Prodigal Sons

Prodigal Sons

Wow! Where do I begin?

I’ll start with a summary to get my bearings. The documentary Prodigal Sons opens with Kim Reed, the filmmaker, traveling from New York to her 20 year high school reunion in Montana with her lesbian partner. She speaks of being nervous about how people will react to her. She has an older, adopted, brother Marc, and a gay younger brother Todd, and her mother is still living. She has been estranged from Marc, as has Todd, though he too comes back to Montana during the course of the film.

Turns out—and this is not a spoiler; it’s revealed within the first couple minutes of the film—Kim grew up as Paul, high school class valedictorian, A-student, and quarterback of the football team (good enough to be recruited to play at the college level). Kim has returned, with a camera crew, to see how the folks back home—who have been told about the sex change—react to her as a woman, and to attempt to reconcile with Marc.

An interesting thing about this film is how open-ended the project apparently was. She can’t possibly have anticipated much of what happens. She just puts herself in situations with all kinds of good and bad potential, and films the results.

The reaction to her as a transsexual turns out to be largely a non-issue, which even if it doesn’t make for thrilling cinema has to be counted as a good thing. Granted we’re only seeing the encounters she chose to include in the film, and these are people who all know they’re on camera, but everyone treats her very well, and not even particularly awkwardly, like walking on egg shells trying to be politically correct. They’re just friendly and natural with her. That’s probably not what most viewers would expect from Montanans, but, hey, times change. You don’t have to be in some major coastal city to find progressive attitudes on social issues.

The situation with her family, and especially with Marc, is not so simple or so positive, though. And really the film becomes more about that than about transgender issues.

Marc is clearly “off.” It’s attributed to an auto accident when he was 21 that left him brain-damaged, but you can read between the lines that it didn’t start then, though exactly how far gone he was before the accident is left tantalizingly mysterious. We’re told that he was held back a year in school, putting him in the same grade as Kim (who was Paul back then, remember) despite being older. He was academically no match for Kim, struggling just to get by, and it sounds like he wasn’t totally stable behaviorally, though it’s possible it was just the typical amount of irresponsibility and partying and such of an American teen.

In any case, he was clearly resentful of Kim, and maybe of Todd too, and very conscious of the fact that he consistently came out behind in the sibling rivalry. In the film we see that as an adult he very much retains those negative attitudes, though at other times he comes across as quite gentle and caring.

Due to the brain damage, Marc apparently really struggles with impulse control. Much of the time he speaks in a slow, deliberate, wooden fashion—substantively mostly saying nice things to people, giving compliments, apologizing for the past when appropriate, but at the same time often talking over people like he has no intuitive grasp of conversational etiquette. Then every once in a while he explodes in a scary rage—screaming, out of control, giving orders, etc. (It’s a literal instance of that expression “being off his meds,” as it seems to happen when he has skipped a pill or is late taking it.) At times he is insulting, and at times he is even violent. Despite all his supportive talk when he’s somewhat sane (or drugged), when he’s Mr. Hyde he attacks Kim and Todd for being transgendered and being gay (citing the Bible of course, the routine fallback for anyone flashing a mean and/or crazy streak), and he strikes each of them at least once in the film.

He’s bizarrely good on the piano, by the way, in a savant sort of way. He can’t read music, has never had a lesson, etc., but he can sit down and play something that sounds an awful lot like a real song seemingly by some kind of intuition.

He apparently has issues with being adopted. Another storyline the film follows is his efforts to find his birth parents. Turns out—and this is a bit of a spoiler, though I notice almost all summaries of the film mention it—he is the son of the daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, who was an unmarried 21 year old when she gave birth in the ’60s. Probably neither Welles nor Hayworth even knew she had a baby.

In a strange twist on this strange twist, his mother dies almost exactly when he learns of her existence. It’s so close in time that he’s able to go to the funeral, but he just misses meeting her when she is alive.

Welles’s longtime girlfriend learns of his existence and invites him (Kim and her camera crew come along as well) to Croatia where she lives. She is super nice to him, but it’s an uncomfortable scene for me. I don’t think she knows quite how to act around someone brain damaged in the way he is—any more than I would—and so she adopts a kind of patronizing style like she’s dealing with a small child.

