Ever More Fantastic Women
By Cerise Howard
Reading time 34 Minutes
While Christine Jorgensen was not the first
While Christine Jorgensen was not the first recorded person to undergo what is nowadays politely called “gender affirmation surgery,” she was certainly its first poster child. She became an overnight celebrity in 1952 upon landing at New York City’s Idlewild Airport (now JFK) after word got out that an American G.I. had had a “sex change” operation in Denmark and returned to America “a blonde beauty.” All of a sudden the world had a telegenic, articulate challenger to assumptions long taken as given in the Christian God-fearing West that men were men, and women were women. Boys became men, and girls women, and everyone knew their place and the scope of the roles available to them within a functioning society.
But Jorgensen was proof positive of a malleability to gender identity. Suddenly, not only might one dare to question one’s preordained gender, and expectations of its everyday assertion in apparel, career and pastimes, but one could even surgically alter one’s body, utilising recent advances in medical science (if one were of the moneyed classes), and to such an extent that it mightn’t even be possible to discern that a woman had previously “been a man.” This was cause for a moral panic in a time when homosexuality, already conflated in the popular imagination with transvestism, was not only demonised, and pejorated in thought, but illegal in deed. Any understanding that a heterosexual man having sex with a post-operative transwoman would not be engaging in a homosexual act would be a long time coming.
Cinema was never going to take long to draw inspiration from Jorgensen’s example
Cinema was never going to take long to draw inspiration from Jorgensen’s example, to all manner of ends and with motivations ranging from the noble to the highly questionable – sometimes even both within the one picture, as can be said of Edward D. Wood Jr.’s first-across-the-line Glen or Glenda (1953), a film conceived of by independent producer George Weiss to cash in on the sensation surrounding Jorgensen by dramatising her story. But in Wood’s hands, it famously became more an earnest plea for acceptance of his own angoraphilic transvestism than a re-telling of the Jorgensen case.
It’s also a better film than it’s commonly made out to be. It’s all too easy to deride it for its inclusion of a morphine-addled Bela Lugosi mangling nursery rhymes, goofing around with a chemistry set and making gnomic, gurning pronouncements at intervals about the hidden forces that remake people’s destinies. There’s a nightmarish texture to its lengthy dream sequence, full of charming, early cinema special effects that would have done Georges Méliès proud, and some noir-ish lighting employed to eerie effect.
From a 2018 viewpoint it’s also easy to see that the film’s very subject matter opened it up to the derision that has always haunted it and its director-star’s reputation. While we live now in more sophisticated and (notionally) less misogynistic times, you don’t have to look far back to a time when the very notion of a man wanting to be a woman was something that could only be considered preposterous by a mainstream that believed women fundamentally inferior to their male counterparts, and femininity and its trappings to be frivolous and distantly secondary in importance to society’s pursuit of masculine interests.
For all its naïveté, Glen or Glenda harbinged several tropes which would prove common in transgender-themed films for decades to come.
Firstly, it raised what was still then very much read as “men in dresses” to being of the dramatic order of tragedy rather than exclusively, as it was hitherto, comedy. Glen or Glenda highlighted that lives are at stake when people are thwarted from being true to themselves, in beginning its dramatic sequences with the suicide of a gender-variant character, arrested one time too many already to bear to carry on living a lie.
Exploitation cinema loves nothing so much as po-faced “experts” delivering matter-of-fact broadsides, whether to the dramatis personae or in direct address to camera. Hence, with a mix of science and pseudery, Glen or Glenda, aka I Changed My Sex aka I Led Two Lives, muddled terms and conditions which even now are often misapplied in accounts of the lives of gender diverse folk. In particular it confused intersex and transgender conditions; the shorter, second part of Wood’s film concerns a “pseudohermaphrodite” who had been “Alan” prior to becoming “Ann.” “Pseudohermaphrodite” is an ugly, unwieldy and deprecated term; there’s no “P,” but rather, an “I,” in “LGBTIQA+” for good reason.
Glen or Glenda also demonstrated what a surgical reassignment of gender might entail. Filmmakers, with eyes to all manner of different audiences, have incorporated didactic scenes set in chart-laden doctors’ suites and operating theatres ever after, to cater to the ghoulish fascination the public have probably been rightly presumed to possess. Doris Wishman’s 1977 exploitation film Let Me Die a Woman represents the zenith of this tendency, and not only includes a lengthy explanation of the anatomical particulars of male-to-female reassignment surgery but famously incorporates actual surgical footage amidst its hodge-podgy collage of wildly disparate types of film form and content.
