Movies are important to us. We seek refuge in them. We are inspired by them. We feel good when we watch a movie we love. We appreciate their artistry. Silence of the Lambs is brilliant in so many ways. It’s one of few horror flicks that casts a woman as the hero and not just in a final girl sort of turnaround, but in a way that is smart and empowering. Psycho broke so much new ground. The coupling of sharp horrific images with that Bernard Herrmann score alone is enough to earn it a spot in any horror fan’s library. And Sleepaway Camp? Well, it’s a lot of fun, right? The bottom line is that we love these films, and for good reason.
However, as great as these films may be and no matter how much we love them, they also share one serious problem: They are transphobic.
This can be tough to accept, considering how much these movies mean to us. We want to enjoy them guilt-free. We often let our tastes define us in a way, so if we acknowledge that the films we love have problematic elements, perhaps that reflects back on us. Easier to deny that they are problematic, right?
But that’s not realistic. Is it fair to put the love of a movie over the very real feelings of transgender people who have suffered tangible direct and indirect harm because of these movies?
For a short time, I’m asking you to put your love for these movies aside and consider the possibility that they do, in fact, have problematic elements.
I hope to give you an understanding of what the terms transgender and transphobia mean. I hope to show you that the characters in these films are perceived as transgender and are portrayed negatively, which has contributed to a negative perception of trans people. I hope to convince you that this has resulted in real harm to trans people.
Then I’m going to tell you what to do about it. Spoiler alert: I’m not going to tell you to stop loving these movies, or that we need to delete them from existence. I’m going to make a much easier request.
What Horror Films Are Transphobic?
Beginning in 1960 with Psycho, horror films featuring the trope of portraying transgender people as psychotic murderers became increasingly common. There are literally dozens of them, including:
• Silence of the Lambs
• Sleepaway Camp
• Dressed to Kill
• Deadly Blessing
• Terror Train
• The Comeback
• Insidious (specifically the sequels)
For the purposes of this discussion, the focus will be on the first three listed, as they are the most visible.
What Does Transgender Mean?
Merriam-Webster defines transgender as “of, relating to, or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person’s sex at birth.” That meaning holds true. However, the term is in flux. It is often considered an umbrella term, inclusive of nonbinary individuals, gender nonconforming individuals, genderfluid individuals and others.
What Is Transphobia?
Many people believe that transphobia means fear of transgender people. The actual definition is much more expansive. For example, the Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a dislike of or prejudice against” trans people.
Furthermore. transphobia is not limited to overt acts of discrimination or harassment, but may also be institutionalized. Examples of institutionalized transphobia include trans people not being able to get medical attention, not being able to get jobs or housing, not being able to serve in the military and not being protected by anti-discrimination laws.
What Makes These Films Transphobic?
On the surface level, these films meet the literal definition of transphobia. They cast trans characters as psychotic killers. Quite literally, they are using these characters to elicit fear.
But it’s not just that trans characters commit murder that makes these films transphobic. That, in itself, is somewhat benign. What makes these films transphobic is that it’s the characters’ trans-ness, as much as their crimes, that is used to make them horrifying. Viewers are told to be scared, not just because these characters commit murder, but because they are transgender. In this way, the films demonstrate a prejudice against and dislike of trans people.
But The Characters Aren’t Actually Transgender
A common argument is that the characters in these films are not presented as being trans, nor do they meet most definitions of transgender. Norman Bates in Psycho is not dressing as a woman because he believes himself to be one, nor is Angela Baker in Sleepaway Camp. In Norman’s case, he does so because he has suffered a psychological break and believes himself to be his mother. In Angela’s case, she has been forced to do so by her aunt, to fill the role of Angela’s dead sister.
It’s not so easy to write off Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb in Silence of the Lambs as not being trans. In the film and even more so in the book, it is explained that doctors have deemed him not transgender, despite him believing himself to be. This begs the question, what gives doctors the right to decide whether someone is transgender? To this day, the medical establishment forces trans people to jump through hoops to prove that they are the gender they know themselves to be. Treatment – the foundation of which is hormone replacement therapy that is no more dangerous than the antidepressants that are thrown around willy nilly – may be withheld for months or even years until the patient does this to the doctor’s satisfaction. Buffalo Bill may very well be trans, and the victim of a prejudicial medical establishment. However, for now, let’s side with the medical establishment and say that he is indeed not trans, but merely a person who believes himself to be trans.
