Published: June 1, 2013 By

Affect is not an expression of transsexuality but is, rather, the definitive condition of it.
--Lucas Cassidy Crawford, “Transgender Without Organs?”

Transsexuality offers a dramatic instance of the temporal instability of the flesh. 
It sets embodiment in motion.                           
--Susan Stryker, “Transsexuality: The Postmodern Body and/as Technology.”

[1] No body seems to fire the postmodern cultural imaginary quite like the transgender body. As Judith Halberstam has noted, “The body in transition indelibly marks late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century visual fantasy” (76). Transgender bodies and lives are increasingly available for consumption in Western literature, film, televisual media, and in virtual spaces across the internet. We should be careful, however, in assuming that this proliferation of signs indicates a movement toward transgender equality. While transitional and non-conforming bodies may momentarily deconstruct the fiction of static gendered categories, transgender representation may also be manipulated to enforce these categories and to shore up their “ongoing foundational power” (Prosser, Second 11) through a proliferation of what Sara Ahmed has termed “straightening devices” (Queer 92). As bodies commonly imagined to be in migration between discrete and opposing genders, transsexual and transgender bodies “evoke tropes both of boundary crossing and the power of boundaries to (re)inscribe norms” (Alexander 71). The increasing popularity of transgender narrativity indicates the unacknowledged struggle operating at the heart of gender’s intelligibility: if most of us struggle to maintain the illusion of a consistent and perceivable gender (Bornstein 65), then trans bodies reveal the social processes that produce gender even as they may reassure us that one can “come home to” or “arrive at” one’s true gender in the end.

[2] This article seeks to explore the ways in which “transness”--transsexuality and the broader category of “transgender” as a multivalent and politicized term collecting multiple forms of transitional, medically transitioned, and non-conforming genders--is becoming popularly consumed in North American visual culture. In popular visual texts, transgender difference is commonly reduced to an experience of prescribed affect: the trans body is fashioned as one that “feels bad”—a dysphoric body. “Dysphoria” indicates a state of unease or general dissatisfaction, and the term is used to classify anxiety and mood disorders by the American Psychiatric Association, among other organizations. The 2013 revision to the APA’s DSM V proposes to reclassify “gender identity disorder” as “gender dysphoria”--a change that increasingly defines trans identification as an emotional disorder, typified by a specific “aversive emotional component” that constitutes a juridical form of stigmatization for transgender people (“Rationale”). In Western culture, explanations for transgender identity increasingly entrench transness as mode of feeling, and “fixing” trans difference is understood as fixing the problem of how trans people feel—and make others feel—about their corporeality.

[3] Trans difference has been typified in Western culture as a question of “feeling bad” about one’s body or gender, particularly because transness itself has no as-yet discovered biological etiology. In both medical and fictional literature, transgender identity has been sutured to specific forms of negative affect--rage, sorrow, wishfulness, denial--as both “instrument[s] of pathologization" (Butler 76)  and expressions of what is imagined to be an inherently dysphoric ontology. The fictional transgender figure has traditionally been marked as vulnerable to or productive of extreme emotional states, portrayed either as the emotive center of a narrative (The Crying Game), as disturbed, erratic, or unstable (Silence of the Lambs, Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives), or psychotically violent (Dressed to Kill, Sleepaway Camp).  In what follows, I examine millennial film and television products that mobilize sympathetic identification to produce the “moving body” of what I argue is an emerging transnormative subject position. The “moving body” I hope to describe is an innovation in the history of transgender representation: a body that journeys from negative to redemptive affect, from psychosis to mental health, from self-hatred to a celebration of liberal individuality, from a position of political mourning to one of requited “national love” (Ahmed, The Cultural 131).

