Transgender Representation in Popular Cinema


Transgender individuals occupy a wide range of locations within the categories of sex, gender, and sexuality. Due to the variety of transgender identities and the continued convolution of their individual locations on various continuums, transgender bodies on screen have been subjected to a variety of representations. Isolating various transgender narratives within the corpus of popular cinema reveals trends in trans body representations. Tracing the history of trans bodies in film from early instances of onscreen cross-dressing to the unforeseen popularity of Kimberly Peirce’s transgender docudrama Boys Don’t Cry, the struggle for compassionate and realistic portrayals of transgender characters has not been without setbacks. Even though their presence threatens ruling ideology, mainstream popular cinema has recently and reluctantly conceded a small number of realistic portrayals of transgender characters. Although the history of transgender representations has been fraught with trivialization and demonization, popular cinema appears to be making room for realistic transgender characters.

Any discussion of representations of transgendered bodies in the normative space of popular culture requires the definition of key terms. The apparent interconnectivity of categories of sex, gender and sexuality causes confusion, though each term denotes separate phenomena that are generally and inaccurately reduced into binaries. Sex refers to biological difference evidenced in physical characteristics of the body as well as chromosomal and hormonal variations, while gender is a social and ideological construction (Butler 8-9). Sexuality, or sexual preference, is generally described through the heterosexual/homosexual binary (Phillips 8). Transgender identities demonstrate the inaccuracy of reducing these categories to binaries, illuminating locations on the continuums of sex, gender, and sexuality rarely examined.

Though transvestites and trans persons have been historically categorized as homosexuals, this conflation is inaccurate. The term transvestite denotes a heterosexual who derives erotic pleasure from wearing garments associated with their opposing gender, while drag queens are generally gay men who dress as women and do so usually as some sort of exaggerated performance of femininity. Transgender describes an individual who identifies with the gender not usually associated with their sex, but has no relation to the sexuality of the individual. Transsexuals identify not only as the opposite gender, but wish to transcend their given sex with medical intervention. The term transgender encompasses transsexuals, though their difference must be noted.

These identities question the reality of gender, sex and sexuality binaries, though certain identities are more problematic to queer theory than others. Judith Butler’s theory of the performativity of gender is reinforced by drag performances and transgender identities. In Gender Trouble, Butler claims that “in imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency” (175). Because the reality of a post-op transsexual reinforces sexual difference and gender binaries, undermining Butler’s theory of performativity, Butler tends to examine transsexuals as being in transition. The complexity of the phenomena and the variety of identities that transgender studies examines can be overwhelming. Theory aside, mainstream media representations of transgendered subjects influence popular opinion regarding trans individuals.

The importance of cinematic representations of trans individuals should not be minimized. As Vito Russo points out in The Celluloid Closet, “Mainstream films about homosexuality are not for gays. They address themselves exclusively to the majority” (325). The same is true for mainstream films about transgender individuals. Portrayals of fictional transgender characters can have consequences in the corporeal world. For a group with little visibility to the film consuming public, these films “provide a framework in which straight people see real life LGBT people” (Westbrook 6). Mainstream cinema wields a tremendous amount of power in its ability to shape popular opinion regarding transgender individuals. Unfortunately, as John Phillips observes, “Western popular culture is heavily normative, so that sexual perversions and gender deviations of all kinds are routinely demonized” (15).

Essential to understanding the way audiences experience transgender characters in film is Laura Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Utilizing claims of Freudian psychoanalysis, Mulvey presents two distinct types of pleasure associated with the consumption of moving pictures, as presented from the masculine perspective that the camera traditionally occupies. Mulvey explains that, “the scopophilic instinct (pleasure in looking at another person as an erotic object), and, in contradistinction, ego libido (forming identification processes) act as formations, mechanisms which ... cinema has played on” (815). Occupying a position on sex, gender and sexuality continuums unimaginable for the majority of the movie-going public, the viewer struggles to experience voyeuristic pleasure at the sight of an unfamiliar body. Similarly, identifying with the transgender character is particularly difficult for the viewer who understands his or her own sexual identity only in binaries. The ambiguity of the transgender body hinders the viewer’s ability to experience visual pleasure in the image of transgender characters in narrative films.

To compensate for the challenge trans bodies present mainstream audiences and the process of experiencing visual pleasure, John Phillips suggests in his book, Transgender on Screen, that narrative films with transgender characters rely on plots of deception and revelation. In some films the audience is privy to the transgender character’s deception and, “derives pleasure from observing the deception’s success or failure” (Phillips 19). Others facilitate the deception of the audience in addition to the characters within the film. After the big reveal, the audience experiences the “pleasure of discovery” as well as admiration for the perpetrators of a successful deception. The deception/revelation method compensates for the complications trans bodies present an audience, although the need for alternative processes of pleasure derivation problematizes the establishment of more traditional visual pleasure experiences in relation to transgender characters.

Examining early instances of onscreen cross-dressing and the camera’s treatment of cross-dressing figures establishes a model through which audiences begin to understand ambiguous bodies. In Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco, Amy Jolly, played by Marlene Dietrich, makes her nightclub debut dressed in a tuxedo and a top hat. Neither the characters nor the audience is ever deceived by Dietrich’s male garments, objectifying her body for the voyeuristic pleasure of not only the male audience in the nightclub, but the male audience in the movie theater. The act of cross-dressing could be threatening in the male dominated and militarized setting of Morocco, but, as Sternberg helps establish and exploit, the audience tolerates gender transgression from professional performers. If categories of sex, gender and sexuality are to be questioned but ultimately reinforced as rigid for the majority, performers are the ideal gender benders. Amy Jolly’s tuxedo act titillates both the male and female members of the audience, and though Dietrich adopts a masculine gait, the camera never forgets her femininity. Focusing on Gary Cooper’s character’s gaze as he consumes Jolly’s performance, the audience is reminded
that though Dietrich kisses a female audience member, this is not an act of homosexuality or even bisexuality. The shots of Gary Cooper watching and the preceding scene in which the night club’s proprietor advises Jolly as to which male patrons she should focus on seducing, reassure the film’s audience that Jolly’s act is meant for the masculine gaze and does not threaten the hegemony of patriarchy or heterosexuality. Though sexual difference looms over Sternberg’s film, Jolly’s cross-dressing is entertainment, not the central focus of the film.

One of the earliest examples of the cross-dressing comedy, Some Like It Hot, tells the story of two male jazz musicians who witness a crime mob killing and then cross-dress in order to escape Chicago by joining an all female jazz band tour. Joe and Jerry, who assume the female identities of Josephine and Daphne respectively, utilize transvestitism in order to escape eminent bodily harm. Characters transgressing gender roles for personal gain appear in numerous tales of cross-dressing. Some Like It Hot exemplifies what Marjorie Garber calls the “progress narrative,” a narrative in which “each [cross-dressing character] is ‘compelled’ by social and economic forces to disguise himself or herself in order to get a job, escape repression, or gain artistic or political ‘freedom’” (70). Garber goes on to explain that the cross-dressing characters usually transgress gender roles reluctantly. Wilder reminds the audience constantly of the cross-dressing characters’ authentic gender identity while also emphasizing their powerful heterosexual desires. The intensity of Joe’s heterosexual desire leads him to shed the identity of Josephine in order to seduce Sugar. The “progress narrative” communicates that “crossdressing can be ‘fun’ or ‘functional’ so long as it occupies a liminal space and a temporary time period” (Garber 70).

Although the “progress narrative” condones temporary cross-dressing in order to facilitate a character’s escape or gain, a side effect of their transvestitism is the destabilization of gender identities and sexual difference. That Joe and Jerry successful pass as women for the majority of the film raises serious questions about the rigidity of categories of gender and sex. The film compensates for this destabilization of gender and sex with dialogue vehemently reaffirming the existence of essential sexual differences. At the end of the scene in which Josephine and Daphne appear for the first time, Jerry as Daphne, commenting on the proficiency of Sugar’s feminine walk in heels in contrast to their clumsy stumbling, exclaims, “Look at that! Look how she moves! ... I tell ya, it’s a whole different sex!” Annette Kuhn, attuned to the paradox cross-dressing presents in film comedies, suggests that, “if crossdressing narratives always in some measure problematise gender identity and sexual difference, then, many do so only to confirm finally the absoluteness of both, to reassert a ‘natural’ order of fixed gender and unitary subjectivity” (57). The conservative gender politics communicated by crossdressing narratives is lamentable, but that is not to say that their impact has been exclusively negative. Crossdressing comedies marked the first onscreen explorations of gender deviance, laying the foundation for transgender representations decades later, for better or worse.

Though the treatment of cross-dressing in popular film comedies prior to the gay liberation movement revealed the power of essential sexual difference theories and heteronormativity, the characters are not transgender. Secure in their gender identity as prescribed by their biological sex and society, the challenges that cross-dressing individuals raise to categories of sex, gender and sexuality destabilize only to reaffirm more vehemently their inelasticity. The visibility and acceptance that the gay rights movement fought for and began to receive helped facilitate portrayals of transgender characters in the 1990s.

