In a cinema crowded with self-conscious transgressions, Kim offers the real article when she strips to show her straight boyfriend the thrilling secrets of the altered body.
Transsexual imagery has typically been found in films that no self-respecting transsexual, or even any mildly sophisticated viewer, would claim. Drag queen director Ed Wood gave us the sexploitation take in Glen or Glenda (aka I Changed My Sex), a threadbare plea for tolerance mixed with softcore bondage footage. Hollywood tried half-heartedly to exploit the phenomenon in The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970), but the result was so lifeless the movie’s mostly forgotten. Transsexuals figure as minor lights in the occasional independent or import (Priscilla of the Desert comes to mind), and of course Hong Kong has weighed in on the subject in its bizarre martial arts gender-benders like The East Is Red.
But Different for Girls, while far from a dramatic masterpiece, is an appealing, practically mainstream romance that lives up to its title in presenting a new kind of trans person, one who’s neither marginalized nor sacrificed in the process of exposure. Kim Foyle (Steven Mackintosh) began life as Karl, a much-abused effeminate man whose only protector through the horrors of Catholic high school was Prentice (the delectable Rupert Graves). They lose track of each other until their mid-thirties, when Kim, a demure, priggish greeting-card writer and transsexual for four years, accidentally runs into her old defender, who’s now a loutish but lovable bike messenger decked out in ragged leathers. Their first encounter as adults sets the tone for their relationship — Prentice is nearly run down by the cab Kim’s riding in. The rest of the film details the tumultuous relationship between the straight man who can’t grow up and the trans woman who spends her time hiding from life.
Kim and Prentice seem to have little in common. He spends his time fucking up simple deliveries, arguing with his girlfriend, and trying to relive his youth as a punk rocker. Kim, on the other hand, talks quietly, works efficiently, and acts as de facto marriage counselor for her sister while her own love life appears to be nonexistent. Their teenage past, where Prentice defended Kim/Karl against homophobic bashing, continually reasserts itself, most notably when Prentice attacks a policeman who sticks his hand under Kim’s dress.
This is the culmination of one of the film’s two major transgressive scenes. Prentice and Kim are arrested because Prentice exposes himself in the apartment complex where she lives. This follows a red-hot near seduction of Prentice by Kim, after he asks her what physical changes she’s undergone. She catalogs them with such quiet intensity — “my nipples are darker, the aureoles are larger” — that Prentice gets a hard-on and runs from the apartment. When Kim runs after him they have a loud argument about “the penis,” and Prentice whips his not inconsiderable one out for the world (and the viewer) to see.
Sexual politics — the idea of gender as malleable, constructable, and in a sense ultimately irrelevant — runs throughout the film, climaxing in the second major moment of transgression: Kim and Prentice’s long-awaited first love scene. When he asks for a visual analogue to his earlier question about her physical changes, Kim again obliges, this time doing a slow striptease that the camera lovingly records in half-light. This is a powerful, virtually unprecedented image of the unapologetic transsexual standing naked before us in a narrative film, demanding acknowledgment. In an interview, director Richard Spence said that Steven Mackintosh, who plays Kim, is in real life straight and married, a fact that, while not necessary to appreciate the scene, adds further resonance to the film’s theme of self-created gender. The mesmerized Prentice, standing in for the audience, stares at Kim with a sense of wonder and excitement, subtly suggesting we do the same.