-Orlando: Well. This is a little weird for us.
-Orlando: I thought I was the only one.
-Orlando: When did you get yours?
-Orlando: Ah… not so long ago. Where?
-Mikael: In the Hospital Karolinska.
-Orlando: I see… And… You did…
-Mikael: The whole thing… yes… 94. Hmmm… I was 51 then. And you?
-Orlando: One of the first operations of sex change in Sweden actually.
(Arrepentidos, 2012: 1)
Arrepentidos (Regretters) is a Mexican play based on a Swedish documentary by Marcus Linden about two Swedish men, Mikael and Orlando, who decided to become women, only to realize a few years later, that changing their sex had been a mistake. The play presents the first time Orlando and Mikael meet. They talk about their lives, experiences as women, as men and their different views about sex, gender and sexuality.
My interest in this play is tied to the representation and perception of women by the two characters. They had the idea of an essentialized woman, who had a privileged position in society, protected and supported by man. This play challenges the binaries of men vs. women in all possible ways. It studies masculinity, agency and power relations through two particular cases of male to female transexuals, Orlando and Mikael. This paper aims to break down the dichotomies intrinsic to gender studies, argue against identity politics and expose what Michelle Rosaldo names the “Problems of Universals”. I support Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s thesis to “disarm the categorical imperative” that, as she explains, promotes mystifications about motive in the world of the “politically correct”. (Sedgwick, 1990: 60).
This paper will first present the most important moments of the play to link them with some of the readings we did during the semester. In the second part, I will present my personal experience while observing and researching about this play to finally outline the bivalences and ambivalences of this story that makes it impossible to think of sex, gender or sexuality in terms of dichotomies.
Director Marcus Lindeen met Orlando and Mikael when he was hosting a cultural show on the Swedish Radio about “Regrets”. Mikael was one of the people the director interviewed early that night as a case that he thought was unique. Later that night, as the show aired on the radio, Orlando called the radio station to tell his story.
Despite the two characters’ shared experience, their motives and journeys have been extremely different. Orlando was one of the first sex change patients in Sweden in the sixties; he got married to a man months after his surgery and lived as a woman for 11 years to then have a full reversal surgery. As for Mikael, he went through the operation in his fifties and very soon realized he had made a mistake.
Shortly after that radio show, the director came up with the idea to have Mikael and Orlando meet and make a documentary film. They were first reluctant to make their story public but then decided to take an active part as actors of the film and as producers of the play that has been translated into English, French, German, Norwegian and Spanish. In 2013 the play opened in Mexico City at the Teatro Helénico under the name ”Los Arrepentidos”.
The play shows the two men sitting facing one another and pictures illustrating their experiences with sex-change operations complement the conversation.
The tête-à-tête goes through several stages where they talk about themselves as women or men or as an undefined in-between. Anne Fausto-Sterling explains how Western culture is deeply committed to the idea of only two sexes (The Five Sexes, 1993: 221). She argues, “language refuses other possibilities”. She had to formulate conventions as his/her and s/he to refer to someone that is neither male nor female. This theory applies well to the two characters in question. The play starts presenting Mikael and Orlando as men. They refer to themselves as men. As the play advances this definition gets blurred. I will refer to Mikael and Orlando using masculine pronouns but use Fausto-Sterling’s conventions s/he and his/her to present Mikael and Orlando’s stories and points of view whenever they talk about themselves as an in-between of men and women.
Orlando is dressed in a red velvet suit, he looks confident, he wears earrings and his presence is strong on the stage. His decision to become a woman was driven in part by his attraction to men. He felt he couldn’t be openly gay without being judged and harassed by the conservative society of the time. He saw the surgery as the solution to be with men without hiding.
Another reason for wanting a sex change was that Orlando lived as a male prostitute and saw sex surgery as a way to build up his life out of poverty. “Nothing can be worse than this, that’s what I thought. Actually, it was not so much wanting to be a woman. At least for me then, I wanted to get out of the life I led, so simple. Ending the nightmare of the police harassing me. Earning measly cents sleeping with old men… People spitting on me because I liked men… Always freezing and starving … A woman would never be treated this way … It had to be better. And somehow I decided that a sex change could be a way for people to accept me, to get them to love me. Without having to feel ashamed” (Arrepentidos, 2002: 9). Orlando’s story as a woman, involves a marriage of 8 years to a man who did not know about the sex change. During the entirety of the marriage she woke up very early in the morning to shave without being caught and had tremendous sexual problems as a woman. After 8 years the husband understood what had been going on and hurt her so hard (physically and psychologically) that Orlando decided to go for the reversal surgery not to go through this pain ever again.
