Catherine Crouch ( above ) and her movie, Gendercator, are the subjects of a Reeling-related feature. Photo by Amanda Betts for the film Stray Dogs.
BY JACOB ANDERSON-MINSHALL
It's never a good sign when a film can't speak for itself.
In the case of the short, The Gendercator, most of those who successfully protested the film's showing at this summer's San Francisco Frameline Film Festival responded not to the film itself, but to lesbian filmmaker Catherine Crouch's director's statements. That protest unleashed a schism between two factions of the LGBT community, most of whom have never seen the 15-minute film.
But the truth is, it's almost impossible to evaluate and discuss The Gendercator without addressing the director's statements—to Frameline, on her Web site and in promotional material. In isolation, the work fails to adequately speak for itself—or at least it seems to when compared with the director's stated intentions.
The Gendercator opens with grainy 8 mm footage of women dancing and smoking pot in a rural setting. The colorful clothing and music ( Rare Earth's 'I just want to Celebrate' ) provide a 1970s time stamp, and if you catch the brief image of tennis star Billie Jean King in the background, you might get the reference, situating this moment as a post 1973 'Battle of the Sexes' celebration of King's triumph over male tennis player Bobby Riggs.
The film's stoner protagonist ( Sally ) wanders into the woods with a romantic partner and falls into a post-coital sleep so deep that she doesn't wake until the year 2048. We next see Sally confined in a sterile medical environment where she has, somehow, located and donned flannel and blue jeans; much to the confusion of the observational staff dressed in matching his and hers cotton twosies that seem to be the de rigueur future fashion.
All giggles and goofy grins, Sally thinks she's still 'trippin'' and doesn't recognize that by 'presenting as male' in a world prohibiting cross-dressing, she's inadvertently sparked an evaluation by the dreaded Gendercator, who will determine once and for all if she is a man or a woman.
Despite locating the opening scenes in the feminist era, Sally's use of hallucinogens and a softball obsession seem to have crowded out her feminist leanings. Marking the film's protagonist so removed from 1970's political lesbians, Crouch seems to position Sally as a 'naturally born' lesbian, whose sexual orientation is innate. Whatever the reasoning for this, it serves to preclude the protagonist from political analysis or criticism of the binary-gendered, entirely Caucasian-populated future. Worse, during the course of the film Sally's insipid character gains neither a political consciousness nor personal depth.
Because the genre removes storylines from the ordinary, everyday world and sets them on far away planets or distant futures, sci-fi audiences are some of the most willing to suspend disbelief about fantastical elements. Subverting that good will, Crouch seems intent on drawing attention to the film's preposterous elements, particularly that someone could sleep for 75 years and wake under a thin layer of leaves looking not a day older and no worse for wear—and her friends wouldn't even have come looking for her.
Crouch uses Sally's now 100-year-old friends to reveal how and why the world has changed. They explain, 'It all began with the evangelicals, you know, one man, one woman, and all that. And then the next thing you know, the trannies went along with it. … Before long, butches and fairies were forced to make the change. You have to be a man or a woman, no more in-between.'
Here's where that supporting material comes in handy. After all, there's no mention of 'trannies' ( an exceedingly hot button word for someone in the LGB community to use so casually ) , and in two short sentences Crouch's online description provides more historical context than the film's dialogue or footage: 'in the early 2000s the evangelical Christians took over the government and legislated their strict family values, legally sanctioning only 'one man, one woman' couples. Advances in sex reassignment surgery have made it possible to honor an individual's choice of gender and government policy.'
There is one element the embattled film gets just right: illustrating that gender identity is often confused with sexual orientation. For example, when the Gendercator asks Sally, 'You like girls sexually, right?' it's clear that an affirmative answer would confirm a male gender identity.
Sadly, even this redemptive element is marred by Crouch's off screen rhetoric, in which she seems to miss those same distinctions. In Crouch's director statement—which started the controversy in the first place—she writes, 'Things are getting very strange for women these days. More and more often we see … lesbian women altering themselves into transmen. Our distorted cultural norms are making women feel compelled to use medical advances to change themselves, instead of working to change the world.' Inferring that trans men are nothing but altered lesbians, Crouch reiterates the very conflagration of gender and sexual orientation that her film tries to expose.
With award-winning films like Stranger Inside to her credit, Crouch may indeed be a skilled screenwriter. But in this situation she seems to be suffering an extreme case of Mel Gibson-like foot-in-mouth syndrome. Although Crouch later attempts to clarify her position, she only makes things worse by claiming that when a person's exterior body does not match their interior sense of self, that person 'is a transsexual, not a woman or a man.'
In the final moments of the film, Sally is 'genderfied' and scheduled for surgery. Then things get complicated. There are three endings to the film. Depending on your preference, Sally is either rescued by a group of lesbian womanists who ferret her off to a commune-style softball-playing paradise, she wakes up post surgery horrified to discover she's a hairy man, or she ends up back in the good ol' pre- trans rights 1973, shaking off a drug-induced hallucination.
Back with her friends, in her own time, Sally picks up another joint, seems to consider putting it down and then lights up. Credits roll.
From this final scene we have to assume that the experience must not have been so bad after all. Otherwise Sally would have given up drugs for good!
All joking aside, there's clearly a real concern in the lesbian community about the perceived loss of butches, and apparently increasing number of outwardly female-appearing individuals transitioning to men. Unlike those conservatives who feared a raise in the number of lesbians was proof of recruitment drives, this time we're all part of the same community and we desperately need to confront these trepidations.
The Gendercator simply is not the film to do so. Worse, the film's fallout has created an environment less, not more, conducive to frank discussions between lesbians and transgender men.
Fortunately for audiences, another film actually does what Crouch claims to do: examine the impact of transitioning FTMs on the lesbian community. The documentary Boy I Am presents complex FTM subjects while also providing a forum for a number of oppositional viewpoints. Lucky for Crouch, the controversy surrounding The Gendercator has created more attention and interest than the film rightfully deserves.
Full disclosure: As an avid supporter of free speech, during the Frameline controversy, I wrote a letter to the organization supporting the showing of The Gendercator.
Trans author Jacob Anderson-Minshall writes the weekly, syndicated column TransNation. His essay, 'The Enemy Within: On Becoming a Straight White Guy,' appears in the forthcoming anthology Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power.
For more from the filmmaker, see www.catherinecrouch.com .