The road trip. Forever ingrained in North American youth as the chance for adventure, hopefully some danger, sex, and maybe even self-discovery. Sometimes it matters where you start from and often it doesn’t matter where you’re headed. You take the road to get there, wherever there is. But along the way there are always detours, rough patches and hairpin turns. This is especially true when the metaphor of the road to self-realization relates to the actual concerns regarding one’s own sexual identity.
More than just sexuality, our sexual-identity is also about our own relationship with our gender. Be it male or female, our identity is how we emotionally and intellectually recognize and label ourselves. More than simple social conditioning, it’s that deep place inside that tells us things like how we feel, what we need, and what we are prepared to give up to get what we need. For many of us it is conventionally simple, one or the other, male or female. But we should all know by now that there are a lot of shades between the black and white of it. There are many who exist outside these conventional labels. These are people whose physical make up does not reflect their internal identity, where what you see is not always what you are.
While first time director Duncan Tucker’s film Transamerica (2005) takes the theme of the road trip as a vehicle for self-discovery in a literal direction by placing Bree, a pre-operative Transsexual (once known as Stanley) in a car with her newly discovered yet unaware son on a trip from New York to Los Angeles, it is the honesty and sensitivity of actress Felicity Huffman’s performance that provides a map for the film. Winning a recent golden globe for her performance, Huffman’s portrayal of Bree is pretty provocative as it has a woman playing a man, about to become a woman. Perhaps this works because at the heart of the gender-reassignment is the inescapable relationship of genital authenticity. A long process, gender reassignment involves an intensive hormonal treatment program, cosmetic procedures, and whether it’s a penis or a vagina, the final and ultimate transformation occurs with a change in sex organs, either the removal or internalization of the penis, or the creation of one.
While Transamerica seems to accept that the ultimate definition of sexual identity hinges on the physically operative transformation from male to female, Huffman’s portrayal of Bree is a heart felt effort to create a character that does not exclusively define herself in those terms. Who we love and how we are loved are necessary to any healthy human relationship, and Bree’s fears of accepting her past inevitably reflect her fears concerning her future. It is no easy task to balance both the external and the internal, but the result is the hopeful reconciliation of the personal. While the trip with her son does not in the end deter her from having the operation, it does end up opening other emotional roads for her in her life, specifically the reconnection with her son. Beginning the film ostracized and alone, Bree ends up a richer and more fulfilled person, another in the long line of people who knows a little bit more about the world and themselves than they would have if they hadn’t left the house and hit the road.