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Corpses, Fools and Monsters: Traveling through a century of Trans cinematic depictions with authors Willow Catelyn Maclay and Caden Mark Gardner

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The Matrix Reloaded — Warner Bros.
The Matrix Reloaded — Warner Bros.

I've been a big fan of critics, academics, and historians Willow Catelyn Maclay and Caden Mark Gardner for over a decade. I discovered both writers on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, where the pair's humorous and perceptive tweets about cinema — notably Trans experiences and expressions — unsurprisingly caught my attention.

This led me to the duo's groundbreaking "Body Talk: Conversations on Transgender Cinema" collection. Basically transcribed conversations, the ten-part series (the last installment was uploaded on January 9, 2022) was a fantastical look at a variety of titles ranging from The Silence of the Lambs to The Matrix Resurrections through the lens of two best friends who just so happen to also be Trans film critics. Witty, informative, insightful, and infuriating (but in a good way), "Body Talk" is a constant thing of beauty, and directly inspired my "1,001 Great Films" series published in 2021 by the Seattle Gay News.

Now Maclay and Gardner are back with their most ambitious joint project yet. To be released July 9, Corpses, Fools and Monsters: The History and Future of Transness in Cinema is a bold journey though over a century of cinema and is centered on celluloid depictions of transness. From the silent era to the works of Lana and Lilly Wachowski and to all points in between (and beyond), the book attempts to shine a spotlight on Trans representation — and hopefully Trans liberation — much in the same way author Vito Russo did for the Gay and Lesbian community with the publication of The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies back in 1987.

It's a daunting task, but if their individual works and the "Body Talk" series are any indication, Maclay and Gardner are up to the task. I sat down with the authors over Zoom to briefly discuss Corpses, Fools and Monsters, their working relationship, and the current state of Trans representation in cinema (and in the world at large). Here are the edited highlights of our wide-ranging conversation.


Sara Michelle Fetters: You two have worked together talking about gender identity and Trans issues in cinema for years now, most notably with your outstanding "Body Talk" series. Where did the idea for this book start? Was it there? When did you know that you could actually put all this together?

Caden Mark Gardner: I think I remember it occurring on the website formerly known as Twitter. We basically made a part joke/part manifestation that we should write a book about this, because we know stuff and other people don't. At that same point, it was either very early on in our "Body Talk" dialogues or even predating that, but I think we just wanted to get into the weeds of "transness" on screen and also trying to find anything that might be considered worth revisiting.

But, at the same time, I don't think either of us really had any real inkling of the kind of rabbit hole we would dive into for the last few years.

Willow Catelyn Maclay: Yeah. We were doing these series of transcribed conversations called "Body Talk," which is kind of how both of us got our name out there in the broader community of film criticism. We had both written a little bit before then, but "Body Talk" helped us get our foot in the door at a lot of places. We were opening up this new window, I guess, for people who are interested in film to kind of learn about Trans representation from a Trans perspective. All of these people in film criticism and cinephiles and our following on social media... were reading these dialogues that we were having about movies like Boys Don't Cry and The Silence of the Lambs.

Then it just snowballed from there. We just started joking, "Should we turn this into a book?" It kind of perfectly coalesced into this moment where the person who offered us a book contract at Repeater Publishing, Carl Neville, was reading "Body Talk" and was like, "I do think this could maybe be turned into something. Do you want to give it a try?"

Everything kind of went from there. Then the pandemic happened, and we didn't have anything to do except sit around and watch movies for this book.

SMF: That "Body Talk" series was one of my chief inspirations when the Seattle Gay News came to me and asked me to do a "1001 Great Films" series during the pandemic. I felt like I could talk about my own Trans journey and how that related to my cinematic favorites, and I could incorporate both those things into this massive, impossible 10-part series.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I love your "Body Talk" series. If people don't know about it, they need to just go check it out. It's essential.

WCM: It's so interesting that "Body Talk" is kind of this thing for our career, but we didn't actually do that many. We've done what, Caden, like 10 maybe?

CMG: Yeah, it's wild that people reference ["Body Talk"] to us, because we've maybe only done it a couple of times in the past few years. It's so wild and it's so surreal. I was like, oh, people have read our work. We're perceived. Oh my god. [laughs]

SMF: Well, people have read your work, though. Both of you have done so much stuff for a variety of publications. Whether it's the Village Voice, the Criterion Collection... so many I can't even list them all.

When you look at that body of work and then you compare it to this book, how did all of that writing that you've been doing for these publications, streaming services, and physical media distributors, plus your own sites, come into play?

WCM: I think that doing all of that work helped prepare us to write this book, because I think Caden and I are both critics who come at movies from a research perspective. We never write something just to write it. We're always looking at something deeper within culture or within the film itself.

