Glitterboys and Ganglandsby Kavish Chetty / 10.06.2011
Strangely, gangsterism intrudes very rarely in Lauren Beukes’ take on transexuality and tranvestism on the Cape Flats. You’d imagine that persecution of anything remotely anti-status quo would be the rule of law in the ganglands – masculinity has a very marked code out there, thriving through the violence of gang culture. But these supposed intrusions are not very present in her documentary, Glitterboys and Ganglands. There are two possibilities here: one is that this stereotyped impression of the ganglands as a place rife with pre-modern attitudes to sexuality (rape, corrective rape etc.) are incorrect. But perhaps more likely, the issue has simply been navigated. Only one interviewee mentions violence – the murder of his/her sister’s boyfriend – and the violence has nothing to do with the reworked sexuality of the transvestite, but just a kind of “life on the Flats” attitude.
Gender is a murderously complicated problem in our society. Large sections of our society are still charged with Victorian and tribal doctrines on sexuality. Malema thinks that homosexuality is a European affectation; Christians think that abortion appropriates the rights of god over life and death. It is hardly a matter of opinion that were our current civil union rights placed into a trial of public opinion, gays could kiss marriage good-bye. So, Beukes has certainly picked a territory (both theoretical and practical) that is utterly seething with relevance. However, the decision to focus on a beauty pageant – the Miss Gay Western Cape, specifically – is a matter of some intrigue. Pageants are the place where we witness excess. Consider the heterosexual parallel: a beauty pageant like Miss South Africa, or Miss World. What would we be expected to learn from a documentary on one of these? We would see all the excesses of performed femininity; we would see what grotesque caricatures of “true feminity” emerge through social production; we would see the objectification of that most historically problematic of signifiers: “woman”. Now, what are the possibilities when we focus on a pageant, which happens to be gay? We would most likely, and do, see a new set of excesses: the excesses involved when the curious figure of the transexual, caught in the gender storm of opposing identities, personalities, hierachies, tries to mimick the gimmick of “femininity”. I leave it to the viewer to decide to what extent a decision like this has the possibility to educate – you’re going to see repressed cat-fights, talk about body-image, backstage sore losers.
I remark on this because a documentary of this nature needs to satisfy two prerequisites. The first is exposition, and the second is provocation. Beukes handles exposition superbly. She undertakes lengthy interviews with a wide variety of contestants for the Miss Gay pageant. She explores their personal lives, their interests in the pageant, their interests in homosexuality and tranvestism more broadly. She takes us into their homes, trains her camera on make-up sessions – she gives them the centre-stage to represent themselves, in the incredibly disturbing way tranvestites do (and by “disturbing” here, I mean to suggest their power to disrupt the recieved norms of gender).
Is it possible to talk of the cast without resorting to a certain measure of condescension? We are introduced to a “colourful” cast of potential Miss Gay Western Capes (predominantly coloured, with one or two Africans and no whites). With the exception of one, they’re all the non-surgically altered type. Their names are interesting. One calls herself “Gabriella Garcia Marquez”, which I thought was borderline hilarious. Others appear to also have a penchant for the European exotic: there’s a Spanish “Eva Torres” and another Italian name which escapes memory at present. They all “live in the performance of contradiction” as that French asshole Derrida would say. Contradictory gender impulses guide their behaviour, their speaking voices, their opinions, their affectations. They use the word “feminine” in a completely unsubversive way, affirming the same distinction between the sexes which relegated them to the margins in our society in the first place. It is not a problem unique to them. It’s a spectre of the discourse on gender, and one which constrains everyone who rebels against it. As Judith Butler once remarked, one cannot choose not to have a gender.
But, I do feel justified in suggesting that Beukes hasn’t sufficiently provoked with this documentary. The contestants reveal all the platitudes we’d expect of their station in life. They say, “I always knew I was a girl deep down inside”, and “I want the world to be a big pot of curry, a mixed blend of everybody.” They say “This is what god created me to be and I’m very happy.” But where do all these wonderful proclamations of independence reach their conflict? Where are those barbed and aggressive counter-voices which make their proposed independence a problem in the first place? Where, especially, are the voices of gangland culture whose ordered geometry of masculinity must be utterly fucked by the existence of these ambiguous figures? Given the prevalence of “gangland” in the title, one does feel it leads a very penumbral, even possibly totally darkened, life within the documentary.
Another point of critique. The question of what transvestism actually is or means is hardly touched. I’m not personally any closer to deciphering its mysteries. Almost no attention is paid to the critera by which the judges are supposed to evaluate a successful transvestite. Interestingly, in the one of the domestic sections, featuring a young coloured transvestite and her semi-domineering white boyfriend (who looks, incidentally, like Michael Stipe), the boyfriend slips into a kind of gender ambivalence himself. When referring to his partner, he calls him/her first “he” and later “she”. Now, these are some of the slippages that need to be interrogated. We need to ask about what the function of this beauty pageant is. Aren’t beauty pageants, which celebrates aesthetics, about drawing attention to the surface at the neglect of the interior? Sure, they ask them a few questions of about politics, but contestants in pageants whether heterosexual and homosexual inevitably reveal themselves to be retarded when asked what the Freedom Charter is. What is the relationship between aesthetics and homosexuality? And is the pageant suggesting that in order to be a successful transvestite you have to successfully appropriate all the tropes of femininity and apply them to the traditionally masculine-coded body? These deliciously, delightfully complex questions are sidelined in the documentary for pure exposition. Perhaps this was the intention of the markers, but it thereby skips out on the most fertile, challenging, provocative, destabilising territory of the trangender issue.
There is a great deal more to explore here, as the questions both posed and answered by Glitterboys is not sufficient to give us the kind of inroad we need into questions of sexuality in South Africa, and particularly on the Flats. Having been alloted an anorexic two hours to both watch and review this documentary, I can’t possibly be expected to attend to all the rest of its point of interest and intrigue. However, I can say that every stereotype that I possess about transexuality was confirmed by these interviewees. Now, when recommending a documentary of this sort, I would allow myself this disclaimer: if you are a conservative social-fuck up who thinks homosexuality is abnormal, then you terribly need to watch this just to drag yourself out of the intellectual stone-age in which you live. But if you’re a liberal and tolerant of alternative culture, you’ll probably only find an affirmative exposition in this documentary – an exposition which repeats to you what you already know.
* Glitterboys and Ganglands will be screening in Cape Town on Friday the 10th and Sunday the 26th of June at the V&A NuMetro and in Jozi at The Bioscope on Sunday the 12th of June.