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In one of the final scenes of Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, we see a beautiful young woman walking toward a car. She is wearing a gorgeous dress. When I watched her in that film I felt an utter envy, because I knew that she was inhabiting an intense longing that I could never, ever fulfill. Her chest was without a single hair. Her every curve was correct. She wore that dress with complete perfection. And she was not exactly a woman.
Almodóvar has called his film “a horror story without screams or frights.” I cannot doubt that it horrifies most viewers, but to me it was a fantasy. It tells the story of a plastic surgeon who avenges himself on a young man by turning him into a physically perfect woman. When I was younger, I would imagine similar things being done to my own body. Incapable of simply declaring my desire to look and feel like a girl, I could only imagine such freedom through duress.
In those past days when I lived in complete silence with my secret, I sometimes saw sitcoms and movies where a boy was dressed like a girl. In every single instance of such plotting the boy was compelled by circumstance to be feminized. I cannot recall ever once having seen the boy declare his wish to be a girl. It is peculiarly against the grain of masculinity to want to be made female.
This is what makes The Skin I Live In a horror film. As a young man, the protagonist is caddish and macho. Almodóvar makes much of the sci-fi technologies employed to reassign his gender, the costumey catsuit and sadomasochistic face-mask that he, now she, must wear as the entire body is re-engineered. It is indeed a horror: a man driven insane by depression and rage avenges himself by locking you into a room, repeatedly etherizing you, and cutting your body into a stereotype of female beauty. And yet I could not stop imagining that each new horror visited on this body was in fact one further step in the freeing of a desire.
What is so thorough about the doctor’s vision is that it is not only a physical act but a mental one. In order to continue to exist, his creation must submit to a feminine regime. Almodóvar shows us the calisthenics she must perform daily to keep the skin she has been fit into from stiffening. He shows us the satisfaction with which the doctor explains how she must penetrate her new vagina with a series of ever larger dildos, or else suffer her orifice closing. These physical acts perpetuate the more horrifying mental violation: being made into a project kept within a locked room, your every need immaculately seen to, like the gothic ideal of the kept woman. We watch her tear to shreds the beautiful garments she has been given to wear, we see her mutinous thoughts etched into the wall of her cell, and we understand that her liberty will only be granted once she has lost any desire to make such acts of rebellion. Once even her thoughts have submitted to the doctor’s aim, only then will she be freed.
The most perverse thing is that this game is rigged: even her acts of rebellion can only be made on female terms. She can do no differently. There are no male moves left to her. The doctor has already navigated her into a corner from which her only means of a rebellion are a woman’s. The protagonist’s mind is, quite literally, a man’s mind trapped within a woman’s body, a woman’s environment, a woman’s world. And slowly but surely, that mind is losing its last vestiges of maleness.
Who can doubt that this is a horror? Who would not recoil in terror were this to be done to them? And yet, when I watched this film my need to have my desires articulated by any means possible was so great that I could not feel this as a horror. If only someone took it upon himself to so feminize me, I would not have to learn how to utter this wish that cut against the grain of what I was taught to be.
This is the violation that I learned to overcome. I too had been navigated into inhabiting corners that I did not wish to survive in, and my project was to find the way to free myself. When I saw the beautiful actress with the hairless chest, the correct curves, and the perfectly fit dress in that closing scene, I wished that I could be that – even if by horrors – and yet I also knew that this was really a wish to inhabit a fantasy. For no human on Earth is as perfect as an actress upon a film screen: even the woman who played her would one day gaze upon herself on the screen and sigh that she too cannot live up to Almodóvar’s cinematic fantasy. I saw The Skin I Live In and I knew this, and I understood that my challenge was to find the life I really wanted to live. I did not want to be made a fantasy by violation and degradation. I would only find out who I could become if I learned to speak in my own words.
Fantasies are fine, and they are necessary, and sometime for minutes and hours at a time we are permitted to embody them. I have a few beautiful photos of myself where I can see that I have indeed become my own invention, and I love them. But they are not sturdy foundations for our identities. What I knew implicitly when I saw Almodóvar’s film, and what I brought to the fore in the years that followed it, is that we must make ourselves from what’s immutable within us. More than anything else, these things are truly ours, and we defy them as we apprehend them.