“Man Made,” a Film About Transgender Bodybuilders, Upends the Traditional Documentary Gaze

On a Friday evening in October, before the New York première of “Man Made”—a documentary about the world’s only all-transgender bodybuilding competition—the film’s creators gathered at a tin-ceilinged bar in Chelsea called Underballs. (The bar is situated beneath a meatball shop.) T Cooper, the film’s forty-six-year-old director and co-writer, in a blue-velvet blazer and a neat beard, cast around for the small plates of meatballs that were arriving from upstairs. “I went with the chicken,” he said, before conversation turned to vegetarianism. The party grew noisy as film types and activists arrived, though there was also an undercurrent of tension. Five days earlier, the Trump Administration had released a memo announcing its intention to revoke federal recognition of trans and intersex people. Guests alluded darkly to “the news” and “this week.” Andrea Jenkins, a Minneapolis city councilwoman and the first trans person elected to public office in America, wore a shirt bearing the word “human.” Taj Smith, an activist who had been campaigning to uphold an anti-discrimination law in Massachusetts, in the midterms, said, “It takes about seven conversations for people to actually be able to identify that this is about something that’s bigger than bathrooms.”

Cooper had arrived in New York from a film festival in Tennessee, but the journey to Underballs began four years earlier, when he moved with his wife and co-writer, Allison, to Atlanta. A friend posted a photograph online from a nascent bodybuilding competition, which was open to anyone who identifies as a trans man. The image showed five participants posing at a bar in the city—the inaugural venue. “I hate the word bravery, ’cause when people tell me I’m brave I want to give them the finger,” Cooper said. But he was awed by the participants’ bravery, and by “how many versions of masculinity, and trans masculinity, were celebrated and welcomed.” Cooper is a novelist, TV writer, and a journalist, and he initially considered writing about the competition. But he eventually concluded that it should be filmed, even though he had never made a feature-length documentary before. His friend Téa Leoni, an actress and an executive producer of the film, recalled that, after speaking with him for about twenty minutes, “I thought, Somebody’s got to do this. And T knew—and I knew—that it should be T.”

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