A crucial point in the current debate about transgender representations in movies and TV series revolves around the ways in which, historically, trans* individuals have been (re)presented: either as punchlines and jokes, as figures who were there to be laughed at; or as grotesque, when not openly threatening, characters who were in serious need of medical and legal sanctioning because of their deviant, and oftentimes murdering, inclinations. Clearly, these two main modes of representations are stereotypical in their construction and function within the fictional narrative, with the consequence that they limit how members of the audience who are not gender-variant see transgender individuals, and also affect how trans* people see themselves.
The most common genre in which stereotypes are used is comedy, since they are effective short-cuts to write characters in such a way that they become immediately recognized by the audience without the need of providing additional background information.
One of the most successful characters in comedies and sitcoms is the “man in a dress”, a caricature of the practice of cross-dressing. This type of trope ridicules effeminate homosexuals and transvestites at the same time. In this regarad, Phillips (2006) notes that as homosexuality became more accepted as activistic and medical processes led to its depathologization, it was considered less fashionable to make fun of this sexual minority. However, figures who transgress the gender and sexual norms were still needed in order to construct examples of illegitimate behavior: this is the role that transvestites came to fill within mediatic representations. Transvestites are then considered appropriate figures to include in the comedy genre as a consequence of the fact that the practice of cross-dressing is seen as temporary, and thus is tolerated by the heteropatriarchal society because it is a reversible condition, a momentary transgression that cannot really challenge the existing set of gender norms. Fundamentally, it can be argued that transvestism is domesticated by the ridiculing of not just the practice, but also the very idea that a man could, even for a short period of time, decide to dress up, to behave, and to live like a woman. For a society based on the patriarchal norm is highly problematic to give up masculinity and decide instead to present oneself as being (more) feminine because of the history of the supposed superiority of men that had been constructed throughout centuries of work by medical, legal, political, and philosophical reflection and action. It should be noted in this regard that the “comic” image of the man in a dress is disparaging towards all women (both cisgender and trans), but also towards trans men because their identity is similarly considered to be illegitimate. As a matter of fact, comedic narratives are constructed to privilege heteronormative identities and therefore, in humor movies and TV series, the trans-gender performance is resolved with the reconstruction of the gender binary: this happens when the cross-dressing character “goes back” to their “real” gender.
The strategies used to implement this particular vision are the component of the farce, which informs members of the audience on how they should react to the transgender representation, and the specific visual codes grounded in trans-misogyny.
The farce as a genre is based upon narrative elements such as mistaken identity, disguise, and other various improbable situations that spark humor in the audience. Its rhetorical function in relation to representations about gender variance is that the actions of the transgender characters are never taken seriously. Consequently, the transgender character is positioned as somebody to be laughed at, as the object of derision and not as an active participant of it.
For what concerns trans-misogyny, it is embedded in the ways in which trans* women are depicted and thought about. The concept of trans-misogyny has been proposed by Serano (2016) to describe the specific form of discrimination faced by transgender women: they are not solely dismissed or ridiculed for the fact that they are seen failing to conform to the “appropriate” gender norms of their biological sex, but also for their expressions of femininity, which are considered to be inaccurate at most, if not overtly incorrect. Different is the situation for trans men: Serano argues that in this case it should be talked about oppositional sexism, instead of trans-misogyny, because trans men are discriminated against solely for their failing to fulfil gender norms, and not their expressions of masculinity, as a consequence of the fact that ridiculing a performance of maleness would «require to question masculinity itself» (Serano, 2016, 136).
There are specific narrative conventions and visual codes that are used in movies and TV series to construct the stories in such a way as to place the trans-gender performance within a state of liminality and as a temporary situation. First and foremost, the cross-dressing of the character is prompted by an external crisis which is usually structured around economic privilege (Miller, 2015). Characters with low economic privilege usually face a situation of unemployment that they temporarily overcome by cross-dressing, and this is the case in popular movies such as Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, and Mrs. Doubtfire. On the contrary, for those characters with higher economic privilege, the crisis from which the cross-dressing arises is rather mundane, as for example in Just One of the Guys, and Big Momma's House. As soon as their situation improves, the characters can leave their cross-dressing aside and go back to their lives which are now improved thanks to what they have learned about “the other sex” during their trans-gender performance.
