October 24, 2013

Queer Issue: Stealing the Sisterhood - The Love Affair Between TERFs and the Hollywood Patriarchy

There is an argument to be made that as a cis-gendered queer man, I am not the best person to discuss the issue that I am about to. But as a person who has watched many a queer movies, there comes a time when certain patterns become so obvious that they bear commenting on. In this particular case, the pattern involves the presentation of trans villains in Hollywood films and how this is reflected in TERF ideology.

Just in case there are people out there who are still unaware of what TERFs are: TERFs stands for Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminism and lest the name does not make it entirely clear, they are an extremely transphobic bunch. The main tenants of TERFdom (as far as I can tell) revolve around the idea that trans woman are not "real" woman and are simply pretending to be such in order to obtain the awesome privilege that comes from being a transgender or transsexual individual. Furthermore there is the concept that trans woman are stealing the entire concept of feminity from "woman born woman". In her book, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male TERFer Janice Raymond states that "All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves".

In the grand scheme of things, TERFs are not really doing anything radical or all that original by promoting such ideology . Rather, they are simply repeating half baked ideas that the Hollywood patriarchy has been pushing for decades.

In Hollywood stories, trans villains frequently make woman their primary target to victimize, stalk, and/or kill. Furthermore, they also take extra steps to appropriate some form of femininity from other woman, either by stealing their clothing, their identities, and in the most extreme cases, their bodies. Furthermore, the idea that these characters are not "real" woman is usually emphacized in some manor.

The most recent example of this is The Lone Ranger, in which one of the bad guys' evil minions runs around stealing womens' clothing and then runs around in said clothing, right before being written out of the story altogether.

Psycho tries to get around the charge of transphobia by having a psychologist state that the main character is suffering from multiple personality disorder, but that does not change the fact that Norman Bates has stolen his mothers' identity and runs around wearing her clothes.

Silence of the Lambs takes a serial killer sociopath and adds the shockingly mundane twist of having the serial killer sociopath also killing woman for their skins, which the character intends to wear. The character also had their gender identity undermined by Dr. Lector who described the character as not a "true" transsexual, even though the character had sought transitive surgery. This line also made me wonder if Dr. Lector had eaten the film's credibility with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective has the baddie bad guy stealing Snowflake the Dolphin along with the identity of a woman hiker who went missing. It is never actually explained in the plot whether or not the baddie bad guy actually killed the hiker or simply took advantage of the situation when she went missing, but that's not a terribly important detail. Also in this case, the character has their female identity undermined by having them take on the identity simply to commit the crime. Also, Jim Carrey's character goes out of his way to humiliate the villain by pointing out that their breast enhancement surgery could have been done "over the weekend" in addition to the disgust he shows at having "kissed a man".

The truth may have been out there in The X-Files: I want to Believe but so was the transphobia when the filmmakers "borrow" the plot of Silence of the Lambs. They even try and one up the transphobia and dramatic tension by having the evil sociopath kidnap a women so he can transplant his head onto her body. This is disappointing, as The X-Files showed that the plot of The Silence of the Lambs could be ripped off sans transphobia in the sublime first season episode "Beyond the Sea". However, it is worth noting that this is the one instance where the characters gender identity is not undermined in any manor.

I thought Dressed to Kill (starring Michael Caine as the gender transgressive killer) was going to avoid the pattern, but then a scene near the end of the Unrated Cut included a bit where the character attacks a female nurse and steals her outfit. I have no idea if this scene is in the original version or not as I did not watch that version. The character however does have their gender identity undermined by having it explained that, while they were in this case a "true" transsexual, they had a male part that tried to block the transition, which in turn lead them to becoming the killer.

One thing that I did not find as frequently in these films is the TERF idea that "trans woman shouldn't use female restrooms/lockerooms/etc. because NOT REAL WOMEN". It only shows up definitively in Psycho and it's famous shower scene. Even if the reason that Norman Bates can access the bathroom is because he is the owner of the hotel, the shower scene can still be seen as giving life to the idea that trans woman present a threat simply through wishing to use the bathroom. Dressed to Kill also features it's trans killer stalking a woman taking a shower (in a scene that is a direct rip off of homage to Psycho) before creepily seducing her. It is also made clear eventually in The X-Files: I Want to Believe that the bad guy used (or rather had his male minion use) a woman's lockerroom at a public gym to track down potential victims.

But Silence of the Lambs, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and The Lone Ranger do not have the characters using their female identities/appearance to invade bathrooms, locker rooms, or any kind of woman only spaces in order to terrorize woman or for any purpose at all for that matter. Thus, if we are to look at this pattern across movies, it really just is not there, even thought I would argue that Psycho definitely represents the idea itself in it's most concrete form.

For the longest time while watching these films, I had a hard time identifying how exactly these films were transphobic. I mean, in order for a movie to demonstrate transphobia by having a transgender or transsexual killer, doesn't your killer need to actually have a transgender or transsexual individual as the killer? As it was, the characters who always ended up being the killers or baddies in these films, never matched the way I have heard transgender and transsexual people that I know talk about their lives and experiences. And I mean that in ways that have nothing to do with the fact these characters are depraved killers/criminals -- as far as I am aware, none of the transgender or transsexual people that I know have committed homicide or have extensive criminal pasts. What I mean is -- discounting drag queens who deliberately mimic celebrities -- that I do not know any transgender or transsexual people who have multiple personality disorder or stole or attempted to copy other peoples identities.

Eventually though, I started to look at these films through the lens of TERF ideology and that's when I came to realize just how negative these films are. One wonders just how long it will be before Hollywood stops promoting TERF ideology on the silver screen.

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