“Mascara is an incredible hassle,”
November 17, 2013 7:39 AM   Subscribe

William T. Vollmann: The Self Images of a Cross-Dresser [New York Times] From a profile on William T. Vollmann, in The New York Times. The profile centers around Vollmann’s latest book, The Book of Dolores.
posted by Fizz (20 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
He said his wife, who is an oncologist, is not thrilled with his outré experiments and keeps her distance.

Given the way that Vollmann approaches his writing, I can only imagine what "keeping her distance" entails. It would be like dating Burroughs and not wanting to know about the heroin or the cats.

Vollmann did a sort of surprise signing at my store. I knew he was going to be in the area, so I had some stock on hand, but he just showed up, signed the stock, chatted for a bit, then left. He looked like he was about 17 (this was going on 20 years ago, but, still, he looked shockingly young, especially considering what he had been doing in his life).
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:45 AM on November 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


He does look scary in some of those pictures. In my time living in the Tenderloin, most of the cross-dressers I encountered were very good at passing, scarily so.
It's interesting to have his perspective on why he cross-dressed. I don't think it's really that weird. If you have any curiosity or imagination about the other genders, it's actually normal and good.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:02 AM on November 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Once again, Vollmann is worth the effort:

“A lot of friends who could always handle the prostitutes and the drugs felt that I had somehow degraded myself,” he said. “The idea of stepping down from the dominant male class really disgusts a lot of people, including women.”
posted by chavenet at 9:10 AM on November 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I don't like much of Vollmann, and I haven't read anything by him in a while, but you can't accuse him of being unwilling to follow a path wherever it leads and come back to tell you about it in great, bleak detail. I don't know if he's always right, but I think he always tries to keep his eyes open and be honest about what he sees.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:20 AM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Vollmann is a creepy weirdo (cross-dressing is not what I consider creepy weirdo territory, he is just a creepy weirdo who also cross-dresses) who writes like an angel. I have such "I wish I could quit you" feelings about him but I'll probably read this.
posted by jessamyn at 10:03 AM on November 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


Vollmann's Life as a Terrorist in the September issue of Harper's is chilling. The US government has been monitoring and harrassing him for years.
posted by scatter gather at 10:12 AM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Life as a Terrorist by William T Vollman [PDF]

Who's the creepy weirdo?
posted by chavenet at 10:29 AM on November 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


The goverment can also be a creepy weirdo.
posted by jessamyn at 10:31 AM on November 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


“Probably when the book comes out, it’ll be the first she’s heard of it.”

Probably? You don't want to just mention it to her, all casual-like, before it's in the New York Times?
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:37 AM on November 17, 2013


Sorry. That was a derail. The line just caught my eye.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:41 AM on November 17, 2013


"(The building used to be a cheap Mexican restaurant, and Dolores’s clothes and 44-D breastforms are kept in the meat locker.)"
Maybe Vollmann should give Mr. Lookadoo a call the next time he's in town

I confess to sort of rolling my eyes at this piece. The rolling started with the "Hey, I'm not queer or anything I just want to know what it's like to be a woman." Which, you know, is something theatrical genderfuck, as much fun as it might be, is unlikely to teach you much about and continued with the whole tone of "Wow. This dude is extreme, he's wearing women's clothes!" By the time I got to "Being Dolores, he said, 'gave me a chance to sort of love and take care of myself,'" my eyes, they were rolling pretty hard.

That might be more the fault of the NYT piece than the book. The effort put into producing the prints sounds more interesting than the subject, actually.

(Apropos, one of the recent Between The Covers catalogs had an album of 1940s-ish photographs taken by a gay man of himself and his friends in out and about in drag. A really extraordinary glimpse of period culture. (I can't find the item on the BTC site, but it was the counterculture catalog, 184, I think.))
posted by octobersurprise at 1:36 PM on November 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


The corpse in the library: No, it caught my eye too and I found it really troubling.

Apart from that detail, the thing that jumped out at me was how horribly vivid and effective some of these pictures are at conveying dysphoria and self-loathing. That top right image in the Times article, with the clown-paint lipstick and the bruise-colored eye makeup, is like something out of a nightmare.

