SOPHIE and Sci-Fi: Navigating Medically Transitioning
Author: Olive Maurstad
August 24, 2020
I have a strange relationship with the song “Faceshopping” by SOPHIE. On the one hand, I love it dearly. On the other hand, I find it physically hard to listen to. Perhaps that is the reason I didn’t particularly like it at first. I admired it, certainly. In the same way I would admire the inner machinations of a car engine. It was a real piece of work. Work that I didn’t understand, I could only watch the pistons shudder. But something kept drawing me back to it, pulling me in until it was always on my mind. I don’t know that I can fully articulate what about the song grabbed me. But one specific thing is that, for reasons I wasn’t quite sure of at first, it reminded me of a therapy session I’d had in the summer of 2018. Really it reminded me of several sessions with several therapists, but this one stuck out most prominently. I want to explore the connection between that song and those memories with this article. Let me start by summarizing the session:
It was either June or July. I was attempting to start hormone replacement therapy, to start transitioning. On a practical level, I needed a letter from a therapist stating that HRT would be the proper treatment for my gender dysphoria. On a more holistic level, I needed a therapist because I was deeply mentally unwell (on account of the aforementioned gender dysphoria). I’m saying all this to make it clear upfront that I was not riding the elevator up to that therapist’s office with the intention to deceive, lie, or otherwise deal in falsehoods. I was simply a scared girl with scary problems.
When I arrived at the office it was dark and the receptionist’s desk was vacant. The door was unlocked and I knew I had the right time, so I simply sat in the waiting room to see if anyone would come for me. Eventually a man did. “Are you [deadname],” he said. I suppose I can’t begrudge him that, he had no other name to call me. Still, it didn’t seem as if he felt any compunction using it.
“Well come on.” He seemed somewhat put out to see me. Either that or very tired. I could sympathize with that. Still, I started the session feeling strangely unwelcome, as if I had demanded a table at a restaurant five minutes before closing, even though this appointment had been scheduled weeks in advance.
He asked me about myself. I told him that I was trans, that I’d been talking about my transness with a therapist in California (where my college was, as opposed to Texas where I live) for several months, and that I was hoping to start hormone replacement therapy. I believe this was my longest uninterrupted contribution to the session. What followed was a series of vaguely connected lectures that I mostly sat and nodded at.
Here’s what I remember: He spoke disparagingly of other local therapists who gave out gender dysphoria diagnoses after just one session, saying that he would only give me a diagnosis after at least six. Strange to think of any diagnosis as a gift. No doctor would say, “I am gifting you a cancer diagnosis.” But I suppose that was the situation we were in. He seemed not to care that I’d been in treatment for my gender issues for several months. When he spoke about “therapists in California,” his voice took on an incredulous tone as he said the state’s name, as if California was a place where any alleged transsexual was given hormones as freely as candy corn on Halloween. I knew from experience this was not the case, but my experiences seemed to matter very little.
He spoke of a woman, I believe she was a patient of his, who died because she was taking illegal street hormones. “She had no idea what she was putting in her body,” he said. It was all the more disturbing because he said it with the same deadpan, vaguely combative tone with which he said everything. I don’t know why he told me this. I suppose to caution me away from procuring hormones illegally, though I’d given no indication I was thinking of doing this because I wasn’t. It almost seemed as if he wanted to threaten me away from hormones entirely.
At one point he asked me what I saw when I looked in the mirror. At this point I knew what was up. He didn’t trust me, he didn’t like me, and he treated me like I was wasting his time. Any question, but especially this kind of question, didn’t feel like an attempt to better understand me, but a trap I was supposed to stumble into. So I said what I thought he wanted me to say, “I see my wide shoulders, narrow hips, mannish jawline.” This was a little half-truth. I was and am deeply dysphoric about all those things. I didn’t always see them in the mirror though. When I looked in the mirror, I just saw myself. Nothing deeper than that. In reply, he scoffed and said, “well I don’t see that.” I suppose that settled it.
As I was leaving, he recommended several kinds of medical professionals that I should go to. He then asked if I had had anal sex. I was somewhat taken aback by this question, since nowhere in the session had we even approached discussing sex, and since the answer to that question was, emphatically, “No.” So I told him “No.” His face settled into a look that said, “C’mon dude,” and he asked again. Again, I said no, giggling a little because I didn’t know what else to do. He furrowed his brow and said, “Alright well you don’t need to talk about it with me but here are some doctors, you should get tested for STDs.” I could never understand why he didn’t believe me. It went beyond that, he seemed totally convinced I was lying. Why would I lie about that? If I had had anal sex would that have in some way cast doubt on my transness? I can’t see how it could’ve. Thinking it over now, the only explanation I can come up with is that he just thought I was lying about everything. That I was lying indiscriminately, for no reason. I suppose that’s the only other explanation for a boy coming into his office and asking to be made a girl.