[4] The hegemonic utility of this transmigratory “journey” as a literary and more recently a cinematic and televisual trope is not necessarily about the civil rights or social equality of trans people, but about the production and consumption of texts that arrange and validate an optimistic liberalism that nonetheless excuses continuing conditions of transgender unfreedom and material inequality. In attempting to achieve a liberal pedagogy around the “problem” of transgender subjectivity, popular texts carve an emotive channel through which the sympathetic audience might “be moved” to consume and thereby discharge the threat of transgender difference. Seeking to incorporate transgender identity into the universalizing narrative of liberal democratic progress, new popular texts employ specific conventions that aim to move the viewer into a sympathetic dysphoric experience--what might be called a prosthetic “transgender gaze” (Halberstam 77) effected through a visual rhetoric of transgender pathos and sympathetic audience identification. These texts offer the audience new styles of ideal citizenship that extend imaginary forms of democratic justice to the dysphoric trans body through the manufacture of compulsory emotion. Two notably mainstream examples of this narrative process, Transamerica and Degrassi:The Next Generation, provide popular, profitable, and culturally resonant examples of a shift in trans representation: they affectively move their audiences to sympathy while symbolically moving the transgender figure from the total margin of society to the heart of the nation.

[5] In popular aesthetic discourses, the recognition of trans difference has been sutured, through the mechanism of sympathetic exchange, to the symbolic display of dysphoric feeling. Aesthetic genre devices that stand in for the verbal expression of dysphoria sympathetically “move” the audience to recognize and consume trans pathos by witnessing the dismissal of the transgender subject’s deeply felt, yet “incorrectly” gendered reality. I will specifically discuss three symbolic representations of dysphoria--the geographical transmigration, the exposure scene, and the mirror scene--as they are deployed by popular media to generate liberal sympathies for transgender difference. The manufacture of sympathy is a classical element of moving literature and film, but takes on specific political implications in relation to the pathologized position of trans people in society. Franco Moretti’s description of the sympathetic appeal, which European drama has classically used to produce tears in the audience, also works as an uncanny expression of transgender affect:

…what has taken place in “moving” literature? […]  Facts and values no longer coincide. Indeed, the diversification of values starts up a mechanism of action and reactions that quickly reaches a point of no return. Only then is the original truth-morality restored and the discrepancy in points of view reconciled. But it is too late. A universal consensus has been re-established, but to no avail. Even if everybody is now in a position to share the same values, nothing guarantees any longer that they can materialize in the world, that they can turn into facts. (161)

Moretti’s description of a tragic aesthetic in which “facts and values no longer coincide” also describes the dysphoric body, in which emotional and physical realities, individual and social interpretations of gender, can never be aligned. In literature and film, the trans body is traditionally a tragic or melancholic body precisely because its gendered feelings cannot materialize in the world, cannot “turn into facts.” Trans bodies are coded as occupying a tragic or “moving” temporal register, in which their desires do not match the timeline for normative gender development and its cultural affirmation: dysphoric feeling is classically tragic because it cannot be turned to any productive use, because it comes “too late” and therefore produces a feeling of “if only.” Liberal, “positive” representations of transness therefore require the resolution of dysphoric feeling through the fabrication of a “universal consensus” that sympathetically discharges dysphoric feeling and seamlessly folds the trans body back into the democratic community. Only then can the narrative text produce the sense of optimistic expectation that the audience associates with a “happy ending.”  

[6] Without a pedagogical appeal to the audience to look past the body to the “true self” of the trans subject, there is no discernible difference between representations of drag and trans difference in popular narrative media. While drag celebrates artifice and deconstructs “authentic,” essentialized gender positions, mainstream trans representation often calls for a reversal of drag’s postmodern force, claiming an ontological sense of gender that is innate, yet unembodied--that is felt and can only be expressed in symbolic language. Stories of achieved legitimacy, restored community, and a “coming home” to the body have come to typify the transgender narrative in millennial televisual and cinematic discourses. The transgender figure is moved out of dysphoric affect and toward a place of authenticity that mimetically resolves the problem of trans difference in American society. While challenging normative assumptions about the morphological origin of gender in order to admit the possibility of trans identification, these texts nearly always end with a reinforcement of a binary system of gender, which operates as a form of narrative resolution. There can be no other imagined end to the story of being transgender if the “journey,” the process of coming home to a readable and binary gender, can never be completed and put to rest.

