The story of Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael, the Twentieth Century Motor Company, and the three-wheeled Dale is one of the more sensational scandals that has crossed through the automotive world—but it’s a story deeply intertwined with our societal concepts of gender identity and, of course, transness. And The Lady and the Dale does a damn good job reckoning with the nature of being transgender and the inherent transphobia that has tinged the story since its outset.
If you haven’t heard the full story, I’ll direct you to a great story written by our own Jason Torchinsky outlining the whole situation (but please note that the language used in this article regarding the transgender experience are currently dated but consistent with how Carmichael spoke of herself; the language has evolved drastically in recent years).
Prior to transitioning, Carmichael was absolutely a criminal. When she started working on the Dale, her goal was more to become globally famous and rich than it was to change the auto industry—although that latter part was an essential to that global fame. And even after she served her jail time for the fraud surrounding the Dale, Carmichael took to questionable means to make money running a flower selling racket in Austin, Texas.
I think her daughter Candi Michael put it best in saying that Carmichael deserved to be prosecuted but that it had been done improperly, especially regarding the media spectacle.
But one of the most fascinating parts of the documentary is Susan Stryker, a theorist who has studied the transgender experience, who shares her interpretation of Carmichael as a trans spectacle more than anything else, and argues that it defined how Carmichael was treated in the media and in the world at large.
Their inclusion was absolutely crucial in a narrative so riddled with transphobia. The documentary speaks to other key players, like reporters and police who helped to frame the media narrative that Carmichael had transitioned as an act of malice or intentional deceit—which Stryker notes as being a common trope. That Carmichael became a longtime criminal, Stryker posits, is more likely tied to her existence as a person deemed unacceptable by society, a society against which Carmichael rebelled. Unfortunately, her transness was used during trial as if it were an inherent moral flaw that positioned the Dale as a fraud of a car because of that.
The conversations with Candi Michael, Carmichael’s daughter, and Charles, Carmichael’s brother-in-law, are also key to breaking down the narrative of transness as inherent deceit. Candi Michael notes that Carmichael was a great mother despite her history of criminal behavior and that she was a woman in all walks of her life. Charles noted his surprise at the transition but that, ultimately, Carmichael loved her family and that was what mattered to him.
And that balance is necessary in a story riddled with so many hurtful myths of trans folk, like the ones peddled by news pundit Dick Carlson. Carlson used his platform to ‘expose’ Carmichael’s transness as her trial around the Dale took place, which he framed in such a way to claim Carmichael’s car was like her identity: an intentional deceit.
That became the tone for the entire trial, that Carmichael was an inherent fraudster, which could be exhibited by the very nature of her gender identity. The documentary includes audio clips from several jurors who are absolutely nasty about Carmichael; they share that they peeked under the bathroom stall to see which way Carmichael’s feet went when she used the bathroom, and they share that they were inherently against her from the outset just because of who she was. It’s a harrowing viewership experience that denies what it means to be a transgender person.
But it also highlights—and subsequently dismantles—those negative myths. As several people in the documentary point out, Carmichael continued her feminine presentation long after the Dale saga took place. She lived and died a woman. If she had been using her femininity as a weapon of deceit, it would have made sense for her to re-transition to become a man, if only to mask the fact that she was living on the lam. She would have benefited from a masculine presentation, but she didn’t do it for the simple fact that she was a woman.
The Lady and the Dale is an incredible watch for a lot of reasons. I’ll admit that the cutout animation style comes across pretty strangely for the subject matter, but the inclusion of candid interviews, historical footage, trans theorists, and trans folk from other walks of life blend together to create a frankly exceptional docuseries. It adds so much depth to a story so wild on the surface that it should be unbelievable—but it also does the crucial work of tackling the trans narrative that is such a prominent part of Carmichael’s life and her public reception. It is, honestly, a monument of a film.