Becoming a Woman

These stunning images are part of Teen and Transgender Comparative Study, an art installation by Charlie White at the Hammer Museum in LA (update: exhibition is over). Andrew Womack describes the series over at The Morning News:

In the images in White’s series, both figures are blossoming into womanhood, though each along a different path. As observers, however, we have been taught to view the subjects in much the same way: with sheer terror.

For just as the original 1950s Invasion of the Body Snatchers warned of Communism’s impending doom, and stories of men with hooks were concocted to frighten young girls from riding in cars with boys, so often have Hollywood summer comedies acted as cautionary tales for the male who would cast his desire toward either the pubescent or transgender woman. Because in the right skirt or the right application of makeup, each has proved alluring to our hero—or more frequently, his best man, whose idea it was to move the bachelor party to Tijuana.

So while, socially speaking, White’s subjects may represent a threat to our libido, his photos present only their innocence, and hint very strongly at a sense of our own “guilt.”

The photos are extremely clinical (reminiscent of images from the 19th century of various “ethnic types,” with perhaps slight a nod to Muybridge) but the gazes of their subjects overflow with emotion: earnestness, vulnerability, and haunting self-awareness. They are looking at the journey ahead.

Over at Sociological Images, commenter EGhead loves the images, but critiques Womack’s writeup:

I much prefer the intent of the artist– to show the process of entering (physical) womanhood… although even that is problematic– to the commentary that sees these depictions of girls and women as threats to men. I’m tired of men having to enter into everything, but if we’re going to throw them into the mix, it should at least be in acknowledging how threatening THEY are to teens and trans women. This last point was touched on, but only in passing.

This analysis also neglects that society insistently refuses to acknowledge transgendered women as women, even though they are, while insistently acknowledging girls as women, even though they aren’t.

So much to say about the photos, and so many different possible interpretations. These portraits could be about the different roads people take to arrive at the same destination. They could be a meditation on the fact that what comes so easily to some has to be fought for by others. Or perhaps they’re a confrontation of one’s unwarranted assumptions: we know that the people on the right desire to identify as female, but what the desires of the people on the left, and how our world shapes their desires?

21 Responses to “Becoming a Woman”

  1. Glossolalia Black Says:

    Selfish of me; it reminds me of the first transpeople I met as a little girl, and how much they meant to me. I am generally for ts women and little girls being friends, and definitely allies.

  2. Lydia Says:

    Mr. Womack has some issues. I think he needs to take a moment/a few years to work through those before he writes about anything outside his own personal experience. That snippet of the Morning News article says a lot more about him than it does the exhibit.

    I would love to see more of these photos. I admit to being more than a little resentful that Mr. Womack got to see them instead.

  3. Red Scharlach Says:

    What exactly is wrong with his assessment?

    I mean, you have to admit society’s transphobia has yet to truly dissipate.

  4. whittles Says:

    I really appreciate EGheads comments. The power of those particular points is what makes this particular piece so compelling for me.
    I would love to see the whole series.

  5. Andrew Womack Says:

    Hi there. In fact, that is the entire series. There are no more images.

  6. Lydia Says:


    My gripe is that Mr. Womack’s assessments: “we have been taught to view the subjects…with sheer terror,” “may represent a threat to our libido,” and “hint very strongly at a sense of our own ‘guilt’,” speak more about the audience (specifically, the audience of Mr. Womack’s own person) than about the exhibit.

    I should have made it more clear in my comment that my complaint isn’t with Mr. Womack’s writing. If he was writing an essay or editorial about his (and mainstream society’s) reaction to the exhibit, it would have been fine. But his (mercifully short) text was presented in The Morning News as a blurb about the exhibit itself–something to advertise or explain the photos. Which, in my opinion, it absolutely failed to do.

  7. Nadya Says:

    Thanks guys!

    @ Lydia: I don’t think Mr. Womack’s writeup was bad. I actually thought it was very compelling. I provided EGhead’s commentary on it because I thought it was interesting to qualify his statement, to look at it from a different and equally valid perspective, but I really think that what he had to say was spot-on. It’s as valid an interpretation as any, and one that I think resonates with a lot of people! They’re both just two different people’s interpretation of the same work. Edit: oh hey, I just saw your second comment. I get what you’re saying, completely!

    @ Red Scharlach and others: Same as what I said above. This discussion’s not really about the wrong or right way to assess these. Anyone who thinks that these images have only one correct interpretation misses the point!

    @whittles The series consists of 5 images, 2 of which I’ve reposed here. The rest can be found on the site.

  8. Red Scharlach Says:

    Ah, okay. Yeah, I follow you there, Lydia.

  9. Erica (the photo curator) Says:

    Interestingly enough, these photos came up when the Genderfork team was looking at new reccomendations, and we debated over whether to put them up. I wish we’d found this article, which supports multiple interpretations. Andrew Womack’s text didn’t seem like enough on its own, and even after reading it several times I still find his interpretation extremely confusing. Either I don’t watch enough comedies (I can’t think of one where the lead runs after a transgender woman), or I never noticed people running screaming from girls on the verge of puberty (unless you mean Carrie).

