Transgender writer, activist and now director, T. Cooper (who has written for TV’s The Blacklist), brings us Man Made, a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the lives of four transgender men as they prepare to compete at TransFitCon, the only all-trans bodybuilding competition in existence.
We’re first introduced to Dominic, a young rapper who is about to undergo a double mastectomy. Dominic’s story touches on the differences in how we perceive male and female musicians, but his career will have to wait. This story swiftly changes tone as we see Dominic through surgery and on a road trip to meet their biological mother. Dominic’s story might sidestep into a saccharine family reunion, but it’s touching to see a positive story amongst the frequently reported tragedies that happen in the trans community.
Mason is less confident in themselves, they are a gym-junkie with an adoring wife and an understanding mother-in-law living next door. It’s hard to not feel moved by Mason’s story, which includes an appearance in Ellen DeGeneres’ 2000 HBO comedy special, where the comedian misgenders them. Mason’s segment delves into the mental health struggles that come with being born in the wrong body, transitioning and coming to terms with the aftermath.
The next person we meet is Rese, who has been kicked out of his home by his mother and is caring for the 5-year-old son he gave birth to. Cooper uses Rese’s story of homelessness and their relationship with a trans partner to give context to the wave of trans murders currently happening in America.
The real tear-jerker is saved for the end. Kennie is director of a small fitness centre on an Arkansas university campus. He throws a gendered tea party for family and friends as a way to mark the start of their hormone treatment. Kennie’s transition couldn’t be going any better on the surface, but his lesbian girlfriend DJ is worried about her own sexual identity. Presented without soapy melodrama, Kennie and DJ’s story about being identified by your gender and sexuality will stop and make you think.
Man Made achieves the huge feat of presenting each individual’s story with sensitivity, whilst also dealing with the stories of those around them with a nonjudgmental thoughtfulness. Relatives talk about struggling to explain transitioning to kids and many of them confuse pronouns, but it’s never presented as chiding or judgemental. There are no bad guys in this narrative, just people on their own journeys to understanding.
It’s clear Cooper, who is often heard off-camera and occasionally appears on-screen, has built a connection with the documentary’s participants. Cooper’s brief appearance on screen, getting emotional and at one point stepping into frame to adjust a binder, makes this film all the more authentic. The vulnerability shown in Man Made is raw, covering topics which include parenting, body image and mental health. It’s the tenderness that never dissolves into melodrama, which makes Man Made stand out from other trans documentaries.
TransFitcon acts as the main climax to the film, yet becomes an afterthought in the narrative. The details of the competition are flitted over, as it’s clear for most of the participants it’s about the journey to get there, not the trophies. Although bodybuilding unites these four stories, it solely serves as a vehicle for the real theme of the film: acceptance and gaining control of your life back.
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia Harvey is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy