Body/Horror: Forced Feminization in the Movie “(Re)Assignment”

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The other day, my wife told me about a new movie coming out in 2017.  “(Re)Assignment”.  I’ll give you the IMDB summary:

Following an ace assassin who is double crossed by gangsters and falls into the hands of rogue surgeon known as The Doctor who turns him into a woman. The hitman now a hitwoman sets out for revenge, aided by a nurse named Johnnie who also has secrets.

I thought, “this is a tacky movie idea possibly worth a blog post, but I’ll let it stew a bit.”  At 2am, I woke up mad as hell and I didn’t quite know, right off, why.  At 4am I know and I’m in front of the computer spitting out all the thoughts I’ve had over the last two hours as to why, as a transwoman,  this film offends me to the core.  In short, it takes everything I am, everything I’ve gone through to achieve some peace in the world and reduces it to cheap thrills.


I have been watching Sigourney Weaver for decades.  Her filmography contains some beautiful work, from the bittersweet “Snow Cake” to  her haunting portrayal of the stepmother in “Snow White”.  From the uproariously funny “Galaxy Quest” to the action packed “Alien”, her range and talents seem to know no bounds.  And I have loved Michelle Rodriguez’ portrayal of bad-ass women ever since I first saw her in “Resident Evil”, right through “Avatar” and “Battle Los Angeles”.   Walter Hill has produced some remarkable films, most notably, again, “Alien” and, though it’s been a while, I remember liking “Warriors”.

So we have some talented people here and I will state, up front, that it’s possible that this might not be the tasteless film the premise leads me to believe it will be.  I doubt it, but it’s possible.  This movie is classified as an action/thriller, but, in reality, it cannot be anything but an erotic horror movie.  The horror aspect will play on male fears of emasculation and cisgendered fear of not knowing someone’s ‘real’ gender.  The erotic component will come from the blurring of the gender/sexuality line inherent in the premise itself.

It is possible that buried under all this there will be some insight into gender identity, but,  even if there is, it will get lost in the erotic/horror aspects of the film.  The identity issues, if they show up at all, will take second place to the physicality of the sex-changed body and women – trans and cis – will be reduced to their “girl parts”.

Given the backlash against the women’s movement, does the world really need a movie about a woman doctor feminizing a man?  Don’t we have enough trouble with men seeing feminism as emasculating?  As “dragging men down” rather than “lifting women up”?  This movie will give them a storyline to wrap their fears and their anger around.  No more metaphors – this movie will show it to them – literally – and they are going to take that story out into the world with them.

Transwomen especially have a lot to fear from this film.  Our culture is still based on the seriously flawed, binary gender system and too many people are positively horrified by gender ambiguity.  Worse yet is the fear that they can’t know if someone presenting as a stereotypical man/woman really is.  The recent spate of ‘bathroom laws’ is proof of just how many people that fear infects.  (Which is why I will be missing HonorCon this year.  It’s being held in NC and, as much as I’d love to meet Claudia Christian, I am not stupid enough to go to some Cro-Magnon state where I can be arrested for using the bathroom.)

So, what is the point of using this premise in the first place?  If they wanted to investigate transgendered identity, why not have a transsexual hitman.  Not that we need another “Silence of the Lambs”, but that way they could at least try to paint a realistic portrait of the character.  Get an transwoman to play the part and they might have something.  It would still make a lot of people uncomfortable.  Might still have some of the same problems, but it would at least have the opportunity to be respectful of trans lives.

Going with the forced feminization approach, they are doomed to making a horror flick.  At that point, any hope of investigating the reality of “living in the wrong body”, as a serious part of the film, is lost and sex reassignment gets conflated with ‘body horror’.  (Something which the title goes a long way to insuring.)

There are plenty of movies that are unrealistic.  Time compression (things happening in far less time than they would in reality) and the addition of ‘Handwavium’  to dismiss the out and out impossible, do not necessarily make a movie unenjoyable.  But when that kind of simplification appropriates and trivializes the lives of an entire class of people,  it turns them into a stereotype.  And stereotypes never do anything other than make it simpler for people to excuse their bigotry and discrimination.

