Culture Trips

‘Trans lives are erased in our culture’: the strange untold story of The Lady and the Dale | Documentary

In 1974, Liz Carmichael seemed on the brink of ubiquity. On TV, in the newspapers and on the radio, Carmichael pitched her three-wheeled car, the Dale, as not only the antidote to America’s languishing oil crisis, but as a revolutionary firework to the auto and energy industries. The Dale, a prototype that looked like a cross between a sports car and a backwards tricycle, would be the biggest thing since Henry Ford’s Model T, she promised, aiming her Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation at the country’s big three automakers.

The promise of 70 miles a gallon and a magic bullet for interminable gas shortages garnered the Dale and its champion outsized media attention. But by 1976, an investigation by LA local reporter Dick Carlson had brought the company crashing down, and Carmichael went on the run with investors’ money. Focus on the company’s fraud soon bubbled into a queasy fascination with outing Carmichael, then in her late 40s, as a transgender woman – a highly sensationalized revelation revisited, recontextualized, and reappreciated in HBO’s expansive four-part docuseries The Lady and the Dale.

Carmichael was a dogged entrepreneur, a consummate scammer, a bombastic businesswoman and a gripping conversationalist, the type of personality who could charm anyone within 10 minutes and one of the rare figures to justify a long-form documentary series. The Lady and the Dale, produced by the Duplass brothers, views her story both as a fascinating portrait of a high-wattage individual and a portal into the underrepresented history of trans people in the US. “Liz is resilient, a survivor,” Zackary Drucker, the series co-director with Nick Cammilleri (and a consultant/cast member on Amazon’s Transparent), told the Guardian, in her “ability to provide for a family despite all of these circumstances that would’ve made it untenable for her both live her truth as a trans person and be a provider and a caretaker.”

Born in 1927 in small-town Indiana, Carmichael was perpetually on the move with various money-making schemes around the American heartland. An arrest warrant for a counterfeiting operation in 1961 sent Carmichael and her family – wife, Vivian, whose perspective is included as best as possible in the series by her younger brother Charles Barrett, and their five children, including star narrator Candi Michael – on the run. The rambunctious group pinballed across the country with forged records and odd jobs, as Carmichael began transitioning in her 40s. At 6ft 2in and more than 200lb, her appearance was often imposing, and dangerously visible; Carmichael leaned into the attention, appearing in promotional shots for the Dale in miniskirts and bouffant hair, hands confidently on her hips.

Carmichael’s resilience, and the target made by her visibility, were two of “many themes of trans life” that persist today, said Drucker. “Her story had really not been told accurately or justly and there was a correction to make in the present.”

The fact that Carmichael’s name returned fewer Google search results than you would expect for such a high-flying trial was evidence that “trans lives are erased in our culture, and still are, [and] is a big part about why no one knows about this story,” the co-producer Jay Duplass told the Guardian.

The series covers Carmichael’s life, from her early schemes to, as several engineers attest, the tight kinship at Twentieth Century Motors; from her traumatic incarceration in a men’s prison to her later years running a roadside florist business in Austin, Texas, where another journalistic investigation into dubious business documentation hinged again on outing her as trans. Drucker and Cammilleri braid each chapter with illuminative context of trans life in the mid-to-late 20th century, which dovetails with Carmichael’s own choices and outsized confidence: the necessity of obtaining hormones from veterinarians, the common journey to Mexico for gender-confirming surgical procedures unavailable or prohibitively expensive in the US; the shameful journalistic trope of viewing the outing of a trans person as a thrilling story; the confinement of trans inmates to prisons at odds with their gender, where they experience higher rates of violence; the balm of created families, such as Carmichael’s florist business in Austin.

Elizabeth Carmichael with her family.
Elizabeth Carmichael with her family. Photograph: HBO

Still, The Lady and the Dale is not the story of a straightforward protagonist; Carmichael is a complicated, often confounding figure the series takes pains to sketch in numerous shades. She was an Ayn Randian libertarian who believed deeply in American capitalism, a savvy if not exactly on-books entrepreneur whose schemes of various legality ran from her days in the American military until her death from cancer in 2004. Her years on the lam honed strict practicality – the family had their pickup-and-go routine down to about 10 minutes, Candi Michael recalls – but she was also a dreamer; by most accounts, she believed her own Dale hype, at least in part. “Not that Liz is perfect by any means, but I do believe that Liz had a great vision and had great intentions, and would absolutely have loved to have revolutionized the automobile and energy industries,” said Duplass. “Would she also like to make billions and billions of dollars? Yes.”

Unsurprisingly, the American legal system in the late 70s bungled such complexity; though a legal hearing on Carmichael’s gender affirmed her womanhood in the eyes of the court, the actual proceedings, and the prosecution in particular, aimed straight at her identity as a trans person, conflating her gender transition with her business ethics and personal honesty. “Technically, Liz Carmichael was on trial to determine whether or not she had committed a fraud in promoting the Dale, but it’s pretty clear that she was on trial as a trans person,” says the trans historian Susan Stryker in the series. “When they couldn’t decide whether the car was real or not, they started focusing on Liz. If she was a fraud, then the car was a fraud.”

Throughout her life, Carmichael was dogged by claims that she was pretending to be a woman to cover up her fraud, a fixation on identity (and, in news coverage at the time, sex characteristics) that has continued into the present day (the lineage of initial outer Dick Carlson, revealed in the final episode, both made sense and my jaw drop). “Liz was one of many people who are pilloried, humiliated, dragged through the mud, incarcerated, beaten,” said Drucker. “So many elements of Liz’s story persist today.”

Elizabeth Carmichael.
Elizabeth Carmichael. Photograph: HBO

But the series is careful not to sanitize Carmichael as a trailblazer or to lionize her resilience at the expense of honesty; the rangy, prismatic episodes balance Carmichael’s intrepidness with her falsehoods, her consistency as a loving matriarch grounded by mention of several prior children she abandoned. The warts-and-all approach was a deliberate choice to progress beyond representations of trans life aimed to please. “I don’t think we can be full humans if we’re not allowed to make mistakes and be flawed,” said Drucker. “The phase of affirmational storytelling I think has run its course.”

It was “necessary to amend the misrepresentations of trans people in film and television history previous to the trans tipping point,” she said, referencing the cultural moment in the mid-2010s when shows such as Orange is the New Black and Transparent, with trans-centered storylines and characters, first aired.

“We can’t just kind of compartmentalize ourselves into these perfect, succinct renderings of role models,” she said. “I think that’s really limiting, especially when everybody else doesn’t have to.”

The series also sees Carmichael’s arc as far more emblematic of the American entrepreneurial mythos than as outsider portrait. “There’s nobody more American than Liz Carmichael,” said Duplass. “She’s an allegory for the way that this country came up as an outsider and inventing your own reality.”

“I hope that people are inspired by Liz’s resilience and her tenacity,” Drucker added. “And I hope that people give themselves allowance to be flawed humans as well.”

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