There have always been people who transcend or reject the gender binary, but they haven’t always been visible onscreen. Kristen Cochrane looks at how representations of trans and gender nonconforming folks have shifted over the course of film history.
This year, the Anthology Film Archives in NYC will pay tribute to gender non-conforming representation, with its second installment of “The Cinema of Gender Transgression: Trans Film,” on show from April 14th to 23rd. While contemporary cinema has increasingly embraced transgender, intersex, and gender non conforming visibility onscreen, this has not always been the case. The history of trans and gender non-conforming representation has been fraught with erasure, depictions of criminality and mental illness, and has predominantly featured narratives where trans characters end up dead or simply serve as objects for comic relief or ridicule.
Rather than focusing on contemporary examples of trans cinema, which currently receive critical attention in the press, here I want to highlight the lesser-known, still incomplete history of gender non-conforming representation in moving image media. And while one television portrayal in particular has been vital to this visibility—the Netflix series Orange is the New Black (2013-)—this article will focus on cinema due to space.
Since people began using apparatuses that could record moving images, the spectrum of gender and sexuality has been recorded. However, film has historically been subjected to unique restrictions (different than those placed on literature and other fine arts), and policy makers and critics soon began their finger wagging. Hollywood, fearful of government intervention in censorship, created its own rules and regulations for what could be shown in a film. As I will illustrate further, the proliferation of trans, intersex, and gender non conforming representation onscreen is significant from the 1970s onwards, after the end of the Production Code. In the interest of space and the impossibility of knowing about all films that have brought attention to gender non-conforming representation, I am unable to make an exhaustive list.
- Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black
In 1930, the the Motion Pictures Production Code (colloquially known as the “Hays Code” ) was established by Will Hays, the first chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). The code stipulated a number of “moral guidelines”, but in short, films could not portray extreme violence, drug use, or any variance on the spectrum of human sexuality, among other subjects. Descriptions of the code are easily found online, but this NPR piece provides further context.
Some disclaimers: By arguing that the Production Code limited the representation of gender non-conforming identities, I do not intend to downplay the importance of transphobia and queerphobia, among other prejudices, in shaping what was and was not represented on-screen. The Production Code was, evidently, a response to fears and discomfort in the face of non-normative gender and sexual identities. In other words, the Production Code influenced the discourse that distributed cultural texts, like film, which consolidated a top-down hegemonic structure, which repressed opportunities for portrayals of non-normative modes of being.
In the examples I provide here, there are films that include what is considered cross-dressing, an act that does not necessarily mean someone identifies as trans or gender non-conforming. However, cross-dressing inherently acknowledges the fluidity and performative nature of gender, which is crucial for trans and gender non-conforming visibility.
The infamous American B movie Glen or Glenda is a landmark film by the cult figure Edward Wood Jr. (a.k.a. Ed Wood), who played the titular character(s) of Glen and Glenda, depicted as a “transvestite.” The film is considered an exploitation feature, which means that it exploited a taboo or controversial topic, and was exhibited in the drive-in and grindhouse theatre market. Films destined for these markets managed to evade the restrictive Production Code.
- Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930)
Before Glen or Glenda, it is difficult to trace representations of gender non conforming folks. However, scholar Laura Horak made a rigorous effort by spending ten years trawling through archives to find films where women dressed in “male” clothes. The resulting book, Girls Will Be Boys, is Horak’s study on American films produced between 1908 and 1934 featuring actresses such as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn who played characters engaged in cross-dressing. Horak examined, among others, a scene in Morocco (1930, directed by Josef von Sternberg) where Amy Jolly (played by Marlene Dietrich) performs in a black tailcoat. After accepting champagne from an admiring male audience member, Jolly focuses her attention on the man’s date: Dietrich’s character takes a flower out of the woman’s hair, smells it, and then takes the woman’s face in her hands and kisses her emphatically. The woman is embarrassed but thrilled, and the audience laughs, applauding Jolly. Horak elaborates on the significance of this cinematic moment, which she calls “one of the most famous cross-dressing scenes in cinema history”:
“Queer viewers have embraced it as an isolated and cherished expression of lesbian desire and sensual androgyny… Alongside Greta Garbo’s cross-dressed monarch in Queen Christina (MGM, 1933/34) and Katharine Hepburn’s cross-dressed con woman in Sylvia Scarlett (RKO, 1935/36), Dietrich’s Amy Jolly is often characterized as one of the lone early representations of women cross-dressing and expressing desire for other women in American cinema.”
Horak goes on to note that although American viewers assume that cross-dressing women and representations of lesbians did not appear in film, this assumption is the result of systematic historical erasure; after researching, she found more than four hundred films. Still, Horak adds that transgender scholars “have considered cross-dressed individuals as examples of historical gender variance, though they usually stop short of claiming them as trans.”
But the films Horak identifies (and others such as the 1954 French film Adam est…Eve) are mostly the exception to the heteronormative rule. It would take until the 1970s for mainstream Hollywood to begin to feature non-cisgender identities, such as in The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970) Myra Breckinridge (1970), I Want What I Want (1972), and Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Outside of the mainstream, underground films and films on the margin such as Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), Paul Morrissey’s Trash (1970), and Dinah East (1970) featured trans and gender non-conforming characters. Flaming Creatures, in particular, was a landmark controversy in film censorship—at a screening in 1964, police entered the theatre, seized the film print, and arrested filmmakers Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, and painter Florence Karpf.
- Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963)
It can be argued that the motive behind the propagation of films that feature trans and gender non-conforming characters in mainstream Hollywood beginning in 1970 was an outcome driven by the end of the Production Code in 1968. (Films that previously transgressed the Code could now be rated R or X.) The sexual revolution and the manifold civil rights movements of the 1960s also played a major role in shifting perceptions about gender and other intersections of identity.
In 1970, Irving Rapper directed The Christine Jorgensen Story, a fictionalized biopic about an American who went to Denmark to receive gender confirmation surgery, the first public case of an American having the procedure. Jorgensen herself unsuccessfully tried to prevent the film’s release, claiming that the film exploited her story. The same year saw the release of a film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s satirical novel Myra Breckinridge featuring sex-symbol Raquel Welch as Myron Breckinridge. In the film, Breckinridge goes to Europe to get gender confirmation surgery, and then pretends to be Myron’s widow with the intent of receiving money. There is an unfortunate rape scene that arguably reinforces the stereotype of predatory queers, and this scene, in addition to other elements of the film’s narrative, also reinforces the deeply problematic misconception that trans people are “pretending” to be trans in order to receive some sort of benefit.
A decade later, less unsettling and problematic cinematic examples such as Héctor Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) and Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1991) were produced. For Kiss of the Spider Woman, John Hurt received an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Luis Molina, who uses the pronoun “she”. The film was also nominated for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. The Crying Game was similarly critically and commercially successful, garnering an Academy Award win for Best Original Screenplay, among other awards and nominations. But as we’ve seen in critical responses to cisgender people playing trans characters, it has been considered problematic that trans people have not been cast in these roles.
- Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
The end of the century saw Boys Don’t Cry (1999, directed by Kimberly Pierce) call attention to the horrific violence and realities that trans people routinely face. Hilary Swank portrayed Brandon Teena, a transgender man from Nebraska who was murdered in 1993. Since Boys Don’t Cry, there has been a proliferation of representations of trans, intersex, and gender non conforming characters and stories in Hollywood and in the world. By bringing up Hollywood and the world, i don’t mean to create a binary that privileges Hollywood while “the rest of the world catches up,” but it cannot be ignored that Hollywood exercises great cultural influence—and imperialism. In fact, world cinema has brought us a number of dignified and cinematically excellent films, some which have remained under the radar both domestically and in terms of foreign reception, while others have been exhibited on the global film festival circuit and have received countless awards across the globe.
Of note in world cinema are two Argentine productions featuring representations of intersex identity which were produced two years apart: XXY (2007, directed by Lucía Puenzo) and The Last Summer of the Boyita / El último verano de la boyita (2009, directed by Julia Solomonoff). In XXY, Alex (Inés Efron) is intersex, and belongs to a middle-class Argentine family that moves to the decidedly more liberal (and isolated) Uruguay in an attempt to protect Alex from prejudice. By contrast, The Last Summer of the Boyita is set in rural Argentina, where a working-class, preteen farmhand named Mario (Nicolás Treise) — who has been raised a boy — struggles with being intersex without any support or education.
- Alex Kraken (Inés Efron) in Lucía Puenzo’s XXY (2007)
In just the past five years, we have seen a drastic increase in representations of gender non-conforming identity, with such noteworthy examples as: Dallas Buyers Club (2013, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée), Tangerine (2015, directed by Sean Baker), The Danish Girl (2015, directed by Tom Hooper), A Fantastic Woman / Una mujer fantástica (2017, directed by Sebastián Lelio), Transparent (2014-2017, created by Jill Soloway), and the groundbreaking performance of trans actress Laverne Cox, who plays Sophia Burset on the the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, which premiered in 2013.
The recent increase in nuanced portrayals of trans and gender nonconforming characters is major, but there is still a lot of work to be done. We certainly can hope for, encourage, and promote work that pursues nuanced trans visibility. But not only that—it is urgent that the casting of trans, intersex, and gender non-conforming actors—as opposed to cisgender actors—is addressed, as activists have argued. In addition to this, it is essential to provide institutional support for aspiring and working directors, cinematographers, and editors, among other roles, from the trans, intersex, and gender non-conforming communities.
Due to space limitations in the article format, I have compiled this shortlist of culturally relevant films that portrayed gender non-conforming characters and narratives. However, their inclusion here but does not mean that their representations of gender and sexuality marginalization can be spared of criticism:
In a Year of 13 Moons (1978, Germany), directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
City of Lost Souls (1983, Germany), directed by Rosa von Praunheim.
Paris is Burning (1990, United States), directed by Jennie Livingston.
The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994, Australia), directed by Stephan Elliott.
Ma vie en rose (1997, France), directed by Alain Berliner.
Wild Side (2004, Belgium; France; United Kingdom), directed by Sébastien Lifshitz.
Transamerica (2005, United States), directed by Duncan Tucker.
A Soap (2006, Denmark), directed by Pernille Fischer Christensen.
Something Must Break / Nånting måste gå sönder (2014, Sweden), directed by Ester Martin Bergsmark.
His Wedding Dress / Vestido de novia (2014, Cuba), directed by Marilyn Solaya.
Tchindas, (2015, Spain; Cape Verde), directed by Pablo García Pérez de Lara and Marc Serena.
*The Cinema of Gender Transgression: Trans Film will take place at Anthology Film Archives from April 14 to April 23. The ongoing series will screen pioneering films by directors such as Ulrike Ottinger, Rosa von Praunheim, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Frank Simon, and Sally Potter, as well as contemporary works by trans directors such as Ester Martin Bergsmark, Clyde Petersen, and Geo Wyeth, among others.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Her current research is located in queer cinema, particularly in Latin America, but she also writes on topics related to culture, film, media and their intersections with gender and sexuality. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, AnOther, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.