Mikael is shyer on the stage. He is dressed soberly with a loose shirt hiding his breasts. His decision was more a question of being unable to identify with what is expected of a man. Mikael had a difficult childhood, with a violent father and a harmful environment at school. For him, becoming a woman represented a way to escape this violence. “I’m not homosexual. But I always had to hear that I was a fucking fagot. You know: “You’re so wimpy and feminine” and “try to behave like a man” (9). He was haunted by a manhood that he couldn’t reach.
This concept of manhood has been studied in feminist anthropology through works about masculinity. Robyn Wiegman develops the utopic male bond in her work “Unmaking: Men and Masculinity in Feminist Theory”. She deconstructs this static idea of masculinity that is associated only to man and the patriarchal system. She criticizes identity studies to point out how categorizations are insufficient to define those whose realities it describes and argues for the need to focus on “how categorizations work rather than what they essentially mean”. She presents Susan Jeffors’ work about the mythic Masculine Bond that insists on a denial of any difference: “black or white, wealthy or poor, high school or college, north and south” (Wiegman, 2002: 41). Mikael and Orlando had strict ideas associated with men and women as categories where men are thought and women are untouchable and fragile creatures. These categorizations denied any possible difference of classes or cultures between men and women. The mythic masculine bond is clearly perceived in Mikael’s view of the societal roles. As Wiegman explains, the “natural seeming adult masculinity” that includes manhood, fatherhood, family and governance establishes a set of norms that eventually contradicts between men by the repression of the male’s race, class or sexuality. Masculinity needs to be visible; a man has to be masculine and has to act like a man. There are no differences between patriarchy and masculinity. Susan Jeffors explains well the limitations of this view; the patriarchal system defined on the opposition of men vs. women overlooks the relational force between men and women. In other words, this preconceived idea about men and women establishes expected behaviors erroneously narrowed to one only aspect that is being a woman or a man. Hence, in Orlando and Mikael’s histories, they went looking for the universal category of being a woman and found themselves unable to meet the categories either as a man or as a woman because the categories didn’t and won’t match the reality.
One common reason the two characters had to change sex was the idea they had about women that resulted in a gendered established role in society. Orlando would dream about getting a handsome husband to take care of her. Mikael would dream of being respected as a woman, being treated softly and gently, “A real man would never hit a woman”. What did women represent to them? A way to enter a protected and private sphere.
“ORLANDO: It was … In the early fifties. Homosexuality was still illegal. From time to time, the police arrived in minibuses to the parks to chase us, shouting at us, ‘Shitty Neckblowers’… And it was around that time that I read the story, of Christine Jorgensen.
MIKAEL: Oh yeah, her.
ORLANDO: Hey, it was the story of the moment. The first sex change. All the newspapers had articles on the American marine who went to Denmark and became a woman. And what a woman… She was perfect. And then, she even married a rich man and they were SO happy. It looked like a dream to me, all that. Being so beautiful and having a safe home and a beautiful man coming home every night, and there, cooking dinner for him and him giving you money… And maybe bringing you flowers occasionally… that was the movie I had in my mind. Of course, I fantasized with that.” (Arrepentidos, 2002: 9).
This stereotyped perfect woman seemed the solution to a life of violence and harassment. None of the two operations had to do with a true physical identification with women or a biological need of becoming a woman. They were looking at the social role attached to being a woman.
Michelle Rosaldo questions this category of woman. She argues that every social system tends to organize roles and opportunities based on biological sex where women operate in domestic of familial spheres. This results in a stereotyped woman based on her physical characteristics where motherhood is her main role in society. Rosaldo explains the dangers of this view where the simplification of social roles promotes these stereotypes on men and women as universal truths. It is interesting to see the problems of universals and the essentialism of women that Rosaldo criticizes, through this other side of the universal: men envying this category of women. In her thesis, Rosaldo argues that certain biological facts operate in a universal manner to reproduce male dominance. She explains how the organization of collective life, the expectations, interpretations and beliefs influence the ways people respond to particular forms of male and female actions. These universal forms become problematic when social systems use biological sex to organize and justify “the roles and opportunities that men and women may enjoy” (Rosaldo, 1980: 395).
