Skirt Chasers
Why the Media Depicts the Trans Revolution in Lipstick and Heels
by Julia Serano

--A version of this piece (slightly edited for length) first appeared in Bitch Magazine, issue 26, Fall 2005--

As a transsexual woman, I am often confronted by people who insist that I am not, nor can I ever be, a “real woman.” One of the more common lines of reasoning goes something like this: There’s more to being a woman than simply putting on a dress. I couldn’t agree more. That’s why it’s so frustrating that people often seem confused because, although I have transitioned to female and live as a woman, I rarely wear makeup or dress in a particularly feminine manner.

Despite the reality that there are as many types of trans women as there are women in general, most people believe that trans women are all on a quest to make ourselves as pretty, pink, and passive as possible. While there are certainly some trans women who buy into mainstream dogma about beauty and femininity, others are outspoken feminists and activists fighting against all gender stereotypes. But you’d never know it from the popular media, which tends to assume that all transsexuals are male-to-female, and that all trans women want to achieve stereotypical femininity.

Trans people—who transition from male to female or female to male and often live completely unnoticed as the sex “opposite” to that which they were born—have the potential to transform the gender class system as we know it. Our existence challenges the conventional wisdom that the differences between women and men are primarily the product of biology. Trans people can wreak havoc on such taken-for-granted concepts as feminine and masculine, homosexual and hetero-sexual, because these words are rendered virtually meaningless when a person’s biological sex and lived sex are not the same. But because we are a threat to the categories that enable male and heterosexual privilege, the images and experiences of trans people are presented in the media in a way that reaffirms, rather than challenges, gender stereotypes.

Media depictions of trans women, whether they take the form of fictional characters or actual people, usually fall under one of two main archetypes: the “deceptive” transsexual or the “pathetic” transsexual. While characters of both models have an interest in achieving an ultrafeminine appearance, they differ in their abilities to pull it off. Because the “deceivers” successfully pass as women, they generally act as unexpected plot twists, or play the role of sexual predators who fool innocent straight guys into falling for “men.”

Perhaps the most famous example of a “deceiver” is the character Dil in the 1992 movie The Crying Game. The film became a pop culture phenomenon primarily because most moviegoers were unaware that Dil was trans until about halfway through the movie. The revelation comes during a love scene between her and Fergus, the male protagonist who has been courting her. When Dil disrobes, the audience, along with Fergus, learns for the first time that Dil is physically male. When I saw the film, most of the men in the theater groaned at this revelation. Onscreen, Fergus has a similarly intense reaction: He slaps Dil and runs off to the bathroom to vomit.

The 1994 Jim Carrey vehicle Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, features a “deceptive” transsexual as a villain. Police lieutenant Lois Einhorn (played by Sean Young) is secretly Ray Finkle, an ex–Miami Dolphins kicker who has stolen the team’s mascot as part of a scheme to get back at Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. The bizarre plot ends when Ventura strips Einhorn down to her underwear in front of about 20 police officers and announces, “She is suffering from the worst case of hemorrhoids I have ever seen.” He then turns her around so that we can see her penis and testicles tucked behind her legs. All of the police officers proceed to spit up as The Crying Game theme song plays in the background.

Even though “deceivers” successfully pass as women, and are often played by female actors (with the notable exception of Jaye Davidson as Dil), these characters are never intended to challenge our assumptions about gender itself. On the contrary, they are positioned as “fake” women, and their secret trans status is revealed in a dramatic “moment of truth”. At the moment of exposure, the “deceiver’s” appearance (her femaleness) is reduced to mere illusion, and her secret (her maleness) becomes the real identity.

In a tactic that emphasizes their “true” maleness, “deceivers” are most often used as pawns to provoke male homophobia in other characters, as well as in the audience itself. This phenomenon is especially evident in TV talk shows like Jerry Springer, which regularly runs episodes with titles like “My Girlfriend’s a Guy” and “I’m Really a Man!” that feature trans women coming out to their straight boyfriends. On a recent British TV reality show called There's Something About Miriam, six heterosexual men court an attractive woman who, unbeknownst to them, is transgendered. The broadcast of the show was delayed for several months because the men threatened to sue the show’s producers, alleging that they had been the victims of defamation, personal injury, and conspiracy to commit sexual assault. The affair was eventually settled out of court, with each man coming away with a reported $100,000.

