the importance of depicting “tucking” on screen for trans women
As the 2018 summer heat flares to record highs across the globe, the pressure to "tuck" explodes. For the first time, this simple act played out sensitively on screen in 'Pose'.
Pose, The Fever
Bikini bottoms, high-waisted denim shorts, itty-bitty thongs -- these summer staples can be a girl’s best friend. Or, often simultaneously, a clammy flash of anxiety for many transgender women and other femme folks with penises.
For a trans woman to pass as cisgender, she is expected to "tuck", strapping her sub-equatorial member flush against her booty cheeks with duct tape, a gaff, or a pair of snug spanx (my personal savior) to mould an unclockable streamlined crotch. As the 2018 summer heat flares to record highs across the globe, the pressure to tuck explodes. My heart goes out to all my fellow booty-shorted girls who are sweating their balls off -- literally.
Tucking, at least for me, is an intimate encounter with my body -- especially with a region itchy with insecurity. I am compelled to contort that ambivalent appendage into invisibility every god damn sunny morning, just as automated as scrubbing my pearly whites.
"For a trans woman to pass as cisgender, she is expected to 'tuck', strapping her sub-equatorial member flush against her booty cheeks with duct tape, a gaff, or a pair of snug spanx to mould an unclockable streamlined crotch."
Yet, that routine has been overlooked by nearly all cinematic or televised representations of trans women -- until Pose. The groundbreaking FX television show has been hailed by critics for its meaningful depictions of transgender women of colour living in 1980s New York, and features the first onscreen depiction of “tucking” I’ve ever seen.
The series, co-created and co-produced by screenwriter Steven Canals and seasoned television creator Ryan Murphy, boasts the heartiest number of transgender women -- five to be exact -- as recurring characters in television herstory. Not only that, Pose develops complicated characters and narratives for girls often sidelined or expelled from popular entertainment.
The third episode, Giving and Receiving, follows Elektra, mother of the House of Abundance (the name of her ball crew) as she momentarily steps away from snatching tens across the board in the uptown balls to pursue gender affirmation surgery. Critics applauded the episode’s treatment of the experience of “bottom surgery”, that has been simplified or disparaged in many other media representations.
In episode four, The Fever, Elektra is spotlighted as she negotiates her personal desires with the sexual appetite of her sugar daddy, navigating the emotional labyrinth characteristic of a decision to go under the knife, especially when one’s sense of self is at stake. Pose succeeds in portraying the nuances of a pivotal decision. But what caught my attention was a moment not so monumental. Some might even call it mundane.
"On screen, a trans woman is rarely, if ever, afforded an independent relationship with her body, where the audience encounters her flesh through her own sensations, and not those of the other -- usually the repulsed heterosexual male."
Elektra sits before a full-length mirror, unwinding and snipping cruel strips of silver duct tape. She stands, hiking up her skirt. The thing, that thing, between her legs is taped into compact obsoletion. The scene presents a routine aesthetic practice, tucking, that unavoidably acknowledges the presence of a woman’s penis as well as the shame traced onto it by the norm that women should have vaginas. The scene is important, not just for what it shows, but how it shows it: Elektra is alone in her intimate self-caressing. On screen, a trans woman is rarely, if ever, afforded an independent relationship with her body, where the audience encounters her flesh through her own sensations, and not those of the other -- usually the repulsed heterosexual male. No one walks in on Elektra in her moment of vulnerability. The heavy melancholy of a black trans woman alone with her penis is honoured, recognised as a daily confrontation with the self, and not as an unwelcome surprise for an unsuspecting man.
Opening a space for trans women’s uncomfortable everydayness undoes the tired trend in film and television of instrumentalising transgender women -- their lives and their bodies -- as narrative motors, convenient supporting characters that push forward the development of (cisgender) leads. In comedies such as the 1996 movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, trans women are punchlines: Jim Carrey spews chunks after discovering that he was sexually involved with a woman who has a penis. In dramas, like Pretty Little Liars, trans women are world-shattering revelations: A, the mysterious villain who tormented the show’s cast of characters, was unmasked as another character’s presumed-dead sibling who had in fact transitioned, eluding recognition.
Pose excites me because it presents to viewers a trivial act for some, yet fundamental part of day to day life for others. Perhaps more importantly, given the gratuitous murder of black transgender women in the United States and around the world, the show rejects Hollywood’s tendencies towards abstracting transness into inert symbols of abjection and death, or struggling superhumans. Divesting from a tradition of media that reduces transness to a rhetorical device, Pose gestures towards people and practices out in the world beyond the screen. Simple yet imperative: Pose declares that transness is not a metaphor; it’s a liveable reality.