Gender-bending, drag, and other modes of queer gender-performance are not especially new to popular music videos—and their uses have not always been unambiguously empowering, truth be told—but far fewer are the videos that dramatize an encounter between seemingly-heterosexual men and trans-women. The “man meets (trans)woman” trope is shared by music videos for The Knife’s “Pass This On” (2003), The New Pornographer’s “Sing Me Spanish Techno” (2005), and Kai Stänicke’s /Tin [A] Din’s“Cold Star” (2010)—the last being more a movie short with no dialogue and music-video-like features. All of these videos feature scenes of rising tension, as these two archetypal characters are brought into contact with each other; representing the distant ends of gender normativity, what sorts of attractions and repulsions will result? In all three videos, some sudden shift in direction is put in motion through eye contact: conspiratorial glances, searching looks, smoldering—perhaps even menacing—stares. Each video nonetheless differs in how it resolves this tension, how each character fares at the end of it all, and which third person or group takes on the role of cultural dupe/antagonist to play against the lead couple. Musically, all of these videos feature music that is far away from the torch songs and club dance remixes that usually accompany drag performances; instead, they offer slow-burning electro-pop and chipper indie rock.
“Cold Star” (dir. Kai Stänicke 2010; music by Din [A] Tod)
This musical film short, directed by Kai Stänicke, deals not only with trans-straight encounters, but also with cross-generational desire. In the film, a very young, straight-seeming man is forced by his peers to climb a high diving board at a public swimming pool, but he finds support in the appearance of a fabulous, elderly transvestite. The action is also presented entirely in slow motion, giving the encounter a dream-like quality.
The entire film takes place in what looks like a public swimming pool, populated by a cross-cultural and cross-age array of Northern European stereotypes that is in some ways similar to the audience for “Pass This On.” Before the music starts, we see an older white woman do her toenails (and pull a fly from her big toenail with tweezers—and revolting sound effects); the camera cuts soon after to a corpulent, stringy-haired, sullen-looking white woman, sitting at a table and eating fries. The next cut is to two young girls, one white with blonde crimped hair and one black with a small “afro” hairstyle, but both in colorful earrings and bikini bathing suits.
The girls notice a group of five slim, muscular young men walking alongside the pool, all of them young enough to be teenagers or in their early twenties at most. The man at the front, who is white European and the youngest-looking of the group, seems stressed; he looks worriedly at the high diving board at the end of the pool. The other four men behind him seem to be a representative array of North-African, Southern European, and Middle Eastern ethnicities. All four of these other men have matching gold chains shining on their exposed chests.
While his taller, darker-featured, more “macho” companions behind him are checking out the girls, our protagonist catches sight of an older man walking past the group, presumably towards the changing rooms. He looks much older than anyone else in this video—well into his late 50s or 60s. He’s wet from the pool and, with his grey-white hair slicked back against his head, holds his body in a slightly feminine, seductive way as he passes our protagonist, returning the young boy’s gaze. This younger man stares intently at the older one, who tilts his head slightly forward and favors him with a conspiratorial half-grin and a sideways glance. As the young man finishes his seemingly-forced march up to and onto the high diving platform, the camera cuts away to several other people relaxing around the pool, mostly in pairs and primarily with characteristics that suggest Mediterranean or Middle-Eastern origins.
Just as the young, pubescent, blue-eyed, pale-skinned, and extremely vulnerable-looking boy looks down at the water from the edge of the platform in terror, the camera cuts to a back-lit shot of a woman with long hair—but the same face as the older man who had just disappeared into the changing rooms. She is smoking a cigarette, which creates a dramatic halo of smoke around her; whereas the close shots of smoking in The New Pornographers’ “Sing Me Spanish Techno” contributed to an image of toughened, film-noir femininity, this back-lit shot of smoking seems to add an aura of grace and magic. It is only at this moment (2:34), in fact, that the actual music (a sort of electro-clash, electro-pop song) begins.
She makes her way down the side of the pool, in a shiny purple-and-gold bathing wrap with a similarly shiny leopard-print cape. Her cape flutters in a wind that comes from nowhere, as if the pool were equipped with invisible fans just so that she could make a properly fabulous entrance. Her walk to the diving platform is the opportunity for reaction shots from onlookers, which divide up along gender lines: women show disgust and disdain, while men show confusion, nervousness, and nascent hostility. When she drops her cape near the diving platform, one of the “macho” boys reaches out and tears off her wig violently. She grimaces, but continues on with her grey hair slicked down.
The younger man looks over as the older transwoman takes his hand, and they both jump into the pool. After they surface, they begin to kiss deeply. From here on, we see a similar story to “Pass This On”: one by one, the onlookers overcome their negative reactions and dive into the pool, joining into a pan-sexual orgy in the pool. But, in contrast to the previous two videos, the transwoman leaves the scene just as things heat up sexually. By the time the third person has dived in, she is already out of the pool and walking slowly back to the changing rooms, with a smile on her face.
Aside from the cross-generational intimacies it implies, this short film differs from the other two videos in the way that it portrays homophobic and/or genderphobic violence. Whereas “Pass This On” evokes an initial atmosphere of latent hostility and “Sing Me Spanish Techno” builds tension by playing on the potentially violent reactions of an unwitting suitor, “Cold Star” portrays (and dramatizes) one of the young men violently ripping the wig off the leading trans-woman as she comes to intervene in their bullying of a smaller, younger-looking man. This violence creates troublesome complications because, in portraying darker-skinned young men as the agents of violence in this scenario, this short film also confirms the stereotype of young immigrant men as violently genderphobic and homophobic. Admittedly, both Renck’s video for “Pass This On” and Stänicke’s for “Cold Star” rely on ethnic/class/gender stereotypes to make the latent conflict legible to the viewer, but whereas the former evokes these stereotypes in order to dissolve them in collective effervescence, the latter actually endorses these stereotypes before slipping into an all-too-familiar conversion fantasy.
But even beyond these concerns, what about that larger woman, eating French-fries alone? Why doesn’t the fat girl get to join the pansexual orgy that everyone else seems to be enjoying? Why is she so sullen? Why is she shot from such unflattering angles? Why the close-up shots of her dredging her fries in mayonnaise and shoving them into her mouth whole—with exaggeratedly disgusting sound effects? All three of these videos seem to require a “loser” of some sort, someone who is excluded from the happy ending and yet forced to witness it. In “Cold Star,” it’s the overweight and solitary young woman endlessly eating and glaring. In “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” it’s the first drag performer, who finds her mentorship thanked by the usurpation of her place on the stage. In “Pass This On,” it’s Karin Dreijer Andersson’s character, sitting immobile in the audience and staring unblinkingly at the drag performer as she wins over everyone else. Are these exclusions aimed to fulfill the requirements for conventional narrative (i.e., an antagonist, frustrated in her/his/its efforts), or do they hint at what is at stake in the absorption of queer gender performance into mainstream heteronormativity? If it is the latter, then these videos suggest that straight men largely benefit from the transaction—in recuperated libido, in increased liberty of sexual expression, in entertainment—while bio-women as well as trans-women have much to lose.
Luis-Manuel is a Canadian of Peruvian-Colombian origins, migrating between Toronto, Berlin, Chicago, and Paris. He has managed to turn his love of electronic dance music into a PhD in Ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago, and into a post-doctoral fellowship at the Freie Universität Berlin. On the side, he writes about food and dances every chance he gets. You can find him at LMGM, The Blog, as well as his website.