[7] Much academic and journalistic criticism has been directed at arguably trans films such as The Silence of the Lambs, The Crying Game, and Boys Don’t Cry, which capitalize on the narrativization of transgender difference in order to increase their capacity for both thematic complexity and tragedy. In each of these films, the trans figure inhabits the limit of both the national and the human body, enriching textual elements of deception, exclusion, violence, and terror. Much less critical attention has been paid to more recent texts that seek in various ways to fold the project of transgender equality into the already-established model of gay and lesbian liberation-style politics and representation. The political utility of transgender representation shifts here: from the more classical motif of tragic exclusion and expulsion to a new register in which the trans subject occupies a salvational position as the “subject of true feeling” through which the “tactical use of trauma” is used to describe the effects of social inequality (Berlant 108). A vestibular process begins to emerge around the normative transgender figure, which is emptied of its negativity and fashioned into a sanguine receptacle that carries forward the liberal democratic project. The liberated trans subject supplies the affective matrix for a new form of ideal citizenship that the audience moves to achieve through sympathetic absorption of trans difference. Through the salvational transnormative subject, the democratic project is redeemed and therefore saved. The display of the transgender “journey” out of dysphoria and into authenticity and acceptance now also becomes a quintessentially American journey, forward into the nation’s expanding democratic future.

[8] Transamerica (2005) is a road film that joins other trans-themed films such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert(1994); To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995); and Boys Don’t Cry (1999) in pairing geographic migration/dislocation and gender transition in a process of thematic mirroring. Transgender narratives, autobiographical and fictional alike, have traditionally used this motif to signify the trans person’s movement toward self-acceptance and into an integrated, newly gendered personhood: transsexuality is recurrently imagined as “a passage through space, a journey from one location to another” (Prosser 5). The trans person is represented as both a geographical and gender migrant--moving through uncharted territory and between the poles of intelligible gender. While mainstream visual media also use the trope, the focus is redirected largely toward the audience’s migratory experience from an initial rejection of transgender identity into the eventual acceptance of a humanized and fully-transitioned transgender character. For both the trans figure and the audience, this transmigration is imagined as a path out of dysphoric feeling and into the euphoria of liberal (self-)acceptance.

[9] A millennial text that reflects the integration of trans issues into capitalist, liberation-style aesthetics and politics, Transamericaperhaps most successfully pairs the device of transcontinental migration with the theme of gender transition, using both to dramatize the affective reformation of the film’s central character, Bree Osbourne, and along with her, the audience. Bree’s migratory experience is from a position of dysphoric affect and self-denial into one of self-acceptance and realization. One of the film’s taglines reads tellingly, “Life is a journey. Bring an open mind.” A liberal-sentimental film par excellence, Transamerica promises to move its audience, through sympathetic contact with a dysphoric body, into a position of national and political optimism. The film is both literally and figuratively about migration: not only will Bree herself cross the continent and come home to her new body, but by the end of the film, the audience will have journeyed into trans acceptance.

[10] Transamerica operates squarely in the road movie format, representing the geographical migration across the nation as a metaphor for Bree’s personal growth and a prelude to the “coming home” of her fully transitioned body and her reestablished connection with biological forms of kinship. As a whole, the film functions within an authenticity/artificiality construct that prioritizes the truth of feeling, biological family connection, and personal honesty. Bree is initially positioned as “dishonest”: the film opens with a generic dressing scene in which she encases herself in layers of pink spandex, practices an artificially high voice, and walks awkwardly in heels. Arriving at the doctor’s office, she reports that “I am a very happy person,” to which the surgeon replies, “You look very authentic”--lies of which by now the audience has been made painfully aware. A tragically failed attempt at authenticity, Bree is situated as what Julia Serano has called the “pathetic transsexual,” (36) one who is deluded about her passability and functions as a visual joke. The rest of the film will track Bree’s movement into authenticity as an “emblem of liberatory potential” (Meyerowitz 12), largely through contrast with her monstrously artificial mother and the restoration of her relationship with her son, Toby.