Let’s start with the clip that’s been going around.  It shows our hero (recently escaped from ‘The Doctor’) walking around the city streets, blood running from his crotch.  For starters – and let me speak from experience here –  you do not just hop up from the surgical table when the anesthesia wears off.  For one thing, there’s a mold which is sewn in place to form the vagina and to keep the abdominal wall from closing up.  That sucker hurts like hell every time you move your legs.  (And Sister, do not ask what it’s sewn to.)  In a couple of days, maybe, you can walk like our hero is in that scene.

Then there’s the post surgical appearance of our hero.  Absolutely no trace of that massive beard he was sporting in the opening.  That, and the degree of feminization we’re seeing in the character means he spent at least a year on electrolysis and hormone therapy before the movie resumes.  Yet I doubt we’re going to see that.  What we will see is a transition that glosses over everything a real transsexual goes through and reduces sex reassignment to the instantaneous acquisition of breasts and a vagina.

Perhaps the more disturbing question that arises from this is: why does our hero do this?  Having escaped he is once again master of his fate.  OK, he has to sit down to pee, but he could have continued life as a male.  So, why doesn’t he?  Wouldn’t any man do that?  Speaking as a writer, what is his motivation?  I can think of no plausible reason, so the obvious conclusion is that he is (subconsciously, at least) trans.  While this subtext may not be recognized by most moviegoers, it will allow them to identify our hero as both victim and perpetrator.  As both the castrated male and the gender transgressor.

The movie, then, takes trans lives and uses them for shock value.  First, there’s the male reaction to the  ‘degradation’ of being forced to live as a woman in this world.  I don’t have access to the script, but I can pretty much guarantee that here will be at least one scene in which our hero has to deal with catcalls and sexual innuendo, but only because it will reinforce that sense of ‘degradation’.  I doubt very much if the movie will show any of the day-to-day discrimination women face unless it reinforces that horror.

Then there’s the erotic side.  Oh, you don’t think there’s an erotic side?  Google “shemale” and see what you get.  Wait, I’ll save you the trouble…

About 430,000 results (0.57 seconds)

Do it yourself if you want to see the results: videos, stills, every form of porn there is, all revolving around males who have been feminized to the point of looking like beautiful women – except for the genitalia.  If you think there aren’t a boatload of men for whom this is a turn on, where do you think those thousands of sites come from?  It’s also a big part of the sex trade.  Intentional or not, this dissonance – horror vs arousal – will be a big part of the movie’s draw.

Further, this movie will leave viewers with a twisted view of the transgendered which is based entirely on the physical aspects.  On ‘The Sex’.  There will be no room left for the concept of identity and how it is not always consistent with one’s birth sex.  For those transsexuals who don’t get help pre-puberty, there is the very real pain of having one’s body turn into something totally wrong.  This movie skips past that and paints the surgery itself as the source of horror, not the dissonance between body and soul.  Worse, it divorces it from the concept of consent.

CAVEAT:  As I said above, I do not have access to the script or any information not currently available to the public.  What follows is speculation.

I am going to make some predictions about scenes in this movie.  To do this I will invoke TV Tropes “Three Laws of Gender Bending”:

Once a girl has been created, circumstances will conspire to keep her a girl.

Any character, after being gender bent, will come to enjoy their new gender more than their old gender.

Any gender bent character will either embrace or be subject to all of the stereotypes associated with their new gender.

(Start here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FirstLawOfGenderBending and have fun.)

While much of this comes from comics and anime, I’m willing to bet that the same forces are at work here with the same results: the conflation of physicality with gender behavior and sexual orientation.  As I said above, there is no reason why he can’t continue living as a man.  No, the premise of this movie can’t really be explained as anything other than seasoning action with titillation.  So, these scenes, or others very much like them, are almost inevitable.

So, let’s talk about the inevitable scene where our hero has to use the women’s bathroom for the first time.  Let me be frank here.  When you start living as a woman the big deal isn’t so much that it’s strange or scary (in and of itself) to use the ladies room.  What is scary is the fear of being confronted.  Imagine that you really, really have to pee and some cisgendered bitch is demanding proof that you’re ‘really a woman’.  Imagine some store/restaurant worker coming in to deal with ‘the man in the ladies room’ problem when, in actually, there isn’t a man in the ladies room, there’s just a woman who just happens to still have the male genitalia she was born with.  The degree to which you face this problem is directly related to how cisgendered you look.  I’m post-op some twenty odd years and I still occasionally get it.