The cisnormative identity of the cross-dressing character is underlined throughout these movies by the ways in which they struggle in connecting and performing the femininity that their alter-ego requires them to master; thus, for example, they cannot walk in heels, they stain their teeth while applying lipsticks, or they sit with their legs spread wide apart. On the other hand, the characters' cisnormative identities are also reinforced by the way in which they react in romantic/erotic situations: when the cross-dressing character is in the company of “the lady on duty”, he inevitably falls in love with her and struggles to hide his sentiments. Instead, on the occasions on which some other men are attracted and flirt with the main character because of his cross-dressing performance, the reaction is usually to openly dismiss the unwanted attention because of the underlying homosexuality intrinsic in these attentions. In this regard, it is interesting to notice that the connection between transvestism, transsexuality, and homosexuality is deeply rooted in the American imaginary, and thus it is reflected in mediatic representations, with important consequences for the lives of transgender people. In fact, there is one key scene in every comedy with a cross-dressing character, which is the “big reveal”, the moment when the trans-gender performance is disclosed, which frames the trans-gender characters (and thus by extension real people) as deceivers. Marjorie Garber (in Phillips, 2006, 142) talks of the reveal scene in terms of “de-wigging” to refer to the act of removing the exterior elements that symbolized the “feminine” performance that was being enacted by the cross-dressing character: it is indeed a wig that, once removed, reveals Michael Dorsey for who he really is in Tootsie, while it is a mask in the cases of Mrs. Doubtfire and Big Momma's House. The moment of the revelation of the “true” identity of the character marks the end of the trans-gender performance; while the dramatic act of exposing their fake female alterego serves to confirm once and for all their cis-hetero identity which, nonetheless, had never been questioned in the first place.
As already illustrated, the poor cross-dressing performance of the character posits the momentary transition as purely artificial when compared to the relative ease with which those characters perform their “gender appropriate” roles at the beginning of the story. Furthermore, the heterosexual identity of the cross-dressing character is constantly underlined throughout the narrative, which finds its concretization with the happy ending that sees the main character enter into a relationship with the woman with whom they had fallen in love. It is precisely the heteronormative identity of the characters that create the sense of identification for the audience, who do not put into question the cis-hetero norms of their lives and society. At the same time the audience is led to perceive gender variance as illusory, something not meant to be taken seriously, and ultimately to discard as a non-option.
Besides, there are specific scenes within the genre of the comedy that contributes to reinforcing the idea that transgender people's identities are fake: particularly popular is the “toilet gag” in which the cross-dressing character face the dilemma of which toilet to use in public, and the default position is usually going to the one of their “real” gender, as it happens in Some Like it Hot, Tootsie, and Mrs. Doubtfire. In this regard, we are facing the issue of how transgender representations might impact the lives of real people: in fact, public restrooms are spaces in which gender boundaries are overtly enforced and where gender becomes “readable” in the physical bodies. Thus, transgender and gender-non-conforming people are usually policed when they enter these spaces, and they might face various forms of harassment for choosing the restroom in accordance with their perceived gender identity.
The insistence on the bodies of the transgender character is present in these type of movies because it is through and upon the body that the gender performance is enacted. Therefore, the disclosure of the true identity of the cross-dressing character is oftentimes framed by positioning the body of the character under the spotlight. While in some instances the “big reveal” is performed by the character themselves, as in the case of Just One of the Guys, in others it happens through a violating action: infamous is the scene in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective when the character of Lt. Lois Einhorn is stripped of her clothes and her pre-op genitals are exposed.
Depicting a scene where the transgender character's identity is disclosed by exposing their body implicates the idea that their gender identity is false, and that they acted until that moment by hiding the “truth” of who they really were: so trans* people are seen as deceivers. And when a popular movie such as Ace Ventura brings on the scene the image and narrative of the leading character – who is white, cisgender, and heterosexual – violently outing the transgender one by exposing their bodies, it strengthens and confirms the cisgender identity in accordance with hegemonic masculinity while simultaneously disempowering and dispossessing the gender identity of the trans character. Moreover, this discourse is sending an incredibly dangerous message to the audience: it is ok to treat trans* people, especially transgender women, this way. And if this was not problematic enough, Ace Ventura informs the audience's attitude towards transgender people also by showing how the other characters who assist at the outing of Lt. Lois Einhorn react to the discovery that she is, indeed, a trans woman: they are disgusted and have spasms of vomit.
This is the same reaction that the character of Ace has once he discovers that Lois is transexual after having had an amorous encounter with her: he runs into the bathroom, and we watch this excessively long scene in which he vomits and obsessively cleans his teeth and mouth as if to sanitize himself from having crossed the boundary of acceptable sexual behavior, reiterating the discourse that posits transsexuality and homosexuality in connection with one another. Therefore, the movie suggests to the audience to respond with disgust if they would ever meet a transgender person in real life.
Hence, when minority groups are framed through the lenses of irritation and repulsion in mediatic representations, it can contribute to shaping the audience's moral perception of those disenfranchised groups.
Miller, L.J. (2015). Becoming One of the Girls/Guys: Distancing Transgender Representations in Popular Film Comedies, in (edited by), Leland S.G., Capuzza J.C. (2015). Transgender Communication Studies. Histories, Trends, and Trajectories, Lexington Books: Lanham
Phillips J. (2006). Transgender on Screen, Palgrave MacMillan.
Serano J. (2016). Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Seal Press.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective [Tom Shadyac, 2000].
Big Momma's House [Raja Gosnell, 2000].
Just One of the Guys [Lisa Gottlieb, 1985].
Mrs. Doubtfire [Chris Columbus, 1993].
Some Like It Hot [Billy Wilder, 1959].
Tootsie [Sydney Pollack, 1982].
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon on the set of Some Like It Hot.
Big Momma's House official poster.
Tootsie promotional image.
A scene from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.