“Becoming Chaz” Review: About a Boy or About a Body?

The extended trailer for Becoming Chaz (OWN Network, May 10, 2011):

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Chaz with the directors of "Becoming Chaz"

Last night I went to a friend’s house (because who can afford cable TV right?) to watch the premiere of Becoming Chaz, a documentary following the gender transition of Chaz Bono (Sonny and Cher’s 45-year-old child). Chaz was assigned female at birth and lived as a woman into his adult life, during which he identified as a lesbian. According to interviews, he started to realize he was transgender 10 years ago and decided to medically transition somewhat recently (within the past few years).

I want to take the time now to apologize to my friends whom I made sit through this hour and a half long snooze fest. The documentary itself was poorly-made and hardly engaging from a cinematic standpoint.

That said, I’m not really a film critic – instead, I want to focus on the film’s depiction of transition and the attitudes Chaz and others in the film express regarding transgenderism, etc.

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Much Ado About Surgery

Becoming Chaz very much approaches transgenderism as a medical condition. Something wrong that needs to be fixed. This is evidenced not only by the terminology used throughout the film, but also by the large amount of time dedicated to Chaz’s top surgery and hormone therapy. The surgery in particular is seen as the critical step to “becoming a man.” There are lots of tears streaming down faces (though not from Chaz of course, who clearly struggles daily to fit a masculine stereotype – for example, he doesn’t wear a purple shirt for an interview because it is too feminine), interviews with doctors, gory visuals of poking and prodding with needles, and seriously gross close-ups of the post-op drains, which I didn’t even want to see when they were my own, let alone someone else’s!

The film succeeded in capturing the intensity of the operation. Maybe because I remembered it from my own surgery, but I could really empathize with Chaz’s intense need for surgery, the nervousness and excitement as he was being prepped, and the relief afterwards.

BUT, I was really bothered by what a big deal this was made to be. I mean, yes it’s a big deal – it’s a huge deal for most of us in terms of need and relief. But not in terms of becoming a man. This whole documentary seemed to just resolidify the concept that trans men are women who feel like men and need to undergo “sex changes” in order to become men. In reality, we are men who have always to some degree been men, and some of us need to have medical intervention to change some things about our body so we are seen as the men we’ve always been.

Chaz celebrated his one year anniversary of top surgery as his “Manniversary.” The most important part of my transition was not the day I had top surgery. It was not the day I started testosterone therapy. It was not the day my name and gender marker were legally changed. I think it was the day after my graduation from college, when my family got food from a local deli, went to a beautiful park, and celebrated my emerging identity as Sebastian. We called it “Welcoming Sebastian Into the World.” We weren’t commemorating a sex change (by the way, this is a pretty outdated and inaccurate term) or even any sort of medical intervention, and my name was still legally Sarah. We were celebrating the maleness that had always been within me and most importantly, we were celebrating that I now had the chance to show it to the world.

I think this is the important thing I want the non-trans world to understand about transition. The triumph of transition is not the act of a singular sex change, it is a gradual process of letting out what has always been within. And though this is verbalized a little in the movie (largely by Chaz’s sponsor who explains it as him “coming out of his shell,” for example), the filmmakers’ focus on surgical procedures and testosterone injections and Chaz’s own medicalized descriptions of his transition really distract from any depiction of his real journey or identity.

And though Chaz talks about his lack of a female identity as he looks through photos of himself from before transition, the filmmakers seem less interested in the development of his gender identity and more in his physical changes – the focus stays on what he looked like then compared to now. The sensationalism that drives most popular media stories of trans people really directs audiences’ attention to what or who we “used to be.” “Female-to-male.” “She becomes a he.” And so on. I definitely saw that in this documentary.

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All About Testosterone

And the really problematic issues of this documentary came directly from Chaz and his partner, who have some archaic ideas of gender. It’s clear in their conversation that they continue to see gender in terms of a binary. To Jenny and Chaz, there are women and men and boy are they different. There are few things I hate more than highly public discussions of how testosterone changes your personality.

