This essay is by our guest writer, Levin Tan.
You could say that David Cronenberg is something of a Freudian fanboy.
His body of work is frequently dissected by esteemed film critics and scholars using psychoanalytic approaches, particularly with his early career horror films that plunge you into the visceral and the venereal. This is no surprise – after all, psychoanalysis carries a heavy emphasis on images and metaphors relating to sex and the body. However, when considering psychoanalysis from a modern day perspective, it is clear that it has its issues. We currently live in a time where sexuality and gender allow for fluidity, making Freud’s rigid adherence to the male-female binary appear rather stale. For Freud, the “male” is always antecedent to the “female”; as if consulting the story of Eve being born from Adam’s rib, so, too, did Freud view the female as a derivative of the male.
And so it makes sense; peering at David Cronenberg’s 1988 psychosexual body horror film Dead Ringers through the lens of psychoanalysis, undertones of sexism and misogyny can be extracted and magnified. The film revolves around identical twin gynecologists, both played by Jeremy Irons, who gradually descend into their own violent psychological and physiological undoing after their intimate involvement with an actress (Geneviève Bujold). Roger Ebert, in his review, labeled the film exploitative and tabloid-like, frowning upon its misogynistic messages.
Strangely enough, for me, this film has inhabited a space that mirrors my own non-binary transgender experiences on a very psychological level, even before I had awareness of my own queerness. Now that I have reached a better understanding of myself, I also find it harder to find meaning and ingenuity in psychoanalytic analyses of film. This is not a statement to say that the criticism against Dead Ringers is invalid – Cronenberg had built a firm ground for these theories, owing to his previous films Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979), both of which perfectly embody the trope of the “monstrous feminine,” a term coined by feminist theorist Barbara Creed in examining the historical portrayal of women’s sexuality as an uncanny and threatening force. In fact, to this decade, Cronenberg continues to make films that would cause any film-feminist to raise an eyebrow, but allow me to explain how Dead Ringers contains a trans narrative that champions the non-binary.
Elliot and Beverly Mantle, our lead protagonists, represent extreme binary notions of masculinity and femininity – their given names make it clear. Irons himself, in preparing for the role, speaks about the different and distinguishing energies he played the two brothers with, drawing from the forehead (“where you headbutt people”) Elliot, and from the throat (“a very vulnerable place”) Beverly. Elliot is the dominant twin, the self-proclaimed older brother (there is no evidence given to this claim), the socialite, an aggressor; Beverly in comparison is shy, sensitive and always following his brother’s lead, establishing him as a passive entity. It is implied that without Elliot’s direction, Beverly might have remained insular and inexperienced like an old-fashioned idea of a housewife. In the film, it is the Elliot who introduces women to Beverly by first snaring them with his charm, before passing them on to his brother for sexual gratification. This is only possible by how perfectly identical they are.
Time and again the Mantle brothers switch places, with the outside world being none the wiser. In their complete likeness is an apt metaphor for the singular body or psyche split into two. Most people contain an array of masculine and feminine traits, and in Dead Ringers, it is as if such an individual has been torn apart, where one cannot exist without the other and remain whole. From childhood, they have been in perfect tandem, and the film introduces us to them as adults who are now successful in their medical participation and obsession with the female body and its sexuality.
Here is where actress Claire Niveau enters their lives. She walks into their clinic with issues of infertility, and the brothers are transfixed by the discovery of her trifurcate uterus. Naturally, the uterus is seen as a symbol of birth that fits neatly into psychoanalysis, but genitalia is also commonly used as a determiner against trans people to discredit their gender identities, that having a uterus is undoubtedly associated with being a woman and is the ultimate symbol of femininity. But Claire is not “a woman,” not by the cisgender and heterosexual view of the Mantle brothers – she cannot bear children, and her female reproductive organ has a “mutation.” In her own demeanour, Claire also displays a kind of masculine energy, where she is extremely assertive in her profession and with the Mantle brothers, eventually eclipsing the influence Elliot has over Beverly. Claire is commonly seen as the maternal figure in psychoanalytic context, but thinking of the feminine role that Beverly has been assigned, and the power Claire has over him within their relationship, I see her more as a dominant partner – the “man” in the relationship, so to speak in normative terms.
Of particular focus in most analyses of the film is Claire’s masochistic tendencies, epitomised in the scene where she is tied up with surgical tubing to the bedpost during sexual intercourse with Beverly. With her arms in a position akin to crucifixion, who does she resemble but the ubiquitous male figure Jesus, whom Anglican bishop and academic Hugh William Montefiore interpreted as homosexual? Furthermore, Robin Bauer of Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University, in his research on queer studies, has written that BDSM practices and communities allow a space for individuals, particularly gender-conforming ones, to “transgress the boundaries of performative gender that is expected of them by society.” As a famous actress (a serendipitous career choice in discussing performative gender), Claire’s propensity for bondage and masochism can be seen as carving a much needed private and personal space to explore this difference. With Beverly, Claire is able to embrace both the masculine and feminine, which elevates her sexuality.
