15. Guest Post: Trans Women in Television

Bad, Sad, and/or Dangerous to Know

Today features a guest post from Dr. Emily Aoife Somers. She has a PhD in comparative literature and is currently working as a SSHRC postdoctoral research fellow at Simon Fraser University.

Sleepaway Camp, the otherwise unremarkable 80s slasher flick, remains memorable for cinephiles only for its deliberately shocking twist ending. And ending so stupendously disturbing, aficionados of fright routinely cite the last five minutes as VHS horror at its most lurid ghoulishnees.

metamorphosis_media_no_signal.pngOK, spoiler alert (and trigger warning)! As the movie reveals, to the closing strains of B-grade violins, the adolescent girl who has been rampaging across the pastoral wilderness, ruining the pubescent liaisons of the pretty people at the camp is OH MY GOD . . . SHE IS . . . . . wait for it . . . SHE IS A BOY! Or so the lead character exclaims, as the final curdling scream percolates in the bloodlust of our transsexual monster murder. The gender-confused sadist, a pre-op trans woman in a moment of full frontal nudity, cannibalizes corpse and moans in Satanic joy.

The clip is available on YouTube, but I attach to it notice of a mile-high trigger warning with neon as bright as a Tokyo pachinko parlour.

Our protagonist, having his cissexist understanding of the world, and its values of pretty girls and brawny boys who like to swim, now understands. Of course there was something weird about that “girl.” Anti-social, smaller breasts, walked differently than the hot chicks he ogled. This whole time, during our summer fun, we had been violated by the abject evil of the crazy tr*nny. We had been invaded by an “it” pretending to be one of the binary “us.”

The trope of the “scare quoted” trans woman is one I would add to Philosochick’s prior list. While Frank-‘n’-Further’s musical numbers were harmless enough, his intentions, and the sanity that may or may not be guiding them, did much to suggest that gender variation and batshit craziness coalesce.

And scare quote, revealed through the scare exposure double up on the rhetoric of fear for dehumanizing the trans women in Sleepaway Camp. “She,” this entire time, was really a he! And, apparently, so wracked with mental anguish over “her” gender dysphoria, so utterly despising “her” own physical form, she retaliates against the world by projecting her loathing onto others–collectively punishing through killing and dismembering those perfect cis people in a way she wishes to mutilate “her” own incongruent self. [We also see this with the portrayal of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs: Philosochick]

I wrote about in my own anti-blog, when I was protesting its inclusion as a recommended film in a wonderful vegan cookbook that I am highly fond of: our discussion can be seen here. The link to my personal account on my own blog is found below. Suffice to say that I felt, so perpetually wanting to die because of the trap I found myself in of wrong embodiedness, that I would do anything but be transformed into the monster tranny. My first suicide attempt as an adolescent took place within a fortnight.

Even the most casual of pop cultures viewers have remarked to me that “there’s a lot more about your kind out there now!” in a tone both irritating, but, well, genuinely willing to learn. We have made real progress is showing how unacceptable it is to deploy trans representations as plot gimmicks for theatrics of cruelty. The classical trans women tropes of the (1) bad: inept, pathetic, cartoonish (Bree in TransAmerica); (2) sad (Crying Game), anyone?–and (3) dangerous (Silence of the Lambs, Sleepaway Camp). We have more diversity in portrayals, and some even involving trans authors and writers.

Ah, but stop the optimism express. What is that soon to appear on our dials, Sky Atlantic be bringing us Hit and Miss, starring Chloë Sevigny as . . . wait for it . . . a pre-op transsexual woman who is a hit(wo)man. I mean, the plot should just write itself with a freakazoid with a sniper rifle of that ilk, right?

Aren’t we trans folk good for that – a surprise ending or Trojan shock value? The horse isn’t really a horse!” “Oh, look, it’s a plain woman with an English accent who wants to use our phone? Will we let her in? OMG! SHE’S A HE! AND HE’S PACKING HEAT! CALL 9 9 9, aslkdfjs!”

I actually haven’t seen the show yet: just checking the bookmaker’s odds on what trans stereotypes we can expect (close-up shot of putting on make-up, anxious pause in front of the semiotics of toilet doors, a comment about her height . . .).

