Connect the Dots

Transgender Narratives in Pop Culture

by Matt Mazur

8 September 2011


What queen in America, or the world for that matter, myself included, doesn’t live for the Academy Awards? Especially this past year, when our new Liza/Judy/Barbra brand of old school queer-friendly gamine/diva/idol Anne Hathaway co-hosted with queer-friendly, sexy actor James Franco? First you might reasonably ask yourself: why couldn’t Anne just do the whole show by herself? She sings, she dances, she’s funny, beautiful and smart enough to fulfill the job’s major tenets, right? But the discussion of the position of “Oscar Host” as being a boys club is best saved for another day.

Perhaps the puppy-gentle, yet very manly (and ostensibly very smart) James, who plays both gays and stoners with equal aplomb, could infuse the Bruce Vilanch-penned affair with that little something extra, a commercial masculinity that could be fetching for both the young straight dude faction (you know, the men 18-36 who are allegedly the only group that actually goes out and pays to see movies) as well as for the queens and queers who obsess over the show? Perhaps Hathaway promised to balance his studly yang with her feminine yin. To my expert (queer) eye, this year’s Oscar ceremony, I had hoped, was specifically designed for the queens of the world.

Franco, who was nominated that very evening for his first Best Actor Oscar for 127 Hours (playing a character who finds the will to survive an accident after having a vision of his future life of pristine heteronormativity), recently appeared in Milk, queer auteur Gus Van Sant’s winning biography film about slain San Francisco queer rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, in addition to taking a graduate seminar in queer film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Perhaps it was because of these credentials that cisgendered Franco felt that it would be perfectly okay to appear on the Oscar stage, before more than one billion global viewers, hubristically dressed in full, garish female drag as a stubbly, beefy, oddly-macho Marilyn Monroe clone. (Note: cisgendered means the opposite of transgendered, someone who is cisgendered has a gender identity that agrees with their societally recognized sex. —Urban

Intended to be a joke – perhaps a dim-witted nod to Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot or to his own recent donning of drag for the cover of the trans fashion magazine Candy—Franco’s caricature of a drag queen instead provoked a rupture of accusations of bad taste and transphobia. Folks wondered if the straight, white, privileged Franco was being offensive rather being funny. Matt Zoller Seitz of Salon cannily observed that “the problem was making a joke of the very idea of drag by just standing there next to his co-host, and the crowd got that, but didn’t think it was funny.” (“James Franco’s Oscars of apathy”, 28 February 2011)

While Hathaway’s simultaneous cheesecake suave appearance in a slinky tuxedo was meant to emblemize the gender-tweaking soft butch sexiness of Marlene Dietrich’s Josef von Sternberg days, Franco’s grotesque drag appearance was widely (I think, rightly) viewed as an embarrassment. Here was yet another Hollywood straight guy appropriating transgender culture for the express purpose of making it the object of ridicule, the big joke to be laughed at. Perhaps, as a sight gag, this act might have been culturally acceptable 20 years ago (probably even ten), so the swift, condemning response to the actor’s schtick was pleasantly surprising. People widely called the telecast the worst Oscars in years, Franco’s limp, desperate misappropriation of trans culture one of many sore spots.

So, alas, the Oscars, it turned out, were actually not for the queens this year. Not any of us. Or, let’s just face the facts: not anyone, period. But this brand of gendered push/pull got me thinking about how gender variety was largely absent from popular American entertainment, and about Michel Foucault’s essential question “Do we truly need a true sex?”  You can be a man, you can be a woman, sometimes you can be “other”, but very rarely is anyone or anything else in between those rigid categories allowed to slip through the cracks unscathed. What’s so funny about a straight man in a dress in an era when transphobia can still be a deadly reality for people who choose to not live on the polar opposite ends of the gender binary? To answer this question, I’ve found it helpful, necessary even, to inspect the history of transgender representation in American film, television, literature, and pop culture.

There has been an emergence of a serious transgender discourse in Hollywood in the past 30 or so years, with trans issues and themes seen as being alternately chic or in vogue in various forms of popular entertainment. It should first be pointed out that, despite whatever sensitivity there may or may not be surrounding trans representation in pop culture right now, transgender appearance has been made the butt of jokes in countless movies for over 100 years, and is a particularly nasty Hollywood tradition that has carried on from some of the first untitled Edwin S. Porter shorts (1903) up to the abominable Juwanna Mann (Vaughan, 2002) and beyond.