So in these and other films that use this trope, one might argue that the villain is not a transgender person. Even under the more expansive definition of transgender, it is difficult to shoehorn these characters in.
However, that these villains are not actually presented as being trans is irrelevant, because they are still perceived to be trans or equated with being trans by a viewership that has little or no other exposure to transgender people.
Here’s a question: Can you confidently explain the distinction between a crossdresser and a transgender person? Between a drag queen and a crossdresser? Between a drag queen and a trans person? Did you know that these are all different?
The general public does not. This is not a judgment call, just reality. Trans people make up less than 1 percent of the population. The majority of people have no visibility to transgender lives. They just don’t know, as I can attest to based on the number of people who have referred to me as a crossdresser or drag queen. And it’s not just me. Jen Richards, a prominent trans writer and actress, wrote a piece for Newnownext called “I’m not a fucking drag queen,” in response to how often she is called a drag queen.
People consider everyone who they see as being of one gender putting on the other gender’s clothes one and the same. They are not making fine distinctions like the one called for in Silence of the Lambs, particularly in the context of a film about killing people and wearing their flesh. Regardless of intent, these characters are seen as trans.
So maybe you’re a person who has some trans friends. You know that we’re just normal people. That’s cool. But imagine you don’t. Imagine the only visibility you have to trans people is through the media. Guess what? That’s most people. Now, how are you going to form an opinion of us as normal people if the only thing you’ve seen about us is Silence of the Lambs?
But It’s Not That These Characters Are Trans That Is Supposed To Make People Afraid, It’s That They Are Murderers
Many people object to these films being labeled transphobic on the basis that it’s not the characters’ being transgender that is supposed to be scary, but that they are murderers. However, the characters’ trans-ness is presented as being indistinguishable from or even part of their psychopathy. They are murderers because they are trans. They are committing these crimes because of their gender identity.
If Buffalo Bill did not believe he was a woman, would he still commit these crimes? His first on-screen act of violence is preceded by him asking his victim, “Are you about a size 14?” This immediately ties his desire to be a woman to his crimes. In Psycho, Norman Bates is handsome and charming, if a bit awkward. He only kills when in women’s clothes, and he is only subdued in the finale by being stripped of these clothes. These elements of the character’s personality are shown as being interlinked. They go together.
And the films take it further, eliciting fear and disgust not only from the characters’ acts of violence, but from their trans-ness. The most horrifying scene in Silence of the Lambs isn’t an act of murder, but Buffalo Bill dancing to “Goodbye Horses” and tucking his penis between his legs. The shock ending of Sleepaway Camp is not a murder scene, but the reveal of Angela’s penis. The message is very clearly sent that these characters are awful, not only because of their criminal acts, but because they do not conform to gender roles.
But The Filmmakers Didn’t Intend These Films To Be Transphobic
Intent doesn’t mitigate impact. No, I don’t believe that the filmmakers sat down and planned to create anti-trans propaganda. But that doesn’t change the fact that they consciously made the creative choice to portray gender nonconforming characters as murderers, and doing so has had a negative impact.
In a 2014 interview with the Daily Beast, Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme sort of acknowledged the problematic nature of the film. In the same breath though, he conflated gay people, crossdressers, drag queens and trans people as one thing despite the fact that they are all different, which is fairly telling of how much care and thought he has put into the lives of trans people.
But Those Characters Are Based On A Real Person
To varying degrees, many of these films, beginning with Psycho, claim to be based on the exploits of Wisconsin’s legendary Ed Gein. However, a lot of liberties have been taken, not the least of which is that there is actually little to no evidence of Ed Gein wearing womens’ clothes, wearing women’s skin or wanting to be a woman.
The Gein case is fascinating, not only because of the horrific events that transpired, but because of the even more lurid mythology that developed almost instantaneously and has since become inseparable from the reality. Further, it may be one of the key moments that cemented the pervasive misbelief that being transgender and having a psychotic, murderous pathology are somehow interlinked, which in turn gave rise to this trope in horror films. For this reason, it’s worth taking a closer look at this case.
When you think of Ed Gein, what do you think of? Transvestite? Cannibal? Necrophile? Serial Killer? If you Google Ed Gein, you will find article after article stating he was all of this and more. However, if you try to find the actual source of any of these beliefs, you may be surprised to come up empty handed. As of this writing, even the citation in Wikipedia that states he wanted to be a woman refers to a nonexistent source.