(Far from uniquely, Wishman’s film is obsessed with the vagina, and with invagination. The clitoris doesn’t get a look-in...)
And notably, Glen or Glenda’s fictional Ann had, like Christine Jorgensen, been conscripted into military service; the military is remarkably ubiquitous in trans narratives. (Consider off-screen, more recently, the widely publicised examples set by Chelsea Manning or, in Australia, Cate McGregor.) The next film to draw inspiration from Jorgensen was a 1954 French comedy, Adam... est Ève, directed by René Gaveau, which concerns a French corporal who gets knocked out during a game of fisticuffs… and wakes up determined to become a woman. Whether as Charles (before) or Charlotte (after), the same actor plays both roles. Her name is Micheline Carvel and, despite this being her only recorded screen credit that I’m aware of, she holds an important place in history as the first woman to play a transgender woman on-screen.
The good-natured Adam... est Ève has an elegant resolution in which Charlotte meets a man she can marry… because the man had been raised a woman. Which is a comical but apposite illustration of how transgender identity can actually reinforce gender binaries – that of “opposite sexes” – just as it challenges them.
Notwithstanding that there was a 1940 Hal Roach-directed body-swap comedy called Turnabout that predated the Jorgensen case by over a decade, it’s remarkable how many high-concept films exploring the implications of sudden changes and exchanges of gender identity emerged in the wake of Adam... est Ève. The following come recommended: the screwball comedy You Are a Widow, Sir (1971), from Czech director Václav Vorlíček; All of Me (1984, dir. Carl Reiner), in which Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin inhabit one side of Martin’s body apiece; Blake Edwards’ Switch (1991), for Ellen Barkin’s vigorous performance as a womanising chauvinist reincarnated in a woman’s body; Dating the Enemy (1996, Australia), in which Guy Pearce and Claudia Karvan break up on their anniversary only to wake up the next morning in each other’s bodies, and the highly inventive Australian indie feature Pulse (2017), in which a gay teenager escapes his disabled body by transferring his consciousness into the body of a beautiful, able-bodied young woman.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The ‘60s brought forth all sorts of on-screen challenges
The ‘60s brought forth all sorts of on-screen challenges to gender normalcy, even if many weren’t to be widely seen. A decadent tribute on a miniscule budget to the already marginal glories of B-movies of yesteryear, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) features all manner of glammed-up, gender-ambiguous folk cavorting around orgiastically for the camera, and marks a wholesale abandonment of the gender binarization that remains hand-wringingly problematised in mainstream productions to the current day. It put actual trans folk, of many different stripes, on screen, warts, genitals and all, and famously inspired an obscenity trial in New York City in 1964, and many latter-day campus kerfuffles besides.
1967’s dour exploitation flick I Was a Man undercuts its own title by asserting at the very outset that it’s “the true story of Ansa Kansas: an hermaphrodite”. After an introduction to the film’s themes by a typical concerned expert, the film’s Finnish lead dramatises scenes from her own biography either side of her affirmation surgery in Helsinki, although much of the action – such as it is – takes place in New York City.
If scenes of Ansa, pre-transition, revelling in dressing up in “women’s clothes” may be endeavouring to transmit something of the sensual pleasure in adorning oneself thus, through languorous, lingering attention to detail, it is a certainty that Bob Clark’s She-Man: A Story of Fixation is aiming squarely for titillation for at least some portion of his audience, notwithstanding the earnest entreaties for understanding to a square audience it delivers via another concerned expert, whose presence bookends this singularly odd film.
(Yes, it’s that Bob Clark, who later directed Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things , Black Christmas  and A Christmas Story . And, perhaps less surprisingly, Porky’s .)
A story of blackmail and forced feminisation, She-Man plays on anxieties in Middle America which were clearly a legacy of the Christine Jorgensen case and the sexual revolution combined: anxieties that everyday men – even those with proud military records like She-Man’s protagonist – stand emasculated by women’s gains in society, more again even than in the immediate post-WWII days that inspired film noir and all its femmes fatales.
