Trans Ecology and the Transgender Road Narrative
Abstract and Keywords
This article identifies a particular subgenre of the road narrative, the transgender road narrative, analyzing the film Transamerica and the novel Nevada as representative examples. The first part draws on transgender studies scholarship, showing how these texts both depict a long history of trans (im)mobility and engage with the affective geographies of gender transitioning, including the idea of the body as home. The second part draws on ecocriticism and environmental humanities scholarship, comparing how Transamerica and Nevada depict landscapes and environments in relation to trans bodies. This article thus takes this subgenre as an opportunity to explore the intersection of transgender issues and environmental issues and subsequently to develop a new line of inquiry that we might call “trans ecology.” (This article has been commissioned as a supplement to The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism, edited by Greg Garrard.)
- Get your motor runnin’
- Head out on the highway
- Lookin’ for adventure
- And whatever comes our way …
- Like a true nature’s child
- We were born, born to be wild.
—Steppenwolf, “Born to Be Wild” (1968)
Over the past four decades, something we might call the “transgender road narrative” has emerged in contemporary Western art: tales of transsexual, genderqueer, and/or gender-nonconforming persons heading out on the highway and looking for adventure, work, or “themselves.” This subgenre, I propose, includes but is not limited to the US novels Splendora (Edward Swift, 1978) and Nevada (Imogen Binnie, 2013), the US feature films By Hook or By Crook (dir. Harriet “Harry” Dodge and Silas Howard, 2001) and Transamerica (dir. Duncan Tucker, 2005), the US documentary Creature (dir. Parris Patton, 1999), the Australian feature film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (dir. Stephan Elliott, 1994), and the Italian/Spanish feature film Princesa (2001). We might also include tangentially related texts such as the US feature films To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (dir. Beeban Kidron, 1995) and Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker, 2015); the UK/Irish feature film Breakfast on Pluto (dir. Neil Jordan, 2005); and even earlier US road narratives that feature disruptions of gender norms, such as I Was a Male War Bride (Howard Hawks, 1949) or Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959).1
I turn to this subgenre here as a means of engaging with contemporary developments in transgender studies—in particular, the multivalent understanding of trans as moving. The first connotation of trans that I take up in this article is that of spatial movement; as I outline here, the crossing of geographical (and not just gender) borders looms large in transgender representation and discourse. But trans is also moving in the psychosomatic and emotional sense, as scholars such as Lucas Crawford and Eva Hayward have recently insisted; thus, the second connotation I take up is trans as affect. The road narrative is an apt venue for exploring multiple connotations of moving, as it turns on both the geographical movement of characters and their ability to be moved: to undergo spiritual or emotional awakenings and to be awed, along with viewers or readers, by striking natural landscapes. Accordingly, I also take this subgenre as an opportunity to explore the intersection of transgender issues and ecological/environmental issues and thus to help develop a new line of inquiry in ecocriticism and the environmental humanities. Following queer ecology, I call this line of inquiry “trans ecology.”2
The stakes of this work will become clear after the following brief detour into the extensive scholarship on the road narrative, especially the road movie. To begin with, critics seem to agree that the road movie’s roots lie in the genre of the Western—and in many of the imperialist, racist, and conservative values often expressed by that genre.3 But more recent examples have prompted a reevaluation. Now it is suggested that the road movie has “emerged as a genre … broadly critical of society [that] hypothesizes geographical movement as allied to cultural shifts both in America and beyond” (Sargeant and Watson 2000, 6). David Laderman thus finds in the genre as a whole a “dialectical tension between … a rebellious critique of conservative authority and a reassertion of a traditional expansionist ideology” (1996, 41–42). Elaborating on the theme of rebellion, Jack Sargeant and Stephanie Watson remind us that the classic American figure of the outlaw is “clearly echoed within the protagonists of road movies … which [tend to] feature characters who exist on the fringes of society” (2000, 8). But while fringe, the road narrative hero has historically been mainstream in other ways; the genre has “privileged the figure of the young white [heterosexual, cisgender] man in search of himself” (Tincknell 2000, 182)—at least until a notable shift in the 1990s. As Estella Tincknell summarizes, “[t]he seminal Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) … My Own Private Idaho (Gus Vant Sant, 1991) and The Living End (Gregg Araki, 1992) offer narratives in which … the quest for masculine authenticity is replaced by an increasing interrogation of the very basis of gendered identity, desire and sexuality” (184).4 As these observations collectively suggest, the road narrative is a flexible genre that can accommodate a wide variety of characters and concerns.
But whether conservative or rebellious, masculine or feminist, heteroromantic or queer, road narratives seem to share a core set of features. Arguably the most predominant is an allegorical element that parallels the literal journey. Screenwriter Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde) states that “the movement in a road movie is not simply a geographic move, it’s often an interior move within the character” (Wanderlust, 2006), while Tincknell declares that “[t]o be ‘on the road’ is … to be ever in search of an authentic self” (2000, 183).5 Thus, in many if not most road narratives, personal growth and change parallel literal changes in landscape. Another prominent feature of the road narrative is the influence of the past. Brian Ireland observes that “[o]ne unusual aspect of this genre is the lack of back plotting…. [Road movie characters] must forget about their old lives and embrace the new. Many people who set out on the road are trying to escape the past” (2003, 482).6 Relatedly, and finally, as Sargeant and Watson summarize, home in the road movie “can be a place of constraint, hardship and danger from which protagonists must flee … yet the search for home can also be the reason for the quest…. Other road movies see the protagonist searching for a new place that they can call home, but these destinations may be illusions and dreams” (2000, 13).7 Simply put, origins hold a central, but often fraught, status in the road narrative.
One might argue, given this background, that the road movie is a “natural” fit for transgender concerns. Transgender people often live on the fringes of society and the law and are frequently subjected to violence and discrimination.8 In fact, one of the most important texts in the contemporary Western transgender movement, Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us (1994), explicitly invokes that outlaw figure so central to the road narrative. Moreover, due to transphobic structures and discourses that position trans identities and bodies as artificial, derivative, and unnatural, many trans people grapple with the notion of an “authentic self.” Interestingly, the title of trans activist and writer Janet Mock’s best-selling 2014 memoir plays on both “authenticity” and “the road”: Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. Tropes of the road have appeared more broadly across transgender culture, activism, and discourse, such as on Andrea Smith’s self-help-oriented website, Transsexual Road Map. There, we see the allegorical element of the road narrative cropping up: gender transitioning as a “life’s journey.”9 Many transgender people also struggle with their past—including, most fundamentally, the gender imposed upon them at birth—and experience rejection from their family of origin, which often then leads to unstable housing and even homelessness.10 Finally, one could also argue that the transgender road narrative makes perfect cultural-historical sense, as a logical extension of the road narrative’s scope: first straight (white, cisgender) males, then women and queer people, and now transgender people.11
However, I am not interested in mapping out a teleological vision of representation in which transgender people are “finally” included in major media genres, or in which, as Manohla Dargis writes of Thelma and Louise, “tired scenarios and clichéd landscapes are reinvented and resuscitated with fresh perspectives” (quoted in Brereton 2003, 18). I am also not primarily interested in showing how well (or ill) transgender narratives fit into such genres—though, as my comments above suggest, they might fit quite well. To uncritically celebrate the appearance of trans characters and concerns within the road genre would be to ignore the ways in which road narratives may still retain traces of that “traditional expansionist ideology” (Laderman 1996, 41–42) and to ignore how “trans-political projects [may be] mobilized toward neoliberal goals of inclusion, optimization, and incorporation” (Aizura 2012, 136). After all, Ireland’s observation applies quite well to many instances of the transgender road narrative: “East-West movement is the most common direction … in [the road] genre, as travelers follow the traditional route of settlers and American Manifest Destiny” (2003, 475). It is certainly possible, then, that representations of trans characters and concerns may simply constitute new opportunities to articulate “tired scenarios and clichéd landscapes” and revive well-worn aspects of imperialist-frontier mentality.