Were this fiction I would have objected to this as an unrealistic, gimmicky tangent, but it’s one of the surprises—a biggie—that happened during the project, so Kim goes with it. But still, it sort of doesn’t lead anywhere. For a time it seems like a big deal to Marc—maybe something he can finally point to that makes him special rather than always inferior to Kim—but once the novelty wears off it doesn’t seem to make much difference. One gets the impression that learning more about his birth family—even when it’s a bombshell like this—doesn’t help him with what’s really troubling him, which is his place in his adoptive family.

As the film goes on, if anything Marc appears to deteriorate mentally. Though fighting with him at times, Kim hangs in there and really tries to reconcile with him. The mom is impressively persistent in trying to help him as well. But there’s a limit to how much they can really do for him, and how good their relationships can be with him, given his mental handicap. For a time he’s even institutionalized.

Many things stood out to me about Prodigal Sons.

One early one occurs during that high school reunion at the beginning of the film. Some old classmates of Kim’s are chatting with her, and one says she doesn’t understand why you would change your sex if you liked girls. Like she can’t get her mind around a transgendered person not being gay pre-change (and thus set “right” by the change).

What I really like here is her attitude, and Kim’s attitude in response. It’s not stated as a rhetorical question that’s really an insult or a statement of disapproval. It’s not one of those “I don’t know how anybody…” remarks that’s really a “You’re so screwed up that I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be as sick as you” condemnation. It’s just an honest, matter-of-fact, literal expression of puzzlement from someone who is curious and wants to understand better, and isn’t so self-conscious that she censors herself from saying anything like that that could potentially offend someone.

And then Kim in response doesn’t roll her eyes or get angry in an “I’m a sophisticated LGBT person from the big city, and I refuse to let your insensitive remark go unpunished or next you’ll be asking me about my genitalia” manner. She smiles and talks to her as an equal, and tries to explain it as best she can.

It’s a friendly, respectful chat, not a hostile situation where someone is trying to put someone down, or someone is reveling in her victimhood and defiantly standing up to an imagined putdown. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I found that strangely refreshing.

At one point Kim and Marc have an interesting dispute. It’s not one of the times he’s out of control; it’s when he’s in his more passive, agreeable, exaggeratedly polite mode, so they’re able to discuss it without great anger.

It’s when they’re in Croatia, with Welles’s girlfriend and her people. Evidently nothing had been said about Kim being a transsexual. Marc had brought over a couple hundred family photos to show them, to kind of tell the story of his life and help them understand who he is. Some of them are childhood photos with his brothers, and of course no sister.

Kim, in this confrontation later, is upset about that, and is trying to impress upon him how inconsiderate that was. She says when they inferred that she had been male growing up, they stared at her and some of them snickered, and it all made her quite uncomfortable. Her position is that he knows she considers Paul to be dead, or someone who wasn’t even really her, and that certainly she wants to be in control, and is entitled to be in control, of how and if her past becomes known to others. She feels violated that his actions revealed things about her to others that she hadn’t chosen to share with them.

He doesn’t put up all that much of a fight. As I say, he’s more in his agreeable, placating, apologetic mode. More than anything he seems surprised, like he had been so caught up in this trip and the Orson Welles stuff being so much about him that—oops—he’d failed to consider Kim or anyone else.

Yet to a limited extent he does defend himself. I take his position to be that their childhood is his past too, and that just as she wants to be able to say what gets revealed and what doesn’t, so does he. He showed them the photos because he wanted to open up to them about his past, which presumably he’s entitled to do. Anything it revealed about her past was incidental, not intentional or malicious.

She doesn’t reject that entirely, but her comeback is that had he been more considerate he would have seen that he could have furthered both goals—he could have told them about his childhood and protected her secret—by being more selective with the photos. She tells him that surely he could have conveyed his life story to them adequately had he included the 190 out of the 200 photos that wouldn’t have allowed them to infer Kim’s transsexual status, and left out the other 10, and then everyone would have been happy.

