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Friday, November 20, 2020

Dressing Down the “Killer Crossdresser” Trope: Is It Inherently Problematic?

A couple months ago, we were tricked and treated with the trailer for Freaky. Immediately, I was filled with hype that not a lot of horror films had fully reached this year. Deconstructive, bloody, and super fun wrapped up in a body swapped angle–this trailer was perfectly in line with my closest personal brand of horror. 

Of course, because the internet is the internet, the legs were violently cut out from under my mood by the responses from a very vocal section of the trans community online. Immediately, these “peers” of mine labeled this film, that at the time of writing is not even out yet, as transphobic because “It was just The Hot Chick but wearing a slasher mask”.

I’m not going to sit here and defend the validity of The Hot Chick (even though I could) when this film is quite obviously Freaky Friday meets Friday The 13th, but it got me really thinking about the “murderous man in a dress” trope that has existed for more than half a century. How do the films that exhibit this very specific type of villain stack up today, and is it possible to have a “crossdressing killer” without it being inherently problematic?

I’m here to be your humble guide through a world covered in plenty of blood and lace as we try to find out the answers.

First of all, let’s address the elephant in the room–trans reads and trans representation are not the same thing. Not all of the following examples are of trans characters however the number of times people have told me that their first introduction to “people like me” were in films like Dressed to Kill or Silence of the Lambs is innumerable. So, there is something to be said about that perception.

On one hand, that admittance is viewer error for not knowing the difference between disturbed characters in movies that happen to crossdress and actual trans people, but on the other hand, a 2015 study conducted by GLAAD shows that 84% of Americans do not actually know a trans person in real life. This means pop culture is the only firsthand experience many people, even tangentially, have with trans people. Through entertainment, they are being told time and again to fear “men in dresses,” and that these are people who will infiltrate their safe, straight spaces and they can range from damaged and misunderstood to deranged and extremely dangerous.

Sleepaway Camp - Angela

‘Sleepaway Camp’

More sympathetic examples within the genre include Insidious: Chapter 2 and the first entry to the Sleepaway Camp series. In these films, the shocking twist late in the story is that Angela Baker and the Bride in Black were actually once young boys who were forced to live as girls by their parental figures. This forced crossdressing is what apparently led them both to become vindictive killers. My personal stance is that these films actually do support trans people but only in an extremely backwards, and likely unintentional way.

These characters suffered horrible mental abuse because they were forced to live as a gender they did not identify with. This, in its uniquely assbackwards way, supports trans people’s own feelings of emotional turmoil and dysphoria, as they see themselves as someone that the rest of the world does not see them as.

Imagine if everyone adamantly insisted you were one way but you knew they were wrong yet they could not see it. Not even at home or in your own room could you exist as who you really are. You’d probably feel isolated, frustrated, and wrong, and that is the motivation behind these characters. Gender dysphoria is obviously not enough to create a murderer, and being trans or crossdressing (forced or otherwise) is seen as an extremely uncommon trait in FBI profiling of killers, yet these rare exceptions have been sensationalized and exploited to a damaging degree.

To me, the most terrifying elements of Sleepaway Camp and Insidious: Chapter 2 is that this all could have been avoided. These characters’ lives are tragic and they did not ask or deserve for this to happen to them. The real villains of their stories are the people who were supposed to be protecting them that made them into these “monsters”. They are not trans (or at least Angela did not identify as such in the first film) nor are they crossdressing. Their existence is something else, far more twisted and unfortunate because neither has control over their own reality anymore.

And yet it would appear that the most common takeaway of these films is “she has a penis” either from a place of fear, unease, or disappointment–with no deeper digging into the topic. 

That is also a tragedy.

‘Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde’

Angela and the Bride in Black’s internal struggle might only exist as subtext but there are a couple notable examples where it is represented in very literal terms. For that we turn to Dressed to Kill and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, two films where we can see a physical example of the struggle between the farce someone is born into versus the truth they want to live.

In these examples we follow two doctors, Dr. Robert Elliott and Dr. Henry Jekyll, as they fight for control of their life against Bobbi (for Elliot) and the eponymous Edwina Hyde (for Jekyll). In both stories, we’re seeing very extreme examples of the concept of “a woman inside of them who is dying to get out.” These two films have very similar setups and basic set pieces, but one of these films is a very well aged, respectful depiction of trans women and the other rides the line of being pure exploitation.

In both cases, these women are murderously vilified, even in the sense that they want to kill off their male counterparts simply because the two cannot exist at the same time. Whether intentional or not, Dr. Jekyll is queer coded in a way that shows that Hyde is who Jekyll truly wishes to be, but cannot because of the social stigma of the era. This is reflective of the source material. Hyde herself is a killer only because she needs to survive. She needs to harvest the estrogen to create the potion responsible for her transformation and euphoria. This is a kill or be killed situation similar to vampire stories, where trans people are also featured in films like Let The Right One In and BIT to a similarly sympathetic effect.

