One of the boys arrived last night for a quick visit. He is coming with me to NJ for a conference at the end of the week where I will be presenting a paper I have been working on (and writing absolutely nothing here about). He has never been to NJ and like many people in the U.S. has heard nothing but negative things about it. I, on the other hand, am nomadic, and have been to NJ more often than you might imagine. While the stories of pollution, conservativism, and other things are quite true, I personally think NJ gets a bad wrap precisely because it is such a working class state. People there are honest and direct, hardworking and real, and almost all of the ones I have met have painful relationships to the medical industry b/c of the pollution in Jersey and the fact that environmental degradation is not solely aimed at poc but also the poor. I’m hoping that most of our conference time will be taken up with old, good friends, inside the hotel as neither of us are urban lovers in our souls. That said, we have quite a few plans for the gayborhood in Philly after the conference and some time scheduled to visit the burgeoning immigrant communities in both states before going back to the classroom.
As is our way, the boy suggested we snuggle in and watch queer movies. Thanks to the upcoming conference, it would almost be like old times, me, the gf, the boy, Dean GQ, and our friend Alix all smashed on the couch like we don’t have grading to do.
It was too late to rent so I suggested the ever trustworthy Here TV. And to my excitement, a movie I have been waiting to see for sometime was playing: The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela. I saw a preview of it a few months ago in which the titular character tells a fairy tale about a queen who is stolen and placed with the wrong family in the wrong kingdom. As a result she grows up poor and unloved but dreams of returning to her real kingdom, punishing those who engineered her loss, and returning to throne and love. The story acts as a metaphor for the isolation and desperation for normalcy that typify Queen Raquela and her friends’ search for love.
Unfortunately, the boy asked if it was a “documentary” or a “film,” and being a nerd, I went straight to the computer to find out. According to the filmmaker, it was neither. It seems, he was sick of making documentaries and too cash-strapped to make a feature film so he just combined the two genres to create a loose script. The film splices what is essentially documentary footage with contrived scenes acted out to provide a fictional overlay and “direction” to the film. A method that may work creatively but lends an aura of realism to a fictional story that I find inappropriate because of:
- the ways the film can be viewed by an unsuspecting audience as “amazing truth”
- how the thirst for authenticity in films about poc lends itself to such a misread
- how the actual lives of the three women featured are subverted or written over in order to create the author’s own narrative
Worse, the director’s comments indicated a jaded perception of transwomen’s possibilities in life and a seemingly transphobic perception of their desires:
I learned that Raquela and many of her likes were chasing an impossible dream, being biologically men, their deepest wish was to find a heterosexual man to marry. That seemed like a snake eating it’s tail syndrome. (Director Olaf de Fleur: ibid)
These same sentiments show up in the film, voiced by a boisterous N. American who acts as narrator, employer, and momentary love interest to Raquela in the film. His dismissal of transwomen and their chance at love is supposed to be mediated by his equally dismissive tirades against his employees, children, and the French. Yet his comments are not simple caricature but a reiteration of the Director’s actual belief that transwomen’s lives are hopeless. At one point he even compares them to hibernating insects who come to the surface to mate and then die, saying that transwomen live their lives in gender hibernation for 14-16 years and then do everything they can to make themselves feel beautiful, have lots of sex, and die young. It is a depressing comparison that likens them to “screeching insects” and again reinforces the idea that they have no hope of lasting relationships or fulfilling lives. This too is also the trajectory of the film’s fictional story.
The Director also compared the actual plight of many transwomen around the world, and one he had marked as typifying the women he interacted with, to a children’s story:
I therefore wrote a little fairy-tale for her, called “The Amazing Truth about Queen Raquela”, a little children story that would fit her destiny that society had cornered her in, objectifying her and her sisters to a point of violence, so much that schools or jobs were not offered to her likes, only the Porn-industry knocking on the door as means to make a living. (ibid)
The problem with his calling the storyline “a little children [sic] story” seems clear. For many transwomen both mainstream jobs and education are closed to them. According to GLSEN, 90% of transgendered youth experience harassment in school, 69% felt unsafe in U.S. schools. (htp Questioning Transphobia)With the recent shooting of Lawrence King, that I blogged about before, the sense that school can be deadly is surely heightened. While there are no similar comprehensive studies in the Philippines, ethnographies of the transgendered community point to low educational attainment and limited job opportunities that in some ways mirror GLSEN’s U.S. specific data. The Director’s own experience of interviewing 30 transwomen (a small number/methods unknown) led him to conclude that school and workplace discrimination were similarly high in the Philippines, despite the larger public existence of transwomen, as well. This is basic discrimination not the stuff of “fairy tales” or “children[‘s] stories.”
