One of the advantages of living in a culture that obsessively records itself is that looking back on ourselves often delivers a healthy dose of 20/20 hindsight, not just on whatever piece of history we are trying to study but on all the things that have changed since it happened – and sometimes, on all the things that haven’t.
Such an experience is provided by “The Lady and the Dale,” HBO Max’s Duplass Brothers-produced docuseries that opens a window on 1970s America by relating the details of an implausible but true automotive industry scandal that captured headlines before fading into obscure cultural memory. In the process, it turns a quirky true-life tale of corporate chicanery into an eye-opening examination of the way our beliefs about gender shape the public narrative. It also forces us to ponder questions about how much those beliefs have evolved – if, indeed, they have evolved at all – in the years since the story it tells took place.
Directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker, the four-episode chronicle spins the kind of yarn that might be considered too implausible to be believed if it hadn’t happened in real life. It’s more than revisiting a news story – it’s the saga of one Elizabeth Carmichael, who splashed into fame at the height of the 1970s oil crisis with her introduction of a fuel-efficient, radically redesigned automobile called the Dale. Armed with a prototype and a knack for promotion, she gathered an impressive stable of designers and engineers and started her own company, the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, and began touting her innovative, three-wheeled vehicle to an American public in the grip of an OPEC-driven fuel shortage that had driven gas prices to record highs.
Taking advance orders to fund production, the upstart entrepreneur soon fell under suspicion for her seemingly outrageous promises of 70-mile-per gallon fuel economy and a quick rollout; when technical setbacks cast even more doubt on her claims, increased scrutiny from media and law enforcement uncovered a hidden past of shady scams, audacious escapes, and concealed identity, culminating in the revelation that she was both a longtime fugitive from justice and a transgender woman. Choosing to defend herself in court against charges of fraud and business code violations, she found herself also waging an uphill battle with misogyny and transphobia, and she ultimately opted instead to pull a decade-and-a-half-long disappearing act before authorities were finally able to catch up with her.
Assembled in the slick, now-familiar “docu-tainment” style that has become the fashion with high-profile shows of its ilk, “The Lady and the Dale” takes a deceptively bemused tone from the start. Though considerable footage exists of Elizabeth Carmichael from her days in the spotlight, much of her life can be glimpsed only through a few family photos and home movies, and the show makes up for this dearth of material by mining those images to create clever, quirky animations illustrating her story. These visual aids might seem too light-hearted to accompany a tale of deception, greed, crime, and systemic bigotry, but as more is revealed about the complex and conflicted underlying morality of the story, their whimsy seems more like irony – the kind that might arise from living through decades of oppression from a society oblivious to its own role as oppressor.
That is, of course, precisely the viewpoint Cammilleri and Drucker want you to take. As they piece together the details of Carmichael’s notorious misadventures – through interviews, news and courtroom footage, and commentary by experts adding a contemporary perspective – they slyly, almost subversively peel back the convoluted layers of circumstance to reveal the unmistakable face of transphobia cowering at the core of her story. Using the tall-tale appeal of their subject, they draw their audience into an “if I only knew then what I know now” retrospect on an era when most Americans saw no difference between a transgender woman and a drag queen. The archival news coverage they show us is rife with misgendering and dead-naming, interviews with authorities and journalists assert the presumed untrustworthiness of a “man posing as a woman,” and the enthusiasm with which media and authorities cast Carmichael as a villain and raises a now-obvious red flag about the real reasons behind her merciless persecution. By the time the series reaches its halfway mark, it becomes clear that, while she may well have been culpable in the events that led to the charges against her, she was really being punished for the crime of being trans.
At the same time, the series provides an unexpectedly positive parallel real-life narrative, in which Carmichael managed to successfully transition while continuing in her role as head of a household, maintaining the love and support of a family who stayed with her even through years of living on the lam. Through interviews with children and other relatives, we learn about a warm and loving person who was fully accepted on her own terms by a wife and kids that stayed loyal despite an unstable and often dire lifestyle. Couple these with the descriptions coming from associates from the Dale days of a charismatic, dynamic leader who inspired their faith and commitment even as the project fell apart, and you have a very different person from the unscrupulous grifter in the portrait painted by the authorities, journalists, and other public voices who led the charge against her.
The reason behind this gap in perception between the people who knew Carmichael and those who knew only an image they themselves had helped to create seems obvious. It’s why visibility is such an important facet in the fight for acceptance – the more we become aware that the people we demonize are people we actually know, the more our attitudes change and our empathy grows. But while this might seem like a no-brainer in 2021, it was not quite so clear in 1974. That it is so readily apparent now is testament to the power of hard work and activism.
Of course, not everyone in our society will be surprised by the revelations of hindsight bestowed by “The Lady in the Dale.” For trans audiences, the ingrained transphobia it explores is an all-too-familiar part of everyday life, a point underscored in the series by the presence of several trans commentators, who provide a scholarly and informed cultural perspective throughout. And while the distance of time allows the luxury of acknowledging how far we’ve come, it’s worth noting that at least one journalist interviewed for the film doubles down on the same transphobic bile he spewed forth when he covered the Carmichael case nearly five decades ago.
That’s what makes “The Lady and the Dale” much more than just the latest must-watch distraction on streaming TV. It’s also an essential piece of trans activism, wrapped in an entertaining package that is now being played on screens all across America for people who would likely have never clicked “play” on such a thing – and that’s a con job that Elizabeth Carmichael herself would be proud of.