Transgender Representation 101: The Thriller Genre

In the previous article (here) of this 101 series, it has been illustrated how trans* individuals are (re)presented in comedies, which is rather problematic. In thrillers, transgender characters are depicted as grotesque figures and, when not openly threatening, as people who are in serious need of medical and legal sanctioning because of their deviant, and oftentimes murdering, inclinations. Clearly, this stereotypical way of representation is as debatable as the one in the comedy genre.


  1. An Introduction: Why Representation Matters

  2. The Media Coverage of the Life Story of Christine Jorgensen

  3. The Genre: Comedy

  4. The Genre: Thriller

  5. The 21st century: Have Things Changed?

  6. Post-2014: “The Transgender Tipping Point”



The typical narrative element of transgender representation in thrillers is that these characters are framed through the pathologizing lens of criminal deviance: just as popular as the comic image of the “man in a dress” is the trans killer, popularized by movies such as Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs. All of these movies propose a narrative in which the antagonist is a killer whose identity is framed as transvestite/transsexual and who commits murder because of a psychological disorder; hence, the audience is supposed to feel fear and disgust towards these characters, and these feelings can influence the ways in which viewers might come to consider transgender people in real life.



To better understand the possible consequences that the representation of gender variant people as disturbed and murderous individuals might have on the audience, an analysis of the narrative conventions and visual codes used in the relative fictional representations are in order. First and foremost, these types of movies are classified as thrillers, which means that the plots are focused on solving murder cases by catching the killer and revealing their identity. As underlined by Phillips (2006), the moment of the revelation of the killer's identity is usually the most dramatic; this is especially true in the case of the above-mentioned movies because the persona of the antagonist is involved in a double disclosure: they are the killer and in addition they are gender non-conforming. These movies follow the specific genre tropes of the thriller by delaying the revelation of the murderer's identity and building a sense of dread because of the horrible crimes. They construct a narrative that, on one hand, links together the transgender identity with the (murderous) psychoses and vice versa, and on the other, it reinforces the idea that gender variant and trans* people are dangerous deceivers who have something to hide.


Following the unfolding of the plots of these movies, it is quite difficult to determine if the main antagonist's gender transition precedes the element of the psychosis or the other way around. This feature is highly problematic because it might convey the idea that there is something intrinsically disturbed, to the point of being an actual threat, in the transgender identity. This hints to the viewers that the real threat posed by these characters does not derive from their mental disorder and willingness to commit murder, but it is their being outside the heteronormative society's expectations that is the most threatening aspect of their existence. In fact, if in the case of the “man in a dress” (here), the audience is confronted with a change that could be tolerated by patriarchal society because it was portrayed as temporary, in the case of transsexuals/transvestites the change is a permanent one; thus, these individuals are perceived as a menace to society's order which is based on the concept that gender is strictly binary. These movies do not simply deal with the idea of the existence of individuals who defy the binary gender system and its categories of masculinity and femininity, but also with the – even more alarming – concept that there might be individuals who do not want to conform to the heteronormative system.

The transgender killer's trope is then a symptom of society's anxiety about gender bending, and these anxieties can only be lightened by associating it with psychosis. Transsexuality is negatively coded in these types of representations, and to make the cis-hetero audience aware of the trouble such individuals might cause, gender-variant identities are associated with deeply disturbing psychopathological mindsets and with horrific actions.


A classic example is the transgender killer who stabs an unaware woman to death while she is in the shower, as in the most memorable scene in Psycho; or the transgender character who skins the victims to make a dress out of their bodies, like Buffalo Bill does in The Silence of the Lambs.

Both of these movies make interesting claims about the identity of the antagonist: at the end of Psycho, the psychiatrist assures the survivors and the police that Norman Bates is not a transvestite, stating that his cross-dressing is a sort of defence mechanism that occurs when the illusion of his mother being still alive is troubled. In The Silence of the Lambs the psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, who is also a serial killer himself, tells the FBI training agent Clarice Starling, that Buffalo Bill is not really transsexual, but that he thinks he is and thus tries to, and that the cause of Bill's pathology and subsequent actions are to be found in a tragic childhood ruined by violence.