Films such as To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, The Birdcage, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil make room for transgender characters, conceding the instability of sex, gender, and sexuality labels in the process. The importance of these generally compassionate portrayals should not be questioned, although their anti-homophobic themes may obscure underlying heteronormative themes. Laurel Westbrook examines this dilemma, lamenting the LGBT community’s reluctance to criticize films beyond simply denouncing obviously homophobic or transphobic releases. According to her readings of the films, the transgender character, in this selection of films exclusively male-to-female, is consistently portrayed as romantically tragic. The transgenderist is desexualized in relation to gay men and sexualized in relation to straight men. Effectively forbidding homosexual relationships, if relationships between male-to-female transgenderists can be called homosexual, and dooming transgenderists to the unrequited longing for masculine heterosexual men who, though they usually express sexual interest prior to the revelation of the transgender character’s biological identity, cannot reciprocate, these anti-homophobic films actively reinforce heteronormativity.

An even more disturbing film genre full of transgender representations appeared at the same time as the modern cross-dressing comedy. In the final scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the revelation of Norman Bates’ transvestitism marked the birth of a new subgenre of horror films. The transkiller’s debut in popular cinema demonized the transgender as a violent psychotic. Although the psychologist in Psycho is quick to clarify that transvestitism is not the source of Bates’ psychosis, his transvestitism being a symptom of a more complex multiple personality or dissociative identity disorder, the visual impact of Anthony Perkins wearing a dress and wielding a knife remains. The psychologist, an expert, explains his pathology, but an audience of laypeople using their own visual analysis could easily attribute Bates’ danger to his gender confusion. Bates’ oedipal issues and the Freudian themes and motifs that pervade Hitchcock’s film have no bearing on the majority of the movie-going public and their understanding of complex psychological disorders. The effect of reducing Bates’ pathology to that of a psychotic transgender still resonates in current debates regarding the psychology of transsexuals. Though Bates does not articulate any self-identification as a transgender, much less a transsexual, the visual impact of a knife-wielding transvestite resonates with popular conceptions of a variety of transgender identities.

The impact of Norman Bates’ apparent transvestitism is most acutely felt in Hollywood’s continued reinvention of the Bates archetype. Since the release of Psycho, the transkiller has resurfaced in films such as Freebie and the Bean, Dressed to Kill, Cherry Falls, and of course, The Silence of the Lambs. The success of The Silence of the Lambs, both in terms of box office performance and critical reception, heightens the impact of the transgender identity it presents, requiring a more thorough investigation of its transgender politics. In Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, Jame Gumb, known to the press as Buffalo Bill, kills large young women and skins them in order to construct a female body for himself. Although an exchange between Clarice and Hannibal questions the validity of his self-identification as a transsexual, instructing the audience that there is no connection between transsexuals and violence, this dialogue cannot compete with the visual power of Buffalo Bill. Dressed in a colorful feminine robe and dancing around with his penis tucked between his legs, the accuracy of his visual identity no longer matters. He is reduced by his moving image to a deranged transsexual, regurgitating a misconception dispelled within the film’s dialogue. One of the first films to examine the implications of gender dysphoria, the term used for the psychological condition behind transsexuality, The Silence of the Lambs ultimately communicates the message that, “gender dysphoria is a state of uncertainty in which the subject hovers between the masculine and the feminine, a state of confusion that might even lead to psychosis and murder” (Phillips 106).

Transkiller films do not have the potential for positive or accurate portrayals of transgender characters. Transgender comedies also trivialize the complexity of transgender identities, marginalizing their humanity and potential for romance in the process for the sake of a heterosexual audience’s amusement. It is not surprising that the first narrative film to compassionately examine the transgender experience and identity took the form of a docudrama. Basing a transgender character on a well-documented transgender identity, Boys Don’t Cry explores many aspects of the transgender experience. The death of the transgender character at the end of a docudrama based on actual events does not communicate the same message as a fictional narrative that ends with the death of a transgender character, traditionally a violent killer whose death is celebrated by the audience. No longer read as a warning to those who deviate from dimorphic conceptions of gender, the death of a transgender character in a docudrama is an inarguable fact that can be mourned. It calls into question the nature of popular opinion regarding transgender individuals and the basic rights they are afforded in a transphobic society. The unexpected success of this groundbreaking film facilitated an extensive scholarly discussion of the film, called “The Boys Don’t Cry Debate,” occupying several issues of the film criticism journal Screen.