So, what happens when this expected male dominance is not fulfilled? When the male in question is not strong enough and does not sustain the woman? Rosaldo sees this universal as a reinforcement of the oppression of men over women but Mikael saw this same universal as a way out the oppression of men over men, men over weaker men. In the same line Orlando saw an essentialized woman in terms of beauty and domestic role: having a husband. But he was escaping the mythic masculine bond as Susan Jeffors presents it where “men’s heterosexual relationship … have as their raison d’ être an ultimate bonding between men”. In this line, Sedgwick draws on Foucault to explain how the categorical alienation of the authority to name your own sexual desire has important consequences. In this century, she argues, in which sexuality is the equivalence of the essence of identity, this alienation represents the most intimate violence act with disempowering effects on people (Sedgwick, 1990: 26). And this alienation linked to a promoted identification was and is central to homophobic oppression.
The rest of the play, Arrepentidos, continues as a conversation. Mikael and Orlando show pictures of themselves when they where women. Orlando looked like a movie star according to Mikael, beautiful and sexy. She is naked in one picture and she had a slim and attractive body. Orlando loves to hear Mikael complimenting her/him. S/he wants more. Mikael shows his/her picture as a woman, she looked more masculine and more reserved. Orlando’s reaction is not as pleasant; he compares Mikaela to Dustin Hoffman in Tootsies. One can feel how Mikael is uncomfortable.
This scene can be linked to the female masculinity that Judith Halberstam develops in her work: “The good, the bad and the ugly”. After experiencing rejection as a man, Mikael turns into Mikaela so that no one can hurt him/her as a woman. Physical violence is over but she becomes part of this “female masculinity figured as undesirable by linking it in essential and unquestionable ways to female ugliness“ (Halberstam, 2002: 359). Even years after, only through a picture, the rejection is still there by the one person one would think would understand Mikael.
At a certain point Mikael speaks of his violent father and states that “real men don’t beat women” and Orlando replies “it is exactly real men who do”. Mikael cannot accept this. Again: what is a real man?
Orlando asks Mikael if he liked men, and he claims strongly that never! Sedgwick’s heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy of the western discourse is perceived in Mikael’s views. Sedgwick explains how the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy can be more dangerous than the male/female binary itself. The dramatic difference between gender and sexual orientation, she explains, happens at birth when all people are supposed to be assigned to only one or the other gender. However, sexual orientation “has greater potential for rearrangement, ambiguity, and representational doubleness” which can be more deconstructive. In other words, discrimination exists even more in the hetero/homosexual dichotomy. “The essentialism of sexual object-choice is far less easy to maintain, far more visibly incoherent, more visibly stressed and challenged at every point in the culture than essentialism of gender” (Sedgwick, 1990: 34).
The two characters discuss this heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy.
MIKAEL: So, now you like women?
ORLANDO: Oh nooo. I prefer men. The more tough and dangerous, the better…
MIKAEL: Ah, ok. I am not like that at all. I look for women.
ORLANDO: You mean you have never been interested in men?
MIKAEL: No. Well yes, once I went home with a guy I met at the bar. But I was drunk, actually. And we didn’t do anything, luckily. But … Do you think I look gay?
ORLANDO: No, no. You don’t look gay.
MIKAEL: The truth is that I’m glad you said that I don’t look gay […]
I find it hard to connect with the opposite sex. Women are simply not interested in me. Basically, they do not feel I have any kind of sexual attraction. They want tough and dangerous men, just like you guys. And I’m not like that. I have a more loving personality, I need tenderness and, you know, containment. I’m girly, you could say. Unfortunately…
ORLANDO: You keep talking a lot of this female – male thing. I mean, what difference does it make whether you are a man or woman? And what is that, really? (Arrepentidos, 2012: 34)
After exchanging their stories, Mikael explains how he is desperately looking forward to finally get the State’s approval to proceed with the reversal surgery and return to being the man he once was. Orlando, who has already completed the reverse operation, defines himself as a third sex, devoid of gender limitation.
