In recent years, many excellent sympathetic portrayals have emerged. I feel all trans people and their supporters should check out the following films. Links go to purchase info at Amazon.
Ma Vie En Rose [My Life In Pink] (Belgian, subtitled)
Now out on video, I think it’s the most positive movie I’ve seen on transsexualism. It puts a human face on it, through the story of a six-year-old child dealing with gender identity. Sweet and sad and wonderful all at once.
Possibly the most realistic depiction of what many white-collar trans women are like.
The harrowing story of a transman named Brandon Teena, whose murder sparked the community to take political action. Arguably the single most important film to date in focusing public opinion on the hatred and marginalization we face.
First and foremost, this is a love story. It’s the story of my friend Calpernia Addams’ relationship with Barry Winchell, who was murdered by fellow soldiers for dating her. Read my review here.
Felicity Huffman stars as Bree, a transsexual woman who makes a cross-country journey to help a son she just learned was hers.
Transgender themes in film
The most comprehensive site on this is JK’s Transgender Movie Guide.
Some other films with trans themes (I’ll organize all this soon):
- Glen or Glenda?
- Myra Breckinridge
- Myra Breckinridge/Myron
- Let Me Die a Woman
- Dressed To Kill
- Kiss of the Spider Woman
- Just Like a Woman
- The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
- Ed Wood
- The Adventures of Sebastian Cole
- The Brandon Teena Story
- Southern Comfort
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch
- The Badge
- Beautiful Boxer
- The World’s Fastest Indian
- Soap (2006 film)
- Dog Day Afternoon
- The World According to Garp
- Paris Is Burning
- Wigstock – The Movie
- “Soul Gender”: The Dance of Love
- Almost Myself
Transphobia in film: selected quotations
Editor’s note: Northwestern University psychology professor J. Michael Bailey claims that Silence of the Lambs features “transsexuals and their like” (p. 142–143). This outrageous slur has prompted me to put up a page discussing gender themes in film, starting with some of the more egregious examples.
Several of the most popular films in American history have imagery that suggests transgenderism. Unfortunately, the theme is usually connected to fear and hatred of transgender people. I will be analyzing pertinent quotations as part of my project on media depictions of gender conditions.
Which will we be this time? Prostitute, psychopath, or punchline?
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, taken from the novel by Robert Bloch
This horror classic forged what may be an unbreakable link between transgenderism and psychosis in American film.
Hitchcock was fascinated by psychology, and many of his films reflect pop-psychology theories of his day. Hitchcock was also fascinated with portraying the queer community as dangerous (see Robin Wood’s “Murderous Gays: Hitchcock’s Homophobia” for the best overview).
In Psycho, Hitchcock spins a masterful film from a novel and screenplay based loosely on serial killer Ed Gein. Gein had been captured a few years before in 1957, and he became the subject of a lot of pulp novels and true-crime stories. Hitchcock obviously had to tone it down to get past the Hayes Code, but he still managed to create an effectively terrifying film.
Psycho was the first film to use the word “transvestite” in it, which gives a sense of the sexually repressive environment under which Hitchcock explored his characters.
Film critics frequently discuss the peculiar exposition at the end of the movie, after killer Norman Bates has been captured and a psychiatrist named Dr. Richmond appears to explain everything in an impromptu lecture.
Like I said–the mother… (Richmond gives the following account to the whole group in the style of a lecture.) Now to understand it the way I understood it, hearing it from the mother–that is, from the mother half of Norman’s mind–you have to go back ten years, to the time when Norman murdered his mother and her lover.
Now he was already dangerously disturbed–had been ever since his father died. His mother was a clinging, demanding woman, and for years the two of them lived as if there was no one else in the world. Then she met a man–and it seemed to Norman that she threw him over for this man. Now that pushed him over the line and he killed them both.
Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all–most unbearable to the son who commits it. So he had to erase the crime, at least in his own mind. He stole her corpse. A weighted coffin was buried. He hid the body in the fruit cellar. Even treated it to keep it as well as it would keep. And that still wasn’t enough. She was there, but she was a corpse.
So he began to think and speak for her–give her half his life, so to speak. At times, he could be both personalities, carry on conversations. At other times, the mother half took over completely. Now he was never all Norman, but he was often only Mother.
