Hollywood's Cringey Transgender Evolution
While the film industry may be earning praise today for how it depicts transgender issues, there have been some awkward missteps.
It’s been an extraordinary few years for transgender visibility and the discussion of transgender issues.
Much of that increased visibility and discussion can be credited to pop culture, from Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace to Transparent to Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox’s performance and her composed, confident talk-show appearances to the reality show-driven interest in Caitlyn Jenner’s transition to Sean Baker’s remarkable indie film Tangerine. Music, film, and television have helped bring what was until recently pushed to the mystery-shrouded margins into the mainstream—a moment in which art and the advancement of a cause have found a mutually beneficial synergy.
That makes 2015 an odd year to revisit Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill (which will receive a new release on DVD and Blu-ray on September 8 as part of the Criterion Collection).
Released in 1980, the film attracted considerable controversy at the time, most vocally from groups like the San Francisco-based Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media, which distributed a leaflet proclaiming “if this film succeeds, killing women may become the greatest turn-on of the eighties.” Its offenses, per the group, were many, most of them tied to “scene after scene of women raped, killed, or nearly killed” that combined to make the film “a master work of misogyny.”
If today the combination of sex and violence WAVPM found so objectionable are less likely to raise eyebrows, a bit of context helps. Dressed To Kill appeared at the height of a wave of cheaply made, Halloween-inspired films whose sole raisons d’être seemed to be the showcasing of creative ways to kill women. Though better than those cut-rate slasher films by several orders of magnitude, Dressed To Kill looked from the outside like it would offer more of the same.
On the surface at least, it does, offering blood and nudity in abundance. But De Palma, as usual, layers sophisticated undertones beneath the lurid material. The film entwines the desire of sexually frustrated, middle-aged housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) with danger from its opening moments—in which a violent fantasy gives way to another unsatisfying morning marital screw—to a tryst with a stranger that almost immediately opens up the possibility of disease and death. Its New York is a place of passion and peril more akin to the world of Eyes Wide Shut than that of The Dorm That Dripped Blood.
It’s also more self-aware than the protests suggested, both indulging viewers’ voyeuristic desires and critiquing them, drawing audiences along and then making them question if they really want to see what they’re being shown. De Palma had to cut some of the violence down to earn an R rating, and the charge that the film glamorizes violence sticks much more easily to the less explicit cut of the film. The uncensored version lingers on the bloodletting to pointed, sickening effect.
Another WAVPM complaint, however, does remain (and one, fair warning, that can’t be discussed without spoiling the film’s ending): “The distorted image of a psychotic male transvestite makes all sexual minorities appear sick and dangerous.” That’s a reference to the character ultimately revealed to be the murderer, psychiatrist Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), who’s driven to kill by the conflicting desires of a masculine side and and feminine side, the murderous Bobbi. The film will later explicitly identify Dr. Elliott/Bobbi as a transgender woman (not, as per the leaflet, a transvestite) on the verge of committing to becoming Bobbi via surgery. Any resemblance to a real transgender woman is coincidental at best.
I asked Andreas Stoehr, a trans woman film critic based in Michigan, what the film got wrong about the experience of trans women. She struggled to find anything it got right. “Elliott’s pathology—‘opposite sexes inhabiting the same body’—bears minimal resemblance to the experiences of actual trans women,” Soehr replied. “Instead, it reads as a conflation of trans identity with dissociative identity disorder. At its most hostile, Dressed To Kill suggests that trans women are dangerous, unstable, and confused. Whereas in Carrie, De Palma found truth by telling his monster's story, here the monster is incomprehensible and alien. This strikes me as damaging, because it leaves Caine playing a character who’s incoherent and, for all her hang-ups, pretty dull.”
De Palma spent much of the first phase of his career riffing and expanding on Alfred Hitchcock: the Hitchcock-steeped Sisters, the Vertigo-inspired Obsession, and Body Double, a bloody variation on the themes of Rear Window. Dressed To Kill is his Psycho and Bobbi/Dr. Elliott his version of Norman Bates dressing up as his mother to kill the women who turn him on. The psychology of De Palma’s film bears no less of a resemblance to how the mind really works than the pop Freudianism of Hitchcock’s film, but Hitchcock’s film overlaps less with a real-world issue than Dressed To Kill. Viewers of Psycho will almost certainly never encounter anyone like Norman Bates and his film-specific derangement. But viewers of Dressed To Kill might come away with some curious, dangerous notions of transgender people.