Thus, I read transgender road narratives not for the purposes of genre criticism, film history, celebration, or reclamation, but rather with a critical eye toward their renditions of movement, in all senses of the term. I focus primarily on Transamerica—in which Bree (Felicity Huffman), a prim, middle-aged, preoperative transgender woman living in Los Angeles takes an East-West road trip with her estranged teenage son (Kevin Zegers)—and Nevada, in which Maria, a disaffected, twenty-nine-year-old, nonoperative transgender woman living in New York City takes an East-West road trip, joining forces with a twenty-year-old named James who shares her struggles with gender identity and emotional disconnection.12 In the first part of this article I bring transgender history to bear on these two texts, showing how they reflect a long tradition of trans lives being shaped by factors of mobility and access. I then turn to recent transgender theory to assess how these texts explore the affective geographies of gender transitioning, including engaging with the idea of the body as a territory to which one longs to “come home.” This section shares the interest in place, corporeality, and affect found in recent ecocritical work.13 In the second and final part of the article I draw more explicitly on ecocriticism, comparing how Transamerica and Nevada depict landscapes and environments in relation to trans bodies. Throughout, I remain skeptical of the “inclusive” promise of the transgender road narrative, highlighting its potential to mainstream the category of trans by linking it to ideologies of Manifest Destiny and mastery over nature. Ultimately, I find a range of possibilities in this subgenre, from movement that reproduces imperialist and neoliberal progress narratives to radically queer movement that refuses to “go somewhere.” This article thus speaks to larger questions in ecocriticism and beyond: how gender, genre, and environment are interrelated; how certain articulations of gender rely on certain generic-narrative conventions; and how gender identities come into being in co-relationship with the more-than-human world.
“Trans Moves Us”: Mobility, Access, and Affect in the Transgender Road Narrative
The term “transgender” itself denotes movement: the prefix trans means to cross. Thus, the term has historically implied a physical and social change from one gender to its “opposite.” But various scholars and activists have criticized that formulation for implying a conventional, binary understanding of gender and imagining gender transitions as having neat beginning and ending points. Several of these scholars and activists have offered alternative denotations and connotations. For Mel Y. Chen, for example, “trans- is not a linear space of mediation between two monolithic, autonomous poles, as, for example, ‘female’ and ‘male’ are…. Rather, it is conceived of as more emergent than determinate, intervening with other categories in a richly elaborated space” (2012, 137).14 Even in these more complex concepts of trans—and even as they tend toward the figurative or theoretical—movement and mobility are still central. Don Romesburg declares that “appreciating how ‘trans moves us’ in both spatial and affective ways opens up transgender embodiment as a series of multidirectional, productive, and creative practices” (2012, 120, quoting Crawford 2008; emphasis added), while A. Finn Enke muses about the prefixial property of “trans” and its generative promise: “With its mobilities, it modifies; it is a motion anticipating a second; it enacts, it continues with a question” (2012, 8; emphasis added). I consider Transamerica’s and Nevada’s respective engagements with movement in the following two subsections, charting, more specifically, whether such movement appears as linear or divergent, unidirectional or multidirectional.
Mobility and Access
For many transgender individuals, self-realization has been achieved by movement across geographical borders, such as to sex reassignment clinics in Europe and Asia. Famously, US veteran Christine Jorgenson traveled to Denmark in the early 1950s to undergo pioneering sex reassignment surgery; as a cringe-worthy joke of the time had it, “Jorgensen went abroad, and came back a broad.” But for many others, geographical movement has been constrained based on matters of identification and documentation, not to mention complicating factors of race, national origin, and class.15 As Susan Stryker tells us:
Since … September 11 … heightened border surveillance, increased attention to travel documents, and more stringent standards for obtaining [new] state-issued identification all have made life more complicated for many transgender people…. [This reality] give[s] transgender people more in common with immigrants, refugees, and undocumented workers than they might have with the gay and lesbian community. (2008, x)
Medical gatekeeping forces often compound things further, establishing strict protocols for acquiring hormones legally, obtaining permission for sex reassignment surgery, and securing other services that would make daily life, as well as geographical movement, easier.16
Both Transamerica and Nevada directly address such issues of mobility and access. Nevada offers occasional, but incisive, critiques of trans immobility and medical gatekeeping. Reflecting on her use of an outdated ID, for example, Nevada’s narrator reports Maria’s complaint that “[i]t’s expensive to get your documents changed, plus you have to go to city hall and be like, I am trans, please put that on a record somewhere” (Binnie 2013, 58). In another passage, filtered through Maria’s consciousness, we hear that
trans women feel like we all have to prove that we’re totally trans as fuck and there’s no doubt in our minds that we’re Really, Truly Trans. It comes from the fact that you have to prove that you’re trans to psychologists and doctors … in order to get any treatment at all. Meaning hormones. It is stupid and there are these hoops you have to jump through, boxes you need to check. (41)
In Transamerica, medical gatekeeping is occasionally criticized but, more important, it’s the machinery that drives the entire plot. After Bree receives a phone call informing her that she has a son, Toby—who, unbeknown to her, she “fathered” pre-transition, and who is now in jail after being arrested for hustling—her therapist refuses to authorize her long-awaited sex reassignment surgery until she deals with this new complication. Distressed, but with little choice, Bree flies from LA to New York to bail Toby out, posing as a Christian missionary to hide her status as both transgender and his parent. The pair then launch out on a cross-country trek in a jalopy purchased from Toby’s roommate. She wants to drop him off with relatives in Callicoon, Kentucky, but he wants to ride all the way to LA, where he hopes to break into the movies and she hopes finally to undergo her surgery.
In the meantime, Bree’s mobility subjects her to (relatively minor) scrutiny and discomfort. A child at an Arkansas diner asks if she’s “a boy or a girl,” and she struggles with the lack of privacy on the road, particularly when it comes to relieving herself—thus illustrating what many gender studies scholars have termed the “bathroom problem,” or the policing of non-gender-conforming bodies as they move through gender-segregated public spaces such as restrooms.17 During a pit stop in New Mexico, Toby accidentally learns that Bree is trans. He shuns her for most of their remaining time on the road and then, after she discloses her status as his parent in Phoenix, disappears entirely. They reconcile only later in LA, after her surgery. Bree’s mobility is thus a complex thing, both rendering her vulnerable and serving as a means to her desired self-actualization. Transamerica, we might say, combines the triumphant and cautionary narratives of transgender im/mobility described above: one can transition in terms of gender and also move across geographical borders, but both processes may be difficult or even dangerous.
