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Transvestism in Film  
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European cinema has always, of course, presented the same farcical stereotypes as Hollywood--slapstick cross-dressing has always been a staple of lowbrow comedy nearly everywhere. However, mainstream European films such as Claude Miller's The Best Way (1976) and Marco Risi's Forever Mary (1989) show that transvestism as a legitimate, if still troubled, representation of alternative desire was more allowable in European cultures whose homophobias were not quite as codified as those of Hollywood.

Elsewhere, in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's absurdist satire Satan's Brew (1976), we see that transvestism ultimately seems a far less neurotic practice than the mundane sadomasochisms we endure on a daily basis.

The image of the transvestite has also been used as a metaphorical figure in political films. Most radically, the infamous, coprophagic banquet scene of Pasolini's Salo (1975) offers the virginal young male transvestite as a perverse image of purity literally "smeared" by fascist power structures.

Complementarily, Rosa von Praunheim's fascinating semi-documentary I Am My Own Woman (1992) preserves the testimony of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a defiant, real-life, but hardly pure, transvestite survivor of Nazi terror.

Asian Cinema

In Asian cinema, we encounter national and historical tropes of theatrical transvestism entirely removed from Western gender binarism.

While Linda Hunt's male reporter in Peter Weir's Year of Living Dangerously (1982) is a rare example of Western gender-disguise not necessitated by a plot, this transvestism for its own sake is a staple of the operatic Hong Kong martial arts films and occasionally pornographic Japanese anime.

Yet, if we consider the political oppressions of the kathoeys of Thai cinema and the ostracized, "third-gender" hijras of Indian cinema, we see again that, depending on the social context, sexual emancipation does not always easily follow from the confusion of gender identity.

Queer Cinema

The queer American cinema of recent years has provided us with independent films whose transvestisms seem tailor-made for both queer audiences and queer analysis: Jennie Livingston's drag documentary Paris Is Burning (1990); Maggie Greenwald's female-to-male transvestite Western The Ballad of Little Jo (1993); and Kimberly Peirce's sensational Boys Don't Cry (1999), based on the true story of the murder of female cross-dresser Brandon Teena (real name Teena Brandon), also the subject of Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir's documentary The Brandon Teena Story (1998).

Likewise, European films such as Bettina Wilhelm's All of Me (1991) and Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother (1999) have both humanized the transvestite and re-humanized the camp sensibility, long gone stale, that enfolds her/him.

Recent Mainstream Films

Among recent mainstream films, however, perhaps the most exceptional is Alain Berliner's Ma Vie en Rose (1997), which might be called a drag film for children. Because it is the story of a prepubescent (seven-year old) boy convinced he is a girl, cross-dressing occurs in the absence of the fully-formed sexuality that would accompany an older, pubescent, psychically self-aware character.

Thus, while many commercial drag films tend to emphasize the surfaces of drag, pretending to be about sexuality when in fact they are concerned, at most, with the male-female duality of gender, Ma Vie en Rose is perhaps the one film that manages to skirt the "gender versus sexuality" issue altogether. In this film, drag is not about surfaces diverting our attention away from sexualities that may or may not exist; here, gender identity can exist only in terms of surfaces.

Andrew Grossman

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arts >> Overview:  Asian Film

The recent popularity of Asian films with English-language audiences has allowed Western audiences a glimpse of Asian gay and lesbian identities and gender ambiguities in high-profile queer films.

social sciences >> Overview:  Cross-Dressing

Cross-dressers have often been misunderstood and maligned, especially in societies with rigid gender roles.

arts >> Overview:  Documentary Film

The queer community has used documentary film to resurrect historical memory and to permit the marginalized to bear witness, as well as to build an image base that reflects our diversity and counters distorted representations.

arts >> Overview:  Drag Shows: Drag Kings and Male Impersonators

A recent arrival in the drag arena, drag kings are part of an international drag movement that emerged in London and San Francisco in the mid 1980s.