Here’s the truth: Ed Gein robbed graves and did some really gross stuff with the bodies. He likely killed one, possibly two people, but was found guilty and then not guilty by reason of insanity. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic and was, as the townspeople described him, “simple.” He was not technically a serial killer, nor was there evidence that he ate his victims or had sex with the bodies. There was no evidence that he wore a woman suit, as is often reported, or that he wanted to be a woman, like his mother, which is frequently given as the motive for his crimes.
The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law lists contamination as one of three causes of false confessions. This is when law enforcement, when questioning the accused, creates a narrative and gets the accused, typically a person who is mentally ill like Gein, to agree with it. Transcripts of Gein’s confession show very clearly that the questioning officer fed him a narrative. Interestingly, on several occasions, the officer states that this narrative was what the media was saying. He did not even invent it himself, but simply worked with the story that had been reported before any of the facts had been examined.
At no point does Gein clearly agree that this narrative is correct, nor does any of this narrative ever come from him. When he is asked leading questions, Gein’s responses alternate between answers like “No,” “I don’t think so” and “I guess it could have happened that way.” There is a very telling line in the questioning in which the officer reminds Gein how great his mother was, and that good boys love their mothers, and “Would you say you wanted to be like your mother?” To which Gein replied something along the lines of, “She was good and strong, so yes.” In his mind, he was being asked whether he wanted to have the admirable qualities his mother displayed, not whether he wanted to climb into her skin and actually be her, but that was how it was interpreted.
More telling is that when he was not led and asked open-ended questions, he seemed much more lucid and clear in describing his motivations. He stated that he had been inspired by books he had read about witch doctors and cannibals, and that he had kept the pieces of bodies as reminders or trophies, not as suits to wear, which is actually more consistent with the evidence that was found on his property, only a small portion of which could even be remotely interpreted as wearable, particularly wearable by a man of Gein’s shape and size, while the majority included the likes of furniture, lampshades and wastebaskets.
When asked about the face skin, the officer said they looked like Halloween masks. He asked Gein about why the eyes and mouth were cut out, if not to wear. To which, Gein explained that insects had eaten those areas.
All of this is really gross business, but the grossness that actually happened is different than the transphobic fictions that the media perpetuates to this day. For example, Gein is quite frequently described as being effeminate. Now, there is no shortage of pictures of Ed Gein. Perhaps the standards were different at the time, but it appears he was as masculine as any other Wisconsin farmer. But that doesn’t match the narrative.
Ultimately, the doctor who performed Gein’s psychiatric evaluation likely came closest to explaining Gein and his motives. Instead of stating that Gein wanted to wear women’s skin to be a woman like his mother, the doctor explained that Gein was collecting the bodies and body parts to fill the void left by his mother’s passing.
The Gein case marked a major turning point in the public’s attitude toward transgender people. In the early part of the 1950s, Christine Jorgenson and other trans people were treated almost as celebrities. After the Gein case, public opinion shifted. Trans people were misgendered and demonized by the media, if the media reported on them at all, and this trope in horror films was born, which persists to this day. Did the Gein case and the way it was reported cause or contribute to the shift? It’s impossible to say. However, one can’t help but wonder, if the police had been more diligent in their questioning and the media more accurate in their reporting, would we be having this conversation today?
So, to say that these movies are based on a real person is not entirely accurate. They were based on the mythology that appeared surrounding a real person, which itself was either a reflection of, or a possible contributor to, negative views of trans people at the time. Regardless, this detail does not prevent these films from being transphobic, as the way they are perceived, the way they treat trans characters and their impact are still the same.
But These Are Classic, Award-Winning Films
Absolutely! So? A film can be revered for it’s artistic merit while still being acknowledged for its problematic elements. The cinematography in Psycho is groundbreaking. The acting in Silence of the Lambs is untouchable. Seriously, the interactions between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector are worth watching again and again. Sleepaway camp is, like I said, a lot of fun. They are also transphobic. One does not negate the other. You can go on and on about the things that are great about these films, but the things that are not great are worthy of discussion too. Who wants to just praise films anyway? That’s boring. If you truly love a film, isn’t it more fun to explore it from every angle?
That being said, let’s be real. Silence of the Lambs and Psycho may be critical darlings, but at the end of the day they are arted-up exploitation films. Silence of the Lambs is a film whose opening salvo involves showing the main character getting a fistful of cum thrown in her face. Scenes like Buffalo Bill dancing and tucking or Norman Bates in the basement are not there for character building. They are there purely for shock value. It’s exploitation filmmaking 101.