[11] The inconvenient appearance of Toby is the dramatic device that will force Bree to “become honest” about her life and her history, which she must deal with before her therapist allows her access to surgery. “This is a part of your body that cannot be discarded,” her therapist tells her, as if gender transition were a form of omission. Indeed, Toby surfaces as a dysphoric sign of biological maleness that Bree cannot escape and must instead incorporate through capitulation to the central importance of blood ties and kinship. To fully transition into the euphoric, “happy person” that she purports to be, Bree must confront her parents and gain the acceptance of her son. To ensure the audience’s sympathetic identification throughout this transmigratory experience, Bree’s child must be more important than Bree’s transition, which will be delayed as it is reformulated into a universal signifier for “personal acceptance.”

[12] The enduring message of Transamerica is that transgender identity can only be authenticated through kinship, by the affirmation of a biologically-defined family unit. This message is further asserted when Toby reveals that his non-biological stepfather has sexually and physically abused him. It is biological connection, not the political connection of a transgender community or culture (which Bree eschews out of shame) that the film stresses as the key to personal liberation and the end of bad feelings. Through this process, the film makes transgender difference consumable for a mainstream audience that is assumed to share a sentimental, romantic ideal of the biological family as the affective center of national life. In a DVD interview with director Duncan Tucker and actress Felicity Huffman, Huffman points out that the film is “not an issue movie. [...] It’s about becoming who you really are. She [Bree] thinks the biggest thing she can do is become a woman, and she realizes that the biggest thing she can do is become a parent.” According to both Tucker and Huffman, “Bree’s struggle is everyone’s struggle.” Transamericaeffectively transmogrifies the political and material specificities of transgender life into a universalized experience that is made available through sympathetic identification with the “journey” into self-actualization as a parent.

[13] In addition to the trope of transmigration, Transamerica also solicits sympathy for the dysphoric body through an exposure scene in which Toby and the audience see Bree’s penis. Here, Bree is suddenly thrust into the role of the “deceptive transsexual” woman (Serano 36), who is commonly represented as dangerously phallic and castrating. Exposure scenes in which transgender status is suddenly disclosed through either a violent removal of clothing or through voyeurism abound in both popular films and television. These scenes are often used to create a sensational effect as the gender of an assumedly cisgender character is revealed to be shockingly “fake,” and to play upon the audience’s ingrained homophobia, producing either disgust or crass laughter (Serano 37). In texts aiming to achieve a pedagogy of acceptance around the issue of trans difference, the scenes are often constructed in order to generate sympathy for the mistreated and misunderstood trans person. Both deployments of the scene traffic in the violent exposure and ridicule of the trans body. However, progressive uses of this effect seek to create a sympathetic spillway that grants the audience prosthetic access to the experience of dysphoric feeling.

[14] In the case of Transamerica, the exposure scene of Bree urinating functions as an allegory for gender dysphoria on multiple levels. We have heard Bree tell her surgeon that she “hates” her penis and feels that she cannot become her true self until she has undergone reassignment surgery, so the penis itself is the visual signifier of Bree’s genital dysphoria, of her own sense of inauthenticity. The only reason Bree is willing to risk exposure by urinating standing up is because she is deathly afraid of snakes, a dysphoric phobia which in the film functions as a transparently Freudian fear of the phallus. The audience sees Bree’s penis only by occupying Toby’s point-of-view as he looks at Bree in the rearview mirror of their car. Here, mirroring is used to create an equivalence between Bree’s penis, which she views as a physical obstacle to becoming female, and Toby, who is the physical product of Bree’s penis and who Bree must accept as a symbolic replacement for her penis in order to reach self-actualization.