So, the movie conjures up this demon.  Only, in this case, it is a man in the ladies room.  A man who doesn’t have the genitalia he was born with.  He still, however, has all the cultural baggage that goes along with being male.  For him, entering the ladies room is an act of transgression.  And if he gets a glimpse of breast or crotch, he’s going to react just like any other guy.  However unwillingly, he will be a Peeping Tom.  That he gets away with it will be arousing for many males and will help justify the insane notion that anyone would go through years of psychological review, hormone therapy and electrolysis – not to mention the surgery itself – just to get a peek into the ladies room.  It conflates the reaction of a male with those of a transwoman and reinforces the notion that we are, in fact, men.

Another scene.  Our hero needs to get some crucial piece of information, or access to someplace/someone, and gets dressed to the nines.  A great deal of time will be spent on the act of getting dressed and putting on makeup.  He may begin to actually like the way he looks as a woman.  To appreciate how beautiful he is.  And, yeah, that’s a turn on for some men as well.

Almost every time a male—and it is always a male—gets trapped in some kind of Gender Bender situation, the first thing the man turned woman does is check out the new equipment. In front of a mirror, if one is available. Often a form of Fanservice.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ManIFeelLikeAWoman

This.  Plus the notion that copping a feel gets a whole new twist when it’s you you’re feeling.  Sexuality gets turned into a kind of autoerotic Mobius strip, with both the male and female aspects getting off on the fondling of a woman’s breast.  (Once again, it is the body part, not the person that is the star here.)  Then he will sashay down the street and right into wherever he has to be.  Possibly flirting with a man along the way.  And, because the lead is being played by a cisgendered female, the performance will be pitch perfect.  ‘He’ will make such a convincing female that people will come out of the theater wondering who else in the world isn’t a real woman.  I can see a wave of paranoia sweeping out from this movie like a plague.

If the writers are feeling particularly adventurous (and, let’s face it, tacky) we may well get the “sex as a woman” scene.  Our hero will, by some plot device, have sex.  It might be, as in the “dressed to the nines” scene, a tactical requirement on his way to revenge.   Here we come back to the squick vs arousal theme.  On the one hand, being “fucked like a woman” is probably the ultimate degradation for straight men.  If our hero achieves orgasm, that’s doubly bad because it means he liked it and has, therefore, been ‘turned’.  On the other hand, there are a great many men who believe that they could make the most frigid of women orgasm if they would just spend some quality time with Mr. Happy.  To make a man feel that way is proof of the power of the almighty penis.

Or, perhaps Johnnie is a lesbian and we’ll get a little girl-on-girl action.  (Do I even have to mention that this is another major source of income for the porn industry?)  This is the safer route, because it allows our hero to maintain some semblance of his manhood (he still likes girls) while still enjoying his new ‘girl-parts’.   Again, however, we have that horror/erotic dissonance coming to play as orgasm blends with the ‘wrongness’ of sex as a woman.  In the end, that is what many people will take away from this film: the conflation of sex reassignment surgery with erotic horror.

However firmly I believe these scenes will exist, as I said, they are speculative – useful examples of how the film could have unfortunate social consequences.  The fact that Michelle Rodriguez won Best Actress from the Verein Deutscher Kritiker Und Filmemacher for this film tells that her acting was excellent.   But even if she and the writers had the most respectful of intent, it is still inevitable that it will reinforce transphobia in those inclined towards it.  Intent is only half the story.  What happens on the other side of the big screen, how the people in the theater react to this movie, is the other half and if it leads to the loss of the freedom that we transgendered have fought for for so long, indeed, still are fighting for, then the movie has a lot to answer for.  If being gender non-conforming becomes sufficient justification for people to accost someone and demand “proof” of their birth-sex, then the bigots of this world will have won and this movie, and everyone associated with it, will hold at least part of the blame.