Of course, any discussion of mobility and access vis-à-vis the transgender road narrative must take demographic particulars into account. Both Bree and Maria are white, though only Nevada considers how this status offers its protagonist relatively easy mobility and access. For instance, the narrator asks at one point, “Do you think being tall, thin, and white has anything to do with the way you’re treated now? Do you think being thin, dressing okay, and being white had anything to do with it before you transitioned?” (Binnie 2013, 101). Because of the ambiguities of the novel’s narration,18 this question reads as an indictment of Maria’s privilege, but also possibly of that of the reader, the narrator, or even the author. The novel goes further with its social critique: as the narrator observes, Brooklynites such as Maria “grew up middle class, chose a broke-ass bohemian life, and now … can’t afford the comforts they grew up used to. So they’re colonizing th[e]se normal people’s neighborhoods, colonizing their experiences…. It’s pretty gross. Maria’s aware that she’s implicated” (12). While she may occupy an oppressed class in terms of gender, our hipster protagonist enjoys many economic privileges, participating in the processes of gentrification that have driven immigrant and working-class groups out of their historic neighborhoods.
Transamerica, on the other hand, is unconcerned with critiquing white privilege or mobility. It never recognizes, for instance, that Bree’s whiteness offers her at least one initial layer of protection on the road, as well as in daily life. (Bree, for her part, is likewise not “aware that she’s implicated,” to borrow Nevada’s terminology.) Assuming that she “passes” as female—and perhaps even if not—she will be read not as a sex worker, trespasser, or other kind of criminal but as a legitimate citizen who “deserves” the privileges of mobility.19 As Aizura reminds us, “transgender is an identity category whose subjects’ access to freedom will be divided along the cuts of affluence, racialization, gender, and citizenship” (2012, 135), and Bree benefits on most if not all of these counts. A restaurant employee and telemarketer20 who can afford her own (modest) rental house in pricey LA, she decides near the film’s end to finish school and become a teacher. In this sense, the film does indeed seem to subscribe to a kind of Manifest Destiny ideology: Bree goes (back) West to embrace both the gender and social status that she “deserves,” thus corporeally, geographically, and socially enacting a “one-way journey home” (Crawford 2008, 128, drawing on Prosser 1998). Nevada’s westward arc, meanwhile, has Maria slipping further and further away from the American dream: getting fired from her Manhattan bookstore job; losing her apartment when her girlfriend dumps her; and becoming essentially, though somewhat voluntarily, itinerant and homeless.21
Beyond its lack of awareness of race and class privilege, Transamerica engages in rather problematic racial depictions. Thus, despite its “coarse” subject matter,22 we might say that Transamerica follows the more conservative impulses of the road narrative. Perhaps most egregiously, the people of color in the film function primarily to inspire and validate this putatively “artificial” woman with their warm, earthy authenticity. The film’s opening montage, overlaid with a soundtrack of peppy Latin music, shows Bree getting ready to go out: applying makeup, placing inserts into her bra, and slipping a copy of Jacques Maquet’s Civilizations of Black Africa into her bag. Her home, in what is depicted as a predominantly Latino neighborhood, is decorated with African masks and photographs. She also works, rather improbably for a white woman who does not speak Spanish, as a dishwasher in a hole-in-the-wall Latin-Caribbean restaurant.23 The function of these details becomes most clear through two bookending scenes. Near the film’s beginning, two Latino cooks compliment the sexy walk of one of the Latina waitresses while Bree washes dishes in the kitchen. Bree then surreptitiously tries to imitate her walk. Near the end of the film, we see that a postsurgery Bree has been promoted to waitress, even wearing a Mexican peasant blouse. As she returns to the kitchen to pick up an order, the original Latina waitress smiles and holds her young child in the background while the older male cook teaches Bree some Spanish on the fly: “Amo la comida Mexicana [I love Mexican food].” “Amo la comida Mexicana,” Bree dutifully repeats. “Y amo Fernando [And I love Fernando],” the cook playfully instructs. These interactions thus authenticate Bree as a “real” woman: publicly employable, attractive to men, and welcome in this familial atmosphere.24
Moreover, considering that this scene comes just before her declared intention to become a teacher, it reads as if the Latino characters are bestowing a kind of blessing on Bree before she ascends the ranks of white, professional citizenship. But while her linear, one-way gender transition is entwined with her socioeconomic move upward—from dishwasher/telemarketer to waitress to teacher—the characters of color, apparently, will remain in their “natural” roles as lower-class workers.25 The film thus confirms Katie Mills’s sense that “road stories often celebrate white automobility” (2006, 13), in all senses of the phrase. And from this perspective, the film’s title takes on a different gloss: the expansive, universalizing name belies the fact that the neoliberal Transamerican dream, with all its attendant mobilities, is available only to a select few.
Several scholars, including Chen (2012), Crawford (2015), Jeanne Vaccaro (2010, 2015), and me (Seymour 2015), have offered their own unique versions of the idea of trans as affect. Here I place my discussion in the context of “home”—an important emotional locus in the road narrative at large, as I suggested at the outset, and in transgender experience and representation specifically. I begin with the notion of body-as-home. As Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore point out, “the most familiar trope of transgender experience [is] ‘feeling trapped in the wrong body’” (2008, 17). This trope subsequently establishes expectations for one to feel “at home” in one’s body, as well as an understanding of transitioning as a clear-cut, unidirectional process, from the “wrong” body to the “right” one. Stryker, Currah, and Moore praise Crawford’s 2008 essay “Transgender without Organs? Mobilizing a Geo-Affective Theory of Gender Modification” for how it “critically interrogates” the aforementioned tropes, thus “link[ing] the practice of materializing a transgender embodiment with critical practices of deterritorializing that always point toward the horizon of new possibilities, rather than with the sentimentality of ‘going home’” (17). Transamerica, I argue, embraces “the sentimentality of ‘going home’” to one’s body—not to mention one’s family, as I discuss below—while Nevada actively rejects it.
To begin with, Transamerica is designed such that the entire film builds toward Bree’s surgery. In fact, the film on the whole follows two overlapping classical narrative formulae: that of the goal-oriented, individualist protagonist who must vanquish obstacles before achieving that goal, and that of the three-act trajectory of equilibrium/equilibrium disrupted/equilibrium restored. These formulae map nicely onto the dominant transgender narrative, which nostalgically positions the body, or “home,” that one never actually had as both the goal and the thing to be restored (Prosser 1998). Accordingly, Bree’s surgery is treated in a sentimental, nostalgic manner. Lucinda Williams’s soft country ballad “Like a Rose” links shots of Bree accepting her approval paperwork, Bree being wheeled into surgery, Bree recovering in a hospital bed. At the latter point, a nurse gently assures her, “Everything is fine. Your surgery was a complete success”—a phrase, of course, that maintains gender transitioning as determinate and unidirectional. The film compounds these affective appeals by following Bree’s surgery with her reunion with Toby. The last shot of the film is taken from outside Bree’s home, such that we can see the pair talking genially on the couch, but can no longer hear their dialogue. Instead, a Dolly Parton song plays: “I’m out here on my journey / Tryin’ to make the most of it. / I’m a puzzle, I must figure out / Where all pieces fit.” Now that Bree’s “pieces” have finally been put in the right place, the private, biological family can be restored.
