Comparisons can contrast and they can illuminate commonalities. Often, they do both simultaneously. In a certain sense, this is the very logic of solidarity, of connection despite/across/with difference. I use comparison—via a trans feminist diptych—in this video essay to find resources for thinking about trans feminist liberation within a film that is renowned for its transmisogyny. I do this during intensifying backlash against trans people, including through Florida’s so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law. As anti-LGBTQ stereotypes and tropes are shaping legislative action, the resources of visibility politics—and its partner, respectability politics (Morse, 2022)—are simply not adequate for this moment.
Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980) is unquestionably a 'bad trans object'. As a horror film that centers around a killer who is explicitly described as a transsexual woman, the film emblematizes essentially every single transphobic and transmisogynistic trope in Hollywood’s repertoire. According to Cáel Keegan (2019), bad trans objects include a wide variety of media that present transgender people in ways that are stigmatizing, disrespectful, and stereotypical. Following Patricia Hill Collins’ work on racialized representation (1990), these could be considered ‘controlling images’ that produce social, cultural, phenomenological, legal, and even embodied effects. Yet while these works deserve critique for the representational (and other) harms they perpetuate, Keegan argues that the push toward positive, affirming, or ‘good’ representation has been accompanied by a disturbing increase in legal, social, and extra-legal repression and violence toward trans people (2019).
Empirically, it doesn’t seem that ‘good’ representation or positive visibility (such as stickers and posters proclaiming ‘say gay’) is going to improve the material conditions of trans people, at least in the short term. Yet instead of relying on visibility politics, which have been the subject of intense aesthetic critique within trans studies in recent years (Gossett, 2017), Keegan turns to the rejected, horrifying, and offensive 'bad trans objects' to ask how they might provide resources for thinking toward trans liberation (2022). Keegan finds these opportunities in his readings of a variety of 'bad trans objects', from Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) to It’s Pat (Adam Bernstein, 1994) to Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik 1983). In this way, Keegan’s work joins a longer history of scholarship dedicated to exploring and interrogating the insights that emerge from negative representation (Racquel Gates, 2018). Uncovering unexpected resources, ideas, images, and formal strategies within these bad trans objects opens up alternative spaces for trans resistance and trans imaginaries.
Reading Dressed to Kill as a bad trans object means seeking within it these resources for thinking creatively about trans liberation. To do so, I use mobile black bars to turn two-shots into diptychs, asserting that there is more to juxtaposition in this film than the one—striking—split screen that links the doctor and the killer. This practice differs from a camp-inspired love for the abject object because the formal manipulation draws the eye to details within the frame that might otherwise be overlooked. These obvious interventions also enable me to explore the trans feminist potentiality within Dressed to Kill through staging and performing the work of video editing, a practice that Rox Samer has described as a technique for intervening in cissexist commonsense (2019). Introducing and withdrawing the black bar highlights what is within the frame, as well as what is excluded. It reminds us that a two shot is always a tool for comparison that both unites and divides our attention, and through repetition, it becomes possible to closely observe the performances in the penultimate scene at the restaurant between sex worker Liz Blake and gender-questioning computer geek Peter Miller.
These performances are complex and nuanced, and the black bar down the center of the frame emphasizes the characters’ hands as they reach toward, but never quite touch, each other. Here, comparison becomes a gap of difference that cannot quite be crossed. Liz and Peter can’t fully understand each other despite their friendship. I am a genderqueer person assigned female at birth, but I found myself identifying strongly with Peter’s nervous curiosity about gender transition; I recall being that teenager who pretended I just wanted information; I just wanted to learn, I was just scientifically inclined. Liz also seems to recognize that Peter is questioning gender. And who wouldn’t? Peter literally says to her, 'I could build a woman…out of me'. Peter and Liz have become good friends by this point, and Liz supports Peter in many ways, but her support falters here. She discourages Peter, emphatically and even callously, before turning the conversation back to herself. Their apparent unity at the end of the scene requires Peter to give up on the idea of gender transition, and, like so many real life trans women (O’Brien, 2018), focus on computer science.