Sevigny is a cisgender woman playing a trans character. This is another topic, but allow me to say how much that annoys me, not just because trans actresses tend to be out of work . . . no, it’s my subtle reading as to what central casting is intending here. They need a cis woman, a pretty one by conventional norms–one who flawlessly “passes” as socially approved feminine. What multinational crime gang is going to higher a visibly gender variant assassin, right? And all of those “It’s a trap!” scenes I’m sure we’ll get must be premeditated on Sevigny’s beauty.

Sevigny, despite the rather guttergrade theme of the project, had an opportunity here. In playing a trans women, in method acting the reality of what thousands of #girlslikeus encounter with expectancy and hesitation by rote, Svevigny might have developed a smidgen of compassion.

Rather, the opposite has ensued. She has scurrilously dismissed trans women as men in drag, annoyingly capable only of a mimetic shell-game of exaggerations that claim to be “feminine.” Further revealing her general disdain for trans-women as circus freak sub category of human craziness, Sevigny has liberally peppered the epithet tr*nny into her interviews. While many others have done so recently–Neil Patrick Harris, and Conan O’Brien for example–she did offer the customary, “Wow, that’s a bad word? Sorry. I won’t do that again.” She marshaled a defensive strategy, complaining to the Huffington Post ” “You can’t say anything anymore.” No doubt, she uttered this with extended fatigue–I mean, how dare trans people try to control what gets to be said about them.

What was more upsetting, and more dehumanizing, was Sevigny’s penchant for discussing her experiences with the plastic phallus that was part of her costume. She packed this device to experience, method acting I suppose, the morphological reality of a pre-op trans woman. As she repeatedly would say, narrative this experience with measures or mirth and horror, she felt freakish and disgusting. It made her cry every day.

There, there, Chloë. ‘Twas all just a dream.

But it’s not a dream, a role, a CV credit, a prank, a fancy dress costume . . . for us. What *might* have been an opportunity to develop a smidgen of sympathy, to become an opportunity to speak compassionately about trans realities (even if through her appropriation), entirely lost . . . nothing but moaning, mocking, and mispronouning. Time and time again she has made snide comments about Stanislavskian method acting requiring her, in this case, to descend into the realm of the freak. Some of the interviews she has given rank as some of the most insensitive statements about transsexual women I have read all year.

So here we had a famous actress get a tiny taste of trans realities, a small treading into the contexts that trans women continually find themselves circumscribed by, the sorts of circumstances that lead to women of colour like CeCe McDonald ending up in a men’s prison just for having survived. Did any of this produce a note of sympathy for Sevigny? A mild widening of her aperture in understanding differences in society? Not at all.
“I felt like a freak.” She insisted.

Hit and Miss may or may not last: the cisgender appetite for eros (high heels and Euro accents) and thanatos (death wish and gunslinging), conflated into the single personage of a stealthy pre-op trans women, will be left to the writer’s imagination. Confession. Hopes aren’t high.

When exploiting trans story for media tricks, corporations invoke the visibility virtue as a defense for whatever mishandling they may undertake. But we’re talking about you, isn’t that good? Not necessarily.

Education is good. Visibility is unpredictable That Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars = everybody wins, is too facile a conclusion. No doubt, Chaz’s performance opened discussions, provided a visibly trans man asserting his right to self-determination, and perhaps made the trans phenomena as a whole somewhat more approachable. Oprah’s documentaries, public conversations, empathy building workshop . . . education always must coincide with appearances. Because that is the one tool a trans person has in his or her arsenal. Education.

Sevigny’s character is no Bree: she’s deadly, she’s an assassin. How threatening would it be if Bree from TransAmerica decided to pack heat with a personal vendetta? No one would be interested. But here again are the dual tropes trans women get stuck with in terms of presentations: pathetically inept or pathologically insane–the former pitiable (from a distance), the latter pernicious (and in your face). Sevigny doesn’t totter awkwardly like a six year old trying on mum’s pumps. She strides and struts–after all, she’s a pissed off transsexual serial killer. Gender dysphoria is the downward spiral to mass murder. Really. That’s how pathetically indicting these forms of transphobic entertain are . . . and they hurt lives. Please read my blog-entry on Sleepaway Camp where I can personally assure you of the little volcanoes of death that erupt from these images.

My next post on this topic would continue this examination of dubious visibility, in regards to Jenna Talackova and Isis King, two trans women who have received a great deal of media attention recently as outed trans women in the beauty industry. Yet so much about that appearance, paradoxically, underscores trans invisibility. More on that next time.