Transgendering Your Life
(or, did Albert Brooks lay a moderately successful film on a foundation of the transgender experience?)
I have been experiencing some serious déjà vu on the introspection front recently. It has been akin to an intellectual bunny hop across a dance floor of doubt, questioning my sanity — or at least my acuity — in the conga line. It has been an endless cycle of learning more about myself and the woman I have been in denial over for 50 years. Omg that seems impossible… How could it be over 50 years that I have struggled to find answers to all this?
I just can’t find the answers to the questions that keep going through my mind…
Isn’t it time? Isn’t it time you took time to wait?
At the suggestion of my counselor Joan, I have been immersing myself in a Brené Brown Stew. She has been on my phone and in my head. I have been discovering that in order to live an authentic life, I must embrace that which makes me vulnerable. In my case, this means embracing and owning that I am a transgender woman. Additionally, I have been learning that which makes me vulnerable is also what makes me beautiful.
In order to make real connections, it is a requirement that I need to let go of who I feel I ought to be and instead be who I truly am. Then, maybe, I will discover that everything I ever needed has been in my own back yard the whole time.
I have been getting this message not just from Ms. Brown, but from my counselor, from my wife, from my hair stylist, from a YouTube therapist, and the Staple Singers in spades over the past two months. Oh, and about 30 years ago, I was first exposed to these thoughts watching a PBS interview of Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers. They say someone has to hear a message 7 different times before it becomes internalized into your consciousness. So by my count, that makes seven sources. Maybe it is finally getting through my thick skull.
I have come face to face with this truth throughout my entire life. Seeing glimpses, embracing and investigating them, then rationalizing away any thought that I could be who my brain was telling me I was and my body was reminding me I was not. All the while, the five year old inside me kept praying and asking God why she couldn’t wake up as the girl she knew she was on the inside.
So with all this recent emotional upheaval and tearing away a lifetime of scar tissue, a lighthearted romantic comedy was just the ticket I needed leading into a long weekend. And the movie that caught my eye was Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life.
Maybe it was my emotional rawness being knee-deep in exploring my own transgender life, or maybe it was the Merlot, but this movie struck me as an allegory of a man struggling with and exploring his gender identity. Brooks is not Lily or Lana Wachowski, but parts of this movie screamed resolution of gender dysphoria.
It is subtle. About as subtle as being hit by a bus listening to Streisand sing Something’s Coming. Call me crazy, but this is the story of a transgender woman struggling to find the courage to embrace a breakdown that is coming.
Brooks wrote, directed, and starred in Defending Your Life as a divorced ad exec celebrating his birthday the way we come into life, and the way we leave it — alone. He did get himself a BMW for his birthday, so there is that. He also received several CDs from a friend as a birthday gift. He pops in a Barbra Streisand Show Tunes CD and begins whirling through traffic like dancing the meringue through midtown. Then he makes a sharp turn and several CDs fall down below his seat. Brooks reaches for one of the cases and in the process drifts into the path of an oncoming bus.
Cut to black and then a tram full of people heading into Judgement City where Brooks will Defend his Life and determine if he will move on, or return to Earth to try again. For the 21st time.
Daniel is represented by his Defender, played flawlessly and ironically by Rip Torn. Torn explains Daniel’s life is not really being judged, just reviewed. They will look at several days of his life to see if he has learned to overcome his fears, fears that weigh down the brain in a fog, and stifle creativity, learning, and growth — What? Huh? Is Brené Brown the Prosecutor? — to show he is ready to move on.
Daniel demonstrates, often hilariously, that he is clearly not ready to face his fears and move on. In fact, he shows he doesn’t even get the general concept of what is being discussed. Instead he often defaults to equating the validity of his life with how much money he made, slogging his way up an imagined ramp to justify himself to the icy Prosecutor played stylishly by Lee Grant.
The final major character and traditional love interest is played by Meryl Streep. If you write, direct, and star in the story, you might as well cast Meryl Streep as your presumed love interest.
Brooks and Streep meet in a comedy club in Judgement City sporting androgynously matching robes. Spotting Brooks as he arrives in the club, Streep comes over to ask Brooks if she knows Him. She frames the question as more of a statement of shared knowledge. The two begin conversing and a quirky relationship develops that is destined to be cut short due to the circumstances of the moment. A kind of a Love Boat cruise through celestial Virgin Islands.
We learn more about Brooks’ character as his life review painfully unfolds on the big screen in the pseudo courtroom. To be fair, who would want their most intimate moments and failures put up on a screen for people to see? But the anxiety is on steroids in Dan’s case.
As part of his defense, Torn chooses a day to demonstrate Dan’s confidence going into a job interview. We first see Dan rehearsing the interview and inevitable salary negotiation with his wife in the role of the interviewer. Interestingly, he encourages his wife to “Be him!” referencing the interviewer, instead of “Play him.” Brooks confidently hones his skills negotiating a high salary with her.
