The world of this movie is a world in which transness is not the exception but the rule.
This is Lurid Speculations, a column on ’90s movies and t4t sexuality by Grace Elisabeth Lavery.
A common enough queer experience is being unsure, when one gets a thrill from another person, whether one wants to be with them, or to be like them. It is not that we are ever required to decide, one way or another, which one it is, but that we learn to rub them together; to make with the two hypotheses a lovely friction.
Not all queer relations involve this kind of switch, but some sense of uncertainty where one’s own identity ends, and the identity of a beloved object begins, is a common enough experience, and one reads it often enough in work by queer writers. And not just when it comes to people—in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Santarém,” for example, an admiration that cancels the difference between observer and observed is found in a gorgeous natural scene:
I liked the place; I liked the idea of the place. Two rivers. Hadn’t two rivers sprung from the Garden of Eden? No, that was four, and they’d diverged. Here only two and coming together. Even if one were tempted to literary interpretations such as: life/death, right/wrong, male/female —such notions would have resolved, dissolved, straight off in that watery, dazzling dialectic.
Back and forth, across subject and object, life and death, male and female, all suspended and erased in a new and vital cognitive experience.
These ideas of queerness depend on a sense of likeness, of course—they shouldn’t be possible for heterosexuals, for whom the presumptive relational rubric is difference. Last month, I wrote about Notting Hill, and the strange collapse of my desire for Julia Roberts into a desire to be Julia Roberts. We know that the archive of heterosexuality, too, is densely populated with such queer identifications. On the one hand, we have cases like the Albertine of À la recherche du temps perdu, whom Proust offers to the reader (on one rather boring level) as a figure of homosexual desire in disguise, Albert in drag. Possibly the drag amplifies the queer pleasure, perhaps the disguise is a result of censorship or repression—these are not contradictory possibilities, of course. And then there is heterosexuality as the bizarre monstrosity described by Freud, a myth that underpins so many of our stories about ourselves, our identities, and our relationships: When a man loves a woman, part of his love is a strange ambivalence entailing both the fear and desire that, when he has sex with her, she will turn him into a woman; likewise, a woman’s sexual desire for a man entails a similar, though not symmetrical, fantasy, that by having sex with him she will experience the apparently pleasurable condition of “having” a penis. In psychoanalysis, there is no heterosexuality, no relation of any kind, without a primal encounter with the idea of transsexuality; heterosexual relations are what human beings do to avoid thinking about their desires to change sex.
Then there is what trans people call t4t sexuality, the attraction of trans people for each other. Neither heterosexual nor homosexual, trans for trans attraction is almost a metasexuality: a sexual attraction to sex, a gendered attraction to gender. Trans sexuality raises the stakes, or perhaps increases the order of sexual relations organized along the homo/hetero border, in the sense of raising the terms to the second, or third, or nth, power.
Thematically speaking, on the rare occasions when t4t eroticism is pulled inside the framework of plot, it takes the form of creatures that are very like humans, as like a woman as I am, but are not human: sea creatures (The Shape of Water), robots (Ex Machina) and, perhaps above all, hot blonde alien tranny sluts (Sally Solomon in Third Rock From the Sun; the Martian Girl from Mars Attacks!; Natasha Henstridge in Species; Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin . . .).
This is Lisa Marie, playing the otherwise nameless Martian Girl whose appearance in Tim Burton’s 1996 alien invasion disaster comedy arrests the generic montage that different characters from across America responding to the appearance of flying saucers, to deliver the movie’s first—and, it turns out, last—narrative set-piece, a continuous narrative that lasts from the Girl’s appearance outside the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, through a sexual encounter with the White House Press Secretary Jerry Ross (Martin Short), to her murder of Ross, attempted assassination of the President, and her death at the hands of his Secret Service bodyguards. The Girl’s arrival marks the beginning of a full-scale invasion of Earth, but she herself is sacrificed.
She is not a real Girl, though there is no other word for her. Her hyperfeminine face and figure, her ghostly, back-up singer gait, and her beehive-sized beehive blonde hair notwithstanding, underneath this flesh suit is a skinny little green goblin, possessed of the same swivel eyes and shrubby green brain as every other Martian. But to Jerry Ross, she is indistinguishable from the hot, flashy sex workers he talked to earlier in the movie—non-transsexual women costumed like drag queens—and his proposition of her follows the same sleazy, almost likable, rhythm.
Jerry, we have to assume, is what trans women sometimes call “a chaser”: He believes he has found just another trans woman he can pay to fuck, but what he doesn’t realize is that the transness of this woman will end his world, end his life. He has fundamentally misunderstood her transness as parodic femininity, whereas we, the viewers, know that the Girl—pure, unrestrainable femme will—is pursuing with irrepressible momentum the only goal that pure femme will ever pursue: I’m going to kill the motherfucking President of the United States of America.
She chews gum receptively and allows herself to be seduced by Jerry, following him into a limousine, into the White House, and into the secret “Kennedy Room” (decorated with a Romeo+Juliet-style fish tank and a large, motile circular bed, for fucking on). First, he tries to pluck the gum from her mouth, then she bites his finger off and feeds it to the fish. Finally, she bludgeons him to death with a statuette. The death of Jerry Ross was the first successful action of the trans femme revolution; the Martian Girl’s death at the hands of the American State our first infamous defeat.