And when I say that I don't mean "crossdressers look like monsters." I don't mean "crossdressers who fail to live up to my own personal beauty standards look like monsters." I mean "that right there is a self-portrait by someone who feels like a fucking monster," and that feeling is something that's horrible to encounter even in nightmares, let alone in waking life. Katjussa Roquette is right: he looks scary there. But not because he's bad at passing. (After all, he's not even bad at it — some of the other pictures prove that.) He looks scary because he's turned himself into visible incarnation of his own shame and disgust.

I had no idea who this guy was before I read this article — but now I really just want to go back in time and give him a hot bowl of soup, some nice clean dresses, a couple decent role models and a safe place to hide. Because holy shit, he clearly needed it.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 2:19 PM on November 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


I had no idea who this guy was before I read this article — but now I really just want to go back in time and give him a hot bowl of soup, some nice clean dresses, a couple decent role models and a safe place to hide. Because holy shit, he clearly needed it.

Because sometimes he does his makeup over-the-top ugly? Or because of something else? (Honestly asking, I don't even necessarily disagree).

I'm surprised at how much I liked his prints. To me, he looks comfortable and earnest in them, like he was playing around with clothes/hair/bras/makeup in a kind of perform-y, kind of vain way that I can relate to. Sometimes those experiments looked terrible, sometimes they didn't. Sometimes he looks to me like a twelve year old girl vamping it up with her first lipstick and eyeshadow palette, and I find that endearing.

I expected not to like these prints, because so often when men try on female personae they will act so outre or feign so much ignorance about the ways that women are encouraged to look/act in daily life that it makes me feel like they're (albeit inadvertently) mocking the ways that women ordinarily perform femininity in our culture, and reinforcing the idea that women are a bizarre/exotic "other." But I think he avoided that.

By the time I got to "Being Dolores, he said, 'gave me a chance to sort of love and take care of myself,'" my eyes, they were rolling pretty hard.

I think your interpretation is probably correct, but an alternate interpretation might be that he felt like the makeup/hair/clothes/etc were "warpaint," so putting them on gave him a ritual that helped him feel powerful.
posted by rue72 at 3:07 PM on November 17, 2013


Apart from that detail, the thing that jumped out at me was how horribly vivid and effective some of these pictures are at conveying dysphoria and self-loathing. That top right image in the Times article, with the clown-paint lipstick and the bruise-colored eye makeup, is like something out of a nightmare.

I'm not sure. I wouldn't rule out your analysis, but Vollmann has always been about the transgression, so it may also be that "trying to pass" would be counter to his instincts, if not necessarily his design. I imagine that some part of him would not be happy if he was unable to arouse strong emotions in his viewers, and disgust would be an obvious way to do that. As I said above, I think Vollmann tries to tell the truth as he understands it, but he is also playing a role, I think (thus the "put her back in the meat locker" line -- that was not chosen by accident.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:25 PM on November 17, 2013


Because sometimes he does his makeup over-the-top ugly? Or because of something else? (Honestly asking, I don't even necessarily disagree).

Put it this way. To me, that picture looks like a terrifyingly accurate, concentrated, high-octane version of my worst fears about how I'll look as a woman — multiplied by several orders of magnitude, superimposed on the artist's own face with his own name on the cover, and published to an international audience. It looks to me like it's expressing some really, really heavy anger, shame and disgust. And after reading what Vollmann says in the article about his distress at his own aging body, and at the way he looks when he cross-dresses, I don't think that's just projection.

On the other hand, I guess there probably is some projection in it.

Honestly, I was dumbfounded that you could find the same picture (I assume we're talking about the same one here) comfortable, playful and endearing. But — well, still, that that was your reaction. So, yeah, I'm coming at this with my own baggage, and I shouldn't assume I really understand where the artist's coming from.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 3:27 PM on November 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


but he is also playing a role, I think (thus the "put her back in the meat locker" line -- that was not chosen by accident.

Yeah, that line and the comment about pistols actually read to me as a not-so-veiled suicide threat.