Suddenly, I was looking at the prospect of watching Queen Raquela differently. The boy was pouting in the corner, combing my media collection for “something fun to watch.” Faced with the dilemma of sitting through something that was both cinematically poor and ideologically offensive, I too wanted to run toward the safety of movies I had already seen. Then I remembered something that Eli Claire said in a book that continues to move me every time I read or teach it, sometimes we are called to witness so that offense does not go unmarked. I asked both my partner and Alix if they would prefer to watch something else and receiving the go ahead, we all sat down to watch.
The basic plot of the film: Raquela works as a sex worker but dreams of both getting a better education and going to Paris to start a new life.
After meeting a wealthy European she gets some money to go to school but drops out for reasons that are never explained nor shown in the film, missing the opportunity to discuss the particular barriers transwomen have in educational settings. Instead the film focuses on Raquela waiting outside school while flirting with a school security guard (which also seems unlikely given the amount of gender policing left in the hands of guards and police) or talking about the number of men she and her friends have slept with. Numbers, dominate their discussions, occasionally punctuated by questions about where the men work or what country they are from. We are told the reason why is because the “more men you sleep with the more like a woman you feel.” This is one of those moments that makes the splicing of documentary footage and fictional story extremely problematic, b/c this idea is allowed to stand (repeated in several places in the film) without any examination, which I think would show the women in this film as complex beings working out their desires and their identities rather than like calculators rattling off numbers, or indication of its truth-value.
These moments are offset by two conversations Raquela and their friends have about the men they dream about. When they discuss her eventual trip to Iceland, they try to imagine what the country is like, what the men will be like, and ultimately what a brand new life with love and security would be like. They do the same thing at the end of the film. In these moments they not only illustrate the enduring promise of the migrant imaginary but also that of transwomen working in the sex industry. They are humanized in these moments not only because their hopes ring true but also because they show both the naivete and complexity of people working through disappointing and often transphobic sexual encounters and social and familial ostracism, while still daring to build viable lives. These are brave and self-empowering women who live, love, and laugh, instead of dying like the bugs the narrator compares them too.
Shortly after one her school visits, she is hit by a car, followed by a poorly executed discrimination scene in the hospital. It happens far too quickly to get a sense of what it is going on and why, and again I think it is serious lost opportunity to discuss the medical model and its failings. (While the medicalization of transgender identity has helped create space for legal and sometimes covered-by-health-insurance physical transitioning, as well as a “credible” language to discuss one’s identity with family members or others less open to gender transgression, it has also rendered the idea of transgender into a neat developmental narrative and desired physical outcome that is not embraced by all genderqueer folk and for those unwilling to adopt the model, the consequences are further stigmatization and denial of surgery. This places a lot of power in the hands of physicians and psychiatrists who may have their own agendas as much as those who are their to actually help.) The scene is more successful in showing how medical discrimination impacts self-esteem due mostly to the powerful expressions of Raquela.
The other lost opportunity as Raquela spends the next several scenes aided by a crutch is to discuss the intersection of dis/ability and transgender identity particularly in the context of Raquela’s sex work and her constant trips to the airport in the hopes of meeting up with foreign men. While people in the background actually due look at Raquela’s crutch and her limping form, the director seems oblivious to this visual cue that she has been further otherized by the intersection of two marginalized embodiment issues. Nor does he take time to show, or let her discuss, what temporary dis/ability means to her.
Raquela is summarily recruited into internet porn and her crutch instantly disappears, telling us more about what the director sees as an attractive body than how the intersections of these desired and rejected selves are mobilized by transwomen. As the Director tells us, this is often the way that transwomen’s lives work in urban centers, ie moving from street work to internet work. At this point, Raquela’s story is subsumed by the N. American internet porn site owner who essentially mimics the voice of the Director. We are told that internet pornography helps women by:
- getting transwomen off the streets
- decreasing their likelihood of drug addiction and sexually transmitted diseases
- helping transwomen send more money back home
While this perspective ignores the fact that many women continue to use drugs or start using drugs while doing internet porn and some supplement their internet activities with personal dates, it does provide sex worker positive information that rings largely true. Where it fails is in presenting both the site owner and the photographer as altruistic. Neither man exploits any of the women sexually or economically and they both have long speeches about why that would be wrong and bad for business as if these are not aspects of the business. (And no, they do not always have to be present, but the absence of any counter point seems jarring.) Worse Raquela practically disappears from the movie so we can center these cismen’s stories, ideas, and transphobic comments.
