By Nick Ward
Header photo credit: Bud Kibby, TINYuproar
A distinguished cultural theorist of transgender/queer media and literature, Dr. Cáel M. Keegan’s experience as a trans researcher had been something of an individual pursuit—until he came to Carleton.
An Associate Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Grand Valley State University, Keegan is the new 2021-22 Fulbright Distinguished Research Chair of Arts and Social Sciences at Carleton University.
Keegan joined the School for Studies in Art and Culture, where he now works as an affiliated faculty member at the Transgender Media Lab (TML), offering students his expertise and a critical trans studies perspective to help enrich their modeling of trans-centered (vs. trans "inclusive") digital platforms.
“I've never actually gotten to collaborate with so many trans people on a single project before, so that is quite amazing and an experience I'd like to replicate in the future,” Keegan says.
“I'm taking away a lot of new experiences working in a team-based research design setting.”
Keegan was encouraged to apply for the role by his research collaborator, TML Director and Films Studies Professor Dr. Laura Horak, and the partnership is already paying dividends.
“Engaging with the TML team and spending time thinking together about trans-centered collaborative principles and digital design philosophies has really expanded my sense of the sorts of projects I might want to support in the future,” says Keegan.
Keegan’s work focuses on the study of world-shaping aesthetic forms, media representation, and the cultural production of transgender and queer people.
He is currently working on a new book titled Bad Trans Objects, a critical analysis of the conception, reception, and creative intentions behind some major examples of transgender representation in media—ranging from the rare trans portrayal that embedded itself within the cultural zeitgeist of its time (think Dr. Frank-N-Furter from 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Buffalo Bill in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs) to more contemporary examples from the last decade as trans characters became more ubiquitous on televisions, in theatres, and online.
With this book, Keegan hopes to interrogate what he refers to as an initially encouraging “tipping point” for transgender cultural visibility. The term “tipping point” was inspired by the now-infamous TIME Magazine cover featuring an elegant Laverne Cox, which declared “The Transgender Tipping Point – America’s next civil rights frontier.”
“While it may not have been voluntary, it was, for a moment, hopeful,” Keegan explains. “During the tipping point, transgender people were suddenly snapped into public visuality, pulled into rack focus as a newly perceptible type of difference.”
“Images of trans people became vanguard examples of an emergent gender politics that popped into the foreground, replacing the earlier objects of attention.” Dr. Cáel M. Keegan
“Images of trans people became vanguard examples of an emergent gender politics that popped into the foreground, replacing the earlier objects of attention.”
Another watershed pop culture phenomenon that Keegan examines in his book is the FX original television show Pose (2018-2021), which presented viewers a fictionalized and highly glamorized depiction of New York City’s 1980s ballroom scene through the lives and struggles of the Black and Latina transgender women who were foundational to this unique social context.
Notably, the majority of Pose’s characters were played by trans women. And while the show achieved many important milestones, Keegan suggests that with its highly chic and polished optics intended to disrupt hateful anti-trans attitudes, Pose offered audiences unrealistic standards which can further cultivate discrimination in a misogynistic and racist society.
“My current thoughts about this borrow a lot from the work of my colleague Eliza Steinbock, who has developed a critique of what they call the ‘wavering line’ of trans visibility,” says Keegan. “Generally, the media representations we see of trans identities tend to take the form of glossy, foregrounded, iconized images—like images of trans celebrities like Laverne Cox or ads for Pose.”
Keegan explains that these images are designed to pop out at us as ‘good’ trans objects because they display ‘authentic’ trans bodies that communicate legible gender performances, are traditionally beautiful, and are therefore highly marketable.
“But these objects signify as ‘trans’ precisely because they are contrasted with a surrounding implicitly cissexist field or background that goes largely unchallenged,” he says.
Steinbock makes this point about trans images specifically in the art world, but Keegan believes it holds especially true for mainstream film, television, and advertising.
“This is why I am increasingly interested in ‘bad’ trans media objects that disrupt the cis background by problematizing the sex binary itself.”
“These ‘bad’ objects ask us to consider whether a discrete male/female sex binary exists at all, undercutting the modes of power that produce cisness and transness as contrasting opposites.”
Edie Fake’s painting Center Part also serves as great inspiration for Keegan, principally because he interprets the piece as an abstract representation of the hollow spaces inside the human body.
“Gender and sex are merely the external decoration of what is, at its center, a dark part in all our flesh,” he says.
“Our bodies are so culturally overdetermined by sex and gender as ‘central’ to the meaning of our lives, in ways that have made it very difficult to imagine humanness as a shared condition across those divides.”Dr. Cáel M. Keegan
“Our bodies are so culturally overdetermined by sex and gender as ‘central’ to the meaning of our lives, in ways that have made it very difficult to imagine humanness as a shared condition across those divides.”
Clearly, Keegan is deeply interested in thinking about the potential for a politics rooted in the realization that people are all mostly hollow space, capable of becoming full of just about anything we can imagine. For him, Fake’s painting is about how politics should be more about shared capacities for transition, and less about the particular material forms we happen to exist in.
Given his focus on identity, transition, experience, and representation, it may come as no surprise that Keegan has written extensively on the massively popular science fiction films (and the creators of the films) which confront many of these issues—The Matrix franchise.
In fact, Keegan’s 2018 book Lana and Lilly Wachowski: Sensing Transgender is the first academic analysis of the world’s most influential transgender media producers, the Wachowski Sisters, whose celebrated visual works include Sense8, Bound, and of course The Matrix films, which have undeniably altered popular perceptions of science fiction, internet culture, postmodernity, and cinematic representations of time, space and identity.
With the 2021 release of a much-anticipated sequel, The Matrix Resurrections, Keegan’s work on the Wachowski Sisters is receiving as much attention as ever, as critics and fans once again try to track the much wrangled with and ever-evolving legacy of the franchise throughout the last twenty years.
For Keegan, what is certain about the films is that they are a text bound in transgender experience and politics.
“It is at least partly about transness,” he says. “The Matrix follows common themes such as dysphoria, identity realization, name change, hormonal therapy, social reintegration—the medically-mandated pathway for gender transition.”
Perhaps the richest example of this deeply interwoven narrative is the iconic scene in which Neo must determine his fate: Should he choose the blue pill and return to his familiar but restrictive grey life, or should he choose the red pill and emerge in a new world where reality is less prescriptive, potentially more real, but certainly more dangerous?
“The scene for me really stands out as a moment when the film seems to comment quite directly on the experience of dysphoria—Neo knows something is wrong with the world—as well as the realization that the gender binary and sex assignment have been imposed upon us as a sort of artificial reality,” explains Keegan.
“Taking the red pill could be metaphorized as the taking of hormones, but I think it actually speaks to the deeper experience of realizing that your body has these unanticipated potentials for sensing and moving across falsely imposed boundaries. Instead of being framed as a disorder, dysphoria is represented as a kind of implicit intelligence for sensing that the world is larger than what is immediately apparent,” he says.
“The red pill unlocks that intelligence and allows it to take a material form.”
Neo, of course, chooses the red pill, and with this decision he avows a new system manifesto—welcome to the edge of the real, in a world where anything possible.
Correspondingly, Keegan hopes that during his time at Carleton and with the Transgender Media Lab, he can continue to help push the boundaries of what transgender and queer scholarship looks like.
Dr. Keegan has a piece related to his new book project in the March 2022 issue of Film Quarterly, titled "On the Necessity of Bad Trans Objects." To contact Dr. Keegan, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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