Gender, Sex and Selfishness: Self-Portrait of She-Male

in 35th Göteborg International Film Festival

by Sergei Anashkin

She Male SnailsThere was only one documentary in the Dragon Award competition for Best Nordic Film in Goteborg IFF. It won Jury’s Special Mention and Audience Award.     

Young Swedish director Ester Martin Bergsmark describes his film She Male Snails as documentary. This definition is not absolutely correct; his movie is a rather pretentious example of self-presentation or public performance. The snail referred to in the title is a creature unable to change its own shell; it represents an obvious symbol of human body and common concept of sexuality. Traditional mental sets of European culture make us accept a choice: be man or be women, be straight or be gay. Main characters of the film find this kind of decision too monosemantic and simple for them. She males prefer declaring themselves as androgynous people, as lesbian men. The director himself and Eli, his lover, mentor and soul mate, discuss this topic right before the camera. Both of them are quite naked. Sitting in the bath for a long time, they speak, kiss each other, shave their legs, and try to pose for portrait close up. Eli is an author and leading character (??? protagonist) of an autobiographical fiction, which was adapted by Ester Martin for his fake documentary. The film follows the book. Eli tells us that he likes to dress with girlish accessories and elements of clothes. Sometimes, he takes an interest in masculine men, but in their bodies only, for sexual use. He is neither cute nor handsome as a man, nor pretty as a girl, but rather stylish in his – individual – way.              

The conversations alternate with metaphoric episodes: a kind of living pictures without any words, which might recall some fragments of early experimental works by Derek Jarman for the audience. The subject is the opposition between androgyny and male brutalism. A solitary youth wearing a female sundress walks through the cold autumn wood and accidentally meets a masculine villain, who uses his force to subdue and humble the she-male character. The director depicts the she-male as a permanent victim of brutalism in the so familiar for us men’s world. The violent episodes are made in rather old-fashioned decadent oriented symbolic style. But there are no stories about resistance; the victims accept the situation like a sacrificial lamb. They are happy to be unhappy.                

One can say: this film defends the human right to be a unique individual, helps to enlarge the common concept of sexual identity. Well, I admit this position. This topic is really important for many developing nations, for my own Russia too (where homophobia became an important constituent part of the official policy). However, I don’t believe in the genuine honesty of the main characters. The idea of androgyny was very popular during the belle époque (in the first half of the twentieth century and glamorous 1970), as a culture myth, as a part of travesty games with gender stereotypes. It seems to me that Eli and Ester Martin play this kind of game too. She-males don’t want to open their hearts, but represent themselves in the way the performing artists do. There is no sincerity, narcissism only. What can we know about their ordinary life? They tell us nothing about their actual family relationship, culture and education background, and political views. That’s why I interpret them as glamorous freaks only, but not as full-blooded human beings. Where is the face, where is the mask? I can’t answer this question. The concept of she-male is the result of an ideological compromise: they want to preserve their male bodies and at the same time accept such attributes of womanhood as weakness and delicacy. This phenomenon is a fruit of wealthy Scandinavian life, of ultimate tolerance in the contemporary Nordic society. Swedes no more need to earn their daily bread, a roof over their heads. One has quite enough time and money to launch any kind of life style project. Or make any kinds of conceptual mystification. May be, Eli and Ester Martin, authors of She Male Snails, really did it.                      

Sergey Anashkin was born in 1965. Graduated from VGIK (Film Institute), Moscow in 1989. Worked as film critic freelance for main Russian film magazines (Art of Cinema, etc), for Moscow and Vladivostok IFF. Lives in Ekaterinburg, Ural. His special interest is contemporary Asian cinema and cinema of East regions of Russia.  

Edited by Alissa Simon