The transgender character Kimberly Peirce constructs in Boys Don’t Cry is stunningly complex and multi-dimensional, but the plot is familiar in the history of transgender bodies on film. Privy to Brandon Teena’s biological sex from the beginning, the audience takes pleasure in watching Brandon pass as a heterosexual male. Michele Aaron links Peirce’s film to its cross-dressing comedy predecessors saying that, “Boys is, inevitably, about the spectacle of transvestism: despite its new queer cinema sensibility and elegiac thoughtfulness, it is Hilary Swank’s crossdressed success ...which made the film an international hit and garnered her an Oscar...” (93). Despite her qualms over the exploitative nature of a “new queer cinema” examination of a transgender identity, Aaron’s examination of the pass/fail narrative that the film employs also explains that, “Brandon is not so much trying to pass as someone else as trying to be ‘him’-self. Passing is not, therefore, a means to an end, as in the comedies, but the end itself” (94). In this way, Boys Don’t Cry presents the first cross-dressing/transgender story to deviate from Garber’s “progress narrative.” Although the plot of passing is familiar and the spectacle of transvestism is exploitative of transgender identities, the distinctly transgendered passing as an acceptable form of gender transgression is an exciting development for trans bodies on film.

Kimberly Peirce’s attempts at establishing a transgender look similarly exemplify the progress that transgender characters have made on film. Judith Halberstam suggests in her reading of the film that, “Boys Don’t Cry establishes the legitimacy and the durability of Brandon’s gender not simply by telling the tragic tale of his death by murder but by forcing spectators to adopt, if only provisionally, Brandon’s gaze, a transgender look” (86). Forcing a foreign gaze on a mainstream audience is a powerful act of confrontation, but the film’s inability to maintain the transgender look throughout the film’s violent climax is unfortunate and perhaps inevitable. The mere exploration of a foreign gaze can have a powerful effect, potentially undermining the hegemony of the masculine gaze.

Unfortunately, Peirce’s film also reveals the shortcomings of a movement towards positive, compassionate and realistic portrayals of transgender characters. Boys Don’t Cry makes a strange omission of the death of Phillip DeVine, a young black man who was also murdered by Brandon Teena and Lisa Lambert’s killers. Jennifer Devere Brody examines this omission in her article in Screen’s “Boys Don’t Cry Debate,” “Boyz Do Cry: screening history’s white lies.” Noting Peirce’s awareness of a third and, importantly, black male victim, Brody criticizes that, “Where Peirce had an opportunity, if not an obligation to record the real confluence of racism, classism, misogyny, transgender discrimination and homophobia, she chose instead to ignore the racist issues at stake in this story” (93). The erasure of a black body in this narrative, in an attempt to isolate the transgender struggle, participates in a similarly oppressive tradition of racism. The failure of oppressed perspectives to value unfamiliar but wholly relevant situations of oppression is unforgivable and a liability for all minorities.

Though transgendered bodies have recently made considerable progress in mainstream representations, the struggle for realistic representations of transgender individuals is still behind that of homosexuals and other minority groups. The damage that cross-dressing/transgender comedies and transkiller films have inflicted on the popular consciousness will not be easily undone. Filmmakers with new queer cinema sensibilities and the desire to reverse the processes that have allowed heterosexual male points-of-view to dominate cinema can help create a body of films about transgendered persons with a transgender look. Realistic transgender characters question the dominance of heteronormativity and gender binaries, and if they can do so while celebrating the variety of difference and the unique experiences that difference produces, a richer cinematic tradition will emerge.

Works Cited

Aaron, Michele. “Pass/fail.” Screen 42.1 (2001): 92-96. Boys Don’t Cry. Dir. Kimberly Peirce. Perf. Hilary Swank, Chloë Sevigny. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 1999.

Brody, Jennifer Devere. “Boyz Do Cry: screening history’s white lies.” Screen 43.1 (2002): 91-96.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time & Place: Transgender Bodies, Sub-cultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Kuhn, Annette. The power of the image: Essays on representation and sexuality. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.

Morocco. Dir. Josef von Sternberg. Perf. Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper. Paramount, 1930.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory & Criticism. Ed. Gerald Mast. New York: Oxford, 1985. 803-816.

Phillips, John. Transgender on Screen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Pidduck, Julianne. “Risk and queer spectatorship.” Screen 42.1 (2001) 97-102.

Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Anthony Perkins. Paramount, 1960.

Rigney, Melissa. “Brandon Goes to Hollywood: Boys Don’t Cry and the Transgender Body in Film.” Film Criticism 28.2 (2003/2004): 4-23.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

Shelley, Christopher A. Transpeople: Repudiation, Trauma, Healing. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Some Like it Hot. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe. United Artists, 1959.

Tharp, Julie. “The Transvestite as Monster: Gender Horror in The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho.” Journal of Popular film and Television 19.3 (1991) 106-113.

The Silence of the Lambs. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins. Orion Pictures, 1991.

Westbrook, Laurel. “Teaching Conformity: How Transgender Characters in Hollywood Films
Promote Normative Gender Roles.” Conference Papers – American Sociological Association (2004): 1-23.

White, Patricia. “Girls still cry.” Screen 42.2 (2001):217-221.