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Transsexuality in Film  
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Joel Schumacher's Flawless (1999) features Robert De Niro as a security cop who turns reluctantly to the pre-operative transsexual next door for singing lessons as part of his therapy in recovering from a stroke.

In contrast to these stories of growth, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's In a Year of 13 Moons (1979) is a relentlessly pessimistic tale that evokes the continued suppression of difference in Fassbinder's post-war Germany. The film chronicles five days leading to the suicide of Elvira Weishaupt, born Erwin.

Erwin had fallen in love with a man who said, offhandedly, "Too bad you're not a girl." After having a sex change, Elvira was rejected. Now she wanders through the slaughterhouse where Erwin once worked, recounting her history amid meat-hooked corpses of cattle that rain blood onto the floor.

The Transsexual as Metaphor

Unlike the dramas of Fassbinder and others, where such issues as essentialism and intolerance arise from narratives of transsexualism, Sally Potter's Orlando (1993)--based on a novel by Virginia Woolf--features, rather than a clinical case, a more metaphoric transsexual character.

After two centuries of adventures--romance, war, a princely inheritance--ageless Orlando goes to sleep as a man, then wakes, lets down a cascade of red hair, and looks in the mirror. "Same person," she says. "No difference at all. Just different sex."

Characters speak parables linking gender and ownership, as Orlando's personal journey spans four centuries and parallels the decline of the British Empire.

Liberation finally comes for Orlando when, as the parent of a young child, s/he no longer owns or is owned. And, as the child runs through a field of daisies, Orlando admits to no control over what it will do or be. In short, Orlando's transsexual experience has created a sexual escapee, "no longer trapped by destiny."

Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992) folds the tale of transsexuality into other kinds of stories in order to raise still broader questions, not only about gender but also about racial, religious, and political identities.

This artfully-constructed film begins with a carnival scene by a bridge, evoking its preoccupation with borders and crossings. When Jody, a British soldier in occupied Ireland, is captured at the carnival and held hostage by the IRA, he points to the irony of his position as a black man representing a racist country. Before he is killed, Jody asks one of his captors, Fergus, to look after his girlfriend.

Deserting the IRA, Fergus crosses political, racial, and sexual borders to fall in love with Jody's girl Dil, a beautiful light-skinned black woman who turns out to be anatomically male.

Dil "fools" not only heterosexual Fergus but also the audience as well. She seems to be a blend of races and genders, confounding mainstream clarities, throwing all political, racial, and sexual identities in the film into doubt. Eventually, Dil kills one of Jody's former captors, and Fergus winds up in prison for the murder.

"Dil is Jody's revenge," writes critic Judith Halberstam. "Dil is the snare that awaits all literal readings of bodies, sexes, races, nationalities."

Reductive and literal readings of transsexualism have led to five decades of films preoccupied with "the chop." The Crying Game illustrates, perhaps more than any other exception, that cinematic exploitation of transsexuals as jokes or shock devices ignores a subject rich in human and symbolic complexity.

Carolyn Kraus

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Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Guthmann, Edward. "Boys Will Be Girls." San Francisco Chronicle (September 7, 1997): 42.

Halberstam, Judith. "The Crying Game." PQ Movie Newsletter, 1995-2001.

Morris, Gary. "A New Kind of Tranny: Different for Girls." Bright Lights Film Journal Issue 19 (July 1997):

Murray, Raymond. Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video. New York: Plume, 1996.


    Citation Information
    Author: Kraus, Carolyn  
    Entry Title: Transsexuality in Film  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 28, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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