Transamerica was released in 2006 and was written and
directed by Duncan Tucker. It is a road movie whose central
character, Bree, played by Felicity Huffman, is a pre-operative
male-to-female transsexual, awaiting final gender realignment
surgery, who discovers that she has an unknown son called Toby.
His story forms an important part of the film too, portraying
his search to find his father and his roots.
Felicity Huffman’s performance is outstanding
and won her numerous awards, including the Golden Globe (2006) for
Best Performance by an actress in a Motion Picture Drama, two
International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival Awards for Best Feature
Film (2005) as well as an Oscar nomination.
interview with Robert Newton in 2005, Duncan
Tucker was asked what had prompted him to write the screenplay and
he replied: “I was thinking about the themes of family and what
it's like to feel like a misfit and not at home in your own skin.
Anyone who has been to high school knows these themes. Everyone's
journey in life is to grow up, and Bree thinks her journey will end
when she becomes female, but realizes that hers is really a journey
into womanhood, to a place where she can feel the pain and joy of
life again.” He also explains that the portrayal of Bree’s mother
was inspired by his experience of his own mother.
In the same interview, Tucker reveals that his
story was inspired by a woman he knew in Los Angeles, who one day
revealed her true identity to him as a male-to-female transsexual.
This led him to research the topic extensively, meeting more than a
dozen transsexual women, and reading everything he could on the
subject. Tucker even considered using a male to female
transgendered actress for the part of Bree, but as those known to
him were living ‘stealth’ (passing as women without revealing their
original biological sex) he felt it would be too difficult for
We meet Bree, formerly known as Stanley, at
the start of the film practising the voice exercises that help her
to sound more like a woman. She then takes a phone call and
states that “Stanley doesn’t live here anymore”, but learns from
that call that Stanley has a son, called Toby, who is in trouble in
New York. Bree, unaware that she had ever fathered a child,
mentions Toby to her therapist when she is about to hand over the
paperwork allowing Bree to proceed with surgery. Her
therapist consequently suggests that she must find out more about
her son before the surgery can proceed. Bree’s male biological
identity, and her ability to have fathered a child, must be
acknowledged and explored before it can be relinquished.
This sets the scene for the journey that
follows as Bree, posing as a church worker, bails her son from jail
and travels back across America to Los Angeles with him, only
revealing various truths about herself to him at different stages
along the way. Toby’s search for a stable and positive
relationship with his unknown father adds dramatic tension for
viewers, who are in the privileged position of understanding just
who Bree is to Toby before he discovers the truth. It is through
Toby’s eyes that we are able to scrutinise Bree’s performance as a
woman, such as when they befriend a man who gives them a ride part
of the way, and who appears to fall for Bree, unaware of her
history. We watch as Toby struggles to see his father as a
woman, to whom another man is attracted as a woman.
A reluctant visit to her family home provides
some very painful scenes, as her mother states that she cannot
respect Bree’s new identity and both parents express grief for the
loss of their son Stanley. However, even crueler is their
delight in the discovery that they have a grandson, who somehow
replaces their lost son. It is in this setting that Bree is forced
into revealing her circumstances fully to Toby and to outline her
plans for surgery.
Bree and Toby do finally end up in Los Angeles
but the film resists a completely ‘Happy ever after’ ending. While
Transamerica tells its story with humour, it does not
trivialise any of the big issues at the core of the film.
Relevance to the field of Mental Health
The challenge for anyone working in the mental
health field is always to elicit and understand what a person is
thinking and feeling whilst recognising that this may be in
contrast to their appearance and behaviour. This is
especially so in matters of gender identity (the gender that you
feel you should be) and gender dysphoria (a condition that
describes the feeling of being trapped in a body of the wrong sex).
Transamerica offers the viewer the experience of just such
an assessment, through the eyes of Toby, from his first encounter
with Bree to the final scenes. The film raises an awareness of the
psychological conflict an individual may experience if they decide
to be open about their transsexuality and illustrates the courage
that is required to make such a life choice. Bree, like many others
had not chosen the path of openness, but is unexpectedly forced
into revealing her history to Toby, giving us an empathic
understanding of what it may be like to be ‘outed’ against one’s
Transamerica is a film about
performance and the search for authenticity. We watch, in
some detail, the struggle of Bree as she tries to pass as a woman.
At the same time, we are drawn to the work of the actress, Felicity
Huffman, who must offer us a credible performance as a biological
male before she can perform as a transitioning transsexual woman.
The film encourages us to reflect upon the performance of gender
stereotypical roles that we all learn at an early age and to
consider how hard it might be to change those performances.
Transsexualism is an extreme and long-term
type of gender dysphoria. It is defined in ICD-10 as a mental
disorder of adult personality and behaviour (F64.0). For diagnosis,
the individual must have a very strong desire to live as a member
of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by a sense of discomfort
with, or inappropriateness of, their anatomic sex and a wish to
make his or her body as congruent as possible with the preferred
sex (usually involving hormone treatment and surgery). It is also
important that none of these feelings exist as a symptom of another
mental disorder like schizophrenia or as a result of a genetic or
The NHS has good information available on its
website on the subject of
Gender Dysphoria, which has an estimated prevalence in the UK
of 1 in 4,000 people who are receiving medical help, although there
may be many more people with the condition who have yet to seek
help. On average, men are diagnosed with gender dysphoria five
times more often than women.
The subject of transsexualism is gaining wider
general public awareness in the UK, through various openly
transsexual individuals, such as
supermodel Lea T who is the new face of
Juliet Jacques, who has been describing her
personal transgender journey in a regular column in the Guardian
newspaper as well as
TV soap Hollyoaks, which is tackling the
subject in a storyline about a teenager with gender dysphoria.
For anyone wanting to gain a greater empathic
understanding of the enormously complex issues facing people who
seek to realign their biological sex to match their gender
identity, Transamerica is a perfect starting point.
Minds on Film blog is written by Dr J Almeida, Consultant