Mikael can’t understand why if Orlando regrets his first sex change, he continues dressing so feminine. Why is he wearing earrings and dress in a red velvet suit? Orlando explains he enjoys living as both. He can’t fully identify with one or the other.
MIKAEL: But … You have a … new penis … a penis reconstructed.
ORLANDO: Yes, yes, yes. But that does not make me a complete being. Neither as a man nor a woman … It is not like that. I cannot be a male. I cannot be a lumberjack or a farmer. It’s not me, period. But I am not a woman. I am not. I’m an androgynous person. A kind of third sex.
MIKAEL: But how does it work?
ORLANDO: It depends. Sometimes people get confused with me. And usually I do not mind, because I adapt. If a guy comes up to me and starts flirting with me, offers me a chair, treats me like a lady and all, I do not want to embarrass the guy and I become more feminine. Nobody wants to disappoint people, do you?
MIKAEL: And when something like that happens … Your new… Something happens…? Does it react? How does it work?
ORLANDO: That depends on what you mean by “work”
MIKAEL: You know. I mean, if…
ORLANDO: It is a device. Completely artificial. I feel nothing with it. But they did a good job, I think. Although it cannot compare it to what it was.
MIKAEL: Well as soon as I have my reconstructive surgery and become legally a man again, I wanna be the old Mikael again. Nothing unreleased. No next step. Just me. Complete. Finished … Do you understand?
ORLANDO: And you really need a new penis? Can’t you live as you are? You are still you, with or without a penis.
MIKAEL: I do not think so… Something will be restored, on a spiritual level…
ORLANDO: You’ll still be Mikaela or Mikael. I swear… Because that is much more than a penis.
MIKAEL: I know.
ORLANDO: Why can’t you live like this? As you are? Is it necessary? You have to be a man or a woman? Can’t you just be you? Why is it so important?
MIKAEL: Because … because my soul, my being … tells me I am a man.
ORLANDO: But why do you want a penis? Either way you can be a man.
MIKAEL: Yeah, but … I don’t know … I think it makes things easier… I think you need to have some volume down there to make a bulk so you can change at the gym or at the beach without feeling weird, don’t you think?
ORLANDO: Well, in that case it is only cosmetic.
MIKAEL: No. Not at all… What I mean is … I do not want to stay stuck where I am, half man, half woman. Do you understand? This field is a fucking hell for me, I swear. I really don’t want that. You put it back. So it was important to you, right?
ORLANDO: I thought I needed one to work. But really, it is neither here or there. I have to face the consequences of all this somehow, as a human being, you know? I’ll never get my real penis back. And I’m not happier because I have a new one. I am not. The thing is much deeper than that, I promise. (Arrepentidos, 2012: 32)
Mikael is really concerned about getting his penis back. He associates this part of the body to a closure and he won’t feel complete without getting this one part back.
This objectification of the penis made me think about the thesis on the symbolic Phallus that Judith Butler develops. The phallus, Butler explains, should be perceived as an idea of power not coming from the actual penis but from an internal strength intervening in the relation between body parts and the body as a whole, which people tend to essentialize (Halberstam, 2002: 356). Orlando understands this idea but Mikael feels stuck without a penis, incomplete. Orlando tries to explain how the penis itself doesn’t change anything. It is interesting to see Mikael’s idealization of the penis on the one hand as a way of getting his life back and on the other hand his penis was once what he saw as the reason of being threatened and harassed.
I went to see this play in Mexico City with a random crowd of friends and friends of friends which ended up making the whole experience extremely interesting and confusing at the same time. After watching the play, we all went to have a beer to discuss and share our opinions. One of my friends is dating a surgeon, a plastic surgeon, who has experience with patients looking to change sex. We were very interested in listening to his views as a surgeon. He discussed one particular case of a man looking forward to get the surgery to be a woman. This man dressed and felt like a woman. S/he had adopted a baby and called himself the mother of the baby. This made the doctor uncomfortable since he considered the man was lying to the kid. “He was not his mother, he was not a woman”. They decided to do the operation in 2 phases. The first one would be the face and chest, to make the lines more feminine, enhance the cheekbones, the lips… The second phase would be the removal of the testicles and the inversion of the penis to form the vagina. After the first surgery, the doctor “wasn’t feeling well about what he had done”. And after a lot of thinking the doctor realized he “didn’t want that kind of people coming to him all the time” and decided not to proceed with the second surgery. He basically left the patient in the middle of the road because HE wasn’t confortable with the concept. Instead of explaining himself to the patient he put a price on the surgery “so high that he knew the patient would not be able to afford”. After this last statement we all had different kinds of reactions, questioning the ethics behind the actions, the role and responsibilities of the surgeon.