Caden wrote a wonderful piece about The Monkeys for the Criterion Collection, which I think honestly is maybe the clearest blueprint of what this book actually looks and feels like, but from a Trans perspective. I think all of that work helped prep us for this.

We had our people along the way that we've worked with who have made us better writers. Like Michael Koresky at Reverse Shot. I think this is just the culminating moment for us, where all the work that we've done in the past has been building to this book.

CMG: I was approached to write about Disclosure [the 2020 Netflix documentary on Trans cinema], which I didn't like at all. I think looking more into how Trans people from the past might've reacted ...and how there's this sort of digital footprint now with stuff like the Digital Transgender Archive is a more interesting thing to look at. That was actually how I got my foot in the door writing for the Criterion Collection.

I would say that that piece is a notable supplement for anyone to look at, because I don't think the book would exist as it does without that Digital Transgender Archive. I know there are many Twitter and Instagram accounts that basically source from there.

But I tend to be a deep diver. I think I've referred to looking at a lot of the stuff we cover as almost dumpster diving, because you can find all kinds of treasures and trinkets and things that might be worth reevaluating. It's fun. Exhausting, but fun.

In terms of writing, I think we both come from places of liking many things high and low, and I think that's a perfect approach to have, especially when tackling this particular topic. We've seen transness be a sideshow act, but also a very stone-cold, serious-issue movie topic or a serious medical or educational documentary topic. We're seeing all these various frameworks of Trans identity presented or even coded in a certain way.

I think our passions as just general cinephiles who have these various perspectives and experiences with cinema [means] we don't go in approaching things in a prescriptive way of saying, 'This is bad, this is good, this is how you fix it.' These can be compromised works, these can be imperfect works, but there still might be something worth talking about.

SMF: You're dealing with essentially a century of cinema. Where do you even begin when you tackle something like this?

WCM: If Caden and I both didn't love movies to the deepest core of our being, this wouldn't be possible. Because I think that it's not just that we were looking at the obvious images from the history of transness, whether that be The Matrix or The Silence of the Lambs or The Crying Game or whatever. We went all the way back and tried to find instances of transness dating back to when cinema first started. I think that our broader knowledge of cinema that we already had as cinephiles kind of informed us of where to look and where to go.

We found instances of transness in films dating back as far as 1907. But in order to fully realize this, you do have to have a polymorphous cinephilia, where you're kind of looking at everything. This put us on the right path. Then take into account what we were researching, though, whether that be through the Digital Transgender Archive or through zines or whatever. We kind of knew which films we were going to look at and which films were going to be available, but we also did have some help too. I should shout out Elizabeth Purcell, who pointed us in the direction of a bunch films that we hadn't previously heard of that did end up being in the book in a serious way.

CMG: While we definitely get into the silent era, we often talk about LGBT rights in a pre-Stonewall/post-Stonewall sense. I would say the history of this book is a very "pre-Jorgensen/post-Jorgensen" thing, because of how Christine Jorgensen became this worldwide phenomenon and how that basically almost gave a blueprint for many narratives and how that informed a lot of popular culture, both high and low.

Yeah, definitely shout out to Elizabeth Purcell. Elena Gorfinkel was also a pretty outstanding reference point in just giving [us] titles of things that were kind of in the "disregarded" historical pile of mondo films and exploitation. One was I Was a Man. That's actually a Trans woman auto-biopic — that's the best way I can describe it, but it's quite an extraordinary object.

I think what we learned in looking through this history is that stuff was there — it just wasn't always widely seen. It wasn't something that would play at your neighborhood drive-in or multiplex. But these films were out there, and some of them even had considerable funding.

I think an important part of telling the history in this book was also outlining and contextualizing Trans figures, be it Jorgensen, Virginia Prince, Reed Erickson — a bunch of people through the ages who not only had influence but in some cases had a lot of money that helped actually push forward many cultural artifacts that we still look at today.

SMF: Timing is always everything, but it's interesting to me that this book is coming out right when... Trans existence seems to be at the center of almost every social and political conversation. It's almost like Trans people just suddenly appeared out of nowhere, as if the fairy godmothers from Cinderella just bibbity-bobbity-booped us out. Was it important to set that record — please excuse me for using this particular word — a little bit straight?

CMG: [laughs] It's definitely important to underline that we've been here since the beginning. When you think of people who fit into gender-nonconforming categories, that's existed since the beginning of time. But as far as the more medical definition, yes, we've been here for quite a while.