In the 1970 film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel Myra Breckinridge, the protagonist is a trans woman who heads out to Hollywood in order to take revenge on traditional manhood and to “realign the sexes.” This apparently involves raping an ex-football player with a strap-on dildo, which she does at one point during the movie. The recurring theme of “deceptive” trans women retaliating against men, often by seducing them, seems to be an unconscious acknowledgment that both male and heterosexual privileges are threatened by transsexuals.

In contrast to the “deceivers”, who wield their feminine wiles with success, the “pathetic” transsexual characters aren’t deluding anyone. Despite her masculine mannerisms and five o’clock shadow, the “pathetic” transsexual will inevitably insist that she is a woman trapped inside a man’s body. The intense contradiction between the “pathetic” character’s gender identity and her physical appearance is often played for laughs—as in the transition of musician Mark Shubb (played as a bearded baritone by Harry Shearer) at the conclusion of 2003’s A Mighty Wind.

Unlike the “deceivers”, whose ability to pass is a serious threat to our ideas about gender and sexuality, “pathetic” transsexuals—who barely resemble women at all—are generally considered harmless. Perhaps for this reason, some of the most endearing pop culture-portrayals of trans women fall into the “pathetic” category: John Lithgow’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of ex–football -player Roberta Muldoon in 1982’s The World According to Garp, and Terence Stamp’s role as the aging showgirl Bernadette in 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. More recently, the 1998 indie film The Adventures of Sebastian Cole begins with its eponymous teenage protagonist learning that his step-dad Hank, who looks and acts like a roadie for a ’70s rock band, is about to become Henrietta. A sympathetic character and the only stable person in Sebastian’s life, Henrietta spends most of the movie wearing floral-print nightgowns and bare-shouldered tops with tons of jewelry and makeup. Yet despite her extremely femme manner of dress, she continues to exhibit only stereotypical male behaviors, overtly ogling a waitress and punching out a guy who calls her a faggot (after which she laments, “I broke a nail”).

While a character like Henrietta, who exhibits a combination of extreme masculinity and femininity, has the potential to confront our assumptions about gender, it is fairly obvious that the filmmakers were not trying to do so. On the contrary, Henrietta’s masculine voice and mannerisms are meant to demonstrate that, despite her desire to be female, she cannot change the fact that she is really and truly a man. As with Garp’s Roberta and Priscilla’s Bernadette, the audience is encouraged to respect Henrietta as a person, but not as a woman. While we are supposed to admire their courage—which presumably comes from the difficulty of living as women who do not appear very female—we are not meant to identify with them or to be sexually attracted to them, as we are to “deceivers” like Dil.

Interestingly, while the obvious outward masculinity of “pathetic” transsexual characters is always played up, so too is their lack of male genitalia (or their desire to part with them). In fact, some of the most memorable lines in these movies occur when the “pathetic” transsexual character makes light of her own castration. At one point during Priscilla, Bernadette remarks that her parents never spoke to her again, “after [she] had the chop.” In Garp, when a man is injured while receiving a blow job during a car accident, Roberta delivers the one-liner, “I had mine removed surgically under general anesthesia, but to have it bitten off in a Buick...” In the 1994 fictionalized biography Ed Wood, Bill Murray plays another “pathetic” transsexual, Bunny Breckinridge. After seeing Wood’s film Glen or Glenda, Bunny is inspired to go to Mexico to have a “sex change” herself, announcing to Wood, “Your movie made me realize I've got to take action. Goodbye, penis!”

The “pathetic” transsexual’s lighthearted comments about having her penis lopped off come in stark contrast to the “deceiver”, who is generally found out by someone else in an embarrassing, often violent way. A Freudian might suggest that the “deceptive” transsexual’s dangerous nature is symbolized by the presence of a hidden penis, while the “pathetic” transsexual’s harmlessness is due to a lack thereof. A less phallic interpretation is that the very act of passing makes any trans woman who can do so into a “deceiver”. Ultimately, both “deceptive” and “pathetic” transsexual characters are designed to validate the popular assumption that trans women are “truly” men. “Pathetic” transsexuals may want to be female, but their masculine appearance and mannerisms always gives them away. And while the “deceiver” is initially perceived to be a “real” female, she is eventually revealed to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing—an illusion that is the product of lies and modern medical technology—and she is usually is punished accordingly.