Quite different is instead the case in Dressed to Kill, where the psychiatrist explicitly states that Bobbie is transsexual. It should be noted at this point that the figure of the psychiatrist is not without relevance, especially in relation to a transgender character: as shown in the previous chapter, the medical establishment has become the main authority in dictating what is perceived as "sane and acceptable", and what is not, especially in regard to sexuality and gender. The fact that in these movies there is a psychiatrist who diagnoses the transgender character's psychoses reinforces the idea that trans* people have (severe) psychological issues and that they must be cured. This aspect is linked with another element that involves the way in which these movies end: not only is the threat posed by the transgender characters' violent actions restrained by their arrest, their problematic gender variant identities are also tamed and will not constitute a threat for the heteronormative society anymore.


Miller (2012, p. 143) notes in this regard that [a]udience members can leave the theater and rest assured that any individuals who deviate from heteronormativity’s standards will likewise be contained»; this idea can be particularly dangerous because people could feel entitled to police minorities' identities since they are taught in the movies that they are malicious and illegitimate, or worse, a threat to the whole society. These ideas are suggested to the audience by representing the transgender characters' identities, and thus trans* people, as deceivers who are lying about who they really are; this trope is further explored by Serano (2016) who argues for the existence of what she calls the “deceptive transsexual” who, thanks to their ability to successfully pass for the gender of their choice, is usually written as «unexpected plot twists, or play the role of sexual predators who fool innocent straight guys into falling for other “men”» (2016, p. 467). While the idea of deception is attached to both trans women and men, Serano (2016) argues that transgender women are more susceptible to be found guilty of being deceptive for the pervasiveness of trans-misogynistic ideas as well as for the rhetorical claim that “trans women are not really women”; thus a man who has a romantic/sexual encounter with a transgender woman is framed as homosexual unless he did not know about the gender transition of his partner because the other person has not been sincere about their “true identity”.


A further example of this type of deception is in the movie The Crying Game. The audience, as well as the protagonist Fergus, is unaware that Dil is a pre-op trans woman. Therefore, when they are about to have a sexual encounter, Fergus is shocked by Dil's body and, enraged by the fact that Dil had not disclosed her identity to him up until that moment, he slaps her and rushes into the bathroom to vomit. This movie contains all the narrative conventions and visual codes that distance the audience from the transgender character since Dil's pre-op body is framed with a mixture of fascination and repulsion; while Dil's cisgender-like look and behaviour make her initially acceptable and her identity is seen as legitimate precisely because of it, her ultimate lie about who she really is requires Fergus, and thus the audience, to feel sickened and to (temporarily) invalidate Dil's claim to her own identity. There is, however, another element that must be noted: in spite of all the mentioned problematic instances, The Crying Game is a rather sympathetic movie since Dil's identity disclosure is not being followed by any particular sanction by the other characters; moreover, Dil's transgender experience is not portrayed as completely illegitimate.


The Crying Game offers the audience a more sympathetic view of trans* characters, which is typical of more recent movies and TV series that follow in the footsteps of the so-called New Queer Cinema. Nonetheless, as it will be shown in the next 101 articles, these transgender representations are not without problems.





References

  • Miller J.R. (2012). Crossdressing Cinema: An analysis of Transgender representation in Film, Doctoral Thesis, Texas A&M University.

  • 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.

Filmography

  • Dressed to Kill [Brian De Palma, 1980].

  • Psycho [Alfred Hitchcock, 1960].

  • The Crying Game [Neil Jordan, 1992].

  • The Silence of the Lambs [Jonathan Demme, 1991].

Images references

  • Psycho's official poster.

  • Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill in a scene of The Silence of the Lambs.

  • Dress to Kill's official poster.

  • Jaye Davidson as Dil and Stephen Rea as Fergus in a promotional image for The Crying Game.




Author Photo

Marica Felici

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