[15] Because we know how Bree feels about her genitals--that she is disgusted by them and that they do not represent her correctly--we know as Toby looks at Bree that he is looking at her “wrong,” and this wrongness produces for us the cognitive dissonance and “bad feeling” of dysphoria. The film then immediately solicits our sympathy for Bree in the next scene, as Toby accuses her of being a “liar” and a “freak,” telling a bystander that “she’s not even a real woman--she’s got a dick!” Bree corrects Toby by shouting that she, like Jesus, was put on earth to “suffer and be reborn” as a woman. This pivotal confrontation, occurring halfway through the film’s journey west, operates as an affective hinge in the text: from this point on, the audience migrates into sympathy for Bree as we anticipate the completion of her surgery and the dramatic reversal of Toby’s rejection--the “coming home” to both the transitioned body and familial, biological connection that will constitute the euphoric ending of the film. Like Bree, we too suffer discomfort and are “reborn” as educated, liberal subjects who have been instructed in the acceptance of transgender identity.

[16] At the close of Transamerica, two other scenes utilize dysphoric effects to finalize the affective migration of the audience and to solidify, through sympathetic exchange, our movement into a position of “progressive” political optimism. In the first of these scenes, Bree is visited by her therapist, Margaret, while recovering from surgery at a surgery center. As she explains that she “fucked up” with Toby, Bree collapses into Margaret’s arms, dissolving into painful, wracking tears as Margaret comforts her. The shot here is a pieta framed in close-up, focusing on Bree’s crying face--a mechanism classically used by cinema to produce sympathetic tears in the audience. Having undergone surgery, Bree must now discharge her negative affect and become a euphoric subject, thereby completing the journey out of dysphoria and into liberation that the film promises. By sharing in this catharsis, the audience also becomes emotively receptive to the film’s ending, which will propose a solution to the “problem” of transgender difference by substituting the stability of biological connection and family structure for the queer liminality of the pre-surgical trans body. Bree’s display of explosive sorrow forges the pain of dysphoria into a feeling of desire for the child she originally wished to disown, transforming her negativity and aligning Bree with productive and “good” affects.

[17] The end of Transamerica figures Bree’s homecoming, this coming out of dysphoric subjectivity into a liberated and shame-free life, as absolutely wedded to both her role as a parent and her post-surgical status. In its final scenes, the film problematically posits surgery as the solution to the bad feelings of being transgender, ignoring the stark political and economic inequalities that continue to structure transgender oppression. Transamerica suggests that being trans is equivalent to desiring surgery and that trans people cannot be happy without modifying their bodies, drastically reducing the complexities of transgender experience and identification. Proposing morphology rather than physical and administrative violence as the central problem in transgender life, Transamerica represents the trans body as “a mere aberration that needs to be corrected” (Eliot 250) through the expression and resolution of specific scripts of dysphoric affect. In the film, this is most directly communicated by a nude scene in which Bree lies in her bathtub and strokes her post-surgical body in a gesture of self-realization and satisfaction. This sight of Bree’s body is a fulfillment of the promise of the film, which reasserts the static nature of the gender binary in order to signal that the “journey” is over: Bree has achieved both physical and affective authenticity, just as we have achieved a progressive understanding of transgender difference.

[18] Transamerica proves that films sympathetic to transgender oppression can be profitable, win major industry awards, and reach mainstream audiences. Its optimistic, liberation-themed tone also sets it apart from previously successful transgender-themed films (such as Dressed to Kill, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, andSilence of the Lambs) that director Duncan Tucker mentions in a DVD interview are assumed in Hollywood to be either “campy or dark.” Through its use of genre and its manipulation of dysphoric affects, the film manages to place trans difference squarely within the framework of progressive, multicultural discourses of acceptance and diversity. The emergence of this new narrative aesthetic suggests that we are currently in the midst of a cultural reframing around the challenge that transgender bodies and politics pose to Western forms of liberal democracy. More recent media products have extended Transamerica’s assimilative approach, most notably the Canadian teen soap Degrassi: The Next Generation.