According to the film, after T, Chaz lost some softness, became angrier, less tolerant of the annoying things “women do” (like “chit chat” or “worry about how fruit should be set out on the table for brunch…”), less sweet, more stubborn, and always needed to be right – traits his partner said were typical of men.

I’ve never bought into this concept that men and women are so inherently different and that it is so much a result of our physiological makeup that changing our testosterone and estrogen levels can seriously alter who we are mentally and emotionally. I mean honestly this is absurd. I know lots of sweet non-trans men whose testosterone levels are normal. I know lots of not-soft non-trans women whose bodies aren’t just rolling in excess T.

At one point, Chaz says that for the comfort he now feels in his body, it was worth the “trade-off.” As a trans man, let me just set the record straight here – there is not necessarily a trade off. Testosterone did not make me into some aggressive, misogynstic, irritable, rageful dude. Hormones do impact us in many ways and people who struggle with these things already may lose their ability to control them as well when they have more T pumping through them. But seriously, it is not a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde situation, and for most of us there isn’t any noticeable change.

T doesn’t transform us into beasts that need to hump everything and it also doesn’t mean that there aren’t women out there who can match us in our horniness. I think he needs to visit Smith College.

My favorite (read: least favorite) of these “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” bits of dialogue was when Chaz discussed his increased sex drive. He talks about being hornier and says “I’m so sorry women can’t feel it.” REALLY Chaz? You think women never feel horny? I found this comment to be so patronizing (he was talking to a lesbian couple at the time) and just ridiculous. I mean, yes, testosterone increases your sex drive. It is one of the first things trans men usually notice. But it doesn’t transform us into beasts that need to hump everything and it also doesn’t mean that there aren’t women out there who can match us in our horniness. I think he needs to visit Smith College.

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Getting Personal

Now all this said, the film did get some things right. Despite its “I have this condition so I’m going to do this and this to fix it” narrative, Becoming Chaz is pretty honest about how little Chaz ultimately has figured out. He’s still early in transition and is a recovering addict and comes off very adolescent in his dealings with the rest of the world. He plays a lot of video games, doesn’t seem to have very many friends, struggles with his girlfriend, and as far as I can tell, hasn’t held a job. His transition didn’t solve all his problems and I value a film that honestly portrays that reality.

Becoming Chaz was also pretty honest in its portrayal of how family members handle and don’t handle a loved one’s transition. Cher is eerily missing from most of the movie. We see her only in a single interview, which is spliced throughout the film, and in a clip of her appearance on the Letterman Show. In the interview she only uses female pronouns. A writer for the Washington Post said it best, when she observed that Cher seems to handle this as a diva first and a mother second.

photo by Patrick Fraser for The Advocate

It is hard for parents to have a trans child. The most honest moment in the film, in my opinion, was Cher talking about calling Chaz and hearing his voicemail in his old voice. She seems like she is about to cry as she says that “hearing her voice and knowing I’ll never hear it again” was the hardest and most real part of this for her. I remember having the same conversation with my mother and ex-girlfriend.

I appreciate that the film acknowledges that it is hard for parents, but it also doesn’t let Cher off the hook. Chaz visits a support group for parents of trans children and we see mothers and fathers who are struggling with the tough parts so that their kids can be supported and cared for, as they truly need to be. It is clear that Cher, the Diva, is simply refusing to engage in this struggle, and I think audience members will see how hard that it is on Chaz and feel real sympathy for him.

And yes, Becoming Chaz was informative. People who watched it now have a sense of what a transmasculine medical transition look likes. They probably have a slightly better understand of what it feels like at times. There were some great soundbites and scenes that I think will really click with Oprah-viewers. I love that we see Chaz reconnecting with family and old friends that he had lost as he withdrew and became completely isolated. We can see that his transition has given him a new comfort with and understanding of himself that has allowed him “become part of the world” again, as his partner’s parents put it. And even Cher, though she has yet to hop on the “Chaz is a man” train, has a great quote about being trans: “I’m so female. I’m such a woman. And if I woke up feeling the way I do and looked down and was in a different body, I’d be like, GET ME OUTTA HERE. The change couldn’t come soon enough.”

