In director Em Weinstein’s 2019 short film In France, Michelle is a Man’s Name, a trans son tries to find common ground with his rural, working-class father. It doesn’t exactly work out: although Mike’s (Ari Damasco) dad is respectful and kind to his son, he’s still stuck in a rigid definition of what it means to be a man. And in the space of only 12 minutes, we get to see an all-too-familiar discomfort rise up between the two after the father brings his son to a strip club in what he thinks is an affirming rite of passage.
The celebrated short film gets to the heart of what it means to be misunderstood even by people who are trying their best to be there for you and still falling short, something that every transmasc has had to deal with. It’s a striking example of what films about the trans experience made by us and for us can really do, and what they can teach us about our own moments of liminality.
INTO spoke with Weinstein about the short film, and their plans for the future.
INTO: What set are you on right now? Can you share?
EM WEINSTEIN: I’m directing two episodes of “The L Word: Generation Q” It’s been a very like emotionally beautiful experience for me because the show meant a lot to me when I was 14, 15, in high school. I’d go to my friend’s house to watch it. So it’s really cool to be able to, as an adult who’s fully embodied in their queerness, come back and work on the show.
It’s interesting because with “Generation Q” the show is trying to address all the stuff it got really wrong the first time, specifically the trans stuff.
I can’t give away too much, but I think my episodes are gonna really go there in a way that I’m really excited about. But I won’t I don’t want to over-promise in case anything changes.
I love your short, “In France, Michelle is a Man’s Name.” I’m just wondering if the short was based on specifically your experience or sort of this fictionalized composite?
It was a bit of both. The actor who plays Mike in the movie, Ari Damasco, is my best friend. He came out as a trans man when he was about 19 or 20. It took me a lot longer to come out in terms of my trans masculinity, and I had a very different relationship to it. The movie was kind of about both of our experiences, and also a slightly lately fictional trans man that we could use to tell the story. I wanted it to be complicated and messy and nuanced, but at the same time, I think one of the difficulties in in telling trans stories is that there’s so much that we haven’t gotten to say yet. And there’s so little representation out there. I wanted to get this slice of life moment that’s a distilled moment that gives clues as to what his broader world is like.
It’s always this binary thing of like, you’re either kicked out of the house and you have no relationship with your parents or your parents are like totally liberal or whatever, but there’s so much nuance within that.
I’ll just speak from my experience, being in the first few months of like, “passing” whatever that means. It’s not a thing I thought about very much before it started happening, and it wasn’t really a goal of mine. I just wanted to find myself in queer spaces. Not that there’s anything wrong with passing as a goal, but for me, it just wasn’t one of my number one goals. And yet the experience of passing is so strange, because you’re suddenly welcomed into this really intense club of manhood in which, like, you’re acknowledged in a way that like you’ve never been acknowledged before, and there’s this very tender, deep longing for connection that I often feel some cis men don’t have words to express. So it sometimes ends up as this extremely toxic thing because they just don’t know how to communicate it. Or there’s also the feeling of like, “you’re a man now, this is what it means to be a man,” and it’s like that’s not what it means to be a man necessarily, especially if you weren’t raised with people seeing you as a man. I can get very like very preachy about it but like, I really do believe that like trans masculinity is one of our only hopes for healing masculinity.
“There’s this very tender, deep longing for connection that I often feel some cis men don’t have words to express.”
Yes, because we’re the ones who actually are willing to have conversations about what masculinity means. It’s not like a threat to simply talk about it, which I find like, with cis men, they just get so scared and fragile if you try to talk about it.
Yes, fears around, pleasing and performing for other men specifically. Especially when it comes to sexuality. Fear turns into violence so quickly. When so much of it really is just like fear and fragility. It’s just funny. Like, cis men are affirming each other’s genders all the time. Like I get called “bro” and “man” now. And in the movie, I think it’s a similar moment around this like lap dance, where it’s sort of like the father’s afraid of being emasculated and so he pushes his son into this position of what he thinks manhood is. And sharing his version of masculinity is actually something that could potentially really heal his father, but he doesn’t share it. And he’s able to sort of see all of what’s happening in this world between these men that they’re not able to see for themselves and there’s this true pain to it, but also like, I hope it comes across that Mike is not broken by that pain. Even if it even if it’s even if it saddens him and even if it hurts, he sees it for what it is. He sees the limitations of his other parents which is also so much a part of growing up.
They don’t know how to talk about things without it becoming conflict. Like, growing up I felt like the only acceptable emotion for me to have was anger, because that’s all men are allowed to feel. So I was just like really mad all the time. But later you learn it’s not even a real emotion. It’s a mask for other sh*t.
It’s so funny because now that I’m out as trans and looking back on my childhood, I had all these anger issues like you’re saying, because it was like the only way you could express yourself. It’s so healing to be able to work to work through that stuff. And there are so many men that I’m like, “Oh God, like, please go to therapy.” Because it’s possible to heal. There can be an understanding of gender as this beautiful spectrum, and it’s actually this coming of age for all of us to figure out where we are on that spectrum.
I will say that Mike Mike isn’t fully there yet in the movie. But I think we wanted to tell you the story of where he truly is in his transition, where he’s still trapped in these dynamics around men and it’s very frightening to stand up to them because like, they often express their anger with their bodies, and toward other people’s bodies. So there really is no option. It often feels like, even for me, feeling like I’m still on a journey to like coming into my voice and self, but it’s still really hard for me to stand up to men if they say something toxic if they’re acting toxic. It’s hard to know how to combat that. For Mike in the film, I hope that at the end of the movie the experience can bring him back to having a real conversation with his dad about all of it.
Sometimes that’s the hardest part of those conversations is like, trying to break that like the binary thinking.
It’s also this thing of like, Dad, you’re on the gender spectrum too! I think that’s why, even though I like to call myself trans masculine, I like to use the word nonbinary also because it’s just a reminder that there is no binary, it’s false. Everyone is on a spectrum. I think we as trans people have to fight for our own lives and our own place on the binary. And I totally respect that fight because, God it’s frickin’ hard and no one wants to believe that we’re real. I don’t fault anyone for going all the way to that side of the spectrum of like, drinking beers and getting lap dances with their Dad. But for me, I just want to make room for that fluidity. I hope that there are moments of that in everything I do, and in this movie, which is almost three years old now. It’s lovely that it’s had this long life and I hope more people get to see it. And I also just want more and more trans folks to get to make work on a large scale because no matter what, no one but us can tell our stories.
Whenever cis people try it’s so obvious and embarrassing!
Yeah. But I also I think it’s about forgiving ourselves. Forgiveness is another thing I’m big on. Like, for trans people who took a long time to come out, or maybe they created work that like wasn’t exactly what they meant to say. Like, we’re all figuring it out in real-time. There’s room for that. There’s gonna be failures and mistakes, and there’s room for it. But it’s important to find that support for each other and for other trans creators and to free ourselves up together, even if we make mistakes. And I hope I can do that for more filmmakers and writers and people who want to tell stories.♦
Watch Em Weinstein’s short film, “In France, Michelle is a Man’s Name” on Showtime’s Shorts of the Week.