In contrast, in Nevada the extremely expensive “bottom surgery” that Bree undergoes is a distant fantasy for Maria. The novel even pokes fun at the surgery trajectory, referring to the cultural cliché in which trans women “save up they [sic] money and get their Sex Change Operations, at which point they become just like every other woman. Or something?” (Binnie 2013, 4). In any case, Maria considers herself long since transitioned. As the narrator summarizes her recent past: “So she figured out that she was trans, told people she was changing her name, got on hormones, it was very difficult and rewarding and painful. Whatever. It was a Very Special Episode” (5). As the reader can see from this sarcastic, antisentimental summary, “[t]he excitement that comes with the beginning of transition has worn off” (132) for Maria. The novel thus implicitly ridicules the fetishization of surgery as the Happily Ever After of trans female existence and casts doubt on the notion that gender transitioning will (necessarily) make one feel at home in one’s body.
Of course, the transgender road narrative understands “home” beyond the corporeal, in the more common sense of a familial/geographical place of origin. This place of origin features prominently in Transamerica. In the film’s third quarter, after a hitchhiker has stolen their car, a kindly Native American man (Graham Greene) takes Bree and Toby to her parents’ house in Phoenix, where we learn that she has long been estranged from them and her sister. After some combative initial interactions, her family finally embraces Bree and gives her the money to fly back to Los Angeles, just in time for her surgery. The biological family thus validates and authorizes trans existence and paves the way for a restoration of the other biological family in question, Bree and Toby. While the film’s emotional trajectory is therefore not entirely linear, looping back as it does to Bree’s roots, it ultimately participates in what Crawford calls the “teleology of coming out and transitioning” (2008, 141), which includes the successful tying-up of all of life’s loose ends.
Maria’s familial home barely figures into Nevada, but it is not a “structuring absence” (Everett 2009, 170) nor the site of any particular trauma. The novel thus defies the axiom that “despite its preoccupation with the journey, [the road narrative] remains nonetheless a genre ‘obsessed with home’” (Everett 2009, quoting Robertson, 170). The narrator and Maria remain blasé about even the most unsavory aspects of her small-town Pennsylvania upbringing: “[W]hen she was seventeen it didn’t seem strange to hang out with, like, a kid who was really into racism and another, a future truck stop mechanic, in a tent, with a ton of flannel and a bottle of Everclear or a dozen hits of acid. In a cow pasture. That was just, like, what you did” (Binnie 2013, 15). Eschewing the road hero’s typically fraught relationship with origins, the novel sidesteps the sentimental concern with home and family that so preoccupies Transamerica. As I describe below, Nevada’s refusal to scorn Maria’s humble place of origin also allows the novel to oppose the antirural attitudes found in so much queer/trans representation, including the transgender road narrative.
We might look at the car itself, that crucial element of the road narrative, as an index of Transamerica and Nevada’s differing affective orientations to “home.” In Transamerica, Bree embarks on a direct route to her urban home base, taking no (intentional) detours. Even her (thwarted) plan to drop Toby off in Callicoon is convenient, as it is “only about 45 minutes out of [the] way.” In contrast, Maria drives aimlessly throughout Nevada, with no fixed destination in sight and no sense that the trip is just a temporary interlude away from her urban home base. She takes random, impulsive detours—first to Star City, Nevada, where she meets and takes under her wing James, a young, genderqueer Walmart employee,26 and then to Reno. We could therefore say that, much like another transgender novel, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Nevada “‘uses the device of the car in movement to render the horizon indeterminate and ever-changing, ensuring a relativity of self whose synthesis of time and space must be forever re-calculated rather than fixed’” (Kore-Schröder, as quoted in Crawford 2015, 175). Nevada “deterritorializes” Maria rather than making her a home-body, as it were. Even the cars’ legal statuses differ in the two texts; in Transamerica, the car in question is paid for by our respectable protagonist, then later stolen by a hitchhiker, while in Nevada, our protagonist steals the car from her respectable ex-girlfriend. Through the car, then, we can see that Nevada imagines trans as a “continu[ous]” (Enke 2012, 8), “multidirectional” (Romesburg 2012, 120), and messy process, rather than the neat, linear line of Transamerica. In the last section, I also consider how Nevada sees trans as an interactive rather than individualist phenomenon. Indeed, interaction with the more-than-human world forms a core aspect of the novel’s vision of trans.
Eco/Trans: Ecocritical Readings of the Transgender Road Narrative
Several scholars have established the ecological/environmental dimensions of the road narrative. Sargeant and Watson, for example, claim that
the mis-en-scène [of a road movie usually] emphasises the vastness of the terrain, not only locating the individual protagonist’s journey within the greater zone of the wilderness, but also allowing the audience the visual pleasure of the spectacle of the landscape, itself a mythical and poetic aspect of the construction of the American identity. (2000, 13)
From a more explicitly environmentalist position, scholars such as Pat Brereton have identified the problems with that very appeal. Brereton argues that “[w]hile [there may be] little overt reference to the politics of ecology [in the road movie], issues like ‘man’s’ legitimacy to own and control the landscape, coupled with an innate urge to explore the human psyche, which involves appropriation of the natural world, remain prevalent” (2003, 91).27 More starkly, Murray and Heumann declare that “constructing the car as a source and symbol of freedom, pleasure, and identity, while drawing on images of an open road built on our drive to move west toward progress”—as happens in many car culture films and much road art in general—“is counter to any truly progressive ecological vision for the future” (2010, 155).
I find the latter claim too stark. Besides being overly simplistic, it fails to consider how visions of mobility might be enticing or at least meaningful to historically oppressed groups—and conversely, how experiences of oppression are often defined by immobility.28 I do, however, share Murray and Heumann’s general interest in probing the ecological dimensions of road art, and more specifically, their suspicion of the association among moving west, individual mobility, “progress,” and “freedom”—a suspicion that has informed my critiques of Transamerica thus far. My goals in this last section, then, are more complicated than declaring transgender road narratives either pro- or anti-ecological. In fact, considering that road art is bound up with both idealizations of the Western environment and Western environmental imperialism, such a declaration would seem impossible. In the next two subsections, instead, I assess how Transamerica and Nevada participate in the streams of environmental thought that wind through both road art and queer/trans art and discourse.
Un/natural Trans? Transamerica, Landscape, and Nature
Transamerica offers us plenty of those landscape views for which the road film is known, even explicitly drawing our attention to these offerings; in an early scene in Kentucky, Bree remarks to Toby, “lovely scenery in this part of the country.” But the film proves itself to be rather conventional yet again, both separating humans from the landscape and engaging with it only to the extent that it is relevant to its human protagonists. For example, it repeats the same two types of composition throughout: long tracking shots that follow the protagonists’ car as it moves across the landscape, and still shots of landscape into which the car immediately enters. Even when humans are not actually visible in the frame, director Tucker keeps us tied to their perspectives. For example, a shot that opens on a Kentucky river turns out to be merely an establishing shot; a sound bridge of someone knocking on a door leads us directly into a scene of human interaction (Bree at Toby’s stepfather’s doorstep). Later, Transamerica presents a distant tracking shot that seems to focus on landscape, but is overlaid with an audio track of the protagonists’ conversation. As this human-centered aural perspective is actually closer than the visual one, we remain, sonically speaking, located not out in the landscape but inside the car. Transamerica thus shows little interest in landscape in and of itself and offers little sense of how it coexists with human technologies and desires.
