Sundance’s ‘Framing Agnes’ Pushes for More Complicated Trans Representation

The woman’s real name was called “Agnes”, one of the first to participate in sociological research on transgender identity, has been lost to history. But her story is that of folk hero lore: She participated in a gender study at UCLA beginning in the late 1950s, in which she told researchers that She was born a boy and started growing breasts naturally as a teenager. Years later, the men she spoke to had to withdraw their jobs.

In fact, Agnes started taking estrogen pills during puberty. She lied to secure gender confirmation surgery — a move necessary only because of the rigid institutional classification that such procedures are necessary for certain people (like the opposite sex) but not limited to transgender people like Agnes.

Frame Agnes, debuted at Sundance Film Festival 2022 Seventh, Agnes considers Agnes an icon for the transgender community alongside figures like Christine Jorgensen – the first American transgender woman to come out and be praised after gender confirmation surgery. But as the film directed by Chase Joynt points out, a recent archival discovery revealed that Agnes was actually one of a number of transgender people involved in Harold Garfinkel’s research at UCLA in the 1960s — a detail that recreates the setting of her story and what we can learn from it.

The film recreates transcripts from a number of different subjects’ conversations with Garfinkel, including Agnes, and segments them into a talk show. (Talk shows, Joynt points out, are a bad medium—one that, like Garfinkel’s research, has provided visibility into transgender people but often through a lens of exploitation.) Joynt combines these scenarios with more conventional head-to-head interviews — a storytelling technique that challenges viewers to question our cultural obsession with myth-making.

What does it mean that Agnes has become an icon while so many others who speak to Garfinkel – like Georgia, a Black transgender woman played by Angelica Ross in the film – have gone down in history? And what assumptions do we make to fill the inevitable gaps in each person’s personal history to create a cultural lore that embraces both? Frame Agnes‘The most compelling insights grow from these questions – especially as they relate to how our cis-dominated society envisions and treats transgender people.

In exploring these cultural institutions, historian Jules-Gill Peterson says, the film goes beyond “humanizing” transgender people to “granting them the kind of complex personality that our culture has. we rarely get.”

Gill-Peterson, who provides expert commentary and narration for several films, would love to see a turning point in which we all begin to question America’s “system of symbols”. Why are we so attached to them, she wondered — and what do we really learn from these stories?

There’s no need to take your torches, pitches, and celebrity posters, though: She’s not suggesting we get rid of the icons altogether. “Not to say that all is good or all is bad,” Gill-Peterson told The Daily Beast. “I mean, as a historian and certainly as a transgender woman, Me too attached to these people. ”

“In my opinion,” she added, “it is not that we must have or not have these attachments to icons. I think we just have to ask what kind of work do we want them to do, and what does that say about us? ”

Frame Agnes began as a short hybrid documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019. Chase Joynt and sociologist Kristen Schilt collaborated again for the film, which they approached as a collaboration. both on-screen and off-screen. The new film interweaves staged reenactments, conversations between the filmmakers and various performers about the project itself, and expert commentary.

Gill-Peterson says that this “collective documentary” approach allows the film to comment on both the individual stories and the act of telling the story itself. Even better, she adds, the film does this in a way that invites audiences to consider their own relationship to the kind of “heroic” brief stories we’re as a society. very dear.

Gill-Peterson says the film also becomes an opportunity for personal reflection. “I was invited to actually appear in this film as I am, presenting myself as a transgender woman of color — which is interesting, not really what I usually say I am. must do.”

As Gill-Peterson notes in the film, whenever she enters an institutional setting to conduct her research, she does so as a scholar — a role (much like most spaces are still ruled by straight white men) which requires a certain type of performance to be considered “professional”. When considered alongside an anti-transgender stance that trans people’s expression is a “performance”, that dynamic becomes even more compelling.

Many parts of Frame Agnes highlights the odd place in which Garfinkel’s subjects find themselves. As Gill-Peterson said, “You’re asked to share your life [while at the same time] everything you say about yourself is dismissed as if you know nothing about who you are. It doesn’t make any sense.”

I was invited to actually appear in this film as I am, to present myself as a transgender woman of color — which is interesting, not really what I usually say. is I have to do.

It’s been a joy to watch the film’s dramatic cast – including Zackary Drucker as Agnes, Ross, Jen Richards, Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard and Stephen Ira – bring moments to life as Garfinkel participants show a bit of shade his way. There is a certain joy in watching them talks back and mocks Garfinkel’s ignorant assumptions about their lives, identities, and what is supposed to be accepting of what he calls “pretending”.

But an imbalance of power between interviewers and interviewees remained inevitable – a dynamic that continues to this day.

A main topic of Frame Agnes is what it feels like to be “in the frame” — always feeling like you’re burning under a magnifying glass. Agnes and her colleagues are often onscreen while Joynt, who plays Garfinkel’s talk show host, asks him questions from outside the frame.

Equipment is not just “representative” in the modern sense as it relates to visibility; As Gill-Peterson pointed out, “It’s more of a story about what happens to your life if you can never get out… If in any way, being attracted to attention. could mean you lose control over your image.”

It’s something Gill-Peterson has experienced in her own right as an intellectual and a writer who has transformed herself in the public eye. At certain times while talking or participating in online chats, she begins to feel her own words and images move away from her; Cultural conventions and assumptions about transgender women of color seem to overshadow her actual statements.

Historian Jules Gill-Peterson

Johns Hopkins University

“It’s like this kind of cultural unconsciousness does a lot of harm to the world,” explains Gill-Peterson, “and that’s a relatively small example”.

The question then becomes not only of how we re-access repositories like Garfinkel’s – in their own right, harm, guarding, and objectification records – but also how we can improve existing research. “Are there any tools in the world with which we can break that cycle?”

The answer might bring us back to the idea of ​​symbols — whose most remarkable features may actually obscure more than they reveal.

“So I often think what we want them to do, what we hire them to do, actually has very little to do with their real lives,” says Gill-Peterson. “And there can be a kind of repulsiveness and a kind of revisionism that hides what was really interesting or challenging about people’s lives in the past.”

“I just want to see the bar raised for us, collectively and culturally,” she continued. “I want to see more complex stories told.”

Frame Agnes, Gill-Peterson says, is a step in that direction — a film that emphasizes, above all, that transgender people are not heroes or two-way survivors but, in fact, humans have complex and non-existent rights. perfect like anyone. is different.

“It’s not about trying to fix our ignorance of the past,” she said. “It’s not saying, ‘This is the true story.’ It is not saying, ‘Because a thing is a lie, we must replace it with the truth.’ That is to say, look – reality plays out between truth and lies. “

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