And because he was so pathologically jealous of her, he assumed that she was as jealous of him. Therefore, if he felt a strong attraction to any other woman, the mother side of him would go wild. (to Lila:) When he met your sister, he was touched by her, aroused by her. He wanted her. That set off the jealous mother, and Mother killed the girl.
Now after the murder, Norman returned as if from a deep sleep. And like a dutiful son, covered up all traces of the crime he was convinced his mother had committed.
Why was he–dressed like that?
He’s a transvestite.
Ah–not exactly. A man who dresses in women’s clothing in order to achieve a sexual change or satisfaction is a transvestite. But in Norman’s case, he was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive. And when reality came too close–when danger or desire threatened that illusion–he dressed up, even to a cheap wig he bought. He’d walk about the house, sit in her chair, speak in her voice. He tried to be his mother! And, uh–now, he is.
Now that’s what I meant when I said I got the story from the mother. You see, when the mind houses two personalities, there’s always a conflict, a battle. In Norman’s case, the battle is over–and the dominant personality has won.
Modern audiences typically laugh at the “he’s a transvestite” line when watching the original (I’ve seen two audiences do this myself), and it is interesting to note that one of the few changes Gus Van Sant made in his frame-by-frame 1998 remake of the original is to drop all this. In the Van Sant version, not only is this dialogue omitted, but the reveal of Norman Bates as “Mother” makes much less of the wig and dress than the original with Tony Perkins. The Norman Bates character is also less effeminate and much more sexual in the Van Sant version. These small changes in Van Sant’s version do little to change the overall visual impression that crossdressing is a symptom of psychotic behavior.
All in all, Psycho still stands as one of the finest films ever made, as well as one of the most negative iconic images of crossdressing and transgenderism in American culture.
Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
Screenplay by Ted Tally based on the novel by Thomas Harris. Note that some names were changed for legal reasons in the film– I have put the names as they appear in the film in [brackets].
In the scene below, imprisoned psychopath Hannibal Lecter and FBI agent Clarice Starling discuss how to find Mr. Gumb, a disturbed serial killer who is nicknamed Buffalo Bill. Lecter calls Mr. Gumb “Billy” throughout.
The significance of the moth is change. Caterpillar into cocoon into beauty… Billy wants to change, too, Clarice. But there’s the problem of his size, you see. Even if he were a woman, he’d have to be a big one…
(puzzled) Dr. [Lecter], there’s no correlation in the literature between transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive.
Billy’s not a real transsexual, but he thinks he is. He tries to be. He’s tried to be a lot of things, I expect.
You said – I was very close to the way we’d catch him.
There are three major centers for transsexual surgery: Johns Hopkins, the University of Minnesota, and Columbus Medical center. I wouldn’t be surprised if Billy has applied for sex reassignment at one or all of them, and been rejected.
On what basis would they reject him?
The personality inventories would trip him up. Rorschach, Wechsler, House-Tree-Person… He wouldn’t test like a real transsexual.
How would he test?
Suddenly Dr. [Lecter] snarls, loudly, stretching. Clarice take a sharp step backwards before he smiles, turning his movement into an elaborate yawn. He gathers the papers from his tray.
That’s enough, I think. Happy hunting. Oh, and Clarice – next time you will tell me why you ran away. Shall I summarize?
(shaken) Yes, Doctor. Please.
CUT TO: INTERIOR. MR. GUMB’S CELLAR – DAY
VERY CLOSE ON a cocoon, split along its back, as a living Death’s-head Moth wriggles torturously free. Trembling and damp, the new creature clings to a sprig of nightshade.
DR. [LECTER] [voiceover]
You should try to obtain a list of males rejected from all three gender reassignment centers…
PULLING BACK – we see a big wire cage, holding several of the moths. They crawl over the humus floor or feed at honeycombs, wings pumping lazily. In the distant b.g., the incongruous SOUND of show music.
