terror of, and obsession with, “perverted trans serial killers!” portrayed in Silence Of The Lambs and Sleepaway Camp, based on cultural anxieties regarding gender, transsexuality and castration combined with half-remembered inaccuracies about Ed Gein. People still give those fictional characters more weight than real world facts in their debates concerning “bathoom bills” and the imagined need to protect cis people from trans people (rather than the very real need for the reverse). I honestly have had people tell me in a debates about bathroom access that “girls need to be protected from perverted psychos like that guy in Silence Of The Lambs!”.
It thrived in an endless array of “Dark Age” comic books during the nineties, endlessly toying with transgender themes while effectively never daring feature a genuinely transsexual character, instead always half-measures and ambiguity: shapeshifters and mutants and body swapping and magical gender bending and allegorical stand-ins like a future sub-culture of people who splice their DNA with aliens.
It thrived in the “twist” of The Crying Game, in which the entire cisgender world collectively acted soooo shocked and surprised when the trans woman who sings in the drag bar turned out to have a penis (hope I didn’t spoil it for you!). An arch performance maintaining cisnormativity on a massive cultural scale.
It still thrives in every “really a man”/”packing meat” joke in every sitcom, every comedy act, every cheesy game show (I’m looking at YOU, “Match Game”)… a form of humour so ubiquitous I no longer feel comfortable watching…well… any comedy at all, really.
It thrived in web-comics and erotica throughout the 2000s focused on gender-bending as an exotically sexy concept. And of course it thrived in Chicks-With-Dicks pornography, and “Transformation” magazine. And in the pornography of victimhood and “overcoming adversity” found in films like Boys Don’t Cry and TransAmerica.
It thrived in transgender victims-of-the-week In Law & Crime Scene Investigation: Special Miami Unit. Grizzled Old Veteran Cop gets grossed out. Sensitive Female Cop says “well, actually, trans people can be well-adjusted, valuable, productive members of society!”. Pronouns get abused. A Y chromosome ends up a red herring in the DNA evidence. And at the end Wise Old Leader Cop makes a nice little transphobic one-liner:
“They say the last thing you should be caught with in a men’s room is a dead man or a living woman. In this case, it was both!”
It thrives now in “critically acclaimed” and “edgy” cable dramas trotting out sensationalized trans characters to make them seem that much more “daring” in the subject matter they wish to tackle, that much more “mature” in their themes, that much more “adult” and “sophisticated”… all the while repositioning trans as something inherently a bit scary and “out there” in order to maintain the formulae. The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, Nip/Tuck… Hit and Miss.
I could go on. At length.
The forms that transploitation takes are extremely varied, but what remains consistent is that while featuring superfically transgender content, or containing trans people as its subjects, it is created by cisgender artists and producers for consumption by (and entertainment of) a cisgender audience. It is both a product of cis-centric (and often cissexist) consciousness, while either failing to challenge such consciousness, or outright reinforcing it. In genuine acts of transgender visibility, cisgender assumptions are shaken up, and the audience is asked to consider wider perspectives of gender, self and human experience. In transploitation, however, the closest the work comes to this is presenting us as appealingly or entertainingly exotic, and at worst as a frightening anomaly that needs to remain consigned to the social margins. More often, though, we’re simply de-fanged, comical and/or pathetic, the work ultimately sending the message that while transness exists, no one needs to re-evaluate their existing prejudices and understanding of gender and patriarchy.
It’s frequently argued that blanksploitation isn’t really all that bad, because it provides some marginal empowerment, and much needed visibility, to minorities who otherwise would perhaps not have seen themselves reflected in their culture at all. As I’ve written about before, people can be extremely adept at finding their cultural needs where they can… even if it requires reinterpreting or reclaiming works that’s intent was obviously oppressive. And I do still believe that. And yeah, some transploitation can be empowering. But that doesn’t make it any less exploitative, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask for better.
Here I might once again bring up Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, a comic featuring a Brazilian travesti witch, Lord Fanny, as a principle heroic /anti-heroic character. This is one of the most overt examples of transploitation (at least, one of the examples most in the vein of the kind of cultural exploitation we tend to think of in the context of “exploitation cinema”), that I’ve ever seen. In the book “Apocalypstick”, in the story arc “Sheman” (seriously), the one that focuses on Lord Fanny most individually, she spends perhaps half (maybe more?) of all of her scenes being raped or otherwise sexually harassed and degraded. Another quarter of her time is spent on her confusing “origin” (I absolutely loathe any story that attempts to present an “explanation” as to “why” the character is trans) in which she’s sort of pushed into womanhood by her aggressive somewhat-racist-south-american-stereotype of a matriarchal grandmother. Butterfly motifs abound. Her internal monologue contains absurd narcissistic descirptions of how fucking sexy she feels in her sexy lady clothes (monologues that read very hilariously as “what cis people think we think”). Homophobic/transphobic side characters are put in their place by employing the incredibly problematic “well they’re all secretly queer or trans too!” trope. Her and all her sort-of-drag-queens-sort-of-trans-I-guess-Morrison-doesn’t-care-about-the-distinction friends are portrayed as vain, catty, gossipy, obsessed with their own appearance above all else, and so desperate for sex and drugs that they swallow anything they’re given, with an apparent complete disregard for any measure of personal safety (which is, btw, not REMOTELY like real life, where trans women seem pretty damn aware of how risky it is to go home with some random dude from a bathroom while high… and Lord Fanny is supposed to be some kind of savvy magical agent hero too!). Etcetera. Etcetera.