The Florida-made She-Man proposes that its patsy will in fact enjoy submission to a subservient, feminised role, and relish being at the beck and call of (a former army buddy masquerading as) a dominant woman. This plays to an erotic fantasy had by many repressed men who wish to embrace their feminine side, at least some of the time, but daren’t admit to it, let alone follow those impulses of their own accord.
With its inclusion of the “Dominita” character (drag performer Rick Colantino, billed as Dorian Wayne), She-Man also gets to push the conservative line that those who operate outside of traditional gender roles are psychotic, after the precedent of Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960… and replicated countless times thereafter in mainstream cinema.
Back to something more proximate to reality, as far-fetched as that claim might have seemed to many who’d have stumbled upon it around the time of its mid-‘60s production: an unsigned, short, colour documentary called Queens at Heart. According to the “Skip the Makeup” blog, when queer film historian Jenni Olson first got her hands on a print of this little-documented film in the mid-‘90s, it came with instructions to run it as a short before She-Man.
Four young beauty pageant contestants, transwomen all, are interviewed awkwardly by a man named Jay Martin who cultivates an air of acceptance while barely being able to keep his curiosity in check, especially with regards their sexual proclivities. As it’s early days for differentiating between gender identity and matters of anatomy, Martin refers to them each as men throughout, despite their testimonies, and all appearances, to the contrary. Still, it’s an extraordinary document, even if it may have been produced and distributed with sensationalist motives aforethought, and includes footage of a 1960s NYC drag ball which anticipates Jennie Livingston’s classic Paris is Burning (1990) by well over 20 years, and Sara Jordenö’s wonderful spiritual sequel Kiki (2016) by a similar number of years again. (Notably though these latter two films concern gender diverse people of colour.)
Queens at Heart highlights that there were transwomen integrated into the marginalised gay community of the time. Moreover, no prospect of assimilation into straight society, a quest central to so many trans narratives before and afterwards, is even countenanced – but nor is the idea that any of the interviewees might be interested in women rather than men, or in each other.
In November 1966 Johns Hopkins Hospital had announced that it had become the first facility in the U.S. to conduct what was still being called “sex change” surgery. (Based in Baltimore, a city forever linked with John Waters, it’s little wonder that one of Waters’ big screen celebrations of sexually transgressive outsiders would eventually incorporate the surgeries available at Johns Hopkins. 1977’s Desperate Living includes a character, Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe), who undergoes a phalloplasty and, later, a penectomy.)
With 1968’s industry-wide abandonment of the censorship strictures of the benighted Hays Code in the U.S., and the turning point in the activism and visibility of America’s long persecuted queer communities marked by the Stonewall riots of ’69, it’s little wonder that there was an explosion in cinema exploring trans themes at the start of the ‘70s.
Of course, many of the most exciting such films were made by queer filmmakers and underground artists and were not solicitous of mainstream audiences and acceptance – quite the contrary even. The spate of anarchic, gleefully transgressive, Andy Warhol-presented, Paul Morrissey-directed features a-glut with transgender Warhol Superstars of the calibre of Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, which reached apotheosis with Women in Revolt (1971), were indifferent, if not outright hostile, towards straight society, in form as well as in content. Morrissey, weirdly, has long confessed to being an unabashed conservative; nevertheless, he made no attempt in these films whatsoever to ape the production values or commercial imperatives of Hollywood.
Against a backdrop of the outré thrills
Against a backdrop of the outré thrills of the abovementioned titles, as well as the twin (and expressly cinephilic) high-camp 1970 outrages of Michael Sarne’s adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge and Gene Nash’s Dinah East, one might have expected Christine Jorgensen’s story, as adapted contemporaneously for film by veteran director Irving Rapper, to be lively. But 18 years after her landing at Idlewild, The Christine Jorgensen Story was released as a perfectly bland, conventional biopic which transmits little of the extreme existential angst common to folk of trans experience, presumably to make her story digestible by a wide audience.
Jorgensen is credited as a “technical adviser” in the opening credits, which is surely spurious considering she tried to prevent the film’s release. Many has been the offensively fanciful trans-themed film produced which clearly sought no consultancy from actual trans people, and there are several instances of quackery passed off as sage medical advice within this, the “authorised” film purporting to tell Jorgensen’s story, surely belying her stated involvement. “Your glands are secreting far more female hormones than male” is the counsel offered Christine, before she starts transitioning, by the writer of a fictional tome called “Sex and the Glands". This is followed shortly thereafter with grim inevitability by a line destined to become a great shibboleth: "You're a woman trapped in the body of a man.”