Check first the ones rejected for lying about criminal records…
CONTINUOUS MOVING ANGLE – at about knee level, as we leave the cage, and begin to TRAVEL through this eerie, dimly-lit warren of a cellar. As we go – occasionally TURNING corners, or skirting the dark openings of unexplored passages – various objects loom briefly INTO VIEW, overhead – a stainless-steel work table… a big sink… jars of chemicals… neat racks of gleaming knives…
Among those who tried to conceal their past, look for severe childhood disturbances, associated with violence… Possibly you’ll find a childhood incarceration… Then go to their personality tests…
We pass a row of female mannequins, some nude, some wearing colorful leather jackets, designer knockoffs, in various stages of completion… then a huge maroon armoire, in Chinese lacquer; its double doors are slightly ajar… The jaunty b.g. MUSIC is growing even louder: Fats Waller singing “Bye Bye Baby.” And now we hear something else, too – the rapid CLICKING of a sewing machine…
Study their drawings, especially. Billy’s house drawings will show no happy future… No baby carriage, out in the yard. No pets, no toys, no flowers, no sun…
We TURN another corner, and there is Mr. Gumb himself. As we APPROACH, his wide back is to us; he’s hunched over an old-fashioned sewing machine, humming cheerfully, and working a piece of material that we mercifully cannot see. A female wig rests near him on a head form. He wears a hairnet and a beautiful kimono, and pumps the treadle with his bare feet.
His females will be more crudely sketched than his males – but he’ll compensate by adding exaggerated adornments… jewelry, big breasts… And his tree drawings – oh, his trees will be frightful…
Next to Mr. Gumb is an antique phonograph – source of the MUSIC. His little dog, Precious, perches by his plump ankles. As we PASS Mr. Gumb, Precious scurries away from him, panting happily, and we FOLLOW the little dog down another corridor, the music starting to fade behind us…
Billy hates his own identity, he always has – and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage…
It’s hard to explain away the disturbing images of the killer putting on lipstick and saying to a mirror “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me. I’d fuck me so hard” to his own image or tucking his genitals between his legs and screaming/moaning while naked. Even though this does not depict transsexualism, a picture says a thousand words.
Stung by criticism that his portrayal had caused harm to the GLBT community, Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme made Philadelphia as his next feature film, but by then, the damage was done, and over a decade later, this film remains inexorably linked to “transsexuals and their like,” as Bailey pointedly states in his book.
The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992)
Original screenplay by Neil Jordan
For those of you too young to remember when this film came out, there was an amazing buzz which was quite remarkable, because most people did not divulge the “big surprise.”
As with the other films listed here, it’s a great one which I recommend seeing. However, as with the others, there are some disturbing connotations to the depiction of transgenderism and how it is used as a trope or cipher.
Below are two famous scenes: The love scene when Fergus (whom she knows as Jimmy) learns Dil is transgender, and the climactic scene where Dil shoots Jude.
The love scene
CLOSE ON HIS HANDS, traveling down her neck, in the darkness. Then the hands stop. The kimono falls to the floor gently, with a whisper. The camera travels with it, and we see, in a close-up, that she is a man.
Fergus sits there, frozen, staring at her.
You did know, didn’t you?
Fergus says nothing.
Oh my God.
She gives a strange little laugh, then reaches out to touch him. Fergus smacks the hand away.
Jesus. I feel sick —
He gets up and runs to the bathroom. She grabs his feet.
Don’t go, Jimmy —
He kicks her away. He runs into the bathroom and vomits into the tub.
She crouches on the floor.
I’m sorry. I thought you knew.
He retches again.
What were you doing in the bar if you didn’t know — I’m bleeding…
She lights a cigarette.
Fergus runs the taps. He washes his face, rinses his mouth.
It’s all right, Jimmy. I can take it. Just not on the face.
Fergus slams the door shut. She is sitting on the couch, the kimono round her once more, looking very much like a woman. A trace of blood on her mouth.
Y’see, I’m not a young thing any longer…. Funny the way things go. Don’t you find that, Jimmy? Never the way you expected.
Fergus comes out of the bathroom.
She looks up. Some hope in her face.
You mean that?
And he makes to go. She grabs him to stop him.
Don’t go like that. Say something…
He pulls away from her. She falls to the floor.
He drags himself away and runs down the stairs.
The shooting scene
[Dil has Fergus tied up at gunpoint when his female IRA accomplice Jude bursts in. Dil shoots her.]
I said get it off me, Fergus —
Jude, on the floor, reaches for her gun. Manages to grab it.
What’s she going to do, Jimmy? She going to blow you away?
Dil shoots again, like a child, playing with a toy. She hits Jude in her gun shoulder. Jude spins one way, the gun the other.
Was she there too? When you got my Jody?