A few scenes earlier, the most explicitly trans joke of this almost explicitly trans movie: “Do the Martians have two sexes, as we do?” asks a non-binary-presenting journalist (Coco Leigh, the character rather incredibly listed as “Female Journalist”) at a White House press conference, leading Jack Nicholson to open his mouth, agog, and fail to answer. The joke is: Are you sure we only have two sexes? Because, my friend, I don’t know if you looked in the mirror recently.
It’s an extraordinary joke, a joke that complicates one of the movie’s core conceits: the numerous array of human characters, mostly played by very famous actors, whose “ensemble” quality serves to suggest the diversity and difference of humans against the uniformity and identity of the aliens. It’s a standard Cold War sci-fi trope: We, the humans (Americans) are individuals, distinct; they, the aliens (or Communists) are all the same.
Mars Attacks! ridicules the idea that any State exists that could arrest the profusion of embodied meanings, desires, and fears that cluster around the notion of sex.
But the joke with the “Female Journalist” doesn’t just predict the inevitable “we’re not so different, you and I” that every Cold War genre movie discloses as the final inversion of its bifurcated theology, and which we do finally get in a tear-jerking encounter between the President and the Martian Ambassador. It suggests thatthe way in which we’re not so different is that neither humans nor aliens, neither we nor they, have two sexes—but for different reasons. Our (liberal, human, American) sexes are multiple and interstitial, but their (Communist, alien, Russian) sexes are actually all the same, “dissolved” in that “watery, dazzling dialectic.”
The world of this movie is, like that of Clueless, a world in which transness is not the exception, but the rule; where almost no characters belong within the paranoid/performative genre of heterosexual performance, that fear of being found out that defines the heterosexual cultural project as such. There are some, maybe—if we can unlearn the instinct that Christina Applegate is a trans woman, maybe her sex scene is just straight, though it’s worth remembering that we watch it with a couple of Martians outside her trailer, their windscreen wipers swishing over the inside of their helmets. But if one were to make a list of trans signifiers in Mars Attacks!, it would go:
More or less everything that Annette Bening says: “All this greed . . . this money system . . . you’re destroying everything!”; “Please, come to earth, please. We need you.”; “People say they’re ugly, but I think they’ve come to show us the way.”
Sarah Jessica Parker fanning her toes, and later having her head stitched onto the body of a chihuahua;
Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox;
Christina Applegate and Jack Black. Jack Black fits into that category of oddly or obliquely trans masculine cis men; it has something to do with being round, and expressive, and clearly loving being a man;
Lukas Haas and Natalie Portman;
Glenn Close’s hair;
Rod Steiger as the angry general in aviator shades, who is shrunk until he is small as a bug and then stepped on;
Paul Winfield as General Casey, the way he says “I want your men alert and majestic, with a” [and here he snaps his fingers] “snap in their step”;
The most suggestively trans line ever committed to celluloid, from the beautiful and bulge-eyed Sylvia Sidney, viz, “Did any one of you traitors see my Muffy?”
There’s so much to say about transness in Mars Attacks!, one could go on and on. But the data points matter less than the experience of their density, of a cartoonish and unstable characterology in which so many characters (even including Martin Short’s Jerry Ross—the way he bounces on the bed!) present sex as something made, ballooned; something that exists in the material flux of bodies in space, rather than the meanings ascribed to those bodies by a State authority.
Mars Attacks! ridicules the risible idea that any State exists that could indeed arrest the profusion of embodied meanings, desires, and fears that cluster around the notion of sex—and that cluster there whether they arise in a Vegas casino where a waitress wheels around a tray of drinks and a pair of architecturally inspirational fake breasts, or in a White House briefing room whose authority is detonated by a non-binary journalist.
Because its theory of character is so decisively playful, even utopian, Mars Attacks! is internally contradicted by its own fear of misreading others, of being misread itself. It is a movie about the ways in which we persuade ourselves that people who are being cruel to us are our friends; it is thereabout about the apocalyptically high stakes of social interpretation. Most of the plot concerns a problematic investigation into the Martians’ motives: Did they kill everyone in Pahrump because they are malicious invaders, or because someone set free a dove and, as the President’s daughter puts it, “maybe to them doves mean war”?
Mars Attacks! is internally contradicted by its own fear of misreading others, of being misread itself.
Though it is tempting to line up with Rod Steiger’s terse and temple-clasping general, exasperated with the appeaser libs unable to see the writing on the wall, it actually remains unclear whether or not the dove was decisive, or whether, when the Martians are running around shooting everyone while broadcasting the words “we are your friends!” from a PA they’re wheeling around, they’re not actually taking the movie’s principle of playfulness to its conclusion. The deaths of characters lit up by the red and green ray guns look like little orgasms; their bodies turn to little mushroom clouds; the bones that remain behind are disco-neon colored. Visually, and libidinally, there’s not so much of a difference between the kind of body play in which Mars Attacks! revels and the kind of playfulness that leads the Martian Ambassador to vaporize the legislative branch of government. First we kill the Prez. Then the Ambassador, clad in his glorious purple lamé cape, can takes out Congress. Two out of three ain’t bad, and by the time the downbeat millennials inherit a topsy-turvy world, with their flat affect, andro bobs, and sloppy red plaid, they seem pretty grateful that it has been wrecked. Trans masc affect will have a place, evidently, in the trans femme apocalypse.
In the meantime . . . did any one of you traitors see my Muffy?