Trans documentaries often find themselves asking the same question: What is positive representation? “There’s this hunger to see a life that you can aspire to, to emulate,” explains trans historian Susan Stryker in the new HBO docuseries The Lady and the Dale. “Liz Carmichael is not an easy person for us to think of as a role model,” she adds, “But at a deeper level, there’s something that’s really compelling about Liz’s story.” And how! Directors Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker directly challenge the idea that “uplifting” trans narratives are the most absorbing ones. Instead, the most interesting trans stories are often about folks who spend their lives challenging the systems that keep them down. Geraldine Elizabeth “Liz” Carmichael had the kind of story that Ryan Murphy probably wishes he could have turned into an exploitative miniseries. She counterfeited money, faked a car accident, illegally sold car stocks, lied about degrees, moved her family from home to home in the middle of the night, jumped bail … the rap sheet goes on.
The Lady and the Dale is named after the Dale, Carmichael’s attempt in the ’70s to create a three-wheeled car billed as capable of going 70 miles per gallon. Each of the series’ four episodes are split neatly into arcs of her life. The first follows Carmichael’s youth, petty criminal activity, marriages, transition, and family. The second is primarily about her establishing the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, and all its sketchiness behind the scenes. The third covers the incredibly long and very public fraud case against Carmichael (in which she acted as her own defense), which was fueled by the scandal of her being trans. The fourth covers the aftermath of all her misadventures, which is far more surprising than one might expect.
There’s a lot of history to cover, and each episode brings new surprises that dispel any questions about whether one woman’s life could take up four hours of film. Cammilleri and Drucker are clearly fascinated by their subject, particularly the nuances of what it meant to be a trans woman who also happened to be a criminal. Carmichael pitched and performed everything about herself, from her Randian politics to her commitment to her desires, to the nth degree. The series uses her own quotes, as well as stories from those who loved and hated her (mainly her daughter and brother-in-law), to tell her story, and Stryker and other experts, like Sandy Stone and Mia Yamamoto, contextualize her life and how trans visibility has often been seen as criminal. (As Stryker notes, trans panic leading to arrests have been commonplace since the 16th century.)
What’s most engaging is the cutout animation, utilizing photographs superimposed onto a variety of designs (it’s most reminiscent of the old kids cartoon Angela Anaconda, of all things). It makes Liz’s story larger than life without sacrificing her humanity. Practically every person who encountered her found themselves charmed, even when faced with her crimes. The visual inventiveness conveys both her flaws and her charisma.
But Liz’s charm was precisely what drew in her worst enemies, including the overwhelmingly transphobic Dick Carlson, a reporter hellbent on exposing her gender as a “fraud.” The series makes a point to highlight him as a prime example of how prejudice is taught by pairing his transphobic rants with those of his son, Tucker Carlson. Though many interviewees from previous generations have trouble thinking of Liz as a woman, they are presented as products of their time rather than malicious. In contrast, Carlson makes himself the villain with his hyper-fixation on outing trans women (including tennis player Renée Richards). He gloats about a judge chastising him for repeatedly misgendering Carmichael.
The Lady and the Dale has no interest in challenging Liz Carmichael’s gender. Whatever crimes she may have committed, lying about her identity wasn’t one of them. She was unashamed to be herself, even when doing so resulted in harassment, beatings, and constant suspicion. She wanted everything and more, but she was also a survivor who got through life by whatever means necessary. Sometimes the messiest stories are the ones most worth exploring and highlighting.
The Lady and the Dale is currently airing on HBO and available to stream via HBO MAX. The final episode airs Sunday, February 14 at 9 p.m. EST.