In virtually all depictions of trans women, whether real or fictional, “deceptive” or “pathetic”, the underlying assumption is that the trans woman wants to achieve a stereotypically feminine appearance and gender role. The possibility that trans women are even capable of making a distinction between identifying as female and wanting to cultivate a hyperfeminine image is never raised. In fact, the media often dwells on the specifics of the feminization process, showing trans women in the act of “putting on” their feminine exteriors. It’s telling that TV, film, and news producers tend not to be satisfied with merely showing trans women wearing feminine clothes and makeup. Rather, it is their intent to capture trans women in the act of putting on lipstick, dresses, and high heels, thereby making it clear to the audience that the trans woman’s femaleness is an artificial mask or costume.

While mass-media images of “biological males” feminizing themselves have the subversive potential to highlight ways in which conventionally defined femininity is artificial (a point feminists make all the time), the images rarely function this way. Trans women are both asked to prove their femaleness through superficial means, and denied the status of “real” women because of the artifice involved. After all, masculinity is generally defined by how a man behaves, while femininity is judged by how a woman presents herself.

Thus, the media is able to depict trans women donning feminine attire and accessories without ever allowing them to achieve “true” femininity or femaleness. Further, by focusing on the most feminine of artifices, the media encourages the audience to see trans women as living out a sexual fetish. But sexualizing their motives for transitioning not only belittles trans women’s female identities but encourages the objectification of women as a whole.

Two examples from 2003 are the HBO movie Normal and a two-part Oprah special on transsexual women and their wives. While both of these offerings were pre-sented as in-depth, serious, and respectful attempts to tell the stories of trans women—and they deserve some credit for depicting trans women as human beings rather than two-dimensional laughingstocks—both were guilty of pandering to the audience’s fascination with the surface trappings that accompany the feminization of “men”.

Normal tells the story of a pathetic-type trans woman named Roy. (Despite identifying as female, the character’s name remains male in the credits.) The film begins as Roy comes out to her family as transgendered, and goes on to detail many of the specifics of her transition and how her wife, children, and community at large deal with the change. Normal has a fetishistic take on women’s apparel and accessories from the opening scene, in which we see bras and underpants hanging from a backyard clothesline. Thus, from the begin-ning the movie sexualizes the very concept of female identity, and reduces all women (trans or otherwise) to mere feminine artifacts. After Roy makes the decision to transition, we see her bumble her way through her first embarrassing attempts at shaving her armpits and trying on women’s clothing, and are shown two separate incidents where she wears perfume and earrings to her blue-collar workplace only to be ridiculed by her macho coworkers. At virtually every turn, the producers of Normal transform Roy’s transition into a hapless pursuit of feminine objects and artifice.

The Oprah special was a little more promising, primarily because it involved actual trans women. The entire first episode featured a one-on-one interview with Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of the recent autobiography She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. While Winfrey’s conversation with Boylan was respectful and serious, the show nonetheless opened with predictable scenes of women putting on eye makeup, lipstick, and shoes, and the interview itself was interspersed with “before” pictures of Boylan, as if to constantly remind us that she’s really a man underneath it all. These visuals undermined Boylan’s female identity while simultaneously emphasizing her pursuit of a feminine appearance, and the effect was an implication that trans women never really become female—rather, they merely mimic feminine dress and mannerisms.

What always goes unseen are the great lengths to which producers will go to depict lurid and superficial scenes in which trans women get all dolled up in pretty clothes and cosmetics. Shawna Virago, a San Francisco trans activist, musician, and codirector of the TrannyFest film festival, has experienced several such incidents with local news producers. For instance, when Virago was organizing a forum to facilitate communication between police and the trans community, a newspaper reporter approached her and other transgender activists for an article. However, the paper was interested not in their politics but in their transitions: “They wanted each of us to include ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. This pissed me off, and I tried to explain to the writer that the before-and-after stuff had nothing to do with police abuse and other issues, like trans women and HIV, but he didn’t get it. So I was cut from the piece.” A few years later, someone from another paper contacted Virago and asked to photograph her “getting ready” to go out: “I told him I didn’t think having a picture of me rolling out of bed and hustling to catch [the bus] would make for a compelling photo. He said, ‘You know, getting pretty, putting on makeup.’ I refused, but they did get a trans woman who complied, and there she was, putting on mascara and lipstick and a pretty dress, none of which had anything to do with the article, which was purportedly about political and social challenges the trans community faced.”

