Movies You Don't Realize Are Transphobic Until You Watch Them Again

March 14th 2016

Lucy Tiven

Though recent films like "The Danish Girl" and "Tangerine" have made great strides in trans representation on screen, the film industry has not always depicted transgender people fairly or positively.

Of course, taking a critical standpoint about a work of art or pop culture or is not incompatible with enjoying it, and can even enrich your fandom.

"It’s possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of some of the more problematic aspects of that same media," feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian said in an interview about pop cultural criticism and her project Feminist Frequency. Sarkeesian's point is especially relevant in terms of how popular media represents gender, race, and sexuality.

Here are six mainstream Hollywood films with transphobic tropes and characters worth a revisit.

1. "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective"

"Ace Ventura" follows a pet detective, played by Jim Carrey, on his comedic search for a missing mascot. The 1994 film's protagonist may be most remembered for his catch phrase, “Alrighty then,” but the comedy's depiction of transgender people is anything but alright.

When the film's protagonist discovers Lois Einhorn, a woman he kissed, previously identified as a man, he is extremely revolted. Ace showers, pukes, and even burns his clothes, weeping aghast at his discovery. He is haunted by the revelation for the remainder of the film, even chewing gum when he sees her the following day, as Slant pointed out.

At the end of the film, Ace outs Lois as transgender to other male police officers, literally ripping off her clothes and shaming her for her gender identity.Ace Ventura Transphobia

2. "Psycho"

While Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1960 crime thriller "Psycho" is beloved by cinephiles and true crime fans, it paints a disturbing picture of a demented villain dressed in his mother's clothing that is neither fair nor flattering to transgender people.

Norman Bates

Hitchcock's conflation of homicidal psychosis and transgender identity made a lasting imprint on the film canon, and has even been cited in criticism of the television show "Pretty Little Liars," which revealed its anonymous villain as transgender in 2015.

"Along with plaguing an entire generation with some serious shower phobia, Psycho reinforced the Freud-induced anxiety about gender-bending "mamas' boys" that still makes parents squeamish," Bitch observed.

Dr. Richmond, a psychiatrist character, gives an uncomfortable explanation of why Norman, the killer, is dressed in female clothing at the end of the film:

"A man who dresses in women's clothing in order to achieve a sexual change or satisfaction is a transvestite. But in Norman's case, he was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive. And when reality came too close--when danger or desire threatened that illusion--he dressed up, even to a cheap wig he bought. He'd walk about the house, sit in her chair, speak in her voice. He tried to be his mother! And, uh--now, he is.

Now that's what I meant when I said I got the story from the mother. You see, when the mind houses two personalities, there's always a conflict, a battle. In Norman's case, the battle is over--and the dominant personality has won."

3. "Silence of the Lambs"

Yet another gender-bending villain appears in "Silence of the Lambs." Yearning to become female, deranged killer Buffalo Bill skins his victims in order to create a "woman suit."

Silence of the Lambs

While the director of the film has said he understands why the 1991 film has been criticized as transphobic, as Bitch pointed out, "the storyline wasn't a call for trans-inclusive healthcare." Instead, it imagined what went beyond cisgender experience as profoundly horrific and disturbed, and used it as an othering device to instill fear in its audience.

4. "Naked Gun 33 1/3"

When transgender characters aren't used as ill-placed metaphors for mania, they often appear as slapstick visual punch lines.

In the 1994 comedy "Naked Gun 33 1/3," Tanya Peters (Anna Nicole Smith) kisses detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) and undresses to reveal male genitalia.

Though "Naked Gun 33 1/3" is a comedy, it also uses the hero/villain trope to frame a transwoman as a symbol of criminal duplicity. Frank's reaction is practically identical to Ace Ventura's, he pukes upon discovering the news.

Meredith Talusan dissected how trans women are rendered in the two films on Buzzfeed:

"One of the major indicators of trans women’s villainy in these movies: They did not disclose their trans status. The fact that they’re killers, blackmailers, or terrorists is intertwined with them “hiding” their male past, though the humiliating revelation that they’re trans is typically treated as more shocking and important than the crimes they’ve committed. The exposure of these women becomes synonymous with “catching” them; there’s no meaningful difference made between finding out a woman is trans and discovering that she’s a criminal."

5. "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"

In "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," a transgender woman is cast as a poor surrogate for the cisgender one our protagonist is tasked with finding during the 2005 film.

She also appears as a sex worker, appealing to yet another unfortunate and unflattering stereotype about transgender individuals invoked frequently in TV and film.

Andy describes how he discovered she was trans, explaining, "Because her hands were as big as Andre the Giant's. And her Adam's apple was as big as her balls."

The idea that sex with a transgender woman is somehow not 'real sex' and that she is somehow 'not a real woman' is reinforced by the role she plays in the narrative itself.

If she were only a cisgender woman, our poor aging virgin to would finally get laid, earn acceptance from his sexually active male friends (bros), and we could all go home.

But alas, she is just another hurdle Andy must encounter before eventually being deflowered by a cisgender woman.

6. "Dude, Where's My Car?"

"Dude Where's My Car?" is not exactly critically adored, but if you, for whatever reason, cling to the 2000 Ashton Kutcher comedy, its transgender character is worth a second look.

Like many transphobic comedies, "Dude Where's My Car?" uses the tired and arguably lazy trope of transgender-woman-as-criminal. Tania (Teressa Tunney) is, stereotypically, a prostitute, and is ultimately revealed to be a thief. As Buzzfeed pointed out, her criminal duplicity is mirrored by her ability to shift between male- and female-gendered voices.

Much like "The 40 Year Old Virgin," "Dude, Where's My Car?" uses a transwoman to portray an obstacle blocking a heterosexual male from fulfilling a pseudo-heroic journey. Even if the search for a lost car or sexual partner is a satirical take on the quest trope, both stories are driven by cisgender heteronormative male desire and frame what lies outside of it as threats.

Cars also take on phallic symbolism of their own — driving can represent male sexual power and agency, while losing your car threatens impotence or submission.