So, I feel kind of embarrassed that I clicked on the news links for pictures of the first successful full face transplant last week. I’m not entirely sure why I did it. It’s more complicated than just the attraction of a freakshow–not that I think the man who received it is a freak, just that some of the people who look at him may be doing so for the same reason people used to go to sideshows. This is part of why I’m embarrassed to admit that I clicked the link. But not all of it.
I’m fascinated by plastic surgeries. I’ve spent hours looking at the before and after pictures of people who have received facial feminization surgeries. I’ve even had consults myself. FFS is kind of a raw nerve for me. On the one hand, I don’t actually think I need it. On the other, I like the idea that it would reduce the chances of random people identifying me as trans. I think my motives in this are similar to C. L’s motives for getting breast implants (as detailed in her interview here). There are times when I’m sure that this is the crazy part of my brain talking, because I know perfectly well that I look fine. If you saw me on the street, you probably wouldn’t think twice. Be that as it may, when I look in the mirror every morning, I see the male face I wore for a couple of decades staring back at me. I don’t know that bankrupting myself on FFS would even change that perception for me. It’s all in my head, but the impulse remains.
All of which got me thinking about Eyes Without a Face, the great 1960 French movie about a mad plastic surgeon who kidnaps and murders women to harvest their faces in a vain attempt to restore his own daughter’s ruined face, and how it completely demolishes the beauty myth as an instrument of patriarchy. The movie portrays an attempt to enforce a standard of beauty by force. The recipient of our mad doctor’s radical treatments never asked for them. At the end of the movie, she retaliates against her oppressors and wanders into the night.
It goes without saying that Eyes Without a Face is a ghastly movie if you’re even a little bit squeamish. It’s notorious for its scenes of surgical gore, expertly faked. It looks real and it’s filmed with a striking clinical clarity and dispassion. It’s less obvious that this is a feminist movie, given the outrageous violence perpetrated against women in it. But it is. It’s an indictment of what patriarchy values in women: beauty and obedience. During most of the film, Edith Scob’s character wanders through her father’s palatial mansion with a featureless mask. To the world, she’s dead. The combination of this plot point and the visual of the mask suggests that a woman without beauty is a woman without identity. There are persistent images of animals in cages–especially birds–that further suggest that Scob is imprisoned by her father’s obsession and that her function is decorative, like a songbird. The actual depiction of Scob’s disfigurement suggests the horror patriarchy feels for the physical bodies of women, though it’s greatly exaggerated for effect. Also built into the fabric of the film is the doctor’s accomplice, a nurse played by Alida Valli. Her character is a stand-in for the way that patriarchy co-opts women themselves as enforcers of unrealistic beauty standards.
Trans women feel that enforcement more keenly than most, I think. We’re sometimes held to an impossible standard relative to cis women in order to even be accepted as women, so I feel for Christiane Genessier, the character in Eyes Without a Face, because she’s an avatar for anyone who submits to the surgeon’s knife in order to have her identity as a woman, or even as a person, validated.