Like I said — obviously I've got some baggage here. I'm probably misreading the whole thing.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 3:34 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Read this a few days ago, and my primary response remains, "Mascara just isn't that hard. Liquid eyeliner and false lashes, now, those are a hassle. The first time you get lash glue in your eye, you will question your commitment to makeup. Mascara, though? Nah."
posted by gingerest at 3:37 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I was a young girl first learning to put makeup on, sometimes I would get all kooky and do a clown face like that just for S&G.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:41 PM on November 17, 2013


Honestly, I was dumbfounded that you could find the same picture (I assume we're talking about the same one here) comfortable, playful and endearing. But — well, still, that that was your reaction. So, yeah, I'm coming at this with my own baggage, and I shouldn't assume I really understand where the artist's coming from.

My (male) ex and I were pulled up next to this car once, where the driver in the car was putting on makeup. He started making fun of the driver and said it was like watching a clown get ready for a show. I guess he thought she was degrading herself, too. I think your reaction to Vollmamn's ugly photo is valid, I believe that it's rooted in empathy and I have a similar reaction when I see someone looking vulnerable.

But I don't equate ugliness, especially this kind of painstaking ugliness, with vulnerability. The makeup (and clothes, and hair, and the name, and everything) is just costuming. Sometimes costumes are hideous or bizarre, but that's OK, it's OK to look (or to be) hideous or bizarre. Everyone doesn't have to find you "pleasant," even as a woman. Sometimes it might be better, or even necessary, to costume yourself in a way that is hideous or bizarre, for infinite reasons. Some of those reasons could very well involve shame, but they could also involve anger or pride or empowerment or playfulness or joy or just wanting to feel for the limits of a performance even if that pushes the performance into absurdity. When you look at that picture of Vollmann you might see Baby Jane, but you also might see Kali, or a limitless number of personae in between.

Experimenting with unappealing "costumes," to me, is where makeup becomes less about how people will judge you at the end, and more about the ritual of "becoming" that you go through during the process. That ritual can be emotionally powerful, and at least as much a reason that I wear makeup as my desire/need "to look good." Maybe I look ridiculous at the end, or maybe I look fantastic, but when I'm primarily putting on the makeup to go through the ritual and feel like a certain kind of "warpaint" is on, or for a certain kind of joy/fun/pride/pleasure, how other people judge the end result is largely irrelevant.

I like seeing his experiments because his approach to them reminds me of my own experimentation with "looking like a woman," and the mix of emotions I feel about the reactions those experiments elicit, and what going through those experiments feels like. Though my most outlandish experimentation was largely during adolescence and I'm female, so my context and his are different enough that I can't say I really know what he's feeling -- I'm just projecting, too.

I do wonder what "socially acceptable" rituals men have that make them feel like they're putting "the warpaint" on. Shaving is all I can think of. Maybe they don't need those rituals as much? Maybe I also care an especial amount -- I don't know why other women wear makeup or what their experiences growing into womanhood and facing the world everyday feel like from the inside.
posted by rue72 at 4:46 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm no person to judge what the proper transgender narrative is, but I do believe I can say with some understanding, William is as transgender as anyone else who identifies as such.

When I was first coming to terms with my own self, I believed my womanhood to be a thing that was separate from me, that I would somehow shed my manhood and this huge transformation would occur and I would suddenly be someone else, but the reality is that I already was a woman, I already was myself, I had split it off into a dream, an imaginary thing I could attain, projected it out into something besides myself, an ideal, something I had to "become". I struggled, trying to figure when I would "become a woman".

With the help of some really amazing people, many of them right here on Mefi, I was able to accept myself as a woman, that no matter what I "passed" as, I am a woman. I struggle with my body, I struggle with having to not pass and play a role that does not suit me, but I am she, I am her, and I am finally strong in that realization, what I do from here on out is to re-affirm who I am.

When I read this article, it sounds a lot like my own struggles last year. I'm not going to say with 100% confirmation that his experiences are exactly my own, but I will say it feels damn eerily close and is massively triggering.
posted by Annika Cicada at 10:48 AM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


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