Ultimately, the film is best at discussing employment discrimination and how various character’s navigate it. One of Raquela’s friends explains that she will cut her hair in order to get a “respectable job.” She sees it as a sacrifice that has to be made to be economically stable and care for her parents. Raquela hides her own hair under a baseball cap hoping to pass, while actively pursuing a job in a feminized industry. These two moments illustrate the narrow operational definitions of gender that transwomen have to work with in conservative climates. They are counterbalanced by Raquela and her internet pen pal finding factory jobs in Iceland. Both women live comfortably in their gender because no one at the factory questions their identity. Raquela is so happy that she even exclaims “I love this job” despite the confused looks of her co-workers. And while this sets up a dichotomy in which the West is safer than the rest that is extremely problematic, it at least gives a wide array of realistic work experiences. Like sex work, all of the positions however are relegated to low skilled and exploitable labor. In that way, it moves out of the ongoing narrative of “doomed lives” while refusing to ignore actual workplace discrimination that leads to spotty work histories and marginalized work experiences.
The discussion of embodiment during the employment scenes is also extremely well done in comparison to the gratitutious breast shots of several of the women, including Raquela. In one sequence, a breast shot is followed by a male urinal scene in which all three women are peeing. While their penises are not in the shot, the juxtaposition of the images definitely felt like more invasive ethnographies on transfolk or simply the othering gaze that questions and examines the bodies of transgendered people.
As implied, this film does not have a happy ending. Raquela does make it to Paris but only for a short while before she is back home in the Philippines and back working the street with her friends. Her desolate look after going to a hotel with a John is offset by the laughter and dreams of she and her friends in the final scenes of the film. Yet even these moments are undermined by the shot of the setting sun that once again references the dying bug story.
What elevates this film beyond its basic negative underlining message is the women themselves. Raquela Rios has a keen grasp on the emotional pace of the film and those moments where she shows deep remorse, pain, or determination all out shine the material she was given. She stumbles over her lines, and I am still as unclear as she seems to be as to why she would want to meet Hitler, but she makes up for it with adapted lines that better fit the way she talks and her delivery of key dialogue. The fact that she, and her two friends, managed to first cultivate the director’s attention and then parlay it into a film role also tells the true story of determination and passion of these three women that is lacking in the film itself.
I wish this film had simply been a documentary. All of the women involved in the film were astute about their hopes and their dreams, some of which was unscripted documentary footage, and I believe that their own stories would have been far more compelling than the Director’s tragic “fairy tale.” While many transwomen do live lives punctuated by discrimination and sex work not of their choosing, that makes them no less human and no less agents of their own lives.And while I appreciate films that show us the dark side of discrimination and I think that we need to deal with that side openly and honestly, I also think that representing these women as doomed denies the goodness they create in their own lives.
In other words, the film neglects to show transwomen in the Philippines are building lives equally punctuated with joy, friendship, companionship, and seized opportunities even in the face of extreme discrimination and dwindling migrant dreams. Most importantly, they are doing it in the bodies of their choosing and fully embracing their true gender expression despite all of the barriers and messages to hate themselves, hide, or die. These parts of their lives are largely missing from this film and in its pseudo-documentary style, it makes it seem like these triumphs are also absent from real transwomen’s lives.
You can tell a balanced story without glossing over discrimination, tragedy, or pathos and this film decided from the beginning that was not the story it wanted to tell.
As the film ended, my friends (2 gay men, 1 gender queer lesbian, and 1 heterosexual transwoman) and I simply shook our heads. The offerings at Here Tv have mostly been entertaining and positive but as this film ended, I started to question what other films they have given us with transgendered characters in them and whether once again the “T” in the GLBTQI had fallen out. (It should be noted that other film reviewers love this film, mostly because they were wrapped up in the “authenticity” factor. You can make up your own mind for the next several weeks by watching it on Here TV or renting it for $7 via digital viewing at the Here TV’s website)