But Isn’t Horror Supposed To Be Offensive?
No, horror is supposed to be scary. However, you’re right that there are films that are sometimes lumped in with the horror genre that are intended to be offensive, like John Waters films or Troma movies for example. The important distinction is that these films are subversive, intent on offending mainstream sensibilities, not on propagating prejudices that are already locked firmly into place within mainstream society, which is what the – for the most part – mainstream films that feature this trope are part of and doing.
That being said, trans people are not offended by this trope. We are angry that it persists and is continuously defended and of the impact that it has on our lives in the form of discrimination, harassment, violence, etc.
So If These Films Are Transphobic, Does That Make American Psycho Cis Straight White Male Phobic?
No. In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman’s murderous tendencies are not equated with his being cis or straight or white or male. In Silence of the Lambs, if Buffalo Bill did not have his issues with gender identity, he would not be a murderer.
Even if it was, it wouldn’t change the answer. Again, the issue here is representation. Cis Straight White Males are not marginalized and are well represented in the movies and all media. You will not have any trouble finding these characters as heroes, businessmen, geniuses, and as every other thing a person can be. Good luck finding trans characters in those positions.
But It’s Only A Movie
This is disingenuous. Especially within the horror genre, it’s never just a movie. Think about all the Sleepaway Camp T-shirts worn proudly by fans, the tattered Psycho film posters adorning dorm room walls, the hours spent creating perfect Buffalo Bill cosplays. Films hold meaning for people, and often that meaning is hard to put into words. Fans simply love these films. Films are part of the larger culture. They are not only shaped by it, but help to shape it.
Is it that much of a stretch to think that a work of art that could elicit such positive feelings for so many people could have an equally powerful negative impact?
But It’s Just One Character In Just One Movie
Obviously it’s not. It’s dozens of films in the horror genre alone. Add that to the rampant transphobia in comedy films, where trans people are most often represented as the butt of a joke, and other genres. And that’s only movies. How about TV shows? Books? Music?
And it’s not that some trans people are represented poorly. It’s that the only time trans people are represented, they are represented poorly. Any horror fan can put together a healthy list of trans killers in movies. Can you list trans heroes? Where are the trans final girls? Can you even name a mousy trans best friend who tries to stop the slasher but ends up getting a harpoon through her eyeball in the first act? No? Exactly. No positive trans representation in horror films at all.
Can You Prove That These Films Have Done Harm?
The truth is that this is a difficult thing to prove. That being said, check out the news. Nationwide, the rights of trans people are under attack. Some states are trying to prevent us from using restrooms appropriate for our gender. Why? Because they truly believe we will hurt people. Where did they come up with this idea? There aren’t any cases of such crimes. But it certainly didn’t just pop into their heads by magic. The same idea. In thousands and thousands of heads. It had to have come from someplace. Could it be because the only visibility they have to trans people are characters like Buffalo Bill? Norman Bates? Angela Carter? Who’s to say?
While there hasn’t been research on negative media portrayals of trans people specifically, there have been studies that offer reasonable parallels. One study on the impact of stereotypes of women stated that “mass media shapes our perception and views of social realities by presenting only some aspects of reality and by continuous repetition of image and messages. We can say that the role and content of mass media has changed dramatically, playing a decisive role in reinforcing gender stereotypes and patriarchal culture by constructing new images and meanings by setting agendas for public opinion through selective themes and views.” (Shodhganga 2010) Trans stereotypes function in much the same way. The media presents only some aspects of reality (that trans people are mentally ill murderers) and continuously presents that in one horror film after the next, ultimately reinforcing a negative view of trans people.
Perhaps the most apt comparison to the way trans people are portrayed in the media is the way Native Americans have been portrayed in the media. When was the last time you saw a positive Native American character in a film or on TV? One that wasn’t wearing feathers? Not on Fear the Walking Dead, that’s for sure, where they’re scalping white people to get their land back. We live in a time when professional sports teams are named after derogatory terms for this group and use stereotypical images as logos. A 2014 report from the Center for American Progress found that just these shitty sports teams alone contributed to poor self-esteem and mental health among Native American youth, and contributed to biases and prejudices in the larger population. It’s fair to say that the negative representation of trans people, like those in these horror films, functions in much the same way.
So maybe I can’t offer definitive proof of these films’ role in larger scale societal, institutional transphobia, but let me tell you a bit about some smaller scale impacts of these films.
