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Transsexuality in Film  
 
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Representations of in films fall along a spectrum from freak-show sexploitation, to dramatic and documentary depictions of the struggles of transsexuals, and, finally, to the metaphorical use of transsexuality in exploring borders, not only sexual borders but also racial, religious, and political ones as well.

The Transsexual as Joke

Whereas transvestites have been depicted in film since the silent era, transsexuals (people who have undergone sex-change surgery or who choose to live as the opposite gender) entered the movies only in the early 1950s. The earliest celluloid glimpses of transsexuality appeared shortly after news of George/Christine Jorgensen's 1952 sex-change surgery shocked and mesmerized the world with headlines such as "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty," "Christine, by George!" and "Thousands in U.S. Don't Know Their True Sex."

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The first movie attempting to capitalize on the story came from Ed Wood, a quirky filmmaker who was once named the "World's Worst Director." Wood's Glen or Glenda (I Changed My Sex) (1953) tells two stories, one about a transvestite, one about a transsexual. Ex-Dracula Bela Lugosi lurks between scenes delivering screwball pleas for tolerance: "Vat are little boys made ov? Ees eet puppy dog tails? Beeg fat snails? Or maybe brassieres!"

The result is pure camp, although Wood, a cross-dresser himself, flashed an intended moral across the screen in the film's opening frames: "Judge Ye Not!"

The filming of Glen or Glenda is depicted in Tim Burton's 1994 film biography Ed Wood. Wood's entourage includes a pre-operative transsexual, Bunny Breckenridge, played for laughs by Bill Murray.

Bunny belongs to a cinematic convention--the transsexual as joke, a sleazy, decades-long parade that includes Bunny's namesake, Myron/Myra in Michael Sarne's Myra Breckinridge (1970), based on Gore Vidal's novel. Raquel Welch's Myra is a busty man-hating transsexual who moves to Hollywood to destroy The American Male by using men in the same ways men typically use women.

Mole McHenry in John Waters' Desperate Living (1979) provides another transsexual parody. Hoping to please her curvy blonde girlfriend, Mole hijacks a surgeon, demands a sex-change, and returns with a penis. When her lover rejects it, Mole cuts off the salami-like appendage and feeds it to a German Shepherd.

Sometimes the transsexual caricature is more poignantly drawn, as with The Lady Chablis, a gutsy drag artist on pre-operative hormones in Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), based on John Berndt's book; or John Lithgow's Roberta in George Roy Hill's The World According to Garp (1982), based on John Irving's novel.

Roberta, a muscle-bound Amazon in a dress, dispenses friendship and wisdom but also reveals her former life with one of the film's biggest laugh lines: "I was a tight end with the Philadelphia Eagles."

Critics felt that Terence Stamp stole the show in Stephan Elliott's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) with his tragicomic portrait of the aging showgirl Bernadette. Bernadette's mournful, brave face is etched with the loss and rejection that has pervaded her transsexual experience as she confides to her two transvestite companions: "My parents never spoke to me again after I had the chop."

The Transsexual as Psychopathic Killer

Films have also asked what happens to the person who is denied "the chop." According to thrillers from Roy Ward Baker's low-budget horror film Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) to Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs (1991), that person becomes a psychopathic killer. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde stars a transsexual madman in fog-bound Victorian London, extracting hormones from freshly-killed women.

Brian de Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980) features Michael Caine as mad psychiatrist Dr. Elliot, denied surgery and locked in a life-or-death struggle with the female trapped inside him. When a woman arouses the doctor, his female alter ego slashes her to death with a razor.

This character prefigures Buffalo Bill, the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs. Also denied sex-change surgery, "Billy" settles for flaying, tanning and stitching together the skins of size 14 women. "He's making himself a woman's suit," the rookie FBI agent played by Jodie Foster explains, "out of real women."

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