[19] The fourth instantiation of Canada’s long-running television drama, Degrassi: The Next Generation reboots the earnest social issues format of the previous Degrassi shows as a teen soap for the millennial generation. Degrassi’s generic high school setting and teen culture references have earned The Next Generation a large American viewership, making the show a transnational North American success. Yet despite enjoying extremely high ratings in Canada and receiving over 40 industry awards, little critical attention has been given to the program, perhaps due to its low-culture generic structure and its youthful address. Its intensely sincere and sentimental issues-based format, combined with the looser representational standards of Canadian television, has historically given the Degrassifranchise a large amount of space to explore subjects related to teenage development. In 2010, Degrassi: The Next Generationintroduced the character of Adam Torres, a female-to-male (FTM) teen who has become North American broadcast television’s first starring transgender character. Adam’s appearance in a text ofDegrassi’s mainstream weight signals a new level of legibility for transgender identities that articulate socially appropriate forms of medicalized and dysphoric difference. How does Adam Torres become a viable media product in an aesthetic environment in which trans masculine identities are ostensibly invisible? The answer to this involves both the concretization of pathologizing discourses that make trans difference popularly identifiable and the “moving” experience of sympathetic exchange and political redemption that Adam promises as a consumer item.

[20] Adam represents the popular concatenation of a transnormative subject position that makes trans difference ideally negotiable for “progressive” and youth audiences. When we meet him in season 10, he is an emotionally defensive, verbally assertive, presumably white teen living in an upper-middle class nuclear family, attending Degrassi High as a new male student. Adam presents a classic “true transsexual” narrative, explaining to his accepting friends that he was born “in a girl’s body” but has known he was a boy “since four or five years old,” that he has always hated “wearing dresses and long hair,” and reassuring them that he is “straight.” This is the normative path of transgender ideation reflected in medical and psychiatric literature and often imposed upon trans people seeking institutional recognition or resources. As Adam progresses through the purification of his identity and gains the community’s sympathetic support, the audience absorbs the show’s message about the “journey” out of adolescence and into triumphal individuality and success, exemplified by theDegrassi theme song’s buoyant chorus: “Whatever it takes/I know I can make it through.”

[21] Adam’s transgender status is disclosed to Degrassi viewers in a 10th season two-episode arc rather melodramatically titled “My Body is a Cage.” Here, we see Degrassi immediately working in a medicalized representational mode that reinforces the “trapped in a wrong body” narrative used by the psychiatric, medical, and media industries to explain the feeling of dysphoria and that Degrassimobilizes to exploit the “potential for tragedy in and around the transgender figure” (Halberstam 82). In Degrassi’s teen context, the use of this dysphoric trope transforms transgender difference into a self-esteem problem: the show’s high school setting makes it an ideal space in which to address transgender difference as though it is an extension of the pubertal “body image” problematic. Unfortunately,Degrassi suggests that dysphoric feeling materializes through obvious patterns of self-mutilation, and that transgender identity is equivalent to believing one has the “wrong body.” It enacts this suggested equivalence through the use of a classic transgender trope: the mirror scene.

[22] Mirror scenes appear in transgender literature as early as British author Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness, which provided a basis for the medicalized  “transsexual narrative” that has itself become the “very symptom of transsexuality (Prosser, “Some” 130).  In this and other transgender texts too countless to mention, trans characters endlessly stand in front of mirrors, nude and in various stages of undress, examining themselves with a range of negative emotions running from dismay to wistful melancholy to pure disgust. Transgender mirror scenes produce a vicarious dysphoric experience via their display of the trans body and their insistence that “genitals always inevitably outweigh agency” (Hale 316) and therefore contain the truth of the body’s gender. While Jay Prosser has noted the historical use of this narrative motif by trans autobiographers, I would like to suggest that visual, mass-mediated reiteration of the trope takes on a new political valence. If autobiographical use of the mirror scene is intended to convey the psychological sense of splitting and disconnection from the body that many transgender people subjectively experience, then in popular visual discourses it offers objectifying access to the transgender body as well as a sympathetic experience of universalized dysphoric affect through which the audience is entreated to understand and discharge transgender difference. For example, in a video commentary about the nude mirror scene she shot while portraying trans masculine character Max in The L Word, actress Daniela Sea discusses how the scene’s truth captures a “torturous moment that we all have in common” (“The Mirror”). Degrassi also traffics heavily in this idea of a shared dysphoric experience, offering repeated mirror scenes that move the audience through the emotional geography of Adam’s personal coming-out process and toward a liberal trajectory of acceptance that is reinforced by constructed displays of transphobic rejection and violence.