Requests like these from non-trans news interviewers and film documentarians are common. I had a similar experience back in 2001, just before I began taking hormones. A friend arranged for me to meet with someone who was doing a film about the transgender movement. The filmmaker was noticeably disappointed when I showed up looking like a normal guy, wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. She eventually asked me if I would mind putting on lipstick while she filmed me. I told her that wearing lipstick had nothing to do with the fact that I was transgendered or that I identified as female. She shot a small amount of footage anyway (sans lipstick) and said she would get in touch with me if she decided to use any of it. I never heard back from her.

When audiences watch scenes of trans women putting on skirts and makeup, they are not necessarily seeing a reflection of the values of those trans women; they are witnessing the TV, film, and news producers’ obsession with all objects commonly associated with female sexuality. In other words, the media’s and audience’s fascination with the feminization of trans women is a by-product of their sexualization of all women.

There is most certainly a connection between the differing values given to women and men in our culture and the media’s fascination with depicting trans women rather than trans men, who were born female but identify as male. Although the number of people transitioning in each direction is relatively equal these days, media coverage would have us believe there is a huge disparity in the populations of trans men and women.

Jamison Green, a trans man who authored a 1994 report that led to the city of San Francisco’s decision to extend its civil rights protections to include gender identity, once said this about the media coverage of that event: “Several times at the courthouse, when the press was doing interviews, I stood by and listened as reporters inquired who wrote the report, and when I was pointed out to them as the author I could see them looking right through me, looking past me to find the man in a dress who must have written the report and whom they would want to interview. More than once a reporter asked me incredulously, ‘You wrote the report?’ They assumed that because of my ‘normal’ appearance that I wouldn’t be newsworthy.”

Indeed, the media tends not to notice—or to outright ignore—trans men because they are unable to sensationalize them the way they do trans women without bringing masculinity itself into question. And in a world where modern psychology was founded upon the teaching that all young girls suffer from penis envy, most people think striving for masculinity seems like a perfectly reasonable goal. Author and sex educator Pat Califia, who is himself a trans man, addresses this in his 1997 book Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism: “It seems the world is still more titillated by ‘a man who wants to become a woman’ than it is by ‘a woman who wants to become a man.’ The first is scandalous, the latter is taken for granted. This reflects the very different levels of privilege men and women have in our society. Of course women want to be men, the general attitude seems to be, and of course they can’t. And that’s that.”

Once we recognize how media coverage of transsexuals is informed by the different values our society assigns to femaleness and maleness, it becomes obvious that virtually all attempts to sensationalize and deride trans women are built on a foundation of unspoken misogyny. Since most people cannot fathom why someone would give up male privilege and power in order to become a relatively disempowered female, they assume that trans women transition primarily as a way of obtaining the one type of power that women are perceived to have in our society: the ability to express femininity and to attract men.

This is why trans women like myself, who rarely dress in a stereotypically feminine manner and/or who are not attracted to men, are such an enigma to many people. By assuming that my desire to be female is merely some sort of femininity fetish or sexual perversion, they are essentially making the case that women have no worth beyond of their ability to be sexualized.

There are numerous parallels between the way trans women are depicted in the media and the way that they have been portrayed by some feminist theorists. While many feminists—especially younger ones who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s—recognize that trans women can be allies in the fight to eliminate gender stereotypes, other feminists—particularly those who embrace a gender essentialism—believe that trans women foster sexism by mimicking patriarchal attitudes about femininity, or that we objectify women by trying to possess female bodies of our own. Many of these latter ideas stem from Janice Raymond’s 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-male, which is perhaps the most influential feminist writing on transsexuals. Like the media, Raymond virtually ignores trans men, dismissing them as “tokens”, and instead focuses almost exclusively on trans women, insisting that they transition in order to achieve stereotypical femininity. She even argues that, “most transsexuals conform more to the feminine role than even the most feminine of natural-born women.” This fact does not surprise Raymond, since she believes that femininity itself an artificial by-product of a patriarchal society. So despite the fact that trans women may attain femininity, Raymond does not believe that they become “real” women (to emphasize this, she refers to trans women as “male-to-constructed-females” and addresses them with masculine pronouns throughout the book).