Before hosting the Oscars, Franco’s appearance on the cover of Candy’s Fall/Winter 2010 cover in heavy, exagerratedly female make-up, acting the stylized camp vamp, caused writer William Van Meter of the New York Times to rather glibly deem 2009 “The Year of the Transsexual”. Van Meter annointed the actor’s photo spread to be “a grand gesture of solidarity with gender nonconformists” for what might better been seen as a hostile takeover of US trans culture’s traditions.  Van Meter also proclaimed that “transsexuals were edging into the mainstream”, which rings like yet another slightly alarmist inference: watch out folks, because those sneaky transsexuals are coming to take over your pop culture!

Rachel K dismissed Van Meter’s flighty proclamation with a stark dose of reality in the form of sobering statistics that point out that transphobia is still rampant and is no laughing matter. “[In 2009] there were reported 93 murders of trans people, and that’s only a fraction of how many probably really took place, ” writes Rachel. “Feels like [The New York Times has] willfully misunderstood the climate. 30% of trans teens will attempt suicide, and 55% will be physically assaulted; 90% report feeling physically unsafe because of their gender expression”. (“Being Trans Is So Hot Right Now, At Least For Celebrities And Models, Kinda”, Autostraddle, 13 December 2010)

As though being a “woman” is the worst thing a “man” can do, the man who appears in female drag, or has any feminine characteristics, remains a particularly salient cultural joke (whether you are transgender, gender variant, or not). This is but one of an array of poisonous, erroneous assumptions about transsexuality that has endured and been strongly supported by negative constructions of trans characters in a variety of film, television, literature, and other pop culture forms. “Make us a joke and there’s no risk of our anger, no fear we’ll raise our voice in protest”, writes gender theorist Kate Bornstein. “Dominant cultures tend to colonize and control minorities through stereotyping – it’s no different with the transgender minority”.

The typical transgender narrative revolves around the trans subject leading an “impossible life” in which they are not employable, cannot sustain their own lives, and in which these rigid, unkind gendered circumstances almost always lead to violence, depression and suicide. Most of the time, these stories can feel more like a narrative means that seems to insure, or at the very least imply that trans people will very likely die or kill themselves because of the hardships they will inevitably face, as though there are no other alternatives.

Other examples of trans stereotyping include transgender people as rapists (Janice Raymond’s horrifying transphobic diatribes in the 1979 cultural artifact The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male), as child molesters or sexual deviants (The Damned), as drug addicts (Last Exit to Brooklyn), as murderers ( Psycho, Dressed to Kill, Silence of the Lambs) as prostitutes (Life is Hot in Cracktown), or sometimes as an unsavory combinations of many of these divergent elements. You get the picture.

Film theorists Robert Stam and Louise Spence, writing about"filmic colonialism”, argue that “insistence on ‘positive images’ obscures the fact that ‘nice’ images may at times be as pernicious as overtly degrading ones, providing a bourgeois facade for paternalism,” suggesting that a range of diverse representations—not just ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ones—are required to decolonize minority cinematic represenations. They continue: “the emphasis on realism often betrayed an exaggerated faith in the possibilities of verisimilitude in art in general and the cinema in particular, avoiding the fact that films are inevitably constructs, fabrications, representations”. (“Colonialism, Racism, and Representation: An Introduction”, Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009: p. 751 - 766)

By and large, most depictions of trans people were, as normative cinematic fiction dictates, not entirely real and, to some degree, representative of the old two-steps-forward-and-two-steps-back short circuit. Does a thorny, problematic characterization always have to be a bad thing? Is any visibility good visibility?  Bornstein cuts to the heart of the political ramifications of transgender representation in a recent film review: “Look, not all trans people want to be considered respectable citizens of a culture that would rather see us as dead”.  (“When Bad Movies Happen To Good People”, Out, 21 April 2010)

For a business that is built around the idea of transformation (acting) and the literal transformation of bodies (the rampant cosmetic surgery practiced by popular personalities), there should, in theory, by now anyway, be a more dynamic scope of body types represented for the screen and more transgender representation in film and pop culture that undoes the typically tragic trans narrative. Still, those depictions have often lacked naunce or grace, despite repeated tries to get it right. Maverick Robert Altman was one of very few directors to depict a multidimensional transgender character, played by female actor Karen Black, in the little-seen Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982, and currently unavailable on DVD), but there are still woefully few heroic, or hell, even interesting transgender protagonists populating the cinematic landscape.

The recent Transamerica (Tucker, 2005), Normal (Anderson, 2003), and Solider’s Girl (Pierson, 2003) films, which put trans characters and trans rights in middle of the dramatic action, are slowly reversing that trend, while the Oscar-winning success of Boys Don’t Cry (Pierce, 1999) was probably the fiction film that most firmly planted the issue of transgender rights into the minds of movie-goers and Oscar voters. Though he was snubbed by the Oscars, performer/writer/director John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Mitchell, 2003) is probably the most witty, heartful fiction film about the transgender experience to be filmed. More accurately, of the white transgender experience.

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