Coming out was a long, rough process for me. I didn’t do it until I was almost 40. I started by posting random pictures of myself on social media wearing clothes appropriate to my true gender. One of my first posts was greeted by a photo response of Buffalo Bill’s infamous tucking scene. Immediately, the first thing one of my friends thought upon seeing me harmlessly express my true gender was that I reminded them of a fucking brutal murderer from a horror movie.
That was not an isolated incident, and the friend who posted it was not some dummy. Similarly, I know two trans people who experienced the following: Upon coming out as trans to their therapists, their therapists’ response was “Oh, like in Silence of the Lambs?” These were doctors, professionals tasked with protecting the mental health of their patients, whose first thought again was to equate these sweet, normal people with a famous movie murderer. This is not something those people will leave behind, nor will I.
And I cannot focus solely on how these films impact other individuals’ perceptions of trans people. I must also discuss how they impact trans people’s perceptions of ourselves. I’ve known I was a woman since I was very young, even before I became a horror fan. By the time I saw Silence of the Lambs, I was used to the feelings it inspired in me, because I had felt the same every time trans people were paraded around as freaks on daytime talk shows or used as the big gotcha on sitcoms. That feeling can only be described as panic as I was forced to ask: Is this how people see me? Is this how they think I am? Seeing no other representation of trans people in my little Wisconsin town, I had to conclude that, yes, people saw me as a monster or a joke, so I must not come out. I must keep pretending to be a boy.
Why Does This Even Matter?
It matters because the rights of trans people are being stripped away. It matters because we are at greater risk of violence than any other population. A 2015 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality indicated that 47 percent of trans people had been sexually assaulted, 46 percent had been the victim of a verbal attack within the preceding year alone and 9 percent had been physically attacked within the preceding year. It matters because we are being murdered too often. 2016 was the deadliest year on record for trans people and the murder rate isn’t decreasing. And all of this is being justified, excused and facilitated on the belief that we are not human, a belief that is propagated by negative representation in the media, of which these films are a part. And this is not in the past. The Insidious sequels are fairly recent. This is still happening.
I Just Don’t Believe They’re Transphobic
Okay, why not? Do you have a specific reason that I haven’t addressed, or are you just saying it because you like the movies? If you are not trans, please realize that you may not recognize transphobia because it is not something that you deal with literally every day. If you’re a straight cis white guy in particular, you have a pretty strong immunity to these sorts of things. What is at stake for you here that is worth discarding these concerns? Just that you like the movie and don’t want your perception of it tarnished?
I Love These Movies And I’m Not Transphobic
Great! Maybe you have never laughed at a trans person. Maybe you never whispered “fucking freak” when a trans person walked by in the grocery store. Maybe you never commented on an article about trans stuff saying that we are all mentally ill sinners who deserve to die. But somebody is. Lots of somebodies. You are not representative. But you’re in a great place, because you have the power to stand up for your trans friends and speak out against transphobia in all forms, rather than challenging your trans friends when they call it to your attention.
Fine, These Movies Are Transphobic. What Am I Supposed To Do About It?
Many people are afraid to acknowledge that these films are transphobic for fear that the natural progression would then be to erase the films from the face of the earth. Not only is that not really possible, it’s not necessary. Awareness, conversation and prevention of future reoccurrences are far more important.
Keep your love for these movies. Keep your DVDs, your T-shirts, your signed Felissa Rose 8x10s. Like I said, I have no interest in policing your taste. By all means, keep inviting your friends over for viewing parties. Talk about all the cool stuff you dig about these films. I only ask that you find time to talk about the transphobia too. Take the good and the bad together. Shit, it might even make you like these films more. And when you see a new movie using this trope, call that shit out. It’s played out. It’s harmful. Don’t accept it.
Call for greater representation. Support trans creators, LGBT creators, POC creators. Don’t do this for any PC reason. Do it because you’re a fan. You have been fed the same tropes and you want horror films with fresh ideas and perspectives.
Be willing to listen to trans people when they call out transphobia, and be willing to talk about it. Be willing to amplify our voices, because every time we try to call out transphobia, we are shut down and told it’s not a big deal, or we’re just imagining it, or that trans people don’t exist.
Also, if you are ever looking for charities to donate to, the Transgender Law Center and the National Center for Transgender Equality, among others, do good work in support of transgender rights.
And lastly, realize that regardless of your opinion, whether you agree that these films are transphobic or not, know that your trans friends have likely experienced these films in a dramatically different way than you have. Respect that, and we’ll respect your shitty taste!