There’s more I could say. I said what I felt was enough. So, what does SOPHIE have to do with all this? At first I didn’t know, I just felt a strange kinship to the woman singing about her face. Her “face is the front of shop,” or, “the real shop front,” or, alternatively, “the shop” in its entirety, which she “fronts.” It’s a nice game that the chorus of “Faceshopping” plays with itself. A safe one too, because it is absent any shoppers, or even any products. SOPHIE delicately constructs a shop with her face, it’s façade with its display windows, but that is all she constructs. No one goes in to peruse its wares, there may not even be any wares to speak of. There is just a shop, every part of which is the singer’s face.
All of this is summed up in the chorus’s final line, “I’m real when I shop my face.” What does “shop” mean here, as a transitive verb? One obvious answer is that it is a shortening of “photoshop.” It calls to mind digitally retouching, reconstructing, distorting the singer’s face. The verses indicate that this line of thinking is on the right track. Lines like “hydroponic skin,” “chemical release,” “artificial bloom,” seem to point to distortions that are not just digital, but physical. As a trans woman, knowing this song was made by a fellow trans woman, I couldn’t help but read this as gesturing towards hrt, towards facial feminization surgery, to all the medical incarnations of transitioning. I was captivated by the way SOPHIE talked about these things, that the song was so beautiful and yet disturbing. Beautiful because it was disturbing. As a freshly transitioning trans woman, one who still felt awkward and unnatural in her twice pubescent body, one who was still getting stared at every time she walked outside, it was freeing, almost aspirational, to hear someone like me be so cavalierly disturbing. But of course, there’s more going on here, isn’t there? We can’t ignore the commercial aspect of “shop.” Not “buy.” Not “sell.” Not even “shop for.” Just “shop.” We know there is some sort of commercial action happening here, but what exactly is it? Perhaps, given the rest of the chorus, we can read “I shop my face” as “I make my face a shop.” What is the price of achieving “realness” in this way?
We get a hint of how to answer this in the song’s bridge. It is radically different than everything else that comes before or after it. After so much percussive, mechanical whooshing and whirring, the song slips into shimmering glissandos and sweet, emotion-filled singing. It becomes stereotypically, parodically, a love song. The singer is singing at someone now. She’s naming them. She’s singing to “you.” Asking you to “touch her.” “Test her.” “Reduce her to nothingness.” Where did that last one come from? Up until now, this song has been meticulously detailing the construction and remaking of SOPHIE’s face. And yet now, she’s pleading for you to make all that to go away.
A strange thing to want. Does she want it, then? Certainly she seems to. She’s begging for all this, in the only part of the song up to now where her voice conveys human emotion. But it’s that very emotionality after so much robotic screaming that makes this part of the song feel forced. The bridge feels more like an uncanny valley rendering of a love song than the genuine article. And despite the drawn out moans asking to be “reduced to nothingness,” she never actually says that’s what she wants. SOPHIE never directly says she wants or desires anything. Instead, what she talks about is being a “shop.” And now she’s trying to sell you something. This isn’t a love song, it’s an advertisement. If this song is about anyone’s wants, it’s about the listeners. And what SOPHIE thinks you want is to “touch her,” “test her,” “reduce her to nothingness.” And so she’s trying to make you think that she wants that too.
There’s a short story called “Rent, Don’t Sell” by Cal Gimpelevich that I came across in the trans speculative fiction collection Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers. In the story, a trans woman, Natasha, swaps bodies with a trans man so they can both transition without having to worry about the limitations of hormones and surgery. Natasha ends up regretting the swap deeply. Even though she loves living as a woman, living on estrogen, she wants to live this way with her own body. She feels like a woman trapped in some man’s body, and even though she “feel[s] like [herself],” when she looks in the mirror she “sees someone else’s reflection.”
She sues to get her body back. When that fails, she takes her body back violently, against its current inhabitant’s will. All this to “do it old fashioned: estrogen pills twice a day.” To not know whether she’ll pass, what she’ll look like. To forego everything any other trans woman could never have. In swapping bodies, she went through one of the quintessential trans fantasies. A question I see people citing all the time as a litmus test for transness, a question I asked myself when I became aware of my own transness, is, “if you could press a button right now and turn into a cis woman, would you?” Natasha pressed that button. She wished she hadn’t. And yet she is still trans. Doing it “old fashioned,” doing it herself, doing it despite anxiety over the results, this is the only way Natasha can feel right. In other words, Natasha is only real when she shops her own face.
In the last two repetitions of “Faceshopping’s” chorus, we finally get wanting. The singer is now screaming at the listener, “And you know what I want / So give me what I want / I said everything I want.” When I listen to this part of the song, I picture that therapy session I had in June or July. But now I’m in the therapist’s chair, and on the couch is a girl who’s brave enough to scream what I wanted to scream. In this dream, girl tells me that, “You know what I want, so give me what I want.”
But the thing about this dream is that I don’t know what this girl wants at all. Everything about the situation we’re in has been constructed to make it impossible for this me in the therapist’s chair to know what she wants. I am here to “test her.” To see if she is the kind of woman I think she needs to be to transition. In this way, I’m here to “reduce her to nothingness.” What if she, like Natasha, wanted something unexpected? Would she dare say so, when I can give or take away everything she desires on a whim? So she’s stuck, always making herself into what I want to see, always obscuring what she really wants to be. And all I can say to her is, “Boy, do I know the feeling.”