It also set a bad example often since imitated: a cisgender male actor (“Introducing John Hansen”) essays the role of a trans woman, a practice which has only ever made it harder for the general public to see trans women as women off-screen, rather than as men in frocks presumed to be seeking to deceive and predate upon the company they keep, per messaging constantly reinforced to this day by scaremongering ideologues on the Christian right.
I doubt that’s what the real Christine Jorgensen would have wanted, either through Hansen’s performance or through male actors who’ve essayed showy transfeminine roles to subsequent glory, notwithstanding that Oscar nominations like Eddie Redmayne’s for The Danish Girl (2015) and actual Oscars like Jared Leto’s for his caricatured supporting turn in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) have doubtless raised awareness of the very existence of transgender identity. I should also note, at least in passing, Hilary Swank’s gong for a tragic, and rarer transmasculine, true-story characterisation in 1999’s Boys Don't Cry. It is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this essay to deep-dive into female-to-male trans cinema to the same extent as male-to-female, along with trans cinema from lands outside of Anglophone and European influence where distinctly different gender norms are enacted, and different transgressions and narratives therefore possible – that’s a project that has the makings of a weighty monograph, to do it justice. A word to the wise: in 2018, if you’re a filmmaker and want an audience to believe in the trans-ness of characters on-screen, and to invoke a sense of authenticity in the narrative universe they inhabit, forgo showy, Oscar-bait cisgender casting and cast transgender actors, the better that an audience can focus on characterisation and not on a distancing, mannered performance of gender tics and gestures which will not age well. (Trans actors also need the work; they are, after all, very seldom cast as cisgender characters.)
The rewards are there for all to appreciate in recent films like genderqueer Swedish filmmaker Ester Martin Bergsmark’s Something Must Break (2014), Sean Baker’s micro-budget Tangerine (2015, shot-on-an-iPhone!) and Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman which, as 2018’s Best Foreign Language Film winner, attests that Oscar glory can come to a film which allows authentic trans identity to permeate every second of its runtime.
On which note, Something Must Break notably earnt its transgender lead Saga Becker a Guldbagge Award (a Swedish Oscar) for Best Actress in a Leading Role, furthering a tradition that places Scandinavia at the forefront of the nexus between realisation of transgender identity and its narrativization before the world.
But I have digressed.
A vast number of films engaging with trans themes, whether at a narrative’s forefront or through characters on the periphery, were produced between the release in 1970 of The Christine Jorgensen Story and the three recent high-water marks in authentic accomplishment just mentioned. It behooves me at this juncture to shout out to several titles I consider key from getting from The Christine Jorgensen Story to A Fantastic Woman.
1972‘s British production I Want What I Want is a lugubrious, anxious affair starring Anne Heywood, who looks disarmingly like a cross between a young Jean-Pierre Leaud and a mannequin as Roy, before running away from home and an overbearing father – a Major, inevitably – to become Wendy. A few years ahead of the publication of Laura Mulvey’s venerable feminist film essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, which posited the prevalence of a male cinematic gaze, I Want What I Want subverts that gaze at its outset by reconfiguring it as belonging to an ostensibly male figure who wishes less to objectify its female recipient for his own sexual gratification than to be the object of that gaze himself.
As engaged with feminist concerns as it is – Wendy is conspicuously seen reading The Second Sex throughout the film – I Want What I Want is a despairing, dispiriting viewing experience and only ends on a semi-hopeful note after first subjecting its protagonist to a harrowing act of self-mutilation pursuant to a violent romantic rejection. It can be considered the first of many films to powerfully transmit something of the visceral agony of a failure to reconcile one’s gender identity with one’s own body and an unaccommodating broader body politic, rather than to celebrate the ecstasy of an identity’s authentic actualisation. In its wake would come such downbeat masterpieces as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s harrowing In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) and, more recently, the Belgian Girl, which has a strikingly similar denouement to I Want What I Want, but with a teenage protagonist.