By the way, I think in my paraphrase I’m making her—or maybe both of them—sound more reasonable than she did in the movie.

My reaction is that while I hear her and I respect why it would bother her for him to show photos from their childhood, I find his position to be more justified. She’s free to tell the story of her past however she prefers, but I don’t think she really has the right to control how others tell the story of their past that she happens to be a character in. Especially since he’s just being honest and open about his childhood. It’s not like he’s putting his own spin on ambiguous situations to put her in a bad light.

I don’t think other people are obligated to lie or hide things about themselves so as not to indirectly convey something about her she doesn’t want known.

Each strikes me in this encounter as being very focused on himself or herself. The ironic thing is that it’s the brain-damaged guy with the explosive temper who manifests more self-awareness about that, more willingness to acknowledge that, yeah, maybe this shouldn’t really be all about me.

Another thing this movie makes me think about is my comfort level with certain types of people. I find Kim to be a very sympathetic character, a decent, good-hearted human being that I could interact with quite comfortably, and indeed would want in my life. I know I expressed some disagreement above with a position she took, but you don’t have to agree with someone a hundred percent of the time to have an overall very favorable impression of them.

On the other hand, I had more trouble with Marc. Even if in the abstract I can say that a lot of his unappealing traits aren’t fully his fault because of the accident and all that, he’s the kind of person I would have trouble relaxing around, or wanting to have a significant role in my life. I can’t see myself hanging onto a relationship with him, like Kim or the mom, putting so much into trying to reconcile with him. Or if I did it would be out of some sort of duty, and I’d be struggling every step of the way because I just don’t want to be around the guy.

Maybe what that says about me is that sexuality and transgender issues matter little if at all to me in what I think of a person or how comfortably I can interact with them. Not just in terms of my intellectual beliefs about them, or of not thinking there’s something morally objectionable about them, but on a gut level really not having any residual disapproval. Whereas someone who has a deeply irrational and sometimes violent streak pushes certain discomfort buttons in me. Losing control the way he does, and behaving like someone out of The Exorcist, sort of reduces his personhood, for me, which is something I don’t sense in my feelings at all about gay or transgendered people. One seems somewhat “other” or “scary” or “different” in a way I’m not comfortable with; the other doesn’t.

That’s interesting, because I think such attitudes differ a great deal from person to person.

And for that matter for the same person at different times. I’m sure I didn’t always have my present attitude about gay and transgendered people, though I have for most of my adult life. But when I was 19 or so, I knew a lot of gay people, and I remember one time one of them opening up to me and saying that he had always read me as being disapproving in a way. That I may have been on the “right” side of the issues involving gay people, but there was something about me that sent the message that I didn’t fully accept them or connect with them, like I was holding back, whereas ironically he didn’t always feel that distance or discomfort from people who espoused anti-gay attitudes. The point he was making was kind of like how a Southern bigot might have certain racist attitudes and beliefs about African American people yet still through familiarity be able comfortably to interact with them, whereas I was like the Northerner who in principle was in favor of civil rights and all, but naturally gravitated toward my own kind and couldn’t handle actual flesh and blood African American people.

I don’t know to what extent his impression was accurate of me back then, but it really doesn’t feel like it would be accurate of me today—my gut reaction to this film being one small piece of evidence on that point.

But I suspect there are still plenty of people who would react to Kim the way I reacted to Marc. You know, if you asked me one of those questions like “How well could you deal with it if someone close to you came out as gay or had a sex change operation?” my reaction would likely be a shrug. It doesn’t feel like there’d be much if any resistance in me or repugnance or whatever that I’d need to overcome. It feels like it would be a non-issue.

Whereas if someone in my life started flipping out like Marc, and was that impulsive and unpredictable, and couldn’t really reciprocate my rationality, that would be much, much harder for me.