Dressed to Kill is about Dr. Robert Elliott developing a split personality, Bobbi, that represents their desire to transition because the doctor cannot accept it. This manifests as Bobbi taking over and murdering women with a straight razor during instances of sexual arousal. This is because of the dysphoria that an erection would cause the doctor or maybe even that they cannot reconcile wanting to transition into a woman but still being attracted to women and not knowing what this means. Even today the idea of trans women being attracted to women is seen as amiss since those who ask the question “if you still want to be with women, why didn’t you just stay a guy” don’t understand that gender and sexuality are not correlated. In 1980 this would have been even more confusing for someone who would have been born in the 1930s.

Despite their obvious similarities and differences, what I considered the biggest distinction between how these films handle the topic of being trans is what they choose to focus on. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde focuses on womanhood as a gender. Hyde is a femme fatale who does acknowledge and use her sexuality to her advantage, but it is normalized. Even her first transformation, which in any other movie would be monstrous, is presented as affirming and beautiful.

‘Dressed to Kill’

Dressed to Kill focuses on women sexually first and foremost. Bobbi’s motivation is linked to arousal, women are pursued in typical slasher fashion after they are presented as sexual beings, and there is a perverse composition to the idea of Michael Caine in drag–framing the personas he plays as being deviants. Fortunately, there is a very basic explanation of transgender people using the best terminology available in 1980 towards the film’s end, proving that there was some attempt made to present Bobbi as sympathetic. Unfortunately, that sentiment is dulled as the characters snicker their way through the scene.

On the note of the exploitive and perverse… we have finally reached the two most unenjoyable to write about and widely known examples of this trope, Norman Bates and Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb.

Both based on the crimes and the innumerable urban legends of Ed Gein, these films and their real life source material are possibly the most damning thing to ever happen to trans people.

With the release of Psycho in 1960, the groundwork for the impending slasher genre was laid and with it came the reveal of Norman Bates giddily wielding a knife while dressed as his dead mother. Norman himself is extremely easy to process for this article. He has dissociative personality disorder and is in the middle of a mental breakdown. Cut and dry, that is it. But with the success, acclaim, and influence of this film, there was now a blueprint for any films trying to ape and exploit that terror found in that twist ending.


Before we move forward, spare me the decades old debate about whether Silence of the Lambs is horror or a thriller. If the general consensus is that Buffalo Bill tucking his junk between his legs and looking down the barrel of the camera to ask the audience if they would fuck him is considered horrifying, then that is all that matters. Despite insistence in the film and novel that Bill is not actually trans, the damage this character has done for public opinion of trans people cannot be understated. Especially when all of the coding in both versions of this story entirely present the character as trans. But what makes me the most irate… is that right now I have to defend Buffalo Bill and hate it. Fuck them for making me defend this horrible example of trans representation as actually being trans, because this movie is technically playing by the rules of decency.

In her meeting with Hannibal Lecter and discussing the metaphor of butterflies and moths, Clarice points out that there is no correlation between trans people and violence. That is true and I appreciate that distinction. However you cannot then respond to that by shooting your own “Bill isn’t a transexual, Clarice” argument in the foot by having a cis character, written by a cis author, decide that a character isn’t trans just so they can exonerate themselves from actually villainizing the trans community whilst benefiting from trans panic and describing what a trans person is and common discriminations they face! Do not get me wrong, Buffalo Bill could not be further from a 1-to-1 example of trans women and I do not want to defend their actions but the gall for this writing to have Bill identify as trans, describe what dysphoria is, acknowledge that they want to get surgery, but still say “nope, not trans” is appalling.

Both the novel and film version of Silence of the Lambs were released during the peak years of the AIDS epidemic when views towards LGBTQ+ people were at their absolute lowest. To deny a trans character treatment, of any kind, just because they had a damaged childhood speaks volumes about public perception towards queer people and the generally piss poor mental health practices put into play during the Reagan and H.W. Bush years and is exploiting both fronts to a disgusting degree. 

These are people who need help more than anyone.

Regardless of what this exchange between Lecter and Clarice might lead you to believe, if Jame Gumb, our Buffalo Bill, feels they are a woman and are trying to take steps to transition, then they are trans. Full stop. I want nothing more than to write Bill off the same way I can Norman but I can’t because it isn’t so luxuriously simple.

