December 12, 2016

Gender in the Darkroom

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Journalist Susan Faludi has been writing about gender for decades, from her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, about the aftermath of the second wave of the feminist movement, to Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, in which she examines how economic, political, and cultural shifts have created challenges for men. Her latest book, In the Darkroom, is by far the most personal. It explores her father’s transition from male to female.

Faludi’s father had been domineering and sometimes violent when the author was growing up, and they had been mostly estranged for many years when she got an email that her 76-year-old father, formerly Steven, had undergone sex reassignment surgery and would thereafter be known as Stefanie.

In the Darkroom is so named because the elder Faludi had been a photographer who had specialized in retouching images in the years before Photoshop. Faludi found her father to be something of an enigma, and the book focuses on the author’s attempt to get to know who her father was and the woman she had become. She explains that her father was masterful at creating the reality that he, then she, wanted others to see.

Faludi is clear that she is writing about her father and her attempt to get to know her as Stefanie, and she does not generalize these observations to all transgender people in the book. Still, there are some useful insights in the book that help us understand the complexities of gender and identity.

Stefanie first announced her transition via email, stating that she had grown tired “after years of impersonating a macho man.” During Faludi’s several visits to get reacquainted with her father (who had moved from the United States to her native Hungary years earlier), Stefanie repeatedly mentioned that people hadn’t taken her seriously as a man, and that as a man she did not feel respected.

Ironically, Faludi notes that it was her father’s domineering control of her family—and her mother’s desire for independence from that control before their divorce in the 1970s— that sparked her interest in feminism as a teen. She vividly describes her fear of her father after her parents separated and he used violence to try and maintain control, including an incident where he brutally stabbed her mother’s new boyfriend.

Was her father’s patriarchal control an attempt to play a role he thought others expected of him?

She later would ask Stefanie if she had always felt like she was female. She said no, she had never really thought about it before deciding to transition. In contrast to many transgender people who report this feeling, for Stefanie, it was a role she thought she would be more comfortable with. She liked that men would now offer to carry things for her, and used the Magyar phrase kezét csókolom (I kiss your hand) when greeting her (although Faludi wondered if this chivalry was related to her father's advanced age as much as new gender).

Faludi critically examines the idea that gender is something fixed or essential; in other words, something innate that shapes our personality. Stefanie was prone to make essentialist statements about gender, attributing her behavior to her newfound femininity. Yet Stefanie’s own decision to transition was less about her “innate” feelings of being a woman and more about feeling more comfortable in this social role.

Stefanie Faludi was a complicated person, which In the Darkroom illustrates quite well. Portraying the teen who survived the German occupation of Hungary and later escaped the Soviet occupation to become a filmmaker in South America and then a domineering father in postwar America, Faludi’s book seeks to encapsulate the full humanity of her father. In her visits with Stefanie over a decade, her father gradually opens up more about the past, and comes to identify less as a transgender woman and more as a woman with a unique set of life experiences.

In the Darkroom reminds us that as we are all far more than our gender identity.

Comments

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