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Bad Take Central

Photo: “Total Recall,” Paul Verhoeven, 1990.

The Latent Transness of ‘Total Recall’

A particularly annoying film controversy of late stems from the Wachowski sisters’ incredible 1999 film The Matrix. Since the film’s release, both directors have come out as trans, and have given significant credence to the idea that The Matrix is actually an allegory for discovering oneself as being trans. Many, many (mostly cis) people got mad at this, because trans people aren’t allowed to have authority over their own art, nor are we allowed to have nice things.

So, in order to continue to make those same people mad, I’m going to do something even more egregious than extrapolate trans allegory from a trans person’s art: extrapolate trans allegory from a cis person’s art! Ha, take that!

Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film Total Recall, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” follows Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid, a simple man living a simple life in a distant future where Earth has colonized Mars. When Quaid takes a visit to Rekall, a company that offers customers implanted memories of vacations they never took, he has an unexpected meltdown — in the process of trying to obtain fake memories of a vacation to Mars, it is revealed that Quaid has real memories of Mars buried deep in his subconscious. Soon after, Quaid’s entire life breaks down around him, and he starts running away from shadowy henchmen and receiving help from “friends” he’s never met. Soon after, Quaid’s real identity is discovered — sometime in the past, Quaid was a secret agent named Hauser. Hauser had his memory wiped to protect himself, because he knew of a device on Mars that would destroy the career of Mars’ governor, Vilos Cohaagen. Hauser, on a video recording, instructs Quaid to go to Mars and recover his memories, so that they might take down Cohaagen once and for all.

A little complicated, no? A lot of messy cerebral antics take place in the first act alone, and they only continue to ramp up when Quaid actually gets to Mars. But these confusing mindfucks are exactly what I’m referring to when I say that this movie is trans as shit.

So, let me ask a simple question: who is Douglas Quaid? Well, he’s the character that’s played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, former governor of California and known hunk. But that’s not a good enough descriptor for Quaid, is it? Because Schwarzenegger also plays Hauser, Quaid’s secret agent former self. So, would it be more accurate to say that Quaid is Hauser’s alter-ego? But if that’s true, it would mean that Hauser is pretending to be Quaid, which is obviously not the case, so maybe Hauser and Quaid are really just two separate people.

But even that feels like a cop-out. Quaid, for being a simple man with a wife and a construction job in the city, is oddly skilled in combat, and resourceful in sticky situations, just like Hauser would be. He has dreams of Mars, a place he’s never been, and a woman named Melina, who he’s never met before. These dreams are constructed from Hauser’s memory, and they aren’t just something Quaid could have picked up incidentally. While it is technically correct to say that Hauser and Quaid are two separate people, Quaid is inescapably homoousian with Hauser — they share an inextricable essence.

Later in the film, Quaid finally confronts Cohaagen, and it is revealed that Hauser was actually in alliance with him all along. You see, the rebels on Mars who want to bring Cohaagen down are mutants with psychic abilities, and they would be able to sniff out a traitor from a mile away. So, Hauser constructed the elaborate persona of Douglas Quaid, had his memory wiped, and created a scenario to lure Quaid to Mars so he could ally himself with the rebels, revealing their location and ultimately destroying them. After that, Cohaagen can just bring Hauser’s memory back, effectively killing Quaid forever.

Who is Douglas Quaid? A fabrication by an evil man to eliminate political dissent and allow a corporation to control the flow of breathable air on Mars.

Or, at least, that’s how he started out. Most people in the film just treat Quaid like a surrogate to Hauser, or simply as Hauser. They don’t call him Quaid — you know, his name — they call him Hauser. The film’s entire conflict stems from the confusion Quaid has about his identity. Hell, Quaid’s primary motivation to go to Mars in the first place is to recover his past memories. Quaid is a man devoid of a sense of self, and blind to the experiences of his past. He seeks identity. He seeks reconciliation.

In case what I’m saying isn’t abundantly clear here, Douglas Quaid’s memory troubles perfectly mirror the experiences a trans person goes through when discovering their identity for the first time. Many trans people, including myself, find that it is hard to recall memories from their past, particularly their childhood. Even if you don’t recall specifically feeling dissatisfied or dysphoric in your youth, you might feel a certain… lack of presence, if that makes sense. Like you’re viewing your memories in the third person, instead of as yourself. Like you’re watching your past self through a screen.

Although Quaid’s primary goal might have been reclaiming his former memories, once he realizes who his past self actually was, he realizes that he can never go back. In fact, he literally fights his way out of being forced to convert back into Hauser. I mean, wouldn’t you? Quaid isn’t Hauser, he doesn’t want to be Hauser, and he doesn’t care if Douglas Quaid is just a fabrication by Hauser. Whatever Quaid is now, at this very moment, is so much more than what Hauser invented. Quaid is not just the delusion of a deranged man — he is his own person. He makes his own identity.

As a trans person, I’ve struggled with this concept more than a few times. The prospect of tearing apart the person I used to be and reforming myself into something entirely new was scary, and oftentimes I felt lost and hopeless. I felt like a drifter, trying to understand what femininity was and how I could obtain it, or mimic it, or parody it, or become a facsimile of it. I felt suffocated for a long time.

It seems cliche to say it at this point, but the COVID-19 pandemic really helped me to recontextualize what it was I actually wanted. I spent a lot of time by myself, not seeing anyone outside of my family and my roommates. There was nobody to whom I could project my paranoid feminine scrutiny onto — nobody that I could look at and wonder, “do they see me as a woman?” It was just me, looking at myself. After a while, something clicked. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see a man who said he was a woman as some sort of sick joke. I just saw a woman.

Quaid’s insecurity about other people perceiving him as Hauser is something that the audience can feel very viscerally. Like Quaid, we feel out of place, like we’re missing something. Characters that we’ve never met before talk to Quaid like he’s just Hauser — like they know him. Like they know us. Try as he might, Quaid is rarely ever able to convince people of his own agency. He’s just a surrogate at best, and nonexistent at worst. His identity doesn’t truly exist in the eyes of other people.

Well, fuck other people. What do they know, anyway? It has become common lately to conceptualize gender identity as a sort of performance — a collection of gendered stereotypes and manners of being that form a sort of theater that other people can observe and make judgement about. I don’t particularly like this conceptualization, because it puts the onus on trans individuals to perform gender properly, and puts the validity of their gender at the behest of other people. I would instead like to propose an alternate conception of gender:

Gender identity is a lot like going to college. When you start, you really don’t know who you are or who you want to be. You might change your major a couple of times, and even when you are absolutely positively sure that you settled on something, you always have a sneaking suspicion that you did something wrong. You’re always learning new things, experimenting, and passing through a gauntlet of triumphs and failures. But at the end of it all, you get a degree. You’ve made it. You’ve finally figured out what you are, and you’ve mastered it.

My true self — the person that I knew I was deep down — wasn’t some bombshell blonde who is the envy of all her friends, with perfect D-cups and plump DSLs. No. The person that I was deep down…is just plain ol’ me. I have hair all over my body and I’m fat as hell. Sometimes, I don’t shave for a month and I grow a mustache and sideburns. My voice is kinda deep and I have a dick. That’s who I am. Not the man I thought I was, or the woman I thought I wanted to be, but the woman I am.

Quaid is not the true, evil Hauser, nor is he the idealized Hauser that he thought he wanted to be. He’s just Douglas Quaid. And that radical moment of self-discovery — of self-acceptance — means everything to me.

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