  10. Nadya Says:

    Hey Erica!

    It’s interesting, because I see what Womack is saying really clearly. Men are terrified of underage girls because they are “jailbait.” There’s a very interesting schism there: on one hand, there are tons of statutory rape laws and shows like “To Catch a Predator” to really scare older men away from associating with girls under 18, attaching a stigma to it, making them feel like paedos. On the other hand, our culture bombards us with images of highly sexualized teen girls everywhere we look – they are marketed through things like music videos, to men, as objects of desire. I think this is the fear/guilt dynamic that Womack is talking about. One branch of media tells them “you want this,” another tells them “you are criminal/degenerate for wanting this.”

    As for the comedic tropes he’s talking about, “cautionary tales for the male who would cast his desire toward… [the] transgendered woman,” I’ve definitely seen that as well. It also taps into fear and guilt for your average macho dude – fear of your heterosexual status getting threatened, guilt for finding yourself in a sexual situation with someone you’re not “supposed” to be with. I’m sure people with better memories/knowledge of American comedies could rattle off many examples. The best I could think of on short notice was the scenario of this ad… while the lady in this NSFW commercial is supposed to be biologically female, it’s that exact same trope I’ve seen in movies countless times, in relation to men and trans women:

  11. Sam Says:

    The protagonist in The 40-Year-Old Virgin nearly has sex with a transwoman, but when he realizes that she has a penis, he flips out. Which, by the way, is a way of denying the transwoman’s femaleness–men don’t react that way because they’re not into penises, they react that way because they’re not into men. (I, for one, would consider an extra penis an asset, and I’m glad that I’m dating a man who has the confidence and brains to agree.)

    There’s an interesting bit of slang floating around the Web: transwomen, particularly those who haven’t had genital reassignment surgery, are called “traps,” as if to suggest an intent to lure men unwittingly and unwillingly into being attracted to them/having sex with them and subsequent emasculation. While the term seems to have been intended as a pejorative, when I’ve visited 4chan and similar “scum-of-the-Internet” imageboards, I’ve never seen it used as such. Rather, it’s used in a slightly self-mocking way by people looking for porn. Maybe seeing transwomen as sex objects is no better than seeing them as men, but I believe otherwise. It’s a step forward.

  12. Nadya Says:

    Sam, thank you! I was just thinking… “there’s gotta be some stupid movie that Judd Apatow was somehow involved with that has this scenario.”

    Although… when talking about positive pop portrayals of the whole “I thought that dude was a lady!” surprise scenario, let’s give credit where credit is due:

    Speaking of… I’ve always loved this cover by the Raincoats of Lola:

  13. Jerem Morrow Says:

    I have nothing to add, but this is why I love CoilHouse.

  14. Iris Says:

    I drove to the Hammer museum today (I live in LA) and it turns out that his exhibition already ended. According to the guy selling tickets, they took everything down about a month ago.

    So if anyone else in the LA area is planning on seeing the photos in person at the Hammer, just a FYI, don’t go. They will not be there.

  15. Nadya Says:

    OH NO! Iris, I’m so sorry you went all that way. I will update the post to let people know this exhibition is done.

  16. cappy Says:

    Like Jerem, I have nothing to add, but this is also why I love Coilhouse.

  17. Iris Says:

    Ah, it’s ok. I had to get something in Westwood anyway. But I will take you up on your offer. I love this website so much, I can’t wait to see what your issues look like. I hear they are amazing.

  18. Tequila Says:

    Much of what I would have liked to say has been said infinitely better by others. My hats off to all in giving one so much to read and think on about. This is quite the regular topic here, amazed how it keeps evolving morphing, and staying far from static.

    Doubly impressed with seeing The Raincoats get such a proper mention. Being a big fan of them and that particular song posted…well it just shows why this little part of the web feels so much better than the rest.

    Disappointed to hear the exhibition is over though.

  19. ladyCommissar Says:

    Uhh, maybe its because I havent had my wakeup coffee or my sudafed has taken over, but I am not quite sure I understand the purpose of this article? It seems the subject is under high scrutiny, but Im still trying to figure out what that subject, and the point are.. O.O

  20. Nadya Says:

    ladyCommissar: The subject is the exhibit – the series of photos by Charlie White, two of which I posted here (there are more on the site I link to). The blog post doesn’t really have one central point to be grasped – there’s no “punchline.” It’s more of a discussion about the possible ways that the images can be interpreted, with two different interpretations (by Andrew Womack and EGhead) highlighted because I thought they were an interesting springboard for further discussion.

  21. Erica (the photo curator) Says:

    Hey Nadya and Sam!

    I asked the question above using similar wording to the Genderfork volunteer group to see if I would get a different answer. Movies were brought up, but only secondarily. The most memorable answer (I paraphrase) was this:

    Puberty IS terrifying…especially when you have to go through it twice.