But for a lot of people—and I don’t mean just the most blatantly bigoted ones—it’s probably just the opposite. They’re more comfortable with irrationality and even violence, because they deal with it regularly and even are guilty of it themselves, especially when alcohol is involved. To them it’s just part of life that people lose control periodically. Whereas someone who is “different” in sexuality or gender, especially in ways that traditional religion condemns, would give them an unease that just isn’t a part of me anymore, even if they wouldn’t admit it or be consciously aware of it.

I spent some time online reading about this movie after I saw it, including on sites with user comments, and I was struck by how negatively a lot of people responded to Kim. Not that it was any kind of scientific sample, but I’d say a good 50 percent of the people were critical to strongly critical of her—she’s selfish, she made the movie all about her when it should have been about Marc, she’s exploiting Marc by making this film, etc.

That differs so greatly from my reaction to her that it makes me wonder. I’m not saying it’s impossible for reasonable people to disagree with me about someone, but that much disapproval, occasionally expressed rather venomously? It makes me think it’s not all about what she does, but about what she is. They cite other reasons—not convincing to me—against her, but I suspect some of that has to do with a visceral discomfort with transgendered people, or lesbians or women or whatever. (Kind of like how opposition to Obama is never ever a matter of racism—perish the thought—and how dare you even suggest it is, and that makes you a reverse racist for playing the race card, and blah, blah, blah.)

As I say, the transgender thing turns out not to be the dominant issue in the movie. Yet it’s always there. There’s the shock of the early revelation of Kim’s transgender status, then it’s just kind of a matter-of-fact part of who she is that’s not particularly relevant to things going on in the movie, and then intermittently it becomes quite relevant after all. So it’s always present at least in the background, even when the main focus is elsewhere.

But in any case Prodigal Sons certainly provides an occasion to muse about transgender issues.

This isn’t a subject I’ve given a huge amount of thought to, nor have I researched in detail the various arguments people put forth about it, but I’ve thought about it some, and probably have a little more foundation than the average layman for my opinions about it.

Certainly my sentiments are all on the side of LGBT people, but there are things I take to be part of the “dogma” if you will of those on the Left on these issues that, for now at least, I don’t find persuasive. Kind of like how I would say I’m clearly a person of the Left, and for the most part would accept the designation “feminist” for myself, yet there are plenty of positions and attitudes I associate with (some) feminists that I definitely don’t share.

One thing that seems to be settled on the Left is that there is no objective fact of gender, that it is just a matter of convention. (The same is said of race.) Another, related, claim is that whatever gender a person “identifies” as, that’s what they are, and how they should be referred to.

From the latter it follows, for instance, that referring to someone with the expression “a woman trapped in a man’s body” is literally true—that individual really is a woman starting from when they think of themselves that way, not from when they undergo some surgical or other change (if they ever do). Deciding whether to use male pronouns like “he” or female pronouns like “she,” then, becomes a simple matter of determining how the person wants to be referred to.

Or maybe not so simple. I recently spent a couple hours online exploring some sites that delve into these issues, and I was struck by what a separate culture (some) LGBT people have created for themselves, with all kinds of new jargon and euphemisms and such. A “cisgendered” person, for instance, is one who identifies as the same gender that was assigned to them at birth. (Not that identifies as the gender they really are, mind you, since there’s allegedly no such thing, but the one that was “assigned” to them.) Some people give such convoluted descriptions of their gender and sexuality that it goes on for multiple sentences or even paragraphs. One poster on one of these sites insisted they refused to allow anyone to refer to them as “he” or “she,” and in fact had come up with some whole new system of made up words that must be used instead.

Anyway, one of the most commonly cited reasons for insisting that there is no such thing as gender, or that it’s so totally up for grabs that everyone gets to stipulate what they are, is that it’s a myth that there are just two. Society, it is said, artificially pushes everyone into one of two boxes (male or female), whereas in reality gender exists on a continuum.

My reaction to that (and again, this is where I am now, at this I suppose fairly early stage of my inquiry into these matters) is that the premise—that gender is on a continuum rather than binary—sounds correct, but that it doesn’t follow from this that gender is somehow not objective nor that it is whatever each person says it is.