But I think what we importantly present in the book is that we've often been in this almost circular or cyclical situation, where we make this progress, we have this visibility, we have these new pioneer faces, whether they're Wendy Carlos or Jan Morris, but then something terrible happens, where the backlash overwhelms us. We all go back into the closet, so to speak, or we have to go into hiding for self-preservation. We kind of track that through the decades in talking about... both the cultural impact of these movies and the movies themselves.

But, yeah, it's quite a thing to have [the book] be out now in an election year. It's also quite something to have this come out at what we both consider a real high point in Trans authorship and a lot of Trans media work and cultural production. It's a very overwhelming feeling of many emotions and many senses.

WCM: I just want to add one thing. The structure of this book is not so much only about the films themselves but also about the story of Trans people in the United States trying to fully express themselves socially and medically, and to live their lives. The narrative path of this book is such that you're witnessing a kind of up-and-down experience of Trans film images, Trans cinema, whatever you want to call it, struggling to be born. You're seeing it grow and then fade, and then grow and then fade. It's a really knotty experience.

What I'm hoping that people will take away from this book is that we have been trying to exist for as long as movies have. We've always been in movies, and we will be going forward, whether those films are highly visible or something that's part of a more hidden archive — which is a phrase that people have been using with this book, referring to Caden and me, maybe unlocking some sort of hidden archive about Trans images.

But we're hoping with this book that people will take that narrative from it, and also [that we] shine a light on the fact that Trans people have always been in cinema, from the very beginning, and therefore, have always been in society as well.

SMF: What I love about your writing is that you each clearly come from an academic perspective, but you're still having fun. That comes across in almost everything that you write. How do you do that? Even when you don't necessarily like a film, I still feel like you're having a good time putting pen to paper and getting those words out there for people to read.

WCM: I think it helps that both Caden and I came from blue-collar backgrounds. This was something that we kind of birthed ourselves, to use an awkward phrase. "Body Talk" started as something that we just uploaded on WordPress. It was never intended to be some sort of dissertation. We've always come from a place of [being] film lovers first and academics second, and I think that we've never lost track of that. We don't want to alienate anyone with our writing.

Obviously, we're coming at this from an intelligent place, and early reviews of our book have referred to it as academic, but in a way that is easily readable. It's academic, but not at the expense of it being —

CMG: Homework.

WCM: Yes. Homework. Exactly, Caden. We don't want to alienate anyone with what we're doing. We never want to lose track of someone who is maybe 14, 15, 16 and doesn't have all the answers but maybe is reading about films made by Trans people for the first time. Maybe they're reading us. We don't want to be in a situation where we want to seem like we're above them.

CMG: I think from our own experiences and having difficulty often having access to a lot of these works, when we were teenagers or in our early twenties and figuring out our gender stuff... I definitely feel like we always have trained ourselves and have worked ourselves to be accessible reading.

But there's a part of me that wants to outright reject academia, because I often think it's all warped, in many ways, even as much as I admire the work of many academics, especially Trans academics like Susan Stryker and such.

I think there's a kind of urgency with the fact that there often seems to be so much at stake for Trans visibility, Trans liberation, and Trans autonomy that it would be useless to try to use a bunch of $10 words when we can just say, "This is what we see, this is how we react, this is why it's meaningful to us."

I feel like we put our blood, sweat, and tears into a lot of this book. As Willow said, I would say we're both very proletariat without necessarily coming off as these aloof academics from the ivory tower. It's important to us that talking about these movies invites more dialogue and more eyes to [them], and it would be useless to try to act and write it as if there needs to be some type of privileges involved in that.

A notable response we've been getting is, "I want to watch so many of these movies, although I can't see them all." Some of that is tied up in academia. Some of that is tied up in good old-fashioned Hollywood rights nightmares. I think us stressing that we go both high and low [with the films] was based on what we were able to see. Some titles were more difficult than others to find.

Although, it's interesting to see the evolution of some of these titles through the years. Some have been able to be restored or reintroduced. It's interesting to see the evolution of where we started and how it's all culminating now.

SMF: I do have to ask, what was the most fun part of putting this book together? What made you guys smile the most as you were finishing it up?

CMG: We did a lot of collaborative writing, but I think there were sections we wrote by ourselves, either because only one of us had seen something maybe or because of time. There was a fun thing where I basically wrote a whole section on Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and placing it alongside an early Trans narrative called I Want What I Want. I felt insane while writing it, and I kept waiting for people to say, "You're nuts." I was like, this is crazy, but it's also cool. It turns out, based on early feedback, readers got what I was doing. So that was fun.

WCM: Following down the same place as Caden, we did kind of trade off sections. That was the best way for us to approach this, so that we could get it done in a timely fashion, where I would be like, 'I'll write about this film. You write about that film. We'll meet in the middle and edit each other afterward.'

