The Other Women
Pedro Almodóvar's transgender outlaws: A video slide show.
Pedro Almodóvar is a director who loves to épater bourgeois movie-goers. After a filmography littered with sadomasochistic lesbians, smack-shooting nuns, and comatose toreras, the most shocking element of his latest movie, Bad Education, is the absence of female characters. In his first 14 films, Almodóvar established himself as a "specialist in women," famously constellating his films around dominant leading ladies— Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes, Victoria Abril, Cecilia Roth —and brilliant, oddball supporting actresses like Chus Lampreave and Rossy de Palma. In Bad Education, women-born-women are all but absent; when they do appear, it is fleetingly, as grieving put-upon mothers or slightly batty aunts. The "real" female roles are played by transvestites and transsexuals.
Perhaps this is a natural progression. It has always been the theater of womanhood that appeals to Almodóvar. In a 1981 interview, he said, "I write better for women than for men, who are dramatically boring for me."
In the Almodóvarian universe, the dichotomy of womanhood isn't madonna-whore, it's housewife-superstar. (Now, there's a cross-dresser made for Almodóvar.) His women are either mousey, harried types—the nuns of Dark Habits, the tragic housewife of What Have I Done to Deserve This? who dreams of owning a curling iron, the dowdy mother of Bad Education—or glamorous, over-the-top vamps with high heels, big hair, and Hollywood wardrobes. Clothes and cosmetics confer happiness—or, at least, confidence. In the opening scenes of The Flower of My Secret, Leo is forced to dress down and take to the streets asking strangers to help her remove her too-tight boots; when her friends see her, they flee the sight of a woman so lost. To be plain and unadorned is to be helpless and unattractive. Almodóvar's women appear most comfortable when they are painted and preened and, preferably, on stage.
Or maybe Almodóvar's just into dressing up. Throughout his career, he has used representatives of three groups to explore Spanish culture: priests and nuns, bullfighters, and actors. Again and again, his films depict the rituals associated with putting on the costumes that confer authority: priests donning robes for mass; nuns adjusting their habits; matadors putting on the suit of lights; and, most commonly, actors and actresses making up and dressing—or undressing—themselves for a performance.
Given this obsession with exaggerated versions of womanhood and the rituals of dressing, as well as his roots in the underground and gay culture, it shouldn't be surprising that Almodóvar has used drag queens, transvestites, and transsexuals to explore questions of authenticity, ambition, and romanticism. Click here to see a video slide show of some of Almodóvar's key transgender moments.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.