Only later do we see him cave immediately when offered a much lower salary in his actual interview. Grant, as his female Prosecutor, challenges his confidence and questions why he did not value his ability more and stick with his non-negotiable salary demand. His response is not as important as the insight we get in the clips that he is clearly not at all comfortable in his own skin.
On their last night together, Brooks and Streep go to a restaurant where they see his Prosecutor. Streep, whom everyone loves, makes Brooks uncomfortable by the way she sucks up her pasta, as fearlessly as she sucked the marrow out of her life, while his Prosecutor looks on. Ironically, the Prosecutor is noting only Brooks’ reaction, oblivious to what Streep is doing, almost as if Streep is merely a manifestation of Brooks’ own imagination rather than physically at the table.
Often as a transgender woman, I find myself experiencing a similar feeling. Namely, that I am uncomfortable with how I imagine prosecutors around me will perceive me presenting myself as a woman. And while others may not approve, ultimately what other people think of me is none of my business. If they do react negatively, it is more likely because I am uncomfortable and acting guilty than for any other reason. As a transgender woman I have every right to be at the same restaurant and suck up my pasta any way I see fit. There is no reason to feel guilty, or embarrassed, or ashamed of who I am.
Streep, who, in my thesis is Brooks actualized female self, walks past Grant’s table and mentions what a wonderful person Daniel is, providing the best defense of his life up to that point.
Later the two take a walk to her hotel. There, Brooks states that he has never felt right, and likely never will, but that when he is around her, somehow she makes everything OK.
This is ‘My Transgender Experience’ in a nutshell. If I could explain it in one sentence, that is the best one I could come up with. And as a twelve year old, I was at least able to get the first half of it out to our family doctor. Alas, it was a different time…
I have never felt quite right, and likely never will. But when She is around, She makes everything OK.
If you get it, you get it. If not, I hope you may apprehend it on some level. Consider that Daniel has a Man as his Defender, framing his choices, his decisions, his life; and a Woman Prosecutor who is questioning all of it. I go through this every day. Not just for nine days of a life in review, but every single day.
Maybe I am simply seeing everything through my transgender eyes now that I have — at least in moments of clarity — stepped past the fear of being real. Have I started to become a Velveteen Jessica Rabbit?
Maybe this is all about letting go of my fear and accepting myself for who I am. Maybe I do need to be who I am instead of who I think I should be… And immediately my old guard establishmentarian pipes up with “Yes. And you can do that without being a woman externally. Just act like who you want to be and ignore (read repress) that goofy idea about wanting to be a woman.”
And immediately my throat begins to close back up, I can’t breathe, and I notice the sadness descending over me.
In his review of the movie on Siskel and Ebert, Gene Siskel did not appreciate the more sensitive aspects of the movie, particularly the ending. Roger Ebert disagreed, saying that it showed Brooks character’s attraction to Meryl Streep’s character was that “she was the kind of person he would like to be, and he’s trying to learn how to be that person.” This again, is the summary of thought for many a transgender woman. At least it is for this one.
But internal doubts and hesitation are difficult to overcome. And this too is present in the movie.
After having dinner together, Streep asks Brooks to stay with her. To spend the night. To bond with her. To become one. She is leaving next day and this will be their last chance to be together.
But Brooks is afraid. He doesn’t want to be judged. He is tired of defending his life. He doesn’t want to become one with her because he is afraid he may not measure up to expectations. What if it goes wrong? What if this? What if that? What if…
Her disappointment is palpable. A lifetime of longing is slipping away. There would be no downside uniting with her. She simply wants to be. She is exactly who he has longed for. She is exactly who he has longed to be.
On the last day of his review, Daniel’s prosecutor shows what happened with Streep the previous night. In court, Daniel admits he was scared to be with her. He was afraid. Me too.
Brooks is sent back to earth and she is moving on.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Coliseum. She sees Daniel on his tram and calls out to him one last time.
Isn’t it time? Isn’t it time — you don’t have to wait…
Losing this love would be your mistake.*
A reprieve! He breaks out of the tram and runs to her. He jumps on her tram, desperately trying to force his way inside to be with her. He professes his love for her.
Break to scene back in Judgement center with Torn, Grant, and the two Justices, a man and a woman.
Torn turns to Grant and says, “Courageous enough for you?” Those Brown fans have tingles down their spines on that one. Or at least I did… Sometimes you hear what you want to. Torn actually said, ‘Brave enough for you?’
At that moment, the female justice leans over to whisper something into the ear of the male Justice. And then the door to the tram opens and Daniel embraces Julia.
Somewhere there is a tram with Me on it. And She is calling to me. And I am beginning to listen.
That tram has not slowed since I started running for it. Once I reach it, I only hope I am courageous enough to force my way onto it and unite with my own Julia, who is Joanna, who is Me.
* from Isn’t it Time — The Babys