It’s exploitative. It’s gross. And it’s absolutely dripping with wildly inaccurate, unimaginative, transphobic stereotypical bullshit.
But it’s still a little bit empowering. A little.
The reason for that might be connected to part of why we do often find exploitative fiction to be empowering, even while it’s saying right to our faces “We’re exploiting you! Haha!” (a reason other than the stark fact of scarcity of representation, anyway). Although Fanny spends a pretty huge chunk of time being raped, demeaned and subjugated by other characters and by the arc of the narrative itself, she ultimately is, in her way, powerful. And this power, precisely because it is a transphobic, stereotyped, exploitative work, which fails to imagine the character much beyond the fact of her transness, comes from the fact of her being trans. From her “exotic sexiness” and ability to “transcend and unify the male and female, the cosmic dialectic”, or whatever other stupid concept people use when thinking up their woo-woo Otherworldly Other, Sacred Hermaphrodite stuff. It’s an extremely tempting thing, to imagine that there really is something magical and powerful and dangerous and witch-like and sacred about being trans. Christ it’s tempting. I’d love to believe it, that being trans is all in itself a supernaturally powerful thing.
And the kicker? Most of the time, when trans people or characters are presented in a “positive” light (I’m speaking still, by the way, of cis-controlled, cis-centric, cis-targeted media and culture), those “positive” qualities are depicted in spite of being trans. We’re portrayed as being able to be nice, normal, “passable”, middle-class, white, boring, consumers just like everyone else. “Transness doesn’t HAVE to mean being some weirdo! You can OVERCOME it to become a… well-adjusted, valuable, productive member of (cis-patriarchal) society!“. Given the choice, I’d rather embrace a loathsome exoticized heavily-Othered trans stereotype whose power emerges from her trans identity than embrace the typical “brave, inspiring” narrative of a trans person “overcoming adversity” to successfully assimilate into cissexist, heteronormative, patriarchal values. Maybe that’s partially at the heart of the “empowerment” that many others find in vile, exploitative fiction: that at the very least, the blackness, or womanhood, or poverty, or whatever-else of the character isn’t portrayed as something that is somehow ideally irrelevant to the character (like the black characters whose value lies in being just as “articulate” at their white cohorts, and a family man, who stayed in school, said no to drugs, and prefers jazz and classical to hip-hop. Or the countless “strong women” who walk around shooting guns and being just as competent at “boy-stuff”, but still finds time to deal with her daddy issues, her tragic-rape-backstory, her single-motherhood, and her need to remain sexually objectifiable for the male viewers. Or the countless awful sex worker characters who are “one of the good ones”, pretty and kind and clean, who don’t want to do it, and ultimately submit to the loving man who saves them from their life of sin.)
But we shouldn’t have to make that choice, should we? It shouldn’t be a call between characters who represent the worst, most horribly demeaning and Othering perspectives that dominant majority culture has of us, or characters who are “positive” and “sensitive” portrayals, whose value is measured by exactly how much they’re able to “overcome” the aspect of their identity they share with us. Again: transploitation… and minority exploitation in general… comes in a lot of forms, but the unifying theme is consistent. Cis production for a cis audience with cis perspectives and cis consciousness being ultimately rewarded, renewed and reinforced.
It’s not about us. It’s never been about us. Our existence, our exploitation, our reactions, and whatever little crumbs of empowerment may roll off the table are irrelevant to the process. Transploitation is all about cis consciousness. Sometimes it’s about exorcising and/or drumming up their anxieties (like the trans serial killers), sometimes about reducing those anxieties to a joke to be laughed at, sometimes it’s about getting off, sometimes it’s just about the appeal of the exotic, and it’s often all about reducing us to a concept that remains within their control to reconsider in whatever way is necessary to return to being comfortable with the threatening fact of our existence, our genders, our bodies, our sexualities, our desires and what those mean and imply about their own.
But mostly it’s about profit. In a funny way, it’s not about them and their needs either. Those are likewise incidental. And the cisgender audiences who pay the ticket prices and bring in the ad revenue are every bit the exploited too. In this case, their anxieties and inability to cope effectively with the nuanced realities of gender being a direct line into their wallets.