In one part of the play, Mikael says he remembers having doubts on the day of the surgery. He blamed the doctor for not asking him whether he was completely sure about the operation. Mikael explains that a good doctor would have asked right before starting the surgery if the patient was 100% sure. And, if the patient showed any minor doubt, a good surgeon would have stopped the procedure.
Where is the responsibility of the surgeon? Where is the line? Is he a mere service provider or should he understand the patient’s reasons? Is it necessary to have a strong argument to have a change of sex?
We all criticized the way the surgeon handled the situation and were offended about the level of details that he shared about his patient. But, the surgeon was absolutely confident about his actions and had no regrets at all. He was actually surprised to see our reactions; he started the story bragging about it. The conversation was getting a little too hard on him so we decided to discuss other aspects of the play.
The interesting part of watching this Swedish play in Mexico where the final decision of changing sex is still in the hands of a conservative surgeon that can set the price of the surgery as high as he wants; where young people can still use disparaging labels “this kind of people”, is to compare with Sweden, where the state will pay for the operation as part of a social security benefit and will also pay for the reversal operation if needed. Sweden is a country, where in 1654 Queen Christina of Sweden abdicated the throne, dressed in men’s clothing and renamed herself Count Dohna. And Mexico is still in many ways a conservative country. But at the end, it is not even one country vs. the other. The most alleged open-minded society in Sweden still has people pointing fingers.
-MIKAEL: It went well in that sense for me, I think. I have only had problems in a pub, which is near where I live.
-ORLANDO: What kind of trouble?
-MIKAEL: Well, I have been going to that place for years. First as Mikael, then as Mikaela… And now, again, as Mikael. Obviously, people talk. As I enter the door people look at me, talk, stare at me, that sort of thing.
-ORLANDO: And, both men and women?
-ORLANDO: But have they said anything mean?
-MIKAEL: Sure, it happens. In short, they think I’m a freak, a weird person to be avoided.
-MIKAEL: Yes. Actually “immigrants” have been more tolerant, I have to say
-ORLANDO: And what do you do when stare at you and talk?
-MIKAEL: Nothing. I sit in my corner table, I have a beer and I go home. That’s how I am […] In their eyes I am always going to be “the one who did that thing” I’ll never be “NORMAL”.
-ORLANDO: Bah! That word makes me sick. I could slap all the people using it. Normal, what’s that? Who knows, maybe all the ones that are different are actually the ones that are normal and all the others are the freaks. (Arrepentidos, 2012: 21)
Once again it is not the conservative Mexico vs. the liberal Sweden or the first vs. the third world. Discrimination has been present worldwide and cannot be attached to a specific geography. The play was extremely well received in Mexico and in Sweden. Tickets were sold out and additional dates were added in response to the increasing demand. Transnational feminist practices argue for an attentive study of the intersections among race, gender, culture and sex in the context of globalization while inquiring into the cultural context and resisting utopic ideas about a global identity. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan maintain that identities are not all constructed by race, sex and class. In this line, we cannot draw a strict identification between the reception of the play in Mexico and Sweden or establish a general identity between regretters of sex change in Mexico and Sweden or a general conclusion about transgender’s transnational structures. However, we can state there is an overall need to rethink and be self-reflexive to avoid “creating new worldwide orthodoxies that are exclusionary and reifying” (Grewal and Kaplan, 1994: 18). In other words, there is a worldwide need to fight against preconceived ideas about men and women, gender, sex and sexuality.
This story is not about transsexuals, it is about the dangers of categories that have been at the center of gender studies since the early years of anthropology. This play illustrates the needs to de-essentialize gender.
Throughout this paper I aimed to support Sedgwick’s attempt to open the “channels of visibility that might countervail somewhat against the terrible one-directionality of the culture…” (Sedgwick, 1990: 60). There is not one fixed gender role, one category of women or one type of men.
Truth is: it is much more than a penis.