…one of the main problems that trans women face is the common belief that their femaleness and femininity are somehow fake or inauthentic. This view is constantly (re)emphasized in the mainstream media. Transsexual women are routinely portrayed “in the act of putting on lipstick, dresses, and high heels, thereby giving the audience the impression that the trans woman’s femaleness is an artificial mask or costume” (41). Their desire to be female is reduced to the pursuit of “stereotypically feminine appearance(s) and gender role(s),” which emphasizes that they are not real women, but men who are simply parading as women (41).
This notion is reinforced in movies that feature trans women characters. Serano identifies two major cinematic archetypes: the “deceptive” and the “pathetic” transsexual. The former successfully pass as women, but their trans status (usually signalled by the presence of a penis) is eventually revealed in a dramatic fashion as an “unexpected plot twist” (36). This pattern is evident in the Jim Carrey movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. At the end of the film, Ace Ventura strips Lois Einhorn, a female police lieutenant, down to her underwear so that the audience can see her penis and testicles tucked between her legs. All of the characters present in the room with Einhorn proceed to retch in disgust – the “deceptive” transsexual has been revealed and everybody is expected to exhibit shock, horror and disgust at the “fact” that she is “really a man.” [...]
In contrast, the “pathetic” transsexual is portrayed as completely unable to pass as a woman, even though she strongly insists that she is female. She is given obviously masculine mannerisms and characteristics, such as the five o’clock shadow, and openly makes references to the absence of a penis or to her intention to eventually “ha[ve] the chop” (41). According to Serano, this “extreme combination of masculinity and femininity does not seem to be designed to challenge the audience’s assumptions about maleness and femaleness… [the ‘pathetic’ transsexuals’] masculine voice and mannerisms are meant to demonstrate that, despite her desire to be female, she cannot change the fact that she is really and truly a man.”
I have to admit, I can’t think of a single mainstream media presentation of transsexuality that doesn’t fall into one of these two categories (unless you could the psycho serial killer trans stereotype). Even relatively progressive films still tend to contain the “transformation” scene, usually shot in an almost fetishistic style (close-up of lipstick being applied, etc.).
Comics don’t do much better. I think there was a good trans character in Dykes to Watch Out For, who wasn’t presented in these ways. There was a major trans character in Sandman, but although she was also presented respectfully, she wasn’t able to be genuinely female, rather than “fake,” until after she died and was in Heaven.
Aqueertheory does misstep a little, I think, writing:
The situation is unfortunately not that much better in the allegedly more progressive feminist, academic and transgender/queer circles. Serano notes that, “there are numerous parallels between the way trans women are depicted in the media and the way that they have been portrayed by some feminist theorists.”
Serano seemingly took care to make it clear she was talking about some, not all, feminist theorists (at least in what Aqueertheory quoted). Unfortunately, Aqueertheory seems to ascribe transphobia to all feminist, academic, and transgender/queer circles. There are bigotries and problems in all these communities, true, but it’s a wild overstatement to claim that the transgender community is only marginally better at avoiding transphobia than Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. And it’s a wild overstatement that denies the hard work some people in those communities have put in to address exactly these issues.
I am definitely not saying that transphobia in the feminist community shouldn’t be acknowledged and criticized (past “Alas” posts have criticized feminist transphobia), and Aqueertheory makes many points I agree with. But I don’t think that we should pretend that the transphobes own all of feminism, either. Certain transphobic feminists may think that their views represent the One True Feminist Viewpoint, but I don’t think those of us who aren’t transphobic should concede feminism to them.
- Ohio Children Attacked at Mosque, Mainstream Media Stays Silent
- Why the Media Depicts the Trans Revolution in Lipstick and Heels
- On Transgender, Transsexuals, and Entrenching the Binary Gender System
- Remember working women, you're pathetic unless you have a child…when everyone else wants you to.
- Yale Student Accuses NYTimes of Deceptive Quoting