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In Conclusion:

But still, I am really disappointed, because this film could have done so much more. It reestablished narratives about transition that I don’t like and I feel like don’t represent me and a bulk of trans people and it essentialized gender and gendered characteristics. I just feel like Becoming Chaz presents an outdated view of gender and gender transition and sets non-trans people up to pat themselves on the back for using male pronouns when talking about Chaz even though they know what he “used to be” or even worse what he “really is.” I don’t think anyone without prior trans education will watch this documentary and understand that Chaz is as much of a man as a non-trans man, which is a real shame, because that is the kind of education and awareness-raising that needs to be happening now.

Sebastian has written 16 articles for us.

95 Comments

  1. I think everyone should watch ‘The Boy Who Was Born A Girl’ – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ax7M2tIaShg

    Ignore the clunky title, Channel 4 has a habit of producing deeply moving documentaries about the humanity and stories of people on the edge of society and then naming them things like ‘Two-ton man’.

    The doc is only half an hour and follows Jon and his mum throughout the first few months of hormone therapy. And just…the relationship between them. The way his mum obviously loves and accepts him so much but still finds it hard and does not want to let go of the child she feels she has lost in his transition, and the way Jon is so much a typical teenage boy rolling his eyes at his mum for not knowing what packing is, as if she said something deeply uncool as parents are wont to do.

    It’s just beautiful. Watch plz.

  2. I honestly don’t think that I will watch the show, mostly because I doubt that I’ll learn anything new. There are already so many stories out there like Chaz’s and not nearly enough like mine. Maybe because I don’t know what my own story is yet? Hmmm.

  3. Thank you, Sebastian! This was wonderful.

    There were so many unfortunately not thought out comments, even in the trailer. “So few people struggle with any kind of gender identity.”

    Really, Chaz? I was under the impression that everyone has a gender identity.

  4. My mom, when I asked about Sonny and Cher, said they had a daughter named Chastity and that she had gotten a sex change. :( I was like, “So, they have a son, not a daughter, he’s transgendered.” And she goes, “No, they have a daughter as far as Im concerned that just got a sex change and its wrong *rant starts*”

    I think its shitty how homophobic people are to things they cant understand, like..for me, I dont struggle with gender, I know that much and I cant imagine but like.. I cant say I think its wrong, we cant prevent whats chemical right? I mean my parents, they are telling me that all these years, my feelings for girls, its just a phase because of my age. I dont know anymore. I just dont, so confused.

    Although, I enjoy how you summed it up Sebastian. I havent seen the documentary myself, just heard about Chaz a fair bit.

  5. Know what would be nice? If a mature, educated, and willing transgender advocate got to do a documentary, instead of some random Z-list celebrity who seems completely out of touch, doesn’t care how they come across, is unaware of their influence, and doesn’t even want to be an advocate.

    Oh, and it would also be nice for some of these filmmakers and talk show hosts to actually talk about the gatekeeping and legal obstacles and abject misery that some trans people are put through, like my girlfriend in Norway who will only be allowed to transition if she’s deemed “passable” before even starting hormones, or people who can never get their birth certificates changed, or people who get threatened and beaten, or people who get hassled by the cops. Lea T., not exactly an experienced advocate, apparently shocked Oprah when she said that she needed approval to get GRS. Oprah’s had how many trans people on her show, and she didn’t know that we can’t just say “Ooh, I want hormones, I want surgery” and get it done the next day? Really Oprah?

    Also, to Chaz: I’m a trans woman and my sex drive is much better now, thank you very much. Maybe if you’d actually paid attention to the trans community instead of going off on your own and speaking for people you barely seem to know at times, you’d have found out that most trans people of either major gender have the same experience, and that it’s not about testosterone vs. estrogen so much as feeling right vs. feeling bad.

  6. I saw Chaz do an interview with Dr. Drew tonight. I was actually impressed and kinda felt bad for criticizing him. He was a little better spoken this time and didn’t do so much stereotyping. I think he’s helping, overall.

    Also, I keep hearing about Dirt. They seem like a jerk, whoever they are. Why do we even care what this person thinks?

