Bechdel Test Canon: Southern Comfort
I have some misgivings about entering into the fourth week of the series and only now addressing a picture with a transgender protagonist. These concerns are made worse by the cruel dramatic irony that the main character in Southern Comfort is a man who dies of ovarian cancer. It is complicated by the fact that the selection in question is also the first documentary I have considered for the Bechdel Test Canon. I meet most documentaries with incredulity, encountering components like editing with skepticism rather than regarding the finished product as truth.
But Saturday was Transgender Day of Remembrance. It's day where people are to reflect and pay tribute to members of the transgender community we have lost. While I'm not entirely sure whether the Bechdel Test accommodates transgender people, I absolutely believe that it should. As a cisgender feminist who occasionally trips up her pronouns, I believe it to be my responsibility to learn and be an ally. Thus, I believe gallant Robert Eads and Southern Comfort, Kate Davis' 2001 documentary about his final year deserves commemoration.
Eads met Davis at an FTM conference in Maryland while she was shooting a project for A&E. After their introduction, Davis immediately wanted to do a project with Eads. As his health was rapidly deteriorating, Davis set out to his trailer in Toccoa, Georgia and set out to capture as much as she could. The location and Eads' medical condition make Southern Comfort exceptional. Jasbir Paur recently wrote a great piece in The Guardian that was critical of the It Gets Better project, believing Dan Savage's video to be "a mandate to fold into urban, neoliberal gay enclaves," which excludes entire populations of the GLBTQ community. Eads would have been in that number.
This dovetails nicely into the thesis of Mary L. Gray's remarkable Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, which posits that scholars and activists need to move away from conceptualizing the city as a hub of queer community. Gray focuses on people and organizations in central Kentucky, considering homemaker's clubs and Wal-Mart drag shows as reclaimed queer spaces. She also follows two friends whose transition is met with different responses by their families. Notably, the pair cite Lee Grant's 1985 HBO documentary What Sex Am I?, which they saw on the Discovery Channel, as integral to their transition. This gestures toward the ingeniousness of rural citizens, as well as the relative scarcity of resources they have to work with. Such was Eads' case. He was instructed by doctors not to get a hysterectomy following his top surgery, as they believed his entrance into menopause and lack of interest in a phalloplasty voided the necessity. When Eads began bleeding as a result of spreading cancer, he was denied admittance from all hospitals in his surrounding community, largely because medical practitioners were embarrassed to treat him and feared they would lose business. Basically, he was handed a death sentence.
Eads made the most of it. Much of the documentary follows him and his chosen family, which includes his friends and partner Lola Cola. The conversations they have are especially interesting. Many note Eads' relationship with Cola, a trans woman, with whom he shares an easy chemistry despite knowing that their affair is truncated by Eads' impending death. Indeed, their partnership is especially powerful, both in the devastating intimacies Eads' reveals about his childhood in female drag as Barbara and in the small moments where they bicker, flirt, and are tender with one another. But I would also point out his contentious friendship with Maxwell Anderson, who transitioned at around the same time as Eads, shares his bluster, and died earlier this year. Taking to the role of mentor, Eads believes Anderson to only understand intimacy as it relates to sex. Both friends are tremendously critical of each other's partners.
The relationships Eads' friends have are also fascinating. Anderson is with Cori, who once identified as a gay man but transitioned to female. Gentle Cas Piotrowski may have the most interesting relationship. He is with Stephanie, a cis female who was raised in a racist, homophobic environment and endured seven abusive marriages but grew to love her partner once she recognized his humanity. The group engages in rousing discussions, particularly about gender identity, the lack of familial support, and the prejudices of an unreliable medical community. Anderson believes doctors deliberately mangle genitalia during phalloplasties because they "don't want to make men out of second-class citizens." Piotrowski talks about his botched top surgery, where the doctor left a gaping hole in one of his nipples. None of the men received the elegant top surgeries showcased in publications like Original Plumbing.
The group occasionally encounter their families. Anderson receives a phone message from his mother, who refers to him both by his given and chosen names. Eads' parents and son visit him, though his parents ask to remain anonymous. Eads reveals that he lived for ten years in a lesbian partnership following his divorce from his children's biological father before transitioning, which his parents never got over. His father notes in an interview that their son is passed off as a nephew to their neighbors. But mostly they interact with the unit they created. The movie climaxes with Eads' final appearance at Atlanta's Southern Comfort Conference, an event that helped build this family. Eads and Cola present at a panel on intimacy and Anderson sits on another panel, discussing the transgendered male community's fight for economic equality. The group also puts on their finest formal wear to celebrate the prom they never had.
Southern Comfort ends quietly with Eads' brief stay in the hospital. His death occurs off-screen, cued by a voice-over by Cola as the camera lingers on Eads' empty trailer. She comments that nature welcomes heterogeneity, wondering why humans cannot do the same. This recalls an opening scene in Eads' pick-up truck, wherein he recounts a friendly conversation he had with a Klansman while smoking his pipe outside of a Wal-Mart. The Klan member intended to recruit Eads, clueless as to who he really was because he seemed so "normal." Though singular in many other ways, Eads saw himself as a heterosexual white man. That many could not or chose not to see him this way and continue to treat others with similar disregard further validates Cola's unanswered question.
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