The nurturing of Beverly under Claire’s guidance leads him to separate from his masculine-embodying brother. We can view Beverly’s transition from one attachment to another in the film’s narrative through Aaron Devor’s Fourteen Stage Model of Transsexual Identity Formation, though in this case less to do with gender identity than gender association. In Claire’s company, Beverly’s “abiding anxiety,” Devor’s first stage, is evident. In this new companionship, he is free from the pressure of having to “play” Elliot; from the very start, Claire had been deceived to think that she was only ever with Beverly. It is his sensitivity, his feminine traits, that Claire comes to appreciate, whereas she views Elliot’s adherence to masculinity as “shit.” Stage 2, Identity Confusion, begins with Beverly’s refusal to share with Elliot the explicit details of his frisson with Claire and climaxes at the conflict engendered from Elliot’s interference and his suggestion of “dropping” her. “This is unknown territory we’re moving into,” Elliot says. Sadly, Beverly never makes it to the next stage of Identity Comparisons, where one might pursue and ponder alternative gender identities – in his case, existing as a masculine body with feminine tendencies, a mirror of Claire. Thinking that Claire is having an affair with someone else, Beverly feels so betrayed to the point of quashing his own development through substance abuse, and slowly recedes back into the insular world that he and his brother have always lived in. However, the distance between them cannot be easily remedied by a reasserting physical proximity. It is at this point that Beverly begins to lose a grip on his own sanity, and commissions hideous surgical instruments to be used for “mutant women”. In his rejection of his own femininity, Beverly externalises his conflict and sees women, their physical bodies as a whole, as the problem, and attempts to fix it.
Being situated at two ends of a binary spectrum, thriving on comparative differentiation, how can masculinity thus exist without femininity? As Beverly rejects his femininity that once made the twins whole, Elliot’s own identity is thrown into crisis. He, too, ingests substances to try and re-synchronise with his twin. At one point, Elliot makes his girlfriend dance with Beverly. He then joins them, putting her right in-between himself and his brother. It is plausible that the female body between them, as they maintain physical contact, is an attempt to be reunited as one, where the refusal and obfuscation of femininity has rendered them lost from their previously well-defined identities.
A turning point is reached when Beverly reunites with Claire by being released from the apartment, where he was locked in by Elliot, essentially breaking free from his brother’s control. On the way, he retrieves his custom surgical tools, and later tells Claire that they are for “separating Siamese twins.” Being back with Claire, who relieves him of his suffering and conflict, brings Beverly to the realisation, conscious or not, that the problem hasn’t been his femininity, or women’s bodies, but Elliot and his masculinity.
Towards the end, the brothers share one more night of intoxication, where Beverly tells Elliot that it is their birthday. Indeed, it is Beverly’s rebirth – he reclaims his femininity in the worst way possible, by killing Elliot, eradicating his masculine other. But of course, this destruction leads Beverly to an utmost state of disorientation. As stated before, one cannot be without the other. In one of the first and only daytime exterior shots, which can possibly be read as “coming out,” Beverly rings Claire and she asks, “Who’s this?” But Beverly cannot answer this question; he has not taken the time to process and accept his own identity in a way that lifts him above the trauma of his differentiation. And so he returns to the arms of his dead brother to take death as a defence against life’s reality: with binary gender as the norm: now he can only exist as one half of a whole.
As someone who is non-binary, but aiming to partake in some form of transitioning, I often get asked if I am doing so because I dislike the feminine. For the longest time, this was a point of conflict for me. I had been raised as a woman and held close to my heart the ideas and values commonly associated with femininity. To me, my identification with specific aspects of masculine bodies has nothing to do with disavowing my femininity, and it is, in fact, the intermeshing of the two that I see as my true self. Coming to this realisation, after an extended struggle to articulate my own dysphoria, has allowed me to understand why Dead Ringers struck such a deep chord in me all those years ago. I saw embedded deep within a trans narrative I could identify with, putting into metaphoric images the pain and trauma I was experiencing from trying to separate my external, performed masculinity from my internal femininity. Just as the Mantle brothers could not exist without each other, so would I fail to do so if I were not to embrace the space I occupy between the binary gender spectrum. Where I might currently be in a space where I am constantly misgendered and made invisible, re-watching and re-considering Dead Ringers reminds me of the damage I might be doing to myself whenever I give up and succumb to conformity, either by suppressing my own gender identity, or by attempting to stick to one side of the spectrum to present as a palatable figure.
Maybe what Dead Ringers has taught me is an inversion of Freud: that you can truly embody both sides of the same coin.