arts >> Overview:  Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators

Female impersonation need say nothing about sexual identity, but it has for a long time been almost an institutionalized aspect of gay male culture.

arts >> Overview:  European Film

Since the 1960s, European film has included significant gay-themed films, many of them directed by openly gay and lesbian directors.

arts >> Overview:  Film

Since cinema began, Hollywood has been fascinated with finding ways of representing homosexuality.

arts >> Overview:  Hong Kong Film

Filmmaking in Hong Kong eventually came to terms with, exploited, and often blurred the lines between Chinese traditions of gender ambiguity and Westernized "out" politics.

arts >> Overview:  Japanese Film

Offering visions of sexual transgression divorced from Western political correctness and assimilationist civil rights ideals, Japanese queer cinema is unique.

social sciences >> Overview:  Transgender

"Transgender" has become an umbrella term representing a political alliance between all gender variant people who do not conform to social norms for typical men and women and who suffer political oppression as a result.

arts >> Overview:  Transsexuality in Film

Representations of transsexuality in films range from freak-show exploitation, to dramatic and documentary depictions, to the use of transsexuality as a metaphor for exploring the crossing of all kinds of borders.

arts >> Almodóvar, Pedro

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar's gay and transsexual themed films present absurd situations framed by the trappings of everyday life.

arts >> Cukor, George

Responsible for many of the most popular and critically praised films of Hollywood's golden age, George Cukor became typed as a "woman's director," a phrase that may have also alluded to his homosexuality.

arts >> Dietrich, Marlene

Actress and cabaret performer Marlene Dietrich scandalized society almost as much by wearing trousers in public as by her numerous love affairs with both men and women.

arts >> Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead)

A versatile character actor, nightclub singer, and international cult star who generally performed his stage show and movie roles in drag, Divine became famous through his appearances in John Waters' films.

arts >> Fassbinder, Rainer Werner

Responsible for bringing the much-acclaimed New German Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s to the attention of international audiences, Rainer Werner Fassbinder used cinematic conventions of Hollywood to deliver ideological arguments of the New Left.

literature >> Fierstein, Harvey

Award-winning Harvey Fierstein is one of the finest gay male playwrights currently working in the American theater.

arts >> Fierstein, Harvey

Actor Harvey Fierstein has had phenomenal success as both a performer and a playwright, and has been steadfastly committed to the cause of glbtq rights.

arts >> Grant, Cary

Although actor Cary Grant consistently denied rumors of his bisexuality, his good looks, charisma, and ambiguous sexuality enchanted women and men alike.

arts >> Pasolini, Pier Paolo

One of the most important cultural figures to emerge from post-World War II Italy, Pier Paolo Pasolini was a versatile man-of-letters, but he was foremost a filmmaker.

arts >> Praunheim, Rosa von

One of Germany's leading gay activists and chroniclers of queer life, filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim makes films intended to foster self-examination by gay people and to advance gay rights.

social sciences >> Teena, Brandon

Twenty-year-old Brandon Teena was brutally murdered on December 31, 1993 on account of gender non-conformity.

arts >> Warhol, Andy (as filmmaker)

Although Andy Warhol is generally remembered either for a single film--Sleep (1963)--or for works that he did not actually direct, his contribution to gay cinema is incalculable.

arts >> Waters, John

A director, writer, producer, and photographer, John Waters became well known in the early 1970s through his filmic collaboration with actor--and drag queen--Divine.

arts >> Wood, Ed

Transvestite director Ed Wood died a penniless alcoholic, but posthumously became the center of one of cinema's most enduring cults.


Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

Suarez, Juan Antonio. Bike Boys, Drag Queens, & Superstars: Avant-Garde, Mass Culture, and Gay Identities in the 1960's Underground Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Vogel, Amos. Film as a Subversive Art. New York: Random House, 1974.


    Citation Information
    Author: Grossman, Andrew  
    Entry Title: Transvestism 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 April 21, 2008  
    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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