I asked you a question, honey — were you there too —
You sick bitch —
As she raises the gun, Dil shoots her repeatedly, saying:
You was there, wasn’t you? You used those tits and that ass to get him, didn’t you?
Fergus screams from the bed. He rips free his other arm. Dil shoots Jude in the throat, and she falls dead, covered in blood. Dil turns the gun on Fergus.
She was there, wasn’t she?
She was —
And she used her tits and that cute little ass to get him, didn’t she?
Tell me what she wore.
For some interesting discussions of race, sex, gender, misogyny, and nationalism in this film, I recommend starting with the articles at the link below:
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective(Tom Shadyac, 1994)
Screenplay by Jack Bernstein, Tom Shadyac and Jim Carrey
Following the success of The Crying Game, there were several parodies in subsequent movies. Perhaps the most famous is the broad comedy Ace Ventura.
When the Miami Dolphins’ mascot Snowflake is stolen just before the Superbowl, Ace Ventura is put on the case. In the climactic scene, Ace has a confrontation with Lois Einhorn, who Ace believes used to be a disgraced Miami Dolphins kicker named Ray Finkle, who was bent on revenge against teammate Dan Marino and the rest of the team.
While the “Crying Game” song plays, an enormous crowd mimics the vomiting scene from the original as they stare at the disrobed transsexual villain.
Ho, ho! Fiction can be fun! But I find the reference section much more enlightening.
(doing his best Clarence Darrow)
For instance, if you were to look up ‘professional football’s all time bonehead plays’, you might read about a Miami Dolphin kicker named Ray Finkle, who missed a twenty-six yard field goal in the closing seconds of Super Bowl Seventeen.
(in one breath)
What you wouldn’t read about is how Ray Finkle lost his mind, and was committed to a mental institute, only to escape and join the police force under the assumed identity of a missing hker, seducing her way to the top, in a diabolical plan to get even with Dan Marino whom he blamed for the entire thing!!!
Ace gasps for air. Everyone is totally confused.
What the hell are you trying to say?
She’s not Lois Einhorn! She’s Ray Finkle! She’s a man!
He’s lying! Shoot him!
Ace walks over to her.
Let’s just see who’s lying. Would a real woman have to wear one of these?
Ace dramatically pulls at Einhorn’s hair, thinking it’s a wig. Einhorn’s head flies back. The hair is real. Ace keeps tugging it. The SWAT team ready themselves.
Boy, that’s really on there! But tell me this: Would a real woman be missing these?!
Ace rips open Einhorn’s blouse, and reveals two beautiful feminine breasts. The sharp shooters are tensing. Ace is laughing nervously now.
Ha, ha, ha! That kind of surgery can be done over the weekend! But I doubt if she could find the time during her busy schedule to get rid of Mr. Knish!!
Ace rips off Einhorn’s skirt. Einhorn now stands there fully nude. She appears to be the perfect figure of a woman.
Ace looks at Melissa and Emilio and shrugs his shoulders. Then, just when it seems all is lost, Dan Marino who is back behind Einhorn, motions for Ace to come over.
Psst… Ace. Come here.
(to everyone) Could you excuse me just a second.
Ace goes to Dan. Melissa still holds Emilio hostage.
Shoot him. Shoot him, now!!
(to cops) Don’t anybody make a move!
Marino whispers something in his ear. Ace looks confident again. He once more addresses the crowd.
Ladies and gentlemen, my esteemed colleague Mr. Marino, has just brought some new evidence to my attention. Now, history has certainly shown that even the most intuitive criminal minds can be wrong, from time to time. But, if I have been mistaken… if the lieutenant is indeed a woman… then my friends, she is suffering from the worst case of hemorrhoids I have ever seen!!!
Ace spins Einhorn around now, exposing to the world, the healthy set of male genetalia that Finkle has learned to keep tucked between his legs. (And if we have any balls, we’ll actually show it.) Everyone gasps.
CLOSE UP ON EINHORN/FINKLE. He finally drops the facade.
(deepest voice possible) It was Marino’s fault. The laces were in. (breaking down now) They were IN!!!
Quick cuts of all the cops spitting with disgust. Then Emilio spits.
Then CLOSE ON Marino spitting. They all have kissed her/him/it. Even Snowflake blows his spout. Ace confidently cracks a sunflower seed.
Somebody read it its rights.