Trans* Women and the Horror of Misrepresentation

[caption id="attachment_15146" align="aligncenter" width="390"]Felissa Rose as Angela Baker in Sleepaway Camp Felissa Rose as Angela Baker in Sleepaway Camp[/caption]


This guest post by BJ Colangelo previously appeared at her blog Day of the Woman and is cross-posted with permission.

While women (especially women of color) are constantly misrepresented, the trans* woman is without a doubt the most misrepresented minority group in existence.  The horror genre frequently comes under fire for its formulaic uses of tropes and characters, and the “mentally ill trans* woman/psycho killer” is one we should really stop using. (NOTE: The asterisk at the end of “trans” is an umbrella term to encompass all non-cisgender gender identities including: transgender, transsexual, transvestite, genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary, genderfuck, genderless, agender, non-gendered, third gender, two-spirit, bigender, and trans man and trans woman.)

The first thing that needs to be addressed is the depressing use of trans* women or cross dressers in horror and the fact filmmakers are treating the two like they’re interchangeable.  For example: Norman Bates in Psycho may lose his cool and dress like his mother when he kills someone, but that doesn’t make him a trans* woman. However, Angela Baker in Sleepaway Camp is revealed as having male anatomy but then returns years later in the sequels happily living and identifying as a woman. I’d make the argument that Angela Baker is a trans* woman. Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs wanted to be a woman, I’d consider him a trans* woman, while The Bride in Black from Insidious and Insidious 2 may have been struggling from an identity crisis caused by the years of abuse inflicted on him by his mother.  It’s difficult to tell whether The Bride in Black wanted to castrate himself because he truly wanted to be a woman, or if it meant his mother would finally love him.  That’s a complex issue and one that could easily constitute its own article.

[caption id="attachment_15147" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Origin of The Black Bride in Insidious 2 (see: boy in a dress) Origin of The Black Bride in Insidious 2 (see: boy in a dress)[/caption]


Mey Valdivia Rude is a trans* woman and contributing editor/author to Autostraddle who recently covered this very topic with an incredible article titled “Who’s Afraid Of The Big, Bad Trans* Woman? On Horror and Transfemininity.”  Her article is highly informative, but it is her experiences as a trans* person and a horror fan that are truly telling of the impact film has on its audiences.  In describing her theatrical experience watching Insidious 2 she states:

As the movie was ending, I sank down into my seat, hoping that no one would notice that I was trans*. I was afraid that if someone realized I was trans*, they might make the connection between me and the serial-killer-turned-ghost in the movie. After all, if you don’t know me, you might see me and (incorrectly) think that I’m just some man who is dressed up like a woman. According to the filmmakers behind Insidious Chapter 2, that makes me creepy, insane and dangerous.

When I think of women in horror films that I can identify with, I can respond with characters like the bodacious and brash Elvira, Mary from Hocus Pocus, and a handful of other sassy, independent women.  For trans* women, they have motel owning serial killers, kidnapping lepidopterists, malicious ghosts, and slashers. Considering horror films are predominately made by men and the fact Western society heavily values men over women, it’s somewhat predictable that we’d have all of these “mentally ill” male characters dressing like women. Why would a man want to live as a woman? That’s just insane! Henry Lee Lucas was forced to dress like a girl when he was a kid, and look how he turned out! Mey Rude goes on in her article to say, “The same insanity that causes them to be transgender is the thing that causes them to become serial killers, and causes them to be seen as frightening.” It’s very difficult for the average cis-gendered male to understand what it feels like to misidentify with the gender their anatomy and society tells them they’re “supposed” to be. Film representation is very, very important. Think of it this way–if Jaws made people scared of the ocean and IT made people afraid of clowns, what sort of idea are we perpetuating about trans* women if they’re frequently shown as psychotic, violent, or perverted?

[caption id="attachment_15148" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Buffalo Bill putting on lip makeup in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS Buffalo Bill putting on lip makeup in The Silence of the Lambs[/caption]


A recent study showcased that trans* people across the U.S. experience three times as much police violence as non-transgender individuals. Even more terrifying, when trans* gender people were the victims of hate crimes, 48 percent reported receiving mistreatment from the police when they went for help. These statistics are the true horrors. Mey Rude sums it up perfectly:

When people look to pop culture and see trans* women portrayed as dangerous impostors that they should be afraid of, they cease to see trans* women as people and start seeing them as monsters. In the fictional world of movies it may be the trans* women who are frightening and menacing killers, but in real life, those trans* women are far, far more likely to be the victims of horrific and violent murders.

To my knowledge, there is really only one horror movie that showcases trans* women in a positive light, and even then the film showcases drag queens…not trans* women. (Pro-tip, not all drag queens are trans* women and not all trans* women are drag queens.) Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives is a tongue-in-cheek rape revenge film meant to be an entertaining film of empowerment a la I Spit on Your Grave.  GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) protested the film at its original Tribeca screening, but opinions on the film are extremely polarized.  Considering the somewhat cartoonish film is the only real positive representation trans* women have in horror, I can sympathize with the anger from the trans* community. At the end of the day, I can’t hate the player but I will hate the game. Hollywood (horror in particular) needs a makeover on its portrayal of trans* women, and fast.

[caption id="attachment_15149" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Just picture Jamie Clayton as a Final Girl real quick. THAT is a film I want to see. Just picture Jamie Clayton as a Final Girl real quick. THAT is a film I want to see.[/caption]


If horror were to take a page from the books of dramatic films like Dog Day Afternoon, Dallas Buyers Club, or even the smash hit TV series Orange Is the New Black, we can start showcasing trans* women as actual people with feelings and complex thoughts and not just an easy way to tell an audience “this guy is supposed to be a weirdo, so we put him in a dress.”  There are amazing trans* women actresses, and they would be amazing additions to the female horror cannon as much more than a punch line or a quick villain. Laverne Cox, Harmony Santana, Jamie Clayton, and Candis Cayne are just a few working actresses that would completely dominate in the horror world. Trans* women deserve proper representation in horror, and it’s about time someone does something about it.


BJ Colangelo is the woman behind the keyboard for “Day of the Woman: A blog for the feminine side of fear” and a contributing writer for Icons of Fright. She’s been published in books, magazines, numerous online publications, all while frantically applying for day jobs. She’s a recovering former child beauty queen and a die-hard horror fanatic. You can follow her on Twitter at @BJColangelo.


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