Credit: Twitter

Cathy Brennan

He was a boy, she was a girl, can I make it any more obvious? Well, actually, let’s see if I can be any less obvious with this piece. In the music video for Avril Lavignes’s Sk8r Boi there is a guy at the beginning pointing a camcorder at a preppy girl in a car. Towards the end of the video, Lavigne is kneeling on the hood of a car singing directly into the lens of a camcorder held by some grinning goof. 21 years later, and we’ve got a video of another goof, this time holding a mic and standing next to a beautiful girl.

This video, which was uploaded to Twitter on February 21st 2023, by the guy with the mic, Israel Padilla, was captioned thus: ‘I was speechless’ followed by a cry laughing emoji. Padilla and the girl, who gives her name as Emily James, are standing on a brightly lit street at night with people passing by in the background. Emily is in the middle of a night on the town and halfway through the video one of her friends appears on camera to check if she’s alright. Padilla’s interview with Emily goes awry when he asks her how often she cuts her hair and she answers ‘I do porn’. From that point onward, Padilla is on the ropes – he’s stunned. Then Emily drops the two in her one-two punch by revealing that she’s trans.

The street interview is currently one of the most potent genres of online video content. However the form is almost as old as television itself, utilised first in broadcast news before moving into comedy. As far back as the 1950s, TV journalists would stop people in the street and ask them questions about the most pressing matters of the day such as “is too much fuss made over bosoms?”. These are known as ‘man on the street’ interviews or vox pops. Arguably the most notable variation of the format on TV in the last decade is the comedy Billy On the Street, in which the gay failson of Hollywood Billy Eichner browbeats innocent New Yorkers with questions about pop culture pablum.

With the accelerating accessibility of media technologies and online platforms in the last few decades, any cunt with a mic and a dream can be just like Eichner and bother people on their local high street for online clout. The creator, usually a guy, goes up to a random person, usually a young woman, and asks them a question: ‘What’s your most embarrassing story?’, ‘Do you like guys under 6 foot?’, ‘What’s your body count?’ There’s an implicit desire in these types of videos to get attractive young women to embarrass themselves with a raunchy story.

The street interview as done by Padilla and an international band of clout-hungry fuckbois, reinforces cisnormative ideas of heterosexuality. Through repeated lines of questioning around body counts, height, and the eternal nice guy-asshole dichotomy, these interviewers reinforce a code of existence against which young straight boys and girls measure themselves against. The borders of desirability are drawn up over and over again. It’s a game that’s rigged so heavily against all who play in earnest; humiliation is perpetually on the cards, and it’s usually the women in front of the camera who are set up to bear the brunt of it in the comments.

This is why it’s so pleasing to see bugs in the genre’s system, when an interviewee gracefully twirls out of the discursive trap with unselfconscious eccentricity. The ‘Ancient Man’ girl is the ideal example of this kind of matrix-breaking performance. In this brief video, the girl answers the interviewer’s question with complete sincerity and utter nonsense: “like 1800s, don’t you want to run away with me? It’ll be like humans never existed, or technology.” There are a couple of skeezy-looking guys messing about in the background for the camera, giving the video a vague aura of menace, which only makes the girl appear more heroic when she wordlessly runs away from the flabbergasted interviewer with a smile on her face. These interviewers are in the business of producing content, but through her responses, the Ancient Man girl takes the video and transforms it into a piece of online art. She produces a distancing effect for us as viewers, allowing us to consider just how monotonous this genre is, how insulting the questions, and how awful the interviewers are. As one commenter put it: “my man was looking for girls to ridicule… and instead he got this goddess.”

As an openly trans sex worker, Emily James similarly disrupts the cis heterosexual assumptions of the online street interview. Through flicks of her hair and grinning glances to the camera, she shows off an intuitive ability to perform to the camera. Journalist Kristen S. Hé tweeted “sex worker at her most powerful imo – the gaze is hers to control!” Padilla wasn’t able to clock James in the video and that, combined with his attraction to her, is what takes him aback in the moment, but through editing in reaction meme clips like they had us in the first half, Padila attempts to reassert some control as the auteur. He definitely wasn’t owned because he sees himself as the normal one. It didn’t really work out either because men in the comments used a two-pronged attack on both Padila and James, making fun of Padila because you can “tell” James is trans. she was bringing it in the comments herself refusing to cede control of her image. Fully aware that guys who make fun of trans women online often make for the biggest simps in private, she was plugging her OnlyFans, and tweeting about how Padila begged her to top him once the camera stopped rolling. She rocks.

James’ confidence in 2023 does more than produce a funny clip, it also prompts reflection on trans women’s relationship to the camera. Historically, the documentary has often been a tool to draw borders between normality and otherness by subjecting people and cultures to the mechanical eye of a camera lens, wielded by an arbiter of the status quo. From Flaherty’s ethnographic documentaries to Louis Theroux exploiting sex workers, the documentary is often a rearticulation of entrenched power dynamics when seeking to examine the lives of marginalised people. Since Christine Jorgensen ushered in a mainstream awareness of trans women, documentaries about us have proliferated to satisfy a curiosity both sincere and prurient. One example that sticks out in my mind is the 1967 short Queens At Heart.

Rediscovered by historian and archivist Jenni Olson, Queens At Heart features a middle-aged guy who calls himself Jay Martin and four glamorous trans women on a couch: Misty, Vicky, Sonja and Simone. Martin is conveniently sat behind a desk. After some footage of a drag ball, Martin interviews Sonja, Simone, and Vicky. Despite a flimsy pretence of being part of a “research project”, Martin’s interviewing technique is lurid. Just as Padilla bleeps out the words “porn and “penis” in James’ speech the filmmaker here bleeps out Simone when she discusses the particulars of her sex life. The censorship of words function as a reminder of who ultimately has the power in this media dynamic. It’s all the more twisted because Simone is simply answering the questions posed by the grinning Martin. The women in this short all look profoundly uncomfortable. Vicky’s mumbling response in her interview, particularly when she discusses her experiences with suicidal ideation, are heart-breaking. Where Emily James glanced at the camera with a mischievous energy, Vicky glances offscreen, betraying an intense anxiety over Martin’s intrusive questioning.

I find film texts like I Was Speechless and Queens At Heart conflicting. On the one hand these are products of transmisogynist exploitation. Perhaps my watching and rewatching of them, even my writing on them, perpetuates that harm. Yet at the same time what draws me back are the women; my identification with them as well as my admiration. I’m almost envious of James’ ability to wrap the camera round her finger, turning it into a tool for her rather than Padilla. My experiences of fighting transphobes online and off have taught me to shield myself from the camera, since transphobes often use images to document and dox us. For years, any poor lanky soul with dark curly hair who was photographed at an Edinburgh protest would be mistakenly identified as me. For most of my life I’ve been dealing with bouts of suicidal ideation, largely because of my position as a trans woman in a nation like the UK. So when I see a woman like Vicky squirm the same way I have done when questioned by an NHS clinician about my mental health (in the notes I was described as “dysthymic”) I find some comfort in knowing that my pain is not unique.

It’s fucked up that a trans woman can find solace in the media which was produced to exploit us. Seeing Emily James as not just another iconic trans woman, but also part of a lineage of trans women like Misty, Vicky, Sonja and Simone in Queen’s At Heart we begin to see a more complicated picture of trans women’s relationship to the camera. This machine – around which a cinephilic culture has accumulated so that publications like Cinema Year Zero exist, barnacle-like – can easily be used to degrade trans women. Yet it can also be used to humiliate those who would hurt us, so long as we play our cards right.