In the first article (here) of the Transgender Representation 101 series, it has been explored why it is important to talk about the topic of representation of transgender people on movies and TV. This second article will deal with the role that mass media had – and still has – in the process of creation of the trans identity, beginning with the coverage of the life story of Christine Jorgensen.
Since the publicity of Christine Jorgensen's story, the media opened up a space of debate about sex, gender, and their mutability. Nonetheless, at the same time, the media held the position of reinforcing mainstream ideas about sexuality and gender roles, disapproving the shifting boundaries that were surfacing as new concrete identitarian possibilities for American people. Since the mid-1950s, following Jorgensen's popular life, the media were progressively more interested in stories about sex change. Newspapers and magazines began to profit from covering those types of stories, while the television showed less intent in that regard because it had just entered the arena of mainstream media with the role of being the main source of entertainment for families. Hence, telling stories about transsexuality was considered to be indecent because the topic was associated with sexuality and perversion. On the contrary to television, radio programs, especially the ones targeted to an “adult” niche, were freer in dealing with topics that television was still avoiding. For what concern cinema, this began to feature gender-variance characters in B-movies since the 1950s. B-movies were low-budget movies shown as part of a double feature (also known as double-bill) alongside a major studio release. Today, the label “B-movie” is still used to indicate movies produced with low-budgets and that shows low artistry.
One of the first B-movies where it is possible to find a trans character is Glen or Glenda? directed by Edward Wood Jr. in 1953. This movie is now considered a cult, and it is interesting to see that various of the instances about gender-variance that are found in movies and TV series up to these days were already present in Wood's cinematic work: the convergence (and confusion) between transsexuality and cross-dressing, and thus for extension homosexuality, as well as the predominance of the medical paradigm as the main lens through which gender-variance is made sense of. Glen or Glenda? was directly inspired by Jorgensen's story insomuch that its director asked Jorgensen to act in the movie; however, she refused because in her view the movie was depicting a problematic picture of transsexuality, which will not merely persist in the following decades but will be aggravating by additional assumptions and misconceptions.
From Ex-GI to Blonde Beauty: The Media Tale of Christen Jorgensen
Jorgensen was born in 1926 among a Danish-American family and grew up in the Bronx, New York City. After graduating from high school in the period of WWII, Jorgensen enlisted in the Army and lived as a soldier until being honorably discharged in 1946. After Jorgensen’s military service, she went to photography school in Connecticut and dental assistant school in New York City. However, Jorgensen was unhappy, feeling that something was off with her body. To find answers to her feelings, she went back to Denmark in 1950. Here, Jorgensen came into contact with endocrinologist Christian Hamburger who, after having Jorgensen undergoing several psychiatric evaluations, arrived at the conclusion that Jorgensen had transsexual feelings. Thus, Dr. Hamburger accepted to treat Jorgensen for free in exchange for performing medical experiments: after years of hormones intakes, Jorgensen was subjected to castration but not vaginal reconstruction, because her doctors did not consider it to be necessary. After the procedure, Jorgensen obtained a new passport and could travel back to the United States. Upon Jorgensen’s arrival home, her story made the front page of the New York Daily News under the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth.” In the following months, hundreds of newspapers featured her story, and she became an overnight sensation.
As soon as her story became public, Jorgensen's popularity created an aura of fascination and condemnation around her persona: Jorgensen portrayed her condition as an error of nature, stating that she understood being trapped in “the wrong body” since childhood. Besides, she rejected the claims that accused Jorgensen to be a homosexual in disguise by arguing that her attraction to men was a consequence of the fact that she was indeed a heterosexual woman. Jorgensen quickly became a public figure, and in 1967 wrote an autobiography titled Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography. Throughout her life, she received thousands of letters where people having her same feeling asked Jorgensen for help and guidance. Jorgensen went on to use her story to lecture at colleges across the United States on gender identity. Ultimately, her life and persona reached so much fame that in 1970 Hollywood created a film based on her life called The Christine Jorgensen Story.
The media visibility of Jorgensen's transition raised questions among the general public as well as within the medical establishment about what the role of science in post-WWII America was, and if science should be used to alter nature; furthermore, Jorgensen's story catalyzed post-war concerns about gender. In fact, during World War II women actively participated in the military scenario, and simultaneously they kept the economy in their home country going: after the end of the war, women were not willing to be put back into their homes. Moreover, the horrors of the war itself had had devastating effects on soldiers, so much that psychiatrists, as well as the media, began to suggest that what America was facing was a crisis of masculinity. These anxieties about men who could not properly perform their duties and identities, combined with a shift in gender roles for women, found in Jorgensen's public transformation an episode for the materialization of those anxieties: what meaning did masculinity and femininity, being a man or a woman, have if science could effectively turn a man into a woman (and vice-versa)?
The mediatic case of Jorgensen did something more than raising those types of questions. It helped to create a story that became the standard through which assessing if one person truly had transgender feelings: they should show to have had mixed feelings towards their bodies since an early age; this uneasiness is meant to progress to reach the point that the person feels to be trapped in the wrong body and consequently wants to fix “nature's mistake”. Both the anxieties surrounding gender variance and the several narratives about being “born in the wrong body” and the consequent necessity of medically intervening on that body to modify it so that it will reflect the inner feelings of the transgender person are present in the ways in which transsexuality and gender-non-conformity have been represented in movies and TV series.
Bronski, M. (2012). A Queer History of the United States, Beacon Press.
Jorgensen, C. (1967). Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography, New York: A Bantam Book.
Meyerowitz, J. (2002). How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States, Harvard University Press.
The National WWII Museum of New Orleans. (2020). From GI Joe to GI Jane: Christine Jorgensen's Story. Link: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/christine-jorgensen
Christine Jorgensen during a press conference. Credits: Broads che dovresti sapere.
Official movie poster for Glen or Glenda? [Edward Wood, 1953].
Front page, New York Daily News, Vol. 34, No. 136.
Official movie poster for The Christine Jorgensen Story [Irving rapper, 1970].