“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.

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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.

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