Repetition and the dividing line ask us to think about each side of this difficult conversation, to view and re-view this exchange not as a smooth narrative arc but rather as a dialogue where two different perspectives are juxtaposed. In the original film, Liz is positioned as correct, and as she prevails, trans femininity becomes impossible. But this resolution doesn’t only have consequences for Peter; it underscores how the film views cis womanhood too. As someone who knows all too well what misogynist violence feels like, Liz clearly believes that she is doing what is best for Peter. After he rescues her, she in turn attempts to save him from the dangers of (trans) feminine existence. Her well-intentioned betrayal of Peter’s trust and curiosity reminds me of all the people who told me that it was 'a very good idea' to try to be straight and cisgender. They did it with the best intentions, but it broke my heart. And here, in this deeply offensive horror film from 1980, I can see the emotions I had felt visible on Peter’s face. Amid all the brutal transmisogyny of this film, there is this moment of nuanced and evocative emotional realism. It offers a resource for me in thinking about my experiences as a young person, and it helps me to connect with young people today, who are facing hypervisibility and virulent backlash simultaneously. But additionally, this scene captures something particular to trans feminine experience that I have not felt—but have witnessed.
It’s a painfully tedious ritual in queer spaces. A trans woman will share a story about sexism, harassment, assault, or misogyny and a cis woman will respond, ‘welcome to womanhood’. This seemingly simple interaction is replete with ideological significance. For one, it suggests that trans feminine people aren’t aware of violence against women until a cis woman tells them about it. In other words, trans femmes are dupes or fools who transition without realizing that they are going to encounter misogynistic violence. This assumption that trans women are unaware of misogyny underlies virulently trans antagonistic attitudes among some feminists (Serano, 2013) and even appears in other accounts of trans feminine culture, such as bell hooks’ critique of the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning (1992). Furthermore, it asserts that womanhood is constituted through misogynist violence; what Wendy Brown describes as 'wounded attachments' that hinder solidarity (1995). While some feminists argue that 'womanhood' is indeed a category that is only produced through misogynist violence, this is a grossly limited understanding of an identity that resonates with so many people—cis and trans.
By contrast, trans feminist understandings of identity can offer a different relationship to womanhood than this reductive model, one where womanhood isn’t the site of wounding but instead the grounds for solidarity. As Emi Koyama writes, trans feminism resists the harms perpetuated by cis hetero patriarchy because it 'believes in fostering an environment where women’s individual choices are honored, while scrutinizing and challenging institutions that limit the range of choices available to them' (2003: 247). According to Emma Heaney, trans feminism is an intersectional movement working toward transformative futures, and in doing so it connects trans liberation to disability justice, sex worker rights, and anticolonial prison abolitionist politics (2017). Instead of seeing women as a class of people united only by misogynist oppression, trans feminism enables women and femmes to imagine that—as the protest chant would have it—another world is possible. Such trans feminist potentiality far exceeds the facile exhortations to ‘say gay’ that have been the dominant response to anti-trans legislation in the United States. In a period of intense backlash against trans existence, recovering this story of solidarity from a violently trans-antagonistic film offers resources for those who are engaged in resistance today. In my imagination, the friendship between Liz Blake and Peter eventually leads to something the original film could never have depicted: solidarity, and liberation from misogyny and its effects for both characters. This trans feminist liberation could only become possible because of their connection, their collaboration, their juxtaposition—their co-existence in the frame.
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Nicole Erin Morse is an Associate Professor of Media Studies and director of the Center for Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Florida Atlantic University. Their book Selfie Aesthetics: Seeing Trans Feminist Futures in Self-Representational Art was published by Duke University Press in 2022. Other research has been published in Porn Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Jump Cut, Discourse, and elsewhere. Their 2018 video essay on Transparent, 'Some People Like Hearing Sad Things', was published by [in]Transition.