This post is about 2 short films from Momentum Studios – a small social justice film studio in Australia.
‘Masked‘ deals with a young woman’s journey of discovery that she is ‘trans’. The follow-on film ‘Still Me‘ deals with a young woman finding the courage and support to claim her non-binary identity.
Both films present a stylised discomfort with gender stereotypes and both young women are rescued by a spirit guide character who brings them to the trans pathway, thus solving their discomfort.
By Knox City Council and the ‘Free To Be Me’ Knox LGBTQIA Youth Group. The youth group is for 11-14 year olds.
MASKED follows the story of High Schooler, Zoe, struggling to come out as a trans man. After knowing who they truly are for a while, Zoe finds themselves fatigued by their fear of whether others will accept them or not. MASKED was created in conjunction with the 15-18 year old’s from the Knox ‘ Free To Be Me’ LGBTQIA Youth group. The project is proudly supported & funded by Knox City Council, YAC Vic & the Victorian State Government.Masked blurb on YouTube
Zoe is miserable. It is her birthday.
Her mum gives her a nice dress – “pretty, but not too pretty”. Over family breakfast there’s an awkward conversation about a friend who has a non-binary partner. Dad makes some ham-fisted jokes about non-binary robots. Non-binary geddit? The clumsy parents are trying but trying in the wrong way. How dare they?
At the party, Zoe is dissociating and looks sick as she beholds the pink gift wrapping and fairy bread.
Across the crowd Tahlia is watching.
Tahlia: “You bummed out? All that girly shit? Your presents.”
Zoe: “I liked my presents”
Tahlia is the reason I am writing this blog.
Tahlia is the only one to notice Zoe’s distress and the only one to see the evidence of her self-harm: a bandage on the wrist. All the other party guests and even the parents are oblivious.
Tahlia is Zoe’s magical spirit guide. She has a special knowledge that even Zoe cannot yet access: Zoe is trans. Tahlia must bring forth this realisation in Zoe.
Later Zoe watches Ash Hardell’s trans coming out** video on YouTube.
Zoe is looking outside herself for validation. Without YouTube, where would she have looked? Stick-thin women in magazines, perhaps. Or the cat-dragged-in riot grrl empowerment?
She admire’s Ash’s ability to claim the ‘trans’ identity. However scrolling into the comments reveals the condemnation of strangers. The real Ash Hardell seems quite happy with the video stats: 35k thumbs up, 1.8k thumbs down and plenty of cutesy positive comments.
Zoe, on the other hand, is devastated.
Mum comes in and asks to chat and tells her “your problems aren’t real“. She means that Zoe’s distress is part of growing up, it is discomfort that will resolve when Zoe finds her place in the world. She means that problems around fitting in are magnified for teenagers but have no material basis.
Tahlia senses a disturbance in The Force. She is walking up toward Zoe’s house, only to see the flashing light of an ambulance. Tahlia has come too late.
Without external validation, Zoe attempts suicide.
Mum and Zoe fail to connect emotionally on Zoe’s exit from hospital. But Tahlia is waiting at home with a pair of used doc marten boots and a garbage bag full of grey ‘boy clothes’. This is the talisman with which Tahlia rehabilitates Zoe from the edge of death. If Tahlia is a spirit guide, Zoe is in a liminal state between life and death. Once upon a time a shaman would starve themselves for days, drink poison and spend time in isolation to induce hallucinations that open the door between worlds. For Zoe, it is a bottle of pills and a pair of Doc Martens.
Tahlia now helps Zoe to cross over, to transition, into another state of being.
Tahlia knows. She gives a speech “I’ll always be here for you… if your mother and your father …if they do care [about you being trans] then who cares about them?”. Abandon the family, abandon what you know and rely on to be real. Transition rituals demand a sacrifice.
Tahlia performs trans a makeover ritual and then presents her new creation Zach to the shocked parents.
This is quite important.
Zoe struggles in isolation. She believes she knows the source of her problems: she doesn’t like pink, or dresses, or all that girly stuff.
The parents aren’t able to help her. She just has to muddle through somehow to the other side of adolescence. Instead, Tahlia assists her to cross over to the other side of gender.
It is only through watching intimate videos of strangers that she glimpses a solution. It seems impossible to grasp until Tahlia makes it real for her. Bibbity bobbity boo! You’re trans. The answer is trading in a grey hoodie for a different hoodie and getting a side part. No more self-harm.
Zoe, now Zach, goes on to perform the same miracle for Emily/Bailey in the sequel Still Me.
Still Me is the younger non-binary sibling to Masked.