When Bree does get off the road and outside the car, things do not go terribly well. In a long sequence played for laughs, Bree and Toby camp out by a river. First a mosquito buzzes near Bree’s head and she smacks at it. She then tries to cook some freeze-dried meals but gives up when she realizes they have no matches. She tells Toby, “excuse me, I have to go to the ladies’ room,” but then returns a second later and asks, anxiously, “Do you think there are snakes around here?”29 Bree later complains to her therapist on the phone, “I had to camp out last night. On the ground. WITH BUGS!” Less than demonstrating the risks of travel for trans people, I would argue, this scene serves a rather different, complicated function: paradoxically, it authenticates Bree’s femininity by establishing her as anxiously estranged from nature. That is, this depiction of Bree as unsuited to nature, wilderness, and the outdoors draws on the logic of conventional gender roles to establish her as a natural woman—no coarse lumberjack ready to rough it, but rather a dyed-in-the-wool lady who might balk even at “glamping.”30
Transamerica thus maintains, if subtly, the antirural, urban-centric biases found in much queer/trans art.31 For example, as Tincknell observes, “Both Priscilla [Queen of the Desert] and To Wong Foo[, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar] … contrast the values of urban cosmopolitanism with rural traditionalism, offering versions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ communities in which rural bigotry and sexual repression are transformed by urban liberalism and sexual liberation” (2000, 191). Thus, we find the wacky drag queens and one trans woman of the latter two films sweeping into small towns, doling out makeovers, and generally upending lives for the better. Lest we expect the same of Nevada, our narrator—perhaps even with Priscilla or To Wong Foo explicitly in mind—remarks, “That stereotype about transsexuals being all wild … and, like, engendering in the townsfolk the courage to break free from the smothering constraints of conformity? That stereotype is about drag queens. Maria is transsexual and she is so meek she might disappear” (Binnie 2013, 21). That “born to be wild” stereotype, as it were, and the broader road trip trope of the transformative encounter with the outsider, have so pervaded James’s consciousness that he is deeply disappointed to realize that “this Girl From Somewhere Else [Maria] isn’t going to show him what it means to be cool, or explain the secret of getting out of your shitty home town” (187). James, perhaps, has watched the likes of Priscilla and Too Wong Foo a few too many times.
Similar to Tincknell, Crawford finds that urbanist biases permeate transgender narratives and representations specifically. As he asks:
How might we trouble our certainty that small towns need to be escaped, that less populous cities can never quite do the trick or ever offer us enough tricks, that migrating to big cities is an unproblematically happy experience untainted by culture shock, or that one’s desire to be there is unsullied by contributory conditions such as class or economic need? (2008, 129)
Transamerica, in which Bree moves from city to city and back, with largely uncomfortable interludes between, implicitly participates in these operations, ratifying the “certainty” to which Crawford refers.32 Nevada, on the other hand, refuses to participate in caricatures of rural and small-town life, troubling this “certainty” through Maria’s blasé, anti-elitist attitude. For example, Maria and James first meet at the Walmart because she stopped there in search of a Miranda Lambert CD. As she explains to him, “I’m not some New York jerk who thinks country music”—not to mention shopping at Walmart—“is for yokels or something—I’m into it, I get it” (Binnie 2013, 167–168). And the novel’s very plot—disgruntled trans woman leaves New York City for small-town Nevada—opposes the idea of urban space as GLBTQI refuge. To use Maria’s lingo, her rural hometown sucks, but so does the big city: “[S]he absolutely, completely hates her life in New York” (108). Of course, it’s not New York per se that’s the problem, as Maria eventually acknowledges. Our protagonist’s problems emerge from stagnation and insulation, not location—a perhaps simplistic idea that nonetheless shatters many truisms of the road narrative.
Absent Landscapes: Nevada, Environment, and the West
Binnie’s Nevada, with very few exceptions, avoids direct descriptions of landscape and environment, including built environments. Indeed, it rarely describes anything at all; the omniscient narrator’s efforts are focused primarily on presenting the characters’ internal thoughts. This lack of description would be conspicuous for any novel, but it is particularly conspicuous for a road trip text.33 In fact, the majority of Maria’s trip goes unnarrated; part I ends with her leaving New York City, and part II begins with her already in Star City, Nevada. The only directly narrated, “true” road tripping occurs when Maria and James are together, moving between the fictional Star City and Reno, which seems to be a few hours away. And even these episodes are strikingly devoid of description, almost surrealistically so. For example, when they stop at a “little burrito restaurant” (Binnie 2013, 231) on the way to Reno, we receive no description of the route there, the location, the place itself, or even the people who work there. We see only our two protagonists interacting—or, rather, James’s processing of that interaction: “Maria is already at a table and when he looks over she’s like, Get whatever. I don’t even know what to get, what should I get? And she’s like, Fuckin’ nachos, obviously. So he orders nachos” (232). These tendencies would seem to constitute a flagrant refusal of the fundamental ecocritical/environmentalist insistence that landscapes and environments be depicted and treated as more than just backdrop.34 But the representational lack of landscapes or environments does not necessarily mean a lack of engagement therewith, just as the representational presence of landscapes or environments does not necessarily signal (or encourage) any sort of environmental consciousness or ethics.
I argue, in fact, that Binnie’s absenting of landscape and environment actually has ethical implications. To begin with, while these entities are ostensibly more present in other road narratives, such as Transamerica, they are not necessarily treated as valuable in and of themselves. Indeed, landscape is arguably less valued in the classic road narrative, where it exists largely as a perfunctory inclusion, a self-conscious signal of genre. Nevada, though, refuses to engage in that ritual proffering of “lovely scenery.” Second, the road narrative often idealizes the landscapes of the American West as sites of rejuvenation, self-discovery, and transformation for city folk and other outsider-pilgrims—“utopian space[s] for narcissistic self-fulfillment,” as Brereton puts it (2003, 105). This idealization, arguably, contributes to the broader Western view of nature and wilderness as “out there,” something to be experienced only on special occasions.35 But idealization also writes false histories, not just false presents. In this sense, we might argue that Nevada’s absenting of landscape acknowledges the fact that the open vistas of the road narrative—just like “the West” of the Western genre—no longer exist as such, if they ever did. These genres, as many scholars have suggested, constitute a kind of collective cultural nostalgia. Here, we are not far from that nostalgic “body-as-home” trope; both types of nostalgia emerge from a longing for an ideal that never actually was.36 We might then say that Nevada rescues the more-than-human world from the symbolic and ideological burdens typically placed on it by road art, at the same time that it rescues the trans body from the affective and ideological burdens typically placed on it by dominant discourses around transgender life.