‘The Silence of the Lambs’

They are the perfect example of a character failed by their upbringing and the system that refuses to let them take control of their own identity and on principle, I want to be sympathetic towards that plight. However, in the last 50 years there is no singular person, real or fiction, who has been a more influential example of trans representation, and that’s a fucking problem. Every community has its fair share of toxic people, but fuck this movie for making me argue Bill’s place in ours even if no one actually wants them here.

*deep breath* Okay, glad to have all of that out of my system.

While I focused only on six of the most prominent examples of this trope, it exists across dozens of other films and even outside of the horror genre. There are a lot of similarities between these films, but there are plenty more where they differ.

What I determine as defendable (to which plenty trans people do not agree with me as we are not a hive mind) comes down to what aspects of gender these films choose to focus on.

While I do not think it was the intent of all of these creators to specifically target trans women, the impact of the films they created exploited public unease towards people like myself and that attitude continues today. To the uninformed, the fear of there being a killer is usurped by the killer being a woman who is “lying” about being a woman. That queer panic becomes the new central fear and this equates trans people to a grab bag of destructive assumptions. The trans panic becomes more scary than the threat of death. With no positive examples on the same level of notoriety as films like Silence of the Lambs is it any surprise that HB2, the most well known bathroom bill targeting trans people, was nicknamed “The Buffalo Bill” by Fox News and Republicans?

So I want to present the question again; is it possible to have a “crossdressing killer” and it not be problematic? It is difficult, but I think that it is possible, and I can think of no better example of doing it right than Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The self described “sweet transvestites from transsexual Transylvania” (you sang it in your head, didn’t you?) is the opposite of what is wrong with Buffalo Bill. Dr. Frank-N-Furter is not trans, nor is he trying to be. Despite having “trans” in transvestite, this is and has always been, just a fancy word for crossdressing. Frank doesn’t want to live as a woman, he is just in love with women’s fashion and culture. Any “shock” towards his attire is a joke at the expense of the stuffy Brad Majors, Janet Weiss, and any other poor “virgin” who didn’t know what they were in for at the stroke of midnight in theaters across the country for the last 40+ years.

As much as I have spoken about the dangerous give and take relationship between the fictional and non-fictional world within this sub-genre of a sub-genre, Rocky Horror has bucked that trend outside of its own film. Through an untouchable record of midnight screenings and the ascension from cult classic to pop culture powerhouse, the crossdressing aspects of the film are idealized and imitated rather than feared or shunned. Appreciation of Richard O’Brien’s masterpiece (O’Brien’s identity falls under the trans umbrella as non-binary) has created a judgement free place to explore one’s gender and, to a degree, normalize the “abnormal.” I myself used to ask people where they stood on Rocky Horror to gauge whether or not it was safe to come out to them in the late 2000s.

‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’

This is not to say that Rocky Horror is wholly unproblematic and holy by today’s standards. There have been criticisms with championing Frank-N-Furter because of his murderous, hedonistic, and sexually coercive actions and yes, those all describe him, however they are not related to his gender or sexuality. They are incidental to it. Also, he is the villain. The irresistible charisma of Tim Curry makes it easy to forget that Frank is not a good guy or a moral figure even with him meeting a tragic and sympathetic end. And that is what I think is the best take from this whole film.

There can be positive and negative spins on this (or any) subject and it is okay to like these films for many reasons. But truly appreciating everything you think is good about them doesn’t mean that you get to simply ignore the bad. Each of the films mentioned have merit, either from theming, story, or technical value and can be appreciated subjectively for each of their strongest points.

Horror is rooted in making audiences fearful, but it is important for each of us to understand where our own, personal feelings and biases are rooted. If the concept of a “man in a dress” scares you more than that same person wielding a knife, then it is important to contextualize those feelings. It will only make you a better viewer, better person, and make the horror community better as a whole. 

Honestly, I could write about the good, the bad, and the gruesome on “killer crossdressers” forever and this is by no means everything to be said on the subject. I probably will end up writing about this very topic until the day I die, most likely from either violent bigotry or medical inaction under “religious freedom”. That is the reality of falsely believing that “penis + skirt = psychopath” and it is my cross to bear whether I want to or not, because that is what society has saddled me with. I recognize that I’m only digging my grave deeper by not completely writing off films like the ones cited here on principle alone.

If you enjoy any or all of the movies mentioned in this article, then you owe it to the people impacted by them to fight for their rights.

Listen to trans voices and read the MANY other pieces written on this topic by myself and others. You might not agree with what every trans person has to say and trust me, we don’t always agree with each other (like with the Freaky trailer), but acknowledging the problem and having dialogue while admitting you may hold ignorance is the first step in learning more and fixing the problem. 

We deserve the chance to regain the autonomy of our narratives and lives, and exist as more than just “murderous men in dresses.”


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