[23] Throughout “My Body is a Cage,” we are consistently exposed to Adam as he gazes at himself in a series of mirrors. At school, we see him looking at himself in a hand mirror before entering his ballroom dancing class, where he will romantically pursue Bianca by asking her to be his dance partner. This small mirror initiates Adam’s “coming-out” journey, a process of transmigration during which his identity will become disclosed, questioned, threatened, fractured, and then redeemed through an accelerating process of dysphoric dislocation that will pull the audience into an irresistible position of sympathetic identification. With the introduction of this small mirror, the show establishes the authenticity/artificiality register also used byTransamerica, in which the reflection functions as a symbol of dysphoric feeling and also as a form of fragmentation: either Adam is not who he appears as to others, or he is not who he appears as to himself. This dysphoric splitting becomes more obvious and pronounced until Adam himself is forced to split into two people--himself and Gracie--under the pressure of familial and social expectations.

[24] In the second mirror scene, we begin to witness the disaggregation of Adam’s identity, which depends upon sympathetic recognition by others for its integrity. While Adam prepares for school by binding his chest, his brother Andrew competes for bathroom space while inexplicably wearing a football uniform. As the two are reflected standing next to each other in the bathroom mirror, the scene plays up the pubertal differences between Andrew’s uniform(ed), cisgender masculinity and Adam’s trans masculinity, which he can only make legible through a process of concealment. The mirror communicates to the audience that this concealment will eventually fail so that the “issue” of Adam’s difference can be affectively exploited and then resolved in a communally shared and liberatory “happy ending.” The scene fabricates a dysphoric moment for the audience, who is asked to sympathetically experience the dislocation Adam feels from his own body, thereby undergoing a forced movement away from the sanguine subject position championed by Degrassi and its theme song. Immediately after the juxtaposition in the mirror, Mrs. Torres’s voice is heard offscreen, asking, “Is she still in the bathroom?” This pronoun slip is a precipitation of the splitting of Adam’s identity, which produces an intensifying dysphoric crisis that the show then harnesses to reform Adam’s community and restore the stability of the nuclear family unit.

[25] Degrassi escalates Adam’s fragmentation into Gracie through two exposure scenes occurring in rapid succession. First, Adam accidentally drops a gratuitously large case of tampons in the school hallway, a form of exposure that conveys the excess of Adam’s female body and shames him for experiencing the “wrong” puberty. Following this, Adam’s love interest, Bianca, pushes Adam away as he flirts with her and accidentally feels his chest through his binder. Bianca immediately calls Adam a “freak.” This verbal violence prefigures the physical violence Adam suffers when he is subsequently thrown out of the bathroom by a group of boys who challenge him to “whip it out.” While the boys do not forcibly remove Adam’s clothing, they do forcibly remove his body from the bathroom. Each of these scenes enacts a form of representational violence on Adam’s male identity by indicating, like the previous mirror scene, that Adam has the “wrong body” and that his maleness is read by others as a form of deceit. The optimistic conclusion of “My Body is a Cage” will reverse the affective polarity of this dysphoric schema, asserting Adam’s transitional identity as a form of emotional truth by moving the audience into sympathy through a final mirror scene and the excruciating appearance of Gracie.

[26] We momentarily meet Gracie after Adam de-transitions in order to have dinner with his grandmother: something that his mother has asked him to do, insisting that “this is about the whole family.” The Torres family’s survival is pitted against Adam’s affective reality and self-knowledge, indicating a fracture that will reappear on Adam’s body as a scar, and then as a fresh wound as he completely de-transitions into Gracie. In a final mirror scene, Adam sits in the bathroom while the camera lingers on a series of obviously self-inflicted scars on his arm. He then stands before the mirror as the show’s soundtrack repeats the lyric, “Am I just wasting my time?” Here, the transgender body is figured as resisting or arresting the temporal logic imposed by adolescence, wherein one is institutionally and culturally “moved” toward full subjectivity as an adult. This is the de-transitional moment, in which the splitting of Adam’s selfhood is completed and Gracie materializes as a symbol of pure dysphoric pathos. Gracie’s full emergence constructs a dysphoric crisis in Adam through which his transgender difference can be sympathetically transformed from a shattering threat into an optimistic source of communion and integration.