Certainly there’s a sense in which gender is only conventional, but it’s the trivial sense that all language is. Language users determine what’s to count as “male” and what’s to count as “female” in the same way that they determine what’s to count as “a teapot” or “carnivorous” or “yellow.” If something has the relevant defining attributes then it is accurately describable as one of those things; if it doesn’t, it isn’t.

That’s not to deny that there are borderline cases where either the facts or the language are fuzzy enough to create ambiguity as to whether something counts as a certain thing or not. However we define “male” and “female,” there will probably be such gray area cases—for instance, people born with genitalia that isn’t clearly a penis (only) or a vagina (only).

But again, that’s routine with language. Many, probably most, terms have fuzzy borderlines like that. We can probably all agree that Manute Bol fits the definition of tall as it applies to a human being, for instance, and that Tom Thumb does not. But what about someone who is 6’1”, or 5’7”? Are they tall or not tall?

But the existence of gray doesn’t mean that black and white don’t exist, or that black and non-black don’t exist. It doesn’t mean that there’s no objective fact as to whether this shade of gray is darker (i.e., closer to black) than that shade of gray. It just means there will be some cases that are difficult or impossible to unambiguously categorize in a binary manner.

Depending on what have developed as the defining attributes of “male” and “female” in a given language—say, English—the vast majority of people will be unambiguously male or unambiguously female, with a minority on a continuum in between, and whether they are male or female or where they are on that continuum will be an objective fact. You can say “I identify as female,” just as you can say “I identify as tall” or “I identify as kind” or “I identify as a porcupine,” but it won’t change what you are.

Often when people state that they are really a different gender from the one they are based on their anatomy, what they seem to mean is that they tend to have the personality, character traits, preferences, behavioral traits, etc. associated with the other gender. The anatomical stuff, they say, is “sex,” not “gender,” and it’s gender that matters when it comes to choosing what pronouns to use and such. But to me that’s just implicitly buying into stereotypes.

Some stereotypes are myths and some are accurate to a degree, but only accurate in a statistical or probability sense. If a man says “Regardless of what I look like on the outside or what kind of genitalia I have, I’m really a woman because I like to wear dresses, I preferred dolls to toy guns as a child, I prefer cooperation to competition, I don’t watch televised sports, I cry easily,” etc., etc. he’s implicitly accepting the stereotypes that it’s inherently female to wear dresses, prefer dolls to toy guns, prefer cooperation to competition, be uninterested in televised sports, and cry easily.

Some of those—probably all of those—really are more common for women than for men, but so what? If a majority of boys prefer toy guns and a majority of girls prefer dolls, all that means is that a majority of boys prefer toy guns and a majority of girls prefer dolls. It doesn’t mean that everyone who prefers toy guns is really a boy and everyone who prefers dolls is really a girl.

If you’re a man who cries easily and likes to wear dresses, then you’re a man with certain traits that only a minority of men have. You’re not a woman.

When Toni Morrison referred to Bill Clinton as “our first black President,” she meant that he had had a lot of experiences that are more typical of a black person’s life than a white person’s life. She didn’t mean that literally he was black (I hope). Only in that kind of non-literal sense would the guy who likes girly things be a woman.

But someone might say, isn’t it the respectful thing to refer to a person as the gender of their choice? Maybe this person wants to think of himself/herself as a woman. Why not endorse that choice and honor their wishes by referring to them as such? Especially since for some people matters of identity like this are not some unimportant semantic matter, but are crucial to their feeling of self-worth, to their empowerment, in extreme cases even to whether they suffer from depression that can reach the level of being suicidal.

But that’s a different question. I’ve been inquiring into what a person is. What they should be called isn’t always the same thing. Other factors can enter into that. Indeed, I myself would probably almost always refer to a transgendered person by whatever pronouns and such they want, just to be nice.

Think of it this way. Imagine your buddy Mariah is from a culture that considers being born in January a terrible curse. Such people are routinely shunned in that culture, it’s harder for them to have friends, no one wants to marry them, etc., plus they often internalize these negative attitudes and have very low self-esteem.

