Roy(Tom Wilkinson) and Irma(Jessica Lange) Applewood have been married for 25 years and have 2 children, Patty-Ann (Hayden Panettiere) and Wayne(Joseph Sikora). They are active members of their church and are loved in their community. Their happiness and their town’s morality is tested when Roy announces to Irma and their pastor that he is a man trapped in a woman’s body.
Set in the heart of the corn belt, where rotund men define masculinity with physical labor. Roy challenges gender constructs despite being ridiculed, scoffed at ostracized. Roy, in finding his inner “Ruth”, creates the dramatic elements. We all share Roy’s transition to Ruth, as much as the characters in the story.
Irma’s angry and hurt reaction to Roy’s revelation, is completely realistic. She asks him to leave that same day. As Irma goes through the 5 stages of grief, she begins to see Roy/Ruth for who the person is. She eventually asks him back home. There is a beautiful moment symbolizing this reparation where Irma and Ruth are making their marital bed together.
Their church attempts to convert Roy with “aversion therapy” techniques, citing passages in the bible. Reverend Dale Muncie even places some of the blame on Irma, for unintentionally emasculating Roy. His sense of normalcy is his flock abiding his sermons and behaving like the proverbial sheep. The metaphor here is, like lemmings, we follow the leader, trusting blindly that she or he knows best. That Roy/Ruth has upset that serenity, Reverend Muncie succumbs to his flock leading him.
Roy/Ruth is ostracized at the very church he’s committed his spiritual life to. Roy is kicked out of the choir and Reverend Muncie does nothing to mediate. Reverend Muncie also shamefully watches as one of his flock disdainfully rejects Ruth’s tithing, and whispers something that makes Ruth leave the church.
Roy’s coworkers are appalled. When Roy wears perfume to work, they exhibit all the archetypal male traits, debasing their wives, jibing Roy about having another woman like it is a masculine right. They then get physical with him when he wears earrings to work. Frank, Roy’s boss and friend protects him, even though his acceptance of Roy/Ruth is dubious at best.
The strength of this movie is that it focuses much of the attention on the dynamic of family. The emotions get real and pugnacious and raw. In every scene, though, there is an undercurrent of love and affection.
Adding a natural correlation to female transition, their daughter, Patty-Ann, gets her period, journeying into womanhood. This leads to a wonderful scene where Patty-Ann and Roy are “hormonal” and Irma, the pre-menopausal female, is the most sedate of the three.
In contrast to gender stereotype, their daughter dresses “boyish” and Irma doesn’t approve, projecting her insecurity that their daughter might want to become a boy. She even asks Ruth to not condone her behavior. In a conflicting moment, Ruth, hypocritically, supports Irma, becoming the oppressor, mirroring the same oppression she grew up with. Now the oppressed becomes the oppressor.
Patty-Ann is smart, sensitive, and speaks her mind. She is immediately accepting of her father’s transition. She is more knowledgeable then the mother. She and Ruth are connecting on a level that excludes Irma, or perhaps, Irma intentionally keeps her distance.
The struggle of this family is punctuated in the return of their son Wayne for Thanksgiving. The symbolism here cannot be ignored, for Wayne is ruffled and visibly uncomfortable being around Ruth. Wayne and Ruth get into a physical altercation. He has his breakdown, cradled in Ruth’s arms. This emotional release resonates for the whole family.
…What we do for love.
Here the Applewood’s start the healing process, leading up to Roy’s gender reassignment surgery. Irma eloquently sums up her feelings and their journey of love; “Sweet Roy. Sweet soul. What we do for love.”
“Normal” was written and directed by Jane Anderson, based on her play “Looking For Normal.” Released in 2003, it perfectly captures the hesitant understanding of transgender at that time.
The DVD is available from Amazon.
mir, irini, peace, amn,