SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read this post until after you’ve seen “The Skin I Live In”; trust me, the experience is worth it!
Last week, I went to The Carlisle Theatre to see “The Skin I Live In.” I love seeing a good movie; without providing an in-depth explanation as to what constitutes a good movie, I’ll say, at least, that it is a necessary condition that it challenge the viewer to think critically. “The Skin I Live In” certainly meets this condition. It begins with a scientist who is informing his peers about his attempts to develop a kind of indestructible second skin. Burn patients, for example, would highly benefit from such a scientific invention. During a conversation following his presentation, the scientist is warned by a peer that he’d better have been conducting these experiments on rats (as opposed to human beings), because if not, he would be in major violation of bioethical regulations. Immediately, I was reminded of Professor Howard’s lecture. Although we talked specifically about toxicology and epedemiology in class, the underlying ethical assumption (that while it is acceptable to experiment on animals like rats, it is wholly unacceptable to do so on human beings) is the same. When the realization hits, and the pieces of the movie begin to come together, uncovering the truth that the scientist has actually been doing his experiments on a human being, there is this visceral reaction of horror. How could one human being do that to another human being? Are we so shaken by this realization because we can identify with that human being who has non-consensually been operated on? Can we not believe that any human being would treat another like, say, a rat? Does our empathy only stretch as far as to those who we immediately identify with? Hearing that some “lowly animal” is being experimented on tends to incite no reaction at all; it is an expectation. The contrast of the two reactions is quite telling. Almodovar, the director, is counting on the viewer going from zero to horror upon realizing what the doctor has done. What does this tell us about society? Whose lives are valued? Maxwell’s Environmental Health begins by stating, “The traditional concept of the ‘environment’ is human-centered, with everything that surrounds us defined as the environment” (2). It is all about our frame of reference; who and what we identify with. The connection to ecofeminism here seems obvious; just as human beings do not identify with other animals and therefore have no problem exploiting them, we could easily fill in “other animals” with any variation of the Other. Women, one version of the Other, are closer to nature as a result of identifying with this Otherness. Identifying oneself with the subjugated appears key in having the potential to be affected by the repression and being further motivated to work towards a change; is it a necessary condition, I wonder? Does it all just come down to some version of NIMBY? This is an important question because the answer will certainly direct the strategy of the movement of any subjugated group.
The cool thing about this movie is that the reaction Almodovar elicits forces us to confront how we think about issues like this one. In the best situation, it conflicts with other views we have, and upon reflection, we are forced to reshape the way we view the world. Seriously, how cool is that? That was just a little introduction into the movie, though. The big reason that I decided to write about the movie is that the gender issues it brought up BLEW MY MIND. The movie pushed me to reflect on my relationship to my body. I identify as a cisgendered female. This, I know. If you ask me how I know this, it would be like asking me how I know that I love strawberries. I could talk about my taste buds, but some scientific explanation still does not answer how I know that I love strawberries. It might explain why I do love strawberries, but not why I know that I love strawberries. So, how do I know? I don’t know, I just know… I was born this way?
Okay, that was a fun little dance break, but in all seriousness, I actually think the answer “I was born this way” is perfect in the sense that it speaks to this crucial point: I may be correct or incorrect regarding a plethora of assertions that I make, but so long as I am talking about how I feel, I can’t be wrong. If you identify as cisgendered, have you noticed that you don’t get questions about how you know that you are that way? You only get that question when you are Other, in this case, transgender. What up, double-standard? Why must transgender people answer this question, when we never pose it to those who fall within the ‘norm’ (cisgender). If you were crying, and ran up to me and exclaimed, “I’m sad!”, it would be absurd for me to ask in response, “But how do you know?”. Can you imagine what kind of a response you would give to that question? I would be confused at first, and if the questioner were persistent, I would quickly become infuriated. Yet, we don’t see the absurdity in posing the exact same question to transgender people, as if this case warrants the question due to a significant difference it has to the former. But if I had to guess, I’d say that the difference between the two situations lies in the questioner’s ability to identify with the other. We all know what it is like to feel sad and to exclaim, “I’m sad!”; we can all identify with this. We do not all know what it is like to be transgender; we cannot all identify with this. So the distinction between asking an absurd question and a legitimate one in this case lies in an entirely subjective ability to identify with the situation. Those are horrible grounds for a distinction.
But how about I relate this back to the movie? The scientist’s experiment was to turn this cisgender, heterosexual male into a biological female. Essentially, he made him transgender. In doing so, he utilized this “second skin,” hence the title, “The Skin I Live In.” Vicente, the man operated on, was literally trapped inside of this synthetic skin. The entire movie, I identified Vicente as Vera, a woman. When it is revealed that this biological female is actually Vicente, it is a moment of cinematic brilliance. Know why? The biggest problem that I outlined above regarding the ignorance and skeptical attitude toward the transgender community is that those cisgender people are not able to identify with the transgender people. Just as human beings are not able to identify with the rats until they imagine themselves as the unwilling victims of experimentation, the cisgender community are unable to identify with the transgender community until they identify with them. This can appear discouraging. How can someone who is cisgender ever really understand what it means to be transgender? Through his creative powers, Almodovar provides us with a possibility. Vicente experiences the closest thing there is to being transgender, without actually being born transgender. As a result of the experimentation, he is rendered transgender. Vicente is trapped in the skin of a biological woman. This is an image that a cisgender can identify with: the confusion of realizing that you have been placed inside this body that is not representative of who you are due to some experiment you had no say in. It throws you into this foreign realm and forces you to think in a totally new way. We, the audience, empathize with Vicente. We can all imagine being put unwillingly through this operation, and in the end not physically being ourselves. We would not question Vicente (how do you know that you identify as a man?), because we met his character before the operation; we perceived Vicente as he perceives himself.
Let’s take this a step further, shall we? This scientist represents Nature, God, fill in the blank. Before we are born, we are all at the mercy of whatever makes us the way we are. We have no control over the bodies we are born into, just as if we are all non-consenting experiments of some scientist. We are born this way; it is that simple. “The Skin I Live In,” provided me with this perspective, and I think it bridges the gap between the cisgender’s ability to identify with those who are transgender. As the final scene closes and the credits roll, my mind is going in all sorts of directions. I am truly disturbed, and can’t imagine a better feeling.