Importantly, then, when landscapes and environments do appear in Nevada, they are not idealized and they appear as nature-culture hybrids. Moreover, Binnie presents them from the perspective of the insider, the local. Such presentation, of course, is atypical for the road genre, which usually hews to the perspective of the outsider-pilgrim. To wit, the novel’s wry introduction to Star City, as focalized through James:
It was a boomtown in the late 1800s … and then everybody realized there was no fucking gold here and left for California. Then nothing happened for a hundred years, it was just a shitty little stream dribbling down between two shitty little mountains until … the mid-nineties, when the Wal-Mart corporation saw an opportunity for brand infiltration and blew a hole in the side of one of the mountains and put a little bridge across the middle of the parking lot so the stream could run through the middle and differentiate the Star City Wal-Mart from every other Wal-Mart in the country that doesn’t have a stupid fucking stream running through it. He actually kind of likes the stream. (2013, 137)
As James concludes, via the narrator, “mostly what they have is dirt and dust and nothing and majestic boring vistas” (138; emphasis added). This introduction thus undercuts the potential idealization and romanticization of the outsider-pilgrim (in this case, Maria, as well as, arguably, the reader). The novel’s only other extensive description of natural landscape is quite similar. When Maria and James arrive at a casino on the outskirts of Reno,
they’re parking in this sprawling parking lot in the shadow of a mountain that’s been blasted out to make room for the highway…. [I]t’s not really shady yet, but you can tell that the mountain is to the west of the casino so that when the sun even starts to go down there’ll be shade. There are RVs at one end of the parking lot and you can feel the air conditioning blasting out the door of the casino. (238–239)
This passage, like the previous one, is sensitive to issues of environmental modification, but is no pastoral lament. Indeed, our protagonists are clearly implicated in the histories of this landscape: Maria has been driving these highways, and she and James are gambling at that casino, just as he works at Walmart and she shops there. The novel thus portrays the West, and Nevada in particular, not as a pristine space apart from humans, but as a place where humans and natural landscape have long interacted and shaped each other, for better and worse. In fact, Binnie’s idiosyncratic description blurs the lines between epistemologies of the natural environment and those of the built environment: “[I]t’s not really shady yet, but you can tell that the mountain is to the west of the casino.” In this deeply ambivalent portrayal, I argue, is an important reminder that we never stand fully outside the systems we might critique; the novel offers us no Archimedean point of view from which to view the world.
I want to claim, finally, that the blank-slate setting of the novel offers a powerful commentary on our protagonists’ alienation. As our narrator tells us early on, Maria is “emotionally closed off and has … trouble having any feelings at all” (5). Throughout the course of the novel, she struggles to uncover why she is the way she is, eventually concluding that the coping mechanisms she needed to survive pre-transition (hiding her “true nature” from family and friends and retreating into herself) and later to actually transition (a stoic façade of individualist bravado) are in fact working against her posttransition, preventing her from opening up to others. To put it one way, Maria’s existence has been anti-ecological, in the sense that she has eschewed deep relationships with other beings and with her surroundings. Maria subsequently latches onto James—who finds himself at an even earlier point in the same struggles—as an opportunity to both finally open up and move beyond herself. For Binnie, this plot development also provides another opportunity for a darkly comic takedown of road trip tropes: “I’m gonna go talk to that girl and tell her that she’s a girl,” Maria resolves in the Walmart parking lot after meeting James, “and we’ll talk and she’ll cry and I’ll set her up a livejournal so she can sort through all her feelings and then I’ll leave and totally learn something about myself, too” (176–177). Maria clearly does learn something about herself over the course of the novel. But things do not go as smoothly with James as she (sarcastically?) imagines. After a few days of her fumbling attempts at mentorship, he leaves Maria in a Reno casino. In the novel’s last scene, we find him back in Star City, suppressing his genderqueer feelings and having sex with his girlfriend.
Thus, Nevada does not track an individual journey of gender transformation or even personal/emotional/spiritual transformation, as Transamerica does, but rather the formation of a web of interconnected, mutually affecting and sustaining lives—or, more properly, the impediments to such formation.37 If we return to the scene at the burrito place, we can see more clearly what all this has to do with the question of environment. James’s anxiety, which is surely internal but also externally imposed by a transphobic world, prevents him from actually seeing his surroundings: “As soon as he gets inside what he’s thinking about is, like, I wonder if these people working here can tell that Maria is trans. And like, if they can … then they must know that I’m like, whatever the fuck I am…. Who knows. But he can’t even focus on the menu above the counter. He’s like, I know these words, but am I even hungry?” (232; emphasis added). James can’t parse his own physiology (“Am I even hungry?”), much less his physical surroundings (“can’t even focus on the menu above the counter”). Through its sparse and sometimes disorienting settings, I argue, Nevada articulates its protagonists’ difficulties with connecting to the outside world—which, as Binnie implies, is part and parcel of connecting to oneself. In other words, Nevada characterizes Maria’s and James’s alienation from the outside world, mirrored in the novel’s own style, as a particular problem—rather than, as in Transamerica, a logical extension of an anthropocentric, urbanist perspective. The absent landscapes of Nevada, then, invoke an ecological, transcentric, and interactive worldview that has yet to actually come into being.
While my primary concern here has not been genre criticism, this article has nonetheless been interested in Katie Mills’s question, “How does the road story … offer certain subcultures at key junctures in American social and technological progress a pretext for revising, remapping, or reimagining the narrative of that group’s autonomy and mobility?” (2006, 8; emphasis added). I have critiqued that question itself—or, at least, how neoliberal and neocolonial views of mobility, autonomy, self-reliance, and progress (common, if not inherent, to the road narrative) have joined up with the category of trans. I have also shown how the transgender road narrative as a genre is uniquely positioned to help us think “trans” alongside “ecology,” “nature,” “environment,” and “landscape”—even, and maybe especially, when the text in question disavows the connections thereof. In attending to this genre, then, I have demonstrated what a trans ecology lens might allow us to see. Finally, I have shown how the transgender road narrative allows us to parse the shifting connotations of trans found in contemporary discourse, and, conversely, how these connotations allow us to see the differing theoretical and political positions articulated by various texts within this subgenre.
Toward that end, I have found two seemingly similar texts, Duncan Tucker’s road trip film Transamerica and Imogen Binnie’s road trip novel Nevada, to be different in crucial respects. Transamerica, as I have argued, offers rather well-worn “mappings and imaginings,” insisting on (white) transgender upward mobility, autonomy, and urbanity as manifest destinies, and gender transitioning as a one-way ticket. Nevada more radically, but also more ambivalently, imagines trans as a (sometimes-failed) experiment in interconnectivity and multidirectionality—corporeally, geographically, and emotionally. It offers subtle critiques of the superficial, anthropocentric ways in which landscape has functioned in road narratives and other representations of the American West.38 These critiques, as I have insisted, cannot be separated from the novel’s skewering of the progress narrative found in Transamerica—in which surgery always makes things better, the city will ultimately save you, and all roads, whether literal or figurative, lead in only one direction.
This article benefited from a writers’ retreat with former grad school compatriots, as well as a brief stint as a visiting scholar at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. Thanks to Katherine Fusco, Arielle Helmick, Christof Mauch, and Robert J. Watson for their support.
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(1) To Wong Foo and Priscilla, which are often compared to one another, focus more on drag queens than on transgender women. Priscilla features two drag queen characters (Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving) and one transgender woman character (Terence Stamp) who travel the Australian outback. In To Wong Foo, three drag queens hit the US highway and wind up in a small town. As I show, Binnie’s Nevada parodies aspects of both films.
Tangerine and Breakfast on Pluto focus on transgender female characters, but are road trip narratives only in the very broadest sense. Tangerine, a picaresque day in the life of street prostitutes in Los Angeles, follows Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) as she travels throughout the city, looking for the woman with whom her boyfriend cheated on her. The fantastical, episodic Breakfast on Pluto depicts the coming-of-age of transgender woman Kitty Braden (Cillian Murphy), including her move from small-town Ireland to Dublin in search of her mother.
(2) As Catronia Sandilands observes, “ecofeminism and environmental justice open our eyes to the fact that nature organizes and is organized by complex power relations”—including hierarchies of gender, race, and class. “What queer ecology adds,” she continues, “is the fact that these power relations include sexuality” (2005, n.p.). Queer ecology scholarship thus examines, to take just one example, the ways in which homophobic discourse appeals to ideas about what is “natural” for humans. Thus far, queer ecology scholarship has paid attention primarily to queer/non-normative sexuality, but not queer/non-normative gender. I therefore see trans ecology as a line of inquiry affined with, but distinct from, queer ecology. But beyond queer/non-normative gender as a particular experience or embodiment, a theory of trans ecologies might also consider the larger and more elastic conceptions of “trans” proposed by scholars such as Mel Y. Chen (2012); A. Finn Enke (2012); and Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore (2008), and the ecological/environmental implications of those conceptions.