[27] The final sequence of “My Body is a Cage” features Adam attending school as Gracie, dancing with the male dance teacher in a scene that represents the gendered splitting of his personhood. Afterward, the show cuts to Adam sitting outside the school, visibly upset and crying. He removes a barrette from his hair, heats it with a lighter, and pushes it against the flesh of his arm. This wounding of the body with the female signifier of the barrette is Degrassi’s ultimate representation of dysphoric feeling, signaling a potentially fatal crisis within Adam and emotively moving the audience into a receptive position for show’s closing message of liberal acceptance and communal healing. Adam’s supportive friend, Clare, witnesses this harmful act and becomes the sympathetic channel through which the audience will absorb the show’s lesson of transformative reconciliation. Adam says to Clare that he “has to be Gracie” because she makes “everything easier for everyone,” to which Clare responds, “You don’t have to change who you are--everyone else does!” This is the show’s concluding liberal pedagogy: the community must reform its negative affects and come together in a fusing of dysphoric fragmentation that signifies a democratic resolution to the problem of Adam’s identity. The episode closes as Adam’s family and friends join him to burn Gracie’s clothes in a bonfire. Adam’s mother hands him a picture of Gracie, but Adam declines to burn it, saying, “It’s still me.” The episode ends with this sign of personal integration, which supplies a catharsis of both familial and social redemption as the community comes together and the issue of transgender difference is “put to rest.”

[28] As late-liberal, capitalist texts working in mainstream melodramatic and sentimental registers, both Transamerica andDegrassi have made transgender difference accessible and consumable to media audiences in a fashion that can only be called “transnormative.” The two texts share a great number of similarities, suggesting the aesthetic emergence of a transnormative identity politics in popular Western visual culture. Analyzing Transamericaand Degrassi, we can observe that the transnormative subject appears in mainstream generic modes with wide recognition and appeal as a putatively white, desexualized transgender character with no access to queer politics or community. The transnormative figure is then manipulated to generate narrative conflict through an affective dialectic of authenticity/artificiality, employing dysphoric effects to sympathetically convey the feeling of transgender difference to a cisgender viewership. At base, these representations imply that transgender difference is ultimately resolvable--something that can be unproblematically folded into heteronormative familial and social structures through a democratic extension of progressive optimism and a re-stabilization of the gender binary. Transnormativity is therefore an expression of hegemonic cultural expansion, a sign of the enduring assimilative power of liberal democratic ideology and its gendered logics.

[29] What does the appearance of the transnormative figure, which promises an end to the “bad feelings” of the dysphoric body and the concomitant triumph of democratic incorporation, signify for the future of transgender identity in the West? At what cost to actual transgender lives do we achieve a “culturally intelligible process of changing sex?” (Stryker 589). While thematically addressing the emerging issue of transgender lives and their challenges, transnormative media capitalize on the forcible pathology of “being trans” by utilizing the transgender body as a consumer item that offers viewers sympathetic pathways into ideal, hegemonic citizenship. Consummate examples of moving literature, these transnormative texts move us emotionally as they also structurally reorient us to become willing participants in the suspect visions of global “democracy” and capitalist “progress.” Even as they enforce a host of problematic assumptions about the realities of transgender life, they proffer an extremely rigid model of transgender identification as the crucial point through which the current neoliberal restructuring of the West might be disavowed by a set of revivified liberal-sentimental affects. These texts thus resignify a significant source of transgender unfreedom into the matrix from which Western culture may continue to fashion triumphal narratives about the constantly expanding nature of its democratic liberty. The “moving” experience of such texts is not a centrifugal journey outward to the margins of what is humanly imaginable, but instead a centripetal return--to the phantasmic vision of “liberation” that fuels the neoliberal future.      

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