The film opens with Emily/Bailey hyperventilating in front of the public toilets. This is the universal symbol for non-binary angst. She is (they are?) working through an anxiety attack by rehearsing a coming-out speech. “I’m still me. I’m just more comfortable”. Because nothing says ‘comfortable in my own skin’ like hyperventilating in the toilets before school.
The school bell rings, Bailey pulls a non-binary grey beanie over her forehead and exits the toilet. The camera pulls away – she exits from the disabled toilet. She is non-binary and could not choose either the male or female convenience. Too bad if a wheelchair-bound student had needed a wee before class.
Yes, I’m snippy about these invented enby problems. In the search for meaning they take ordinary tasks – choosing a toilet – and make them unbelievably emotional and difficult. They take joyful dressing up and transform sang froid it into anxious greys, bad fringes and poorly cut men’s shirts over restricted female chests. Nothing says “I’m more comfortable” than being badly dressed over special torture underwear, and desperate not to be found out.
It’s a joyless celebration of the worst aspects of the liminal.
Back to Bailey. She struggles. The teachers don’t validate her. The students ridicule her. She looks around for help but finds no quarter. Bailey is a lone ship in anxious waters. Except for the very supportive text messages from mum. They don’t count.
At the apogee of her suffering, Bailey is crouched in an empty classroom, sobbing uncontrollably. She is approached by a trans spirit guide. It’s Zach!
Zach/Zoe: “My name’s Zach”
Bailey: “My name’s Emily”
Zach: “Are you though?”
Bailey: (sobbing) “Nooo!”
Zach/Zoe has a special knowledge. She sees into Bailey’s suffering and can discern the reason for it. Unlike everyone else, Zach sees Bailey. She looks past Emily’s feminine features. She sees Bailey of the grey beanie.
Bailey asks “I’m not a girl, I’m not a boy. I’m still me. Why does my gender matter?” Such a profound question for a young woman who is in tears because she can’t find others to validate her desperate need to wear a beanie and a tie. Why does her gender matter to her? Why does she hyperventilate about choosing a toilet to enter? Why does she feel less non-binary (more binary?) in a skirt than in a tie?
What if Zach had not come past just now? Where would Bailey have gone for solace? Perhaps to the enthusiastically supportive mum who would help her ride out adolescence and grow into herself as a young woman. Or perhaps to the girl she spoke with briefly at the bus stop. Maybe she’d even find something in common with the yobbo boys who yelled at her from a car window (assuming they grow the eff up).
Zach isn’t one to let a chance slip by. There’s something oddly intimate about the way she calms Bailey down. “Tell me 4 things you can feel”. Bailey’s defenses are down and she enters the liminal state, ready to transition.
Zach tells Bailey she will eventually find people who love her. Not her mum, obvs. Again, the sacrifice. Leaving the past, the material and the trustworthy behind.
Then she pulls out a pamphlet! Not quite “have you hear about Amway” but very close. There’s a meeting tonight. Game, set and match. Bailey is on her way to the LGBTIAQ+ club.
Bailey seems to be whimpering as she introduces herself to the club. “I’m Bailey. I’m non-binary. I use they/them pronouns”. The rite is complete. Zach whispers “you cool?” and trots off to join friends.
This tribe of kids is self-replicating.
Next it will be Bailey’s turn to watch and wait for an opportunity to help out a distressed friend.
These are teenagers preying upon distressed peers. It is easy to offer freedom, confidence, friends and belonging, in exchange for a small sacrifice. For someone who feels devastated, this offer seems like a bargain.
In the beginning it’s hairstyles. In this middle class suburban settings, it’s just pink-haired kids getting together to play Uno and chat. But there is a deal made with the devil.
The journey to the other side of gender will never take them to the other side of adolescence. It will never help them to grow up. The options are to desist – what, give up a truly held identity? Or re-commit. First hormones, then mastectomies, then hysterectomy because the hormones have poisoned the uterus.
The self harm does not stop. It changes form and focus.
As they age out of the youth groups, the effects of transition won’t be seen by the cool teenagers. As they age into the workforce, the cold reality of being the only trans in the village begins to hit home. Everyone has a job and private struggles are just that: private. Dating is a nightmare. No youth groups, no pink hair, no mum and dad to blame life on.
Growing up happens to all of us. Some of us escape adolescence burdened with ill-advised tattoos, car accident injuries, heroin additions, STDs or worse. Some don’t escape.
These rainbow children, recruited by their friends, will be bound to a medical pathway for life.
** Ash is a twee non-binary woman who, with her twee female non-binary partner Grayson, are together living their best top-surgery lives. Ash Hardell and partner Grayson Hardell talk top surgery and the power of becoming