I think the most fun I had writing in this entire book was maybe when I was trying to finally unpack my thesis of why David Cronenberg's films are essentially attached to a Trans visual language that we can all identify with. There's this prolonged section in the book that's like, I don't know, 20, 25 pages on David Cronenberg and a few other films that are notable that Trans cinephiles have been gravitating to in recent years. That was really fun to piece together.

I think, with my own interest in horror, it just came out. The prose was easy. It was really fun to write. It was really lovely to get into the nuts and bolts of why Cronenberg's visual language is what it is, and even finding instances where Cronenberg either directly or indirectly underlines the fact that there is a transness about his cinema. There are a few revelations in that chapter that I think readers are going to be surprised by, and I'm excited to hear what they think of it.

SMF: We talked about the political aspect. But from a more surreal and maybe also fun aspect, your book is coming out at a time where we have an explosion of Trans cinema that is made by Trans directors that are being celebrated by cis film critics. How weird is that? Or is it weird? I honestly can't figure that one out myself.

CMG: It's interesting to note how when I was looking at stuff from the '90s and the 2000s, where you were seeing actual efforts made to have Trans film spaces such as — this will probably come off dirty when I say it, but that's what it was called at the time — Tranny Fest, which was an early film festival in 2000. I remember it was the academic Jack Halberstam who called it, stuck in the wake of Boys Don't Cry, an "explosion of Transgender films,"

But now we're seeing, and as Willow states, this kind of evolution of Trans cinema, of not just our existence being distilled into imagery but how Trans performance and embodiment is now something we can claim as our own, as well as Trans authorship in these other movies.

Like, The People's Joker is obviously something that, the moment it had that kind of whole legal quarrel and very dramatic cease-and-desist moment at the Toronto Film Festival, that felt like it was this mainstream breakthrough all by itself just for that. And then we actually see it and it's an incredible film.

We also see how Jane Schoenbrun's I Saw the TV Glow has this very interesting array of reactions. Willow might be able to get more into this, but...every Trans person I know has had a reaction to that movie in some sort of way. Or they are hearing these secondhand stories of people they know having these very almost spiritual reckonings with themselves after watching that movie in relation to their gender identity. Whereas [for] a lot of cis critics, even if they like it, the Trans aspect might fly over their heads. It's very interesting to see the varied reactions to this wave of movies.

WCM: The cisgender reaction to I Saw The TV Glow has really put to bed this kind of inside joke among Trans people where we assume there's no such thing as cis people. There are certainly cis people, because cis people look at this movie — it's not everyone obviously, but I've seen a lot of cis critics latch onto the nostalgia angle or the "this actually does feel like the 1990s" angle. And it does.

But I do think that Trans people are having a more specific reaction to the film. Credit to A24: they put the film in front of Trans critics before it came out. We both saw it early. We had a chance, along with a bunch of other Trans critics, to shape how the discussion of this film would play out.

It's kind of night and day to how a Trans film would've come out before we started this book. One sort of lightning rod moment was Tangerine. Cis critics at the time were misgendering actors in reviews. That was just 10 years ago, and that would be unheard of today. So, we are seeing progress made, but I do think it's very important for cis critics to read Trans critics on movies that are ostensibly about transness, because we have a different, more specific response to these types of movies.

SMF: For Trans or Trans-questioning or genderqueer people who pick up the book: what do you hope their reactions to it are? Same question for cis readers.

CMG: For cis readers, I just hope that they are able to expand their vocabulary and also their reference points beyond, say, movies that were made after 1999. Some of these movies that made big impressions, obviously, predated that, but [we hope people just have] a better idea of how transphobia often drove and determined a lot of the ways in which a film was received and also how a film was remembered.

Think of how Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda was often placed in the worst-film-ever-made category. It just feels, one, not even close to the worst film he's ever made. Second, you think of how bold that movie is and the huge swings it takes. It's so earnest. I'm not telling people to no longer think it doesn't have funny moments or anything, but look into what this film's reference point is, because this didn't just come out and make these reference points out of nowhere. What was going on in the world at the time? Many Trans movies had a "ripped from the headlines" quality to them.

As far as Trans and gender-nonconforming people, there's definitely a deeper cinematic well out there than we were often led to believe. You have to go beyond the Hollywood filmmaking mode. You sometimes have to go into watching movies with subtitles. You might have to go into the silent era. But there's stuff there that is definitely worth checking out. A lot of stuff.

WCM: I would just add onto that: I hope that when Trans people read this book, they feel a fuller realization of their history, especially if they love movies. I hope that they realize that if they go rummaging through the dustbins of history, they will find themselves.

Corpses, Fools and Monsters: The History and Future of Transness in Cinema will be released digitally and at bookstores everywhere on July 9.