You find out Mariah was born January 18, but she always refers to herself as having been born in February, and by now she’s convinced herself that she really was. Would you insist on correcting her at every opportunity, and on informing other people from her culture when she was born, even knowing that would likely adversely affect how she’s treated, and how she sees herself? Probably not. What would be the point, other than malice?

But would going along with her preference of presenting herself as a person who was born in February mean you think she really was born in February, or that one can be born in whatever month one pleases just by declaring it? Of course not.

And that wouldn’t change if it were pointed out to you that birth months can be ambiguous. (Think of someone who started emerging from their mother late on January 31 and finished early on February 1.) Just because there are some borderline cases, it doesn’t follow that the overwhelming majority of cases are not borderline, nor that everyone gets to decide what month they were born in because there’s no objective fact of the matter, or because “You know, I’ve always felt deep inside that I was a ‘born in February’ kind of gal.”

Mariah was born in January, regardless of whether there are situations in which it might be the considerate or tactful thing to pretend otherwise.

So I’m skeptical—but open-minded—of the notion that gender is a social construct (beyond the trivial sense that using language in general is unavoidably based on convention) and/or that whatever gender a person identifies as is what they are.

That being said, I was struck by just how conventionally female Kim comes across. To me at least, she looks nothing like a man playacting being a woman. She’s not masculine, but nor is she exaggeratedly feminine, like a drag queen playing up all the girly stereotypes.

She’s actually rather attractive. (Uh oh, did I just admit being attracted to a transsexual?) She’s tall and long-legged, but heck, that’s good; tall doesn’t have to be mannish. She looks fairly young, maybe in her 30s (though I think she was actually in her 40s at the time the movie was filmed). She’s not spectacular looking or super sexy, just a quite pleasant-looking, well-groomed, poised, confident woman.

But it’s not just looks, it’s everything about how she carries herself, how she acts. It’s her facial expressions, how and when she smiles, the way she holds her hands, the position of her body when she casually leans back in a chair or on the bed, the way she brushes back her hair, the way she gravitates to other women at a social event like the reunion, the way she doesn’t respond to violence with violence when Marc hits her, her basically gentle and compassionate persona, and on and on. She just very much comes across as a woman.

And again, not in some exaggerated, stereotypical, self-conscious way. It’s natural, real, and subtle enough that there’s a lot more that’s womanly about her that I can’t put my finger on than that I can. It’s the whole package. She’s not sashaying around, broadcasting how feminine she is, because that’s not how the overwhelming majority of women act.

She’s got herself a pretty nice rack there too. I bet that’s one of the fun parts of the switch. I mean, you’re really starting from scratch, so you get to pick whatever kind of tits you want. That would be kind of cool. It looks like she didn’t skimp in that department, though she certainly didn’t go overboard and get some huge, novelty size either. Again, she went with what makes her look most like a woman, not like a caricature of a woman.

Like I say, though, she’s a likable person in general (to me, though apparently not to a lot of people on the Internet). When she tells about herself, I found it easy to empathize. Like when she’s thinking back on her youth, and she says that she’d play little games with herself, like that if she couldn’t run to a certain fence in ten seconds, she’d have to be a girl that night, and then she confesses that if it looked like she was going to make it she’d slow down the last few steps, I couldn’t help smiling at that.

I’m not sure what “being a girl” meant in this context, if she would lock herself in her room that night and dress up like a girl, or she’d lie in bed and allow herself to imagine she was a girl, or what, but it’s a cute, effective story. It conveys what she felt like growing up, and maybe even how it could be scary or confusing, but it does so in a humorous, heartwarming way.

At the end of Prodigal Sons, she resolves things and makes her peace as best she can with Marc and with her past (which means things are resolved only very partially, since this is real life, conveyed realistically). In a nice touch she circles back to that dispute she had had in Croatia with Marc about the photos, and reassesses it now from a distance, better understanding herself and him.

In the end, I wanted nothing so much as to give her a hug, and to express my empathy and support for her on the journey she has chosen, as well as to thank her for the wonderful reminder that when it’s done with such honesty and compassion, documentary filmmaking is an art that can make us think and feel like few others.

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