Gender Calamity/Gender Possibility: Calamity Jane (1953)

The 1953 musical western Calamity Jane follows an ostensibly heteronormative narrative trajectory in which we see two rebellious young women being tamed and made ready for heterosexual marriage. Wild tomboy and stagecoach guard, “Calam” (Doris Day), gets a makeover and learns how to be a woman, while aspiring burlesque performer, Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), gives up on her dreams of being on stage for the love of a man. But this surface narrative is in constant tension and conflict with the film’s high camp celebration of queer rebellion and non-normative desire which conveys an alternative story that, as Eric Savoy argues, questions “the possibility, or even the desirability of a coherent gender role” (151) or, for that matter, the very existence of “true”, or fixed identities.

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Transphobia in the film ‘A Mighty Wind’

I’ve been in the mood for silly films recently, so the other night we sat down to watch Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind, a mockumentary about 1960s folk bands reuniting for a tribute concert.  It wasn’t as good as Spinal Tap, but it was quite fun and a gentle comedy. I didn’t like all the jokes, but that’s the case with every comedy film and I don’t need humour to be totally in line with my politics at all times.  However, right at the end of the film, something happens that’s much more problematic when, in a nasty cheap-shot, Guest suddenly inflicts a transphobic joke on the audience.

One of the bands featured in the film is called The Folksmen and their bassist, played by Harry Shearer, has a very deep baritone singing voice.  At the end of the film we revisit the bands after the concert and find that Shearer’s character is now in the process of transitioning.  The joke, of course, is based on the idea that Shearer looks funny dressed in women’s clothes and that the character is still playing with the band and still has a very deep voice which we’re obviously supposed to agree is hilarious.  The message here that transitioning is inherently funny is bad enough, but the voice joke seems extra mean when, for trans people, being misgendered on the basis of voice can be extremely distressing.

As someone who experienced bullying on the basis of my gender presentation at school (are you a boy or a girl?) and who now sometimes gets mistaken for male (which, frankly, scares me), I experienced this scene as a slap in the face, so I hate to think how upsetting it could be for a trans person.

Julia Serano talks about the film in her book Whipping Girl, which I haven’t read yet, but found this quote in which she identifies Shearer as the stereotype of the “pathetic” transsexual who isn’t deluding anyone: “The intense contradiction between the “pathetic” character’s gender identity and her physical appearance is often played for laughs—as in the transition of musician Mark Shubb (played as a bearded baritone by Harry Shearer) at the conclusion of 2003’s A Mighty Wind.”

It’s the kind of joke that can be understood as a Microaggression, something that a lot of people would insist is “not a big deal” and should be laughed off, but when taken in the wider context of the way power and privilege play out, it is a big deal.