Decoding Pygmalion: On Transitioning, Failure & Technologies



”And speaking love,

caresses it with loving hands that seem

to make an impress, on the parts they touch,

so real that he fears he then may bruise

her by his eager pressing.”

- Ovid

  In the mythological epic Metamorphoses (meaning “Transformations”) the story of Pygmalion manifests. An artist, Pygmalion was known for being unmarried & uninterested in “women”. So, as many contemporary reinventions of this tale (e.g the play of the same title & the musical My Fair Lady), depict, he fashions a perfect woman out of clay. The myth in many ways re-contextualizes, the desire to craft a lovable body— that by the sheer testament of passion, life can form. I find this myth a useful one for reading my own body.

My transition feels like a young boy sculpting a woman out of himself. A feverishly passionate, yet socially divested artist re-making my body as safe and worthy as it can be. Yet, a trans-femme body is too often a dead and discreet one. How does the artist in this present world with such limited tools and high demands for proof of life, create my body lovable, or at the least, a body I can love?

The digital space allows me a defense against misgendering & erasure that is often removed from how my visible identity exists and fails, daily.

The digital age has made identity formation and visibility increasingly accessible; finally, we are able to self-document the data and language of the most disenfranchised. While some question the benevolence of “being whoever you want behind a screen,” we would be remiss to ignore the power of cultivating authentic digital selves that subvert and resist our daily functional identities. The internet as a platform comes with ways to explicitly, yet casually announce your identity -- from your pronouns in your Twitter bio to your profile picture -- you can present a self that is real regardless of daily validation. The digital space allows me a defense against misgendering & erasure that is often removed from how my visible identity exists and fails, daily. In making a figure for Pygmalion to love, he created a function of his own social failure. His attention to detail, coding the figure with all of his desire, transcended its limitations as art — so how do I code my body into a beautiful thing?

I feared my body would contribute to that stigma of the masculine Black femme body.
I made the decision to transition when a Trump Presidency was still a joke for many, shortly after moving to a new city. It was just around two years out of college and while I was finally feeling good about my career and art, my daily life was in turmoil. I suffered from panic attacks, manic episodes & long bouts of disassociation. I was careless with money and did not maintain healthy friendships. I couldn't articulate why I never felt seen, though hyper-visible in my community. I felt like a fraud, conning people into believing in me. Regardless of whatever social or personal understanding of adulthood existed, I could not question, based on my financial and professional responsibilities, that I was becoming an adult, if not one already. I was teaching youth poetry, mentoring young writers via online workshops and establishing myself as a literary editor. Manhood, as my prescribed path for adulthood, seemed steeped in apologizing for thingspygmalion add in I never understood. Manhood felt like navigating a power I am marginally ever truly able to wield. I was never raised seeing men as powerful, inherently. The powerful adults I trusted were women. The leaders, healers, and artists I trusted were women. It’s not that I did not know good men, I just never saw myself in them. I was real queer & real faggoty from a young age, thankfully, under my mother’s tutelage. My queer identity has long been integral to how I intentionally function. Yet, I would be wrong to ignore my body, as it currently stands, I know how I function in the world; tall, dark, brown. I know how Black women’s bodies are rarely given womanhood. I think how Rekia Boyd was misgendered as a Black cis-Woman being read as a threat. Or the easy masculinization of Michelle Obama or Serena Williams. So I found myself, needing to carve out a middle ground. I feared my body would contribute to that stigma of the masculine Black femme body. I felt fundamentally inauthentic.
The impending public health crisis under Mike Pence and criminalization of trans youth fortify the epidemic of death against trans people, especially trans women of color.

I moved and I found myself needing the Affordable Care Act. While my move was a catalyst for transitioning, it was the knee-jerk decision that forced me to reassess my needs around mental and physical health. I never wanted to feel the need to run away again. I never wanted to feel so acutely helpless. Getting the ACA, though initially stressful, was pivotal in me finding a therapist and doctor that were convenient and healing. I worried that transitioning my public identity would not satiate my desire to be known as something beyond “man”. I worried that I would diminish womanhood by not trying for certain codes of authenticity. Could I be a trans woman if not passing as femme? What to make of my daily readings defaulting to masculinity? Within months of my first physical and early therapy sessions, I saw a clarity in myself. My trans identity could also be a divestment from gender. I didn’t have to make “womanhood” my end goal. The feminine power that raised me is ever-present, expanding, and there was always a place for me. I learned that acknowledging, investing, and relying on the wisdom, strength, & philosophies of Black women were critical to how I needed to imagine my life and work. I recognized that my divestment of gender was informed by Black women but did not need to sustain itself on their intellectual work.