This piece is one of several efforts on my part to undertake such work and to thereby develop a theory of trans ecologies. The other efforts include “Alligator Earrings and the Fish Hook in the Face: Tragicomedy, Transcorporeality, and Animal Drag,” which appeared in Transgender Studies Quarterly 2, no. 2, and “Transgender Environments,” which will appear in the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Gender and Environment (ed. Sherilyn MacGregor).
I should note here that the phrase “trans ecologies” has already begun to circulate in scholarly channels. The earliest use I have found comes from a January 2014 call for papers for a conference organized by Harlan Weaver and Veronica Sanz. Oliver Bendorf also employs the phrase in his May 2014 keyword article for Transgender Studies Quarterly, “Nature.” More broadly, scholars such as Eva Hayward, Wan-Chuan Kao, Bailey Kier, Michael Mlekoday, Jeanne Vaccaro, and Jami Weinstein have recently considered how “trans” intersects with animality and other biotic categories.
(4) As Katie Mills points out, however, women played pivotal, though not necessarily feminist, roles in road movies much earlier than the 1990s. As she claims, “the New Hollywood [of the 1970s] depended utterly upon the road genre and the appeal of female automobility, as had many drive-in films produced by American International Pictures” (2006, 134). Her examples include The Rain People (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1969), Badlands (dir. Terrence Malick, 1973), Paper Moon (dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 1973), and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (dir. Martin Scorcese, 1974). We might also include Bonnie and Clyde (dir. Arthur Penn, 1967).
(5) Similarly, Sargeant and Watson observe that “[t]he road trip is as much an internal voyage as an external geographical movement, the inner voyage providing a ‘new frontier’” (2000, 10), while Brereton states that “[t]he road and its destination become a metaphor for life itself” in the road film (2003, 112).
(6) Drawing on broader histories of the car and America from Baudrillard and other thinkers, Robin Murray and Joe Heumann similarly declare, “The present passed by the vehicle and the past the vehicle leaves behind are seemingly erased, in favor of a future that signifies progress” (2010, 158).
(7) Critics such as Tincknell and Wendy Everett agree. Tincknell tells us that “[e]arly road movies of the ’30s and ’40s [The Wizard of Oz, It Happened One Night, the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope road pictures, etc.] tended to trace a journey in which the flight from home was also a journey back there, emphasising the importance of the individual’s relationship to a broader community” (2000, 183), while Everett, drawing on Pamela Robertson, declares, “the trope of the road depends upon home as a structuring absence” (2009, 170).
(8) For a concise history of the criminalization of transgenderism, see Susan Stryker’s Transgender History (2008). On anti-trans violence, see, for example, the Trans Women’s Anti-Violence Project (http://transfeminism.tumblr.com/on_violence_against_trans_women).
(9) See http://www.tsroadmap.com/index.html. Several other scholars have written about the relationship among transgenderism, mobility, migration, and movement as it appears across transgender life writing, political discourse, and other sites. See, for example, Aizura (2012), Crawford (2015), Prosser (1998), and Romesburg (2012). Prosser declares that the “metaphoric territorializing of gender and literal territorializations of physical space have often gone hand in hand” (1998, 171). Trystan R. Cotten’s recent edited collection Transgender Migrations: The Bodies, Borders, and Politics of Transition (2011) includes Aizura’s essay, “The Persistence of Transgender Travel Narratives,” while The Transgender Studies Reader 2 (2013) features a subsection titled “Going Somewhere: Transgender Movement(s).” I draw, and build, on much of that scholarship in this essay. However, I am concerned more specifically with the artistic representation of these issues and with the ecological and environmental dimensions of such representation. To my knowledge, very little, if anything, has been written on the aforementioned, or on the transgender road narrative as such.
(11) The road movie has historically, but not exclusively, been a white-centric genre. Important exceptions include Powwow Highway (dir. Jonathan Wacks, 1989), Get on the Bus (dir. Spike Lee, 1996), and Smoke Signals (dir. Chris Eyre, 1998).
(13) See, for example, Heather Houser’s Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) or Alexa Weik von Mossner’s edited collection Moving Environments: Affect, Emotion, Ecology, and Film (Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2015).
(15) In the fictional realm, Leslie Feinberg’s semiautobiographical novel Stone Butch Blues (1993) memorably depicts its protagonist’s struggles with US–Canada border control, when Jess Goldberg presents documents that don’t seem to match hir gender presentation. (Feinberg elsewhere proposed “ze” and “hir” as gender-neutral pronouns.)
(16) For an extensive history of medical gatekeeping, see Sandy Stone’s “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” To give a recent example of trans (im)mobility: the ordeal of an African American transgender woman named Meagan Taylor became headline news in summer 2015. After traveling from her home in Illinois, Taylor was arrested in an Iowa hotel on (unfounded) suspicion of prostitution and charged with possessing hormone medication without a prescription and using a false name—one that matched her identity, but not her official ID. After being held in solitary confinement for several days, Taylor was released thanks to a social media outcry. See http://www.advocate.com/transgender/2015/07/23/freed-iowa-jail-black-trans-woman-meagan-taylor-speaks.
(17) See http://www.slideshare.net/faraziqbal7/the-bathroom-problem-2-1. The “bathroom problem” became part of the U.S. national conversation in early 2016, when North Carolina mandated that trans people use the bathroom corresponding to the gender assigned them at birth. See http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/public-bathroom-regulations-could-create-a-title-ix-crisis. Nevada cheekily references this problem at one point, when James thinks “about how if you wanted to make a big boring metaphor about who goes into which bathroom at this stupid gas station you could, but he doesn’t even want to think about it so he locks himself in the men’s room, packs a bowl, and blazes up. Whatever” (Binnie 2013, 220).
(18) For one thing, the novel regularly switches between the third person (“Maria,” “she”) and the second person (“you”). Sometimes “you” is the reader; sometimes it is a generic referent similar to “one” (“one would think that …”); sometimes it refers to Maria; sometimes it is used by Maria to refer to herself; and sometimes it invokes all of these connotations at once.
(20) In an early scene, we watch Bree make several telemarketing calls. Strangely, this job seems to invert reality; she calls people with Asian and African names (“Bhumibol Niratpattanasani,” a Thai name, and “Jamal Niang,” a Senegalese name), whereas in real life, much telemarketing and telephone customer service work has been outsourced to the Global South.
(21) As the narrator observes, in a moment of political correctness that verges on self-parody, “You could be melodramatic and say: just like that Maria Griffiths is homeless and unemployed in New York City. The reality though is that she has a bunch of places to crash, so it would be appropriative to call herself homeless” (Binnie 2013, 106).
(22) While I do not have space to discuss it here, the film positions Toby, rather graphically, as queer. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, we see Toby both make out with girls and engage in sex work with men, including prostitution and pornographic acting.
(23) Dishwashers are overwhelmingly Latino, male, and Spanish speaking, according to labor statistics. See, for example, the report “Working in the Shadow of Prosperity” at http://ww1.insightcced.org/uploads/publications/wd/working%20in%20the%20shadow%20of%20prosperity.pdf. In 2008 filmmaker Carlos Alazraqui played on this reality with the satirical mockumentary short, The Last White Dishwasher.