Unlike the media, Raymond does acknowledge the existence of trans women who are not stereotypically feminine, albeit reluctantly. She writes, “I have been very hesitant about devoting a chapter of this book to what I call the ‘transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist’.” Because she believes that lesbian-feminists represent “a small percentage of transsexuals” (a claim that she never verifies), she seems inclined not to discuss their existence at all except for the “recent debate and divisiveness [the subject] produced within feminist circles.” Being that Raymond believes that femininity undermines women’s true worth, you might think that she would be open to trans women who denounce femininity and patriarchal gender stereotypes. However, this is not the case. Instead, she argues, “as the male-to-constructed-female transsexual exhibits the attempt to possess women in a bodily sense while acting out the images into which men have molded women, the male-to-constructed-female who claims to be a lesbian feminist attempts to possess women at a deeper level.” Throughout the rest of the chapter, she discusses how lesbian-feminist trans women use “deception” in order to “penetrate” women’s spaces and minds. She says, “although the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist does not exhibit a feminine identity and role, he [sic] does exhibit stereotypical masculine behavior.” This essentially puts trans women in a double bind, where if they act feminine they are perceived as being a parody, but if they act masculine it is seen as a sign of their true male identity. This damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t tactic is reminiscent of the pop cultural “deceptive”/”pathetic” transsexual archetypes.

While much of The Transsexual Empire is clearly over the top (the premise of the book is that “biological woman is in the process of being made obsolete by bio-medicine”), many of Raymond’s arguments are echoed in contemporary attempts to justify the exclusion of trans women from women’s organizations and spaces. In fact, the world’s largest annual women-only event, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF), still enforces a “womyn-born-womyn”-only policy that is specifically designed to prevent trans women from attending. (In the interest of full disclosure, in 2004, I was one of the organizers for Camp Trans, the annual protest of MWMF’s policy banning trans women.) Many of the excuses used to rationalize trans women’s exclusion are not designed to protect the values of women-only space, but rather to reinforce the idea that trans women are “real” men and “fake” women. For example, one of the most cited reasons why trans women are not allowed in the festival is that we are born with, and many of us still have still have, penises (many trans women either cannot afford or chose not to have sex-reassignment surgery). It is argued that our penises are dangerous because they are a symbol of male oppression and have the potential to trigger abuse survivors. So penises are banned from the festival, right? Well, not quite: The festival does allow women to purchase and use dildos, strap-ons, and packing devices, many of which closely resemble penises.

Another reason frequently given for the exclusion of trans women from MWMF is that we supposedly would bring “male energy” into the festival. While this seems to imply that expressions of masculinity are not allowed, nothing could be further from the truth. MWMF allows drag king performers, who dress and act male, and the festival welcomes female-bodied folks like Animal (from the musical duo Bitch and Animal) who identify as transgender and often describe themselves with male pronouns. Presumably, MWMF does this because they believe that no person who is born female is capable of exhibiting authentic masculinity or “male energy.” Not only is this an insult to trans men, but it also implies that male energy can be measured in some way independent of whether the person who is expressing it appears female or male. This is clearly not the case. Even though I am a trans woman, I have never been accused of expressing male energy, because people perceive me to be a woman. When I do act in a “masculine” way, people describe me as being a tomboy or butch, and if I get aggressive or argumentative, people call me a bitch. My behaviors are still the same; it is only the context of my body (whether people see me as female or male) that has changed.

This is the inevitable problem with all attempts to portray trans women as “fake” females: They require one to give different names, meanings, and values to the same behaviors depending on whether the person in question was born with a female or male body (or whether they are perceived to be a woman or a man). In other words, they require one to be sexist. When people insist that there are essential differences (instead of constructed ones) between women and men, they further a line of reasoning that ultimately refutes feminist ideals rather than supporting them.

From my own experience having transitioned from one sex to the other, I have found that women and men are not separated by an insurmountable chasm as many people seem to believe. In actuality, most of us are only a hormone prescription away from being perceived as the opposite sex. Personally, I welcome this idea as a testament to just how little difference there really is between women and men. To believe that a woman is a woman because of her sex chromosomes, reproductive organs, or socialization denies the reality that every single day we classify each person we see as either female or male based on a small number of visual cues and a ton of assumption. The one thing that women share is that we are all perceived as women and treated accordingly. As a feminist, I look forward to a time when we finally move beyond the red herring of biology, and recognize that the only truly important differences that exist between women and men are the different meanings that we place onto one another’s bodies.

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