In the relatively recent progress toward portraying authentic trans lives onscreen, trans men have often gotten the short end of the stick. Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and Janet Mock have made great strides for trans visibility, and done it with grace and strength. “Pose,” “Tangerine,” “Euphoria,” and “Transparent” gave young trans feminine people a diverse array of role models and examples. Trans male characters have popped up on TV much more recently, but so far their presence has had a smaller impact. “Man Made,” a documentary about four trans men training for a trans bodybuilding competition out on VOD this week, won’t tip the scales heavily in the other direction, but it’s a poignant and worthy addition to the growing trans film canon.
The other distinction that sets “Man Made” apart is its director, T Cooper, a trans filmmaker and producer who has written for TV shows “The Blacklist” and Baz Luhrmann’s ill-fated “The Get Down.” While allyship is (almost) always a good thing, too many films about the trans experience lack a meaningful trans perspective behind the camera, a blind spot that inevitably filters into the final product.
In the film’s emotional peaks, the guys openly discuss such vulnerable topics as transition, parenting, relationships, family, and body image. Their vulnerability in these moments, which is the film’s greatest strength, is undoubtedly inspired by the fact of shared experience with the person behind the camera asking the questions. It is these tender emotional moments that distinguish “Man Made” from the slew of trans documentaries coming down the pipeline, and help it transcend its otherwise formulaic narrative structure.
Cooper speaks volumes with the film’s casting, which represents the broad spectrum of trans identity in its various forms. There’s Dominic, the bright-eyed adoptee going who invites Cooper’s camera crew into his top surgery. A rapper with a supportive girlfriend, he is the most outgoing and charismatic of the characters. A tearful reunion with his birth mother provides a more holistic view of his story.
Rese is a parent in a cross-gender relationship with a loving trans woman. Though he eventually finds housing with his beautiful trans family, he represents the scores of trans people who become homeless after coming out. Kennie is at the beginning stages of transition, and dealing with the possible dissolution of his relationship. He throws a gender reveal party the day he takes his first shot of testosterone, and his lesbian-identified partner worries she won’t be attracted to him once he grows a beard. Her presence in the film would feel problematic were it not for Cooper’s perspective and gentle questions.
Of the four subjects, Mason is the most binary in his gender presentation. A lightweight who has competed stealth in mainstream bodybuilding competitions, his muscles bulge out from underneath his worn-out Indigo Girls t-shirt. Estranged from his parents, his wife and mother-in-law support his hobby, even if it does seem “a little obsessive” to them at times.
In one of the film’s most shocking reveals, a pre-transition Mason appears in 2000’s Ellen DeGeneres comedy special “The Beginning.” During an audience Q&A following the show, DeGeneres calls on Mason with a “yes, sir” and he corrects her with “ma’am.” After falling dramatically to the stage floor in shame, Ellen listens intently to Mason’s tearful words of gratitude for helping him come out. When he finally finishes, after choking back tears, she gestures for him to come greet her and the two share a poignant embrace.
It’s a famous moment for fans of the lesbian comedian, and seeing Mason’s baby face amongst her fans somehow epitomizes the awkwardness and complexity of transition. The lesbian community is not always welcoming to trans men, but many trans men were once proud lesbians (see: Indigo Girls t-shirt). Suddenly his story feels bigger than just Mason, bigger than trans bodybuilding, bigger than “Man Made” — it’s a vital thread in the colorful fabric of queer culture.
Of course, Cooper understands all of this or he wouldn’t have included the clip, just as he understands the importance of turning the camera around on himself periodically. For any filmmaker, stepping into frame is an act of vulnerability, truth-seeking, and an attempt to connect. Cooper’s brief moments onscreen — like when he gets emotional after Dominic sees his new chest for the first time, or steps into frame to help adjust a binder — breathe authenticity and life into “Man Made.”
Journeyman Pictures will release “Man Made” across all VOD platforms worldwide on Thursday, November 7.