(24) Native Americans in Transamerica seem to serve a similar function as Africans and Latinos: to assist our white transgender protagonist and confer authenticity and “naturalness” on her, and to be discarded thereafter. In New Mexico, for instance, Bree and Toby meet Calvin Many Goats (Graham Greene), a horse trader and the first man who indicates romantic interest in Bree; he allows them to stay on his ranch and gives them a ride to Arizona. Though Calvin asks Bree to look him up if she’s ever back in New Mexico—and though she seems flattered—he never reappears in the film. Interestingly, the authentication this character offers seems to extend to Toby as well. Initially, before he realizes that Bree is his parent, Toby harbors a fantasy that his “real dad” is out there somewhere and also happens to be part Native American. While only Bree and the audience are privy to this fantasy, Calvin miraculously tells Toby upon meeting him, “You got a Cherokee look about you.” Calvin even gives Toby a memento when they part: “[T]his [cowboy hat] used to belong to a real good friend of mine. He was a champion in the all-Indian rodeo circuit. Now you’re a warrior.” When Bree and Toby reunite at the film’s end, Bree gives him this hat, which he had left behind. Calvin Many Goats, not only Native American but close to the earth in his daily work as well as name, thus authenticates both members of this otherwise “unnatural” white family (transgender parent, queer son).
Earlier, in a rare depiction of our protagonists outside in the open air, pausing at a set of boulders near a small lake, Bree tells Toby and the hitchhiker they’ve just picked up—another classic road trip trope—that “[m]any societies throughout history have honored and revered transgender people. The Zulu, the Yoruba. The Native Americans called us two-spirit people.” Bree hereby tries to legitimate herself by appealing to an authentic, “natural” identity originating with people of color and not rooted in the modern world. Indeed, we might note here how her grammar—“The Native Americans called us two-spirit people”—relegates indigenous peoples to the past. While this naturalization may seem to be at odds with Bree’s separation from nature—described later in this essay—it seems that Bree only values the naturalizing cache of the indigene to the extent that it will validate her. It should be noted that such appeals to older traditions of transgenderism can be found throughout transgender discourse and art, though they are not always as problematic as I find them here. See, for instance, my discussion in Strange Natures (Seymour 2013).
(25) Bree’s therapist, we might note, is also Latina. While she is therefore of course a professional, and most likely a US citizen, she serves the same function as the immigrant workers at the Mexican restaurant: as a facilitator for the white protagonist’s journey.
(26) Following Binnie, I use male pronouns for James.
(27) As Brereton points out, further, “this growing endorsement of self-discovery and freedom [in the road movie has been] continually explored from a male narcissistic point-of-view, resulting in regression to a warm, comforting (maternal) environment in the face of the constraints of modern human existence…. [F]or the rugged individualist or western hero his environment is ‘an empty wilderness to be shaped by his own design’” (2003, 105, quoting Christopher Lasch).
(28) Murray and Heumann (2010), rather problematically, complain that the Fast and Furious film franchise’s “progressive” twist of a multicultural cast is not matched by a display of progressive ecological values. As I have suggested above, “mobility” cannot mean the same thing for oppressed subjects as it does for privileged subjects—thus, any impulse to celebrate “mobility” tout court must be nuanced and qualified. See Mills (2006) for a more nuanced discussion of the relationship between historically marginalized groups and representations of mobility.
(29) Tucker then cuts directly to a shot of her beating the ground with a stick and repeating, “Get away, snake! Get away, snake!” We can only guess that Toby, as a kind of prank, has instructed her to do this. This scene is reminiscent of a moment from the original film version of The Parent Trap (dir. David Swift, 1961), when sisters Susan and Sharon trick their glamorous and malicious stepmother-to-be Vicky into using “an old Indian guide” method for scaring off mountain lions: hitting two sticks together.
(30) Strangely, though, Bree does display some knowledge of landscape. When Toby asks what she studied at college, she lists several subjects, including cultural anthropology and archaeology. She then swerves to avoid some roadkill, muttering, “Yuck”—upon which Toby mumbles, “Possum,” then, jokingly, “Biology.” Bree then launches into a lecture: “80 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period, these plains were the floor of a huge inland sea.” As she utters this line, the camera briefly pans to the side, showing the outside of the window, before the film cuts to a shot inside the car. She continues: “It cut the entire continent in two. Dinosaurs lived on either side. Then a huge meteor struck the earth. Some people say that’s why the dinosaurs went extinct. But why should the insects, birds, and mammals have survived?” “Why?” Toby obliges. “I don’t know, but it’s always seemed a bit fishy to me,” Bree responds. “Did you know they found giant shark remains in the middle of Kansas?” We could read this conversational set piece as an indirect jab at the scientific authority that manages history, nature, and trans people—“people say that’s why the dinosaurs went extinct”—or as a commentary on the changeability of nature—“these plains were [once] the floor of a huge inland sea”—but Tucker otherwise gives us no particular clues to its import. What is plain is that our transgender protagonist’s experience and interest in the nonhuman world extends only as far as book learning. This conversation recapitulates an earlier one in the film, in which Bree demands, “What is that awful sound?” When Toby replies, “It’s a loon,” Bree discourses on the symbolic mythology of the bird.
(31) See Scott Herring’s Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (New York: NYU Press, 2010) for a broader discussion of this issue.
(32) Toby’s Kentuckian stepfather, in a stereotypical caricature of rural “white trash” masculinity, turns out to be a violent child molester, motivating Bree to keep Toby with her. Likewise, the husband of one of the townswomen in To Wong Foo is violently abusive—only getting his comeuppance thanks to the drag queens.
(33) While of course the road novel cannot capture images of landscape (or of anything else) in the same way that the road film can, description is nonetheless the bread and butter of much fictional literature.
(34) While this insistence can be found, implicitly or explicitly, in much ecocritical work, one of its earliest assertions appears in the introduction to Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm’s The Ecocriticism Reader (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).
(35) See William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), Jenny Price’s essay “13 Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.” (The Believer, April 2006), and many other scholars for history and criticism of this view. Price’s essay shows how nature undergirds every aspect of our mundane urban lives.
(36) To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that transgender people are under some sort of delusion about their identities. I merely wish to point out how these nostalgic ways of thinking construct certainties about both the body and environment that make for a very narrow set of narratives and, thus, lived possibilities.
(37) While Toby is not dispensable in Tucker’s film, Transamerica is undeniably Bree’s story. We should also note here that Bree has few interpersonal connections other than her biological family members and her therapist. When she and Toby stop for the night at the Dallas home of one of her “associates,” a trans woman who is, unexpectedly, hosting several trans women and one trans man for a party, Bree is embarrassed by these people and apologizes to Toby. The film never identifies Bree’s isolation as a problem, seeing the biological family (and the surgically altered self) as a fully adequate substitute for peers, friends, and partners. In contrast, Nevada’s Maria has a girlfriend and several trans friends, but, as described above, finds emotional intimacy to be a problem—a problem that she, and the novel, find worthy of addressing.
(38) We might find in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop an interesting antecedent to Nevada; the 1971 film rejects “the lessons” of the road and the valorization of the urban over the rural. It also refuses to “end” except in destruction; the film stock itself burns up, in a Godardian gesture.