A while ago, I wrote about my experience watching some porn that I wasn’t so happy with. I’m glad to say that I’m now writing about some porn that does live up to my expectations. Doing It Ourselves, The Trans Women Porn Project is important work that does the things that independently produced, politically conscious porn is supposed to. It makes more space in the world. It shows people how they actually are.
I’ve exchanged a couple of emails with Tobi Hill-Meyer, the director and driving force behind the project. I’ll be sharing some of her thoughts here as well as my own.
Doing It Ourselves is a hot collection of trans women and their partners of all genders engaging in sex the way they want to be represented. Starting with a group of trans women who are tired of the way that they have seen trans women portrayed in porn, this film tells the story of its own creation when they decide to, well, do it themselves. (quoted from the back of the DVD box)
This has never been done before. There has never been porn featuring queer trans women that is anything like this, produced by trans women. There has been a good amount of porn in this style by trans men, some of which inspired this work, but trans women have almost entirely been portrayed in mainstream “she-male” porn before now. FYI, very few trans women engage in sex that resembles mainstream she-male porn without being paid. I know some do, but really not many.
While the box says “all genders” I should point out that there aren’t any cis men in the movie. Tobi told me that there are somethings that she would have liked to do in terms of the range of performers that she was not able to. She says:
Diversity in a cast is another difficult trick. While being primarily about trans women, I also wanted to have representation of a cis guy, a trans guy, a cis woman, a variety of body sizes, and races — I only had 8 performers in the entire film and at least that many identity categories I hoped to represent. I think I did a relatively good job of reaching my goals on that matter, but I eventually had to realize that I just can’t be all things at once.
I have my own set of responses to this work that are not always easy. I realized, when first watching it that it wasn’t turning me on. I couldn’t figure out how not to be distracted by the bodies. You see, I have had sex with only one other trans woman since my transition and that was very early on. This is my first time seeing this much naked flesh of trans women who haven’t had tons of plastic surgery. I was looking at women like me for the first time. I’m sure that many fat women had similar experiences when first looking at Laurie’s photographs from Women En Large for the first time.
I find myself looking at hips and thighs and breasts and bellies and asses thinking that they do or don’t look like mine. It’s an up-and-down experience, alternately responding positively and negatively to comparisons I make to my own body. These responses are stronger than they are than when I’m looking at the bodies of cis women. A feature I envy on a cis woman is often a feature that I can’t have without doing something like removing a couple of ribs (wasp waisted I will never be). Watching Doing It Ourselves, I see things I like and they’re features I share. That’s really affirming. When I feel like I don’t measure up, it’s that much harder.
I’m generally pretty good about my body image stuff. I don’t mean to sound as though I am uncritical of some of my responses. There’s nothing wrong with my body, but I am not used to this particular circumstance and am not prepared to check myself in the ways I would usually expect to.
I’m sure my experience will change as I continue to watch Doing It Ourselves again (and again and again). I’ve watched it three times at this writing, and what I see and respond to is already shifting. Nothing is new for very long.
This is intense stuff, and not just for me in front of my TV. I appreciate the fact that the people in this movie did it. I’ know it wasn’t easy for all of them. I saw the original casting call and thought about it for a minute. In the end, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get past the fear and my own body issues (and there were other factors at play for me as well). Tobi says this:
But folks who I have asked to consider being in my film know as well as I do that that’s not necessarily the response they will get from others. I’ve been turned down by a lot of folks. Some who don’t want the risk of being associated with porn, some who are dealing with too much dysphoria, and relatedly, some who have serious issue with their own body image and don’t want it displayed or seen. Ultimately, regardless of my expansive sense of attractiveness, I don’t want to create a film that other folks will be commenting on how the performers are unattractive or ugly. And that’s not really about sales or popularity as much as I don’t want to put my performers into that situation. I always defer to their own judgment on the issue, but it’s hard to know when to push and when not to. For example, Joss Blaine cringed and was triggered at seeing herself in it. She’s happy with her participation, but it’s still a concern of mine.
Frankly, those who have been told frequently and regularly that they are beautiful and hot are much more likely to see themselves as hot and as a result, more willing to be involved in a project like this. Overall I feel happy about the representation I brought to DIO, but I can’t help but notice certain gaps — both in my film and in my sex-positive community which I drew talent from. I know sexy, self-confident trans women who are skinny or curvy but not so much those who are fat. Similarly, I know sexy, self-confident fat women, but they almost all seem to be cis. I think that’s representative of how many negative messages there are about each of those groups in both the mainstream culture and our counter-cultures and the weight that they hold combined. I know that queer/feminist producers like myself would like to create alternative messages, but there’s only so far ahead of the communities we draw upon for viewers and for talent that we can go.
Unlike most porn, the extras on the DVD (actually a whole extra DVD) are really worth watching. The interviews with the performers are sweet and thoughtful. These people are not just hot, they’re smart. I’m especially fond of the discussion Tobi has with Gina de Vries, sitting on a bed, with cat in the foreground, talking about the scene they did together and about the project generally. The cat does a solo scene (playing the fiddle) while they talk.
The sex scenes themselves are beautifully done. There is generally an emphasis on faces and bodies over genitals (compared to most porn). Not everything in it is my cup of tea, but let’s remember that my cup of tea tastes funny to most folks. I think it is safe to say that anyone who has or might like to have queer trans women in their life should check this out.
Sex is one of the most important ways people communicate and there are subtleties expressed about who the people in this film are that just don’t happen conversationally. I suppose that may be the most important thing about Doing It Ourselves, it tells the truth. The scenes show (at least some of) the sexual reality of the participants rather than the fantasies a film maker assumes will sell to straight men.
At the end of Tobi and Gina’s scene, Gina has just had an orgasm and starts to make sure Tobi gets off too. Tobi says “I just don’t think I’m going to get there tonight.” I’m not sure if that’s a porn first too, but I think it might be.
Tobi won a Feminist Porn Award for her work in Doing It Ourselves just days after its release. A line has been crossed. Tobi Hill-Meyer saw something that needed to be done and she did it. I don’t know her beyond the few emails we’ve traded, and I don’t want this to sound overly familiar or like I did anything to make Doing It Ourselves happen, but I’m really proud of her.