Making the film’s choice of villain all the more curious: De Palma had the tools he needed to educate himself on the issue at his disposal at the time, as evidenced by the film’s inclusion of a long clip of trans woman Nancy Hunt, also the subject of a sympathetic 1979 profile in People magazine, appearing on The Phil Donahue Show. A former infantry sergeant and war correspondent, Hunt openly spoke of the difficulty and necessity of making the transition, and the toll it took on her relationship with her family, who had little understanding of her identity. In a recent interview with Noah Baumbach included on the Blu-ray and DVD, De Palma seems no closer to understanding the issue, either, explaining, “At that point on television suddenly there were a lot of transexuals being interviewed on these talk shows. And on the Donahue show I saw a guy that used to be in the armed forces that had a couple of kids, then he felt that he was in the wrong body and was really a woman. But this concept of being in the wrong body. It’s almost like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde idea, at least the way I was looking at it.”
It’s tough to defend Dressed To Kill’s depiction of transism, which looks more out of step now than ever. “I think of the film as lower-tier De Palma—and the decision to have a trans villain contributes heavily to that,” Stoehr says. Yet in other respects, it’s top-tier De Palma. The director’s command of cinematic language and the way he controls his effects has seldom been stronger. Some sequences—particularly a tense subway chase and a long, silent seduction—rank among the best of his career.
So where does that leave the film? It’s an unfortunate tendency of the way we respond to movies today to want to banish to the netherworld anything that inspires headline writers to use the word “problematic.” To do so with Dressed To Kill would mean losing what makes it extraordinary along with what makes it discomfiting. It also risks whitewashing the past, and failing to acknowledge that the film reflects some damaging misconceptions about transgender women and men at the time—and even today.
Waving it away on these grounds also means waving away other movies that failed to do right by the issue. These range from the marginal to the revered. Released in 1983, the low-budget slasher film Sleepaway Camp has ascended to the status of a minor cult classic thanks to its gloriously clumsy take on the killer-stalks-the-summer-camp movie. Its incompetence extends to a final shot revealing the killer to have been a meek teen named Angela (Felissa Rose)—and that Angela has a penis. (Two sequels continued the story with a post sex-reassignment surgery Angela played by Bruce Springsteen’s younger sister, Pamela Springsteen.)
It’s a film too bad to take seriously. But its portrayal of a tortured, murderous transgender person isn’t that far off from the one found in Silence Of The Lambs, which pits Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling against a serial killer nicknamed Jame Gumb (Ted Levine)—and nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” for his habit of skinning his victims. Denied sex-reassignment surgery, Gumb has opted instead to create a suit out of the flesh of women.
Though it’s possible to read Gumb’s madness and sexual identity as coincidental—in any given demographic, some members are going to be homicidal maniacs—the film doesn’t hit this point particularly hard. As it wound its way to winning five Academy Awards in 1992, the film attracted some protests, most of them tied to the concern about the depiction of gay characters in JFK and Basic Instinct. Basic Instinct hit theaters around the same time as the Oscar ceremony and its depiction of Sharon Stone’s bisexual killer became the focus of outrage. Were both Silence Of The Lambs and Basic Instinct to appear today, it’s the former that seems more likely to raise concerned eyebrows.
Even films that look ahead of the curve weren’t always sold as such. Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game remains a fascinating film about the slipperiness of sexual, national, and racial identity, but you wouldn’t know it looking at it from the outside in 1992. The film depicts the unexpected journey of an IRA foot soldier named Fergus (Stephen Rea) as he first develops a rapport with Jody (Forest Whitaker), a British soldier he helps hold as hostage, then with Jody’s London-based girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson), a woman whose transgender identity isn’t apparent to Fergus until they’ve begun a physical relationship.
Released by Miramax, the film’s American posters told a different story, however, focusing on an alluring image of Miranda Richardson, who plays a supporting character, holding a smoking gun. Much of the hype for The Crying Game involved presenting Dil’s identity as a big twist, and while it’s played as a surprising reveal within the film, it’s inaccurate to present the revelation as the film’s defining moment when there’s much more at play. The ploy might have helped sell the film, but it also reduced it.
To revisit these films and the history around them is to realize how much the landscape has shifted from that of the past few decades. Appreciating them means looking at them carefully as products of their moments, if sometimes products that tried too little to question those times. Dressed To Kill and its ilk may have little to do with where we are now, but much to do with where we’ve been, a relic of a recent past worth remembering if it’s not to be repeated.