By the time Trump was elected, I had already realized I needed to reimagine what my trans-experience needed to look like. I knew there were things I wanted from my body and things I had made peace with. While my gender-marker on my ID won’t be accurate until it's irrelevant, physiologically I desire a modified body. My doctor/therapist is a good man and he is one of two in my city that advocates for trans patients. Still, for months, I hesitated to disclose my desire for hormone therapy to my therapist after research of limited trans health support spread through local publications. The irony here is my doctor has had to cancel our appointments because he’s a South Asian-Canadian citizen who can’t cross the border consistently to run his own practice. Trump’s Amerikkka is just like Amerikkka but louder and more upset. This administration has already enacted direct threats to the few trans healthcare rights that have been achieved in recent history. The impending public health crisis under Mike Pence and criminalization of trans youth fortify the epidemic of death against trans people, especially trans women of color. These legislative attacks are only the most visible and widespread. But daily, to be trans is to make your body your something you, yourself can withstand. In her poem “What It Takes to Leave the House” Jennifer Espinoza writes: “You will reach /for a door and suddenly you’ll be/out in the wind touching all the/horribly beautiful things. / You’ll say this moment is not my enemy and sometimes you’ll believe it.” Authenticity is a daily ritual, a pattern or code to read as real.

I code my body dense of question, yet that mystery can give way to danger.

Let us concede that gender is a failure that functions daily despite itself. I find myself constantly trying to recode gender. I absorb the fashion, linguistic, community models that Black womanhood has programmed into me. My body, in its current form, doesn’t read as feminine, and while my apparel is either neutral or feminine, my neutrality is dismissively masculine. I find a need to build a female form on myself to read as something real in public. I code my body with makeup, dress, nails, posture, speech. I choose symbols that affirm me to display the divestment from my bodies perceived power. The only person I feel the need to trick is myself. Convince myself that I am functioning better than it appears. Though gender is ultimately an artificial intelligence; an amalgamation of influences and context that shift with new information. This only reifies its failure. In a Guardian article earlier this spring, researchers found that artificial intelligence analyzing language revealed racist & sexual prejudice —- to someone else's surprise. Failure embedded in how names and symbols have a quantifiable valence of good or bad. The algorithmic failure of language exists in the lingering linguistic dehumanization. Consider connotations around Black, Darkness, Softness, Femininity, especially with regards to their counterparts. Though language is an algorithmic failure, if the body as it’s own text, with its own technology with its own function, how can I sustainably function? What is the construction of the visibly trans?

I deflect the question of what I am because the question is not mine.

I don’t leave my neighborhood often. Though off the main drag, it is as quiet as a hood can be. When I do venture I encrypt my face with concealer & contour. I firewall my mouth with perfect match matte lipstick. But my daily act of femme resistance is my hands. I keep a full set of painted acrylic nails, a brief clawed-length, so no matter my daytime drag, you’ll see something to question on my body. My ten-year-old neighbor, one afternoon we were sitting on our conjoined porch talking about the world, whispers “I feel you’re my aunt.” Having the pleasure of knowing her mother and aunts with some familiarity this was the highest compliment. I almost didn't catch it and had to ask her to repeat, but before she began her eager defense, I smiled and affirmed her. Out of the mouth of babes. Alternatively, one evening when I dared to actually go out, I found myself at a hip-hop art party, down the way at a gallery. A friend of mine was painting live & the scene appeared to be femme-approved. Outside, getting a moment of air, this dude (in a cream colored tunic and slacks) pauses the conversation to ask me about myself. “Wait, so are you dude or a girl? ‘Cause…” His voice trails off and in a brief moment of temporal genius, I retort, “I’m your question.” Though off-handed, this isn’t an uncomfortable figure to paint for myself. I code my body dense of question, yet that mystery can give way to danger. To the wrong man, my message may sound corrupted, ready for attack.

My femininity must have a place beyond womanhood.

There is a failure when I know my body is already as real as it needs to be. The reality, or more actively, in this case, realness is a liminal term for a vast vocabulary of real experiences. Consider virtual realities, how that realness can disorient the entire physical body. Or more iconically, realness as a competitive category in the Black & Latinx ballroom/house culture. I find my body somewhere between the digital & performative. The study of aesthetics notes a psychological concept called “The Uncanny Valley”. When processing an artificially life-like form, the human’s capacity for empathy for the unreal subject peaks then sharply turns to disgust if the illusion is disrupted or the barrier between human and digital is blurred. Yet unlike these, unreal subjects, I face this body, in this reality daily. I deflect the question of what I am because the question is not mine. Any disgust or inability to see me as human becomes elusive; the problem of whoever decided to make me a subject. Any failure they read is their own.

Queer theorist José Esteban Munoz, in his seminal work Disidentifications, traces how the queer subject of color in the colonized context has a “fiction of identity” that negotiates how performances of race-gender actively rupture the limitations of identity. Presently, I use this to make a technology for my body, taking its current impossibilities and reformatting them be indecipherable. Yet, I am still making my body a lovable one and loving myself is only so much. Loving myself has fortified my reality but there are other loves necessary for life.

The failure of Pygmalion, besides its archaically misogynist subtext, is that the figure he creates is outside of himself. The failure of the myth fixes itself because it is its own kind of fiction. So, I’ll allow it to work for now. As my body continues to shape and reconfigure, I must also create other sustainable technologies beyond failure. I must create new myths to make sense of how my body’s relevant fiction. Though femme there is nothing truly woman about me. My femininity must have a place beyond womanhood. Yet, my body is still in the software of femme. It’s just the utility of the moment. We seem to be living in audaciously failing times, so why not transcend mine, I mean, while we’re here.

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