I don’t want good representation. I don’t want to watch trans women smile sweetly. I don’t want to see a trans woman who is pure of heart fight against a harsh world. I don’t want us to prove our worth with our worthiness.
Good and bad are synonyms when it comes to representation. Watching a trans woman without a personality help a cis person isn’t that different from watching a trans woman without a personality kill a cis person. Fear me or fetishize me — either way my humanity is in question.
Turns out, in real life, in our real history, trans women are not perfect and are not monsters. Turns out we have stories worth telling filled with imperfect complexity. Turns out we have people like Elizabeth Carmichael — entrepreneur, con artist, mother, free market enthusiast, and self-declared genius.
Zackary Drucker and Nick Cammilleri’s four-part HBO Max docuseries about Carmichael, The Lady and the Dale, is the complicated portrait Carmichael deserves. It begins in the childhood of her imagination before correcting to the childhood of her reality. But Carmichael’s life and Carmichael’s self-mythology are both important to who she was — this series understands that.
Carmichael was born in 1937 into a comfortable middle class life in Jasonville, Indiana. She always felt destined for greatness and unconcerned with the limits of practicality. She spent decades taking on different identities, moving around the country, inventing new schemes, and collecting new wives. She had an easy likability that charmed everyone she met. Eventually she married a woman named Vivian and came as close as she ever did to settling down. Elizabeth and Vivian raised five children — largely while on the run from law enforcement — and then in the late 60s she came out as trans.
Carmichael’s transition provided a convenient solution for her fugitive status, but the series emphasizes that her transness was not a mere disguise. The documentary is at its best and stickiest when it allows a connection between Carmichael’s con artistry and her transness to remain — even while clarifying the separation. Was Carmichael quick to change identities because she felt disconnected from her own? Was Carmichael dismissive of society because it already viewed her as an outsider? Did she believe rules didn’t apply to her because transitioning already felt like breaking the ultimate rule? The series doesn’t fall into the trap of erasing any relation between her transness and her behavior. It’s not afraid to suggest that maybe Carmichael’s transness did impact her choices that are deemed criminal. It certainly impacted how she was punished.
Elizabeth Carmichael is a complicated figure, because her con artist tricks don’t quite fall under the rallying cry of Be Gay Do Crimes. Carmichael wasn’t some sort of trans Robin Hood hero — she was a capitalist, a true believer in the free market. She wanted to prove that women — even a woman like herself — could take the same way the powerful cis straight white men take. Her most notable con and the focus of much of the series — the fuel-efficient three-wheeled car that would never be: The Dale — seemed like it might change the world. But she was quick to clarify that her goal was not to change the world. She didn’t care about the environment or the fuel crisis. She cared about the economic opportunity those things provided. She also cared deeply about her family, her friends, and others she deemed worthy of care, but, above all else, she wanted to be rich, powerful, and important.
But our world is sexist and our world is transphobic and she was not allowed to be the sort of white collar criminal that thrives in our country. Dick Carlson — KABC Eyewitness News reporter and Tucker Carlson’s father — admits in the documentary that his fixation on Carmichael and The Dale was because he thought she was a man. He helps to expose her and the criminal justice system doesn’t let her get away like it lets so many cis straight white men get away. Interviews with jurors who comment on Carmichael’s bulge and admit to spying on Carmichael in the bathroom are especially painful. Carmichael could study law and defend herself and have all the intelligence and charm in the world — ultimately she was still reduced to her genitalia.
Zackary Drucker has been one of my favorite trans artists for years and it’s a thrill to see her artistry, intelligence, and reverence for trans history on a platform like HBO Max. The Lady and the Dale is as entertaining as any heist movie, as addictive as the best true crime, and authentic in a way only a few pieces of mainstream trans media have been before. It’s a testament to the possibilities when a brilliant trans artist is allowed to tell our stories with the complexity they deserve. It’s a testament to the possibilities when we’re allowed to have fascinating amoral fuck ups of our own.
All four episodes of The Lady and the Dale are now streaming on HBO Max.
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