      • This chick makes my skin crawl. I don’t understand how you could possibly identify as queer in any way while simultaneously perpetuating discrimination and hatred of others.

        Shit like this makes me so insanely pissed off that I know I should cut this comment before it turns into an uncontrollable profusion of profanity.

  7. I recently watched the doc “Becoming Chaz”. I am a proud parent of a newly transitioning trans man scheduled to have chest surgery this coming Summer. I found your review very helpful on many levels. The documentary did help with preparing me for what to expect post surgery in caring for my son. Perhaps if the doc had explained the full spectrum of gender that exists, it would have better illustrated that Chaz’s experience as a transgendered human being is his own, and does NOT represent all transgendered people. My understanding is that while some of us remain fixed within the spectrum, others do not remain fixed on the spectrum. I know we still have much to learn and many ways to grow in coming to fully understand what being transgendered means. My feeling is that although the doc may have offended many transgendered people who did not feel properly represented, what Chaz has done has taken a lot of courage, something no openly transgendered person is short of, and while it did not represent well the diversity within the transgendered community, it has given some awareness to a segment of the population that would, very sadly, otherwise, perhaps have be fearfull, and or have little interest in learning anything about what it means to be transgendered. I do admire that Chaz was gracious in allowing his family and friends to have their own response/experience to his transition, without being offended or taken back. I know it has to be hard when your mom is not on board, but Chaz exhibited a high level of respect and candor in regards to his mom needing to take things slowly. It may have been “dumb ed down”, however, the doc has opened the door. People fear what they do not know. It is very hard to educate people that are narrow minded, but we have to start somewhere, and “Becoming Chaz” is a start in the right direction. It is very unfortunate that we live in such a binary oriented society. This is a complex subject that the a large section of the population needs much education about. The processing of understanding what it means that someone is transgendered, from the perspective of many people in our society who have not benefit of being brought up to be open minded and tolerant, is a huge transition in itself for our society. It will take time and tenacity and many voices emerging to better represent the intelligent, articulate and varied transgendered community as a whole.

  8. Pingback: Review: Becoming Chaz | Born Like This

  9. I saw the movie and I loved it. It is appropriately titled “Becomeing Chaz”, as it is simply a documentary about his experience. I don’t think he owes you or our community any apologies if he didn’t address YOUR issues, or reflect YOUR feelings about being transgender. Chaz didn’t ask to be Sonny & Cher’s kid, or to be trans. He is doing our community a HUGE service to be so open, honest, and public about his transition. He cannot be everything to everybody though. For transgenderism to gain more understanding and acceptance, it is up to each of us to be equally open, out, and honest and genuine about sharing our experiences to the degree that each of us can. Nobody would watch a documentary about my transition, so I don’t make one. However… my friends, family, coworkers, etc usually WILL listen to me sharing my stories about my transition so I share them when I can. That’s all Chaz did, and it’s exactly what each of us should be doing. Nobody’s gonna be your hero, man. Nobody except you.

  10. You took the words right out of my mouth and my brain!! Everything you said is exactly everything I have been saying since I happened to catch this film on TV. So thank you for that.

  11. I saw the film and I cherished it. It is suitably titled “Becomeing Chaz”, as it is basically a narrative about his experience. I don’t think he owes you or our locale any conciliatory sentiments in the event that he didn’t address YOUR issues, or mirror YOUR emotions about being transgender. Chaz didn’t request to be Sonny and Cher’s child, or to be trans. He is doing our locale a HUGE administration to be so open, legit, and open about his change. He can’t be everything to everyone however. For transgenderism to acquire comprehension and acknowledgment, it is up to every one of us to be similarly open, out, and legitimate and authentic about sharing our encounters to the extent that every one of us can. No one would watch a narrative about my change, so I don’t make one. Nonetheless… my companions, family, collaborators, and so forth for the most part WILL hear me out sharing my anecdotes about my change so I share them when I can. That is all Chaz did, and it’s actually what every one of us ought to do. No one’s going to be your saint, man. No one aside from you. press 1 campaign

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