I Want What I Want’s scenes of violence towards its preoperative protagonist also foretoken countless scenes of transphobic violence and revulsion towards transwomen in films to come, which even infiltrated hugely successful mainstream comedies like Crocodile Dundee (1986), Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) and Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994). The latter two reference and amplify the famed reveal in The Crying Game (1992) in which, mid-romantic clinch, a woman is shown to possess a penis, causing the man who’d become infatuated with her to vomit. While he later redeems himself within the narrative, there’s nothing redeemable about the disturbing scenes of trans- and homophobic contempt shown towards gender variant people in the comedies just mentioned, or in recent titles from celebrated arthouse provocateurs Bruno Dumont (Slack Bay, 2016) or Gaspar Noé (Love, 2015).
A woman was cast as the lead in another significant male-to-female biopic in 1986, in the made-for-TV film Second Serve, in which Vanessa Redgrave sensitively played ophthalmologist, tennis player and media sensation Renée Richards on both sides of her transition. Richards made waves when she made a human rights issue out of her quest to compete as a woman in the 1976 US Open, after her transgender status was exposed. Sport and transgender narratives, off- and on-screen, have often overlapped since – this is interesting inasmuch as, unlike in most fields, excellence in sport and acting are recognised by governing bodies along strictly binarised lines.
The binarization of acting awards around the world is seldom even questioned, even though any basis for considering one gender to possess an unfair advantage over another could only be cultural and industrial rather than related to physical condition. There is a peculiar irony, then, in the frequency with which Oscars, to cite the most famous example of such an award, have been in the offing to actors whose gender-bending performances prove, after Judith Butler, that gender is an artificial construct and irreducible to an either/or proposition.
Here then are a few more instances of an actor of one gender being rewarded for playing a character of, or journeying towards, another: Linda Hunt, granted an Oscar for playing a (part-Chinese!) small-statured man in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982); William Hurt, likewise garlanded for playing an imprisoned, film-mad transwoman in 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman; John Lithgow, nominated for playing a transwoman ex-footballer in The World According to Garp (1982), and Felicity Huffman, nominated for playing a transwoman interrupted mid-transition by the discovery she has an adolescent son in Transamerica (2005). And, of course, there was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Jaye Davidson for inadvertently surprising not just IRA volunteer Fergus (Stephen Rea) in The Crying Game but, rather more deliberately, astonishing audiences everywhere in a pre-Internet time when twists in films were possible to keep secret, and making a big reveal of someone’s gender identity and/or genitalia was not considered inappropriate. It assuredly is now.
It seems prudent at this point
It seems prudent at this point to laud a key film in embracing a liberatory, binary-demolishing ethos, a punkish, low budget, independent production not even remotely aiming for Academy Awards consideration, but massively important and beloved of this writer: Rosa von Praunheim’s City of Lost Souls (1983). A mixed-race, multilingual, trans sex-positive, Berlin-set musical abundant in trans cast members, City of Lost Souls queers the conversation around gender just as it acknowledges an evolution in transgender identity and vocabulary, indexed to intersectional issues of race, age, privilege and exile, and pays respect to those to have paved the way. In amongst all its raucous mayhem, a key exchange occurs between black trans lesbian pension owner and burger joint proprietress Angie Stardust and her younger white trans tenant Tara O'Hara. “We're the third sex,” proclaims Tara. “Do you think a sex change will make you a woman?” “It’s not necessary anymore,” she further asserts, and gently scolds Angie: “You're so old school."
“Because of the ‘old school,’ because of us,” Angie rejoinders, “you can be what you are.”
And thus is united the legacy of the black drag queens and trans women who instigated the Stonewall rebellion (entirely contrary to the whitewashing travesty that was Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall of 2015) and launched the gay liberation movement, and that of the all-American, whitebread, mainstream assimilationist Christine Jorgensen, who had, a generation prior, leveraged her celebrity to awaken the world – and by inevitable extension, cinema – to whole new possibilities in identity and narrative.
The digital revolution has granted access to the means of production to ever more people of ever more variable gender identities, allowing for trans and gender diverse folk to define, produce and consume much more authentic moving image representations of their lives than ever before, if often only through niche distribution channels or at community festivals.
It won’t be easy for gender non-conforming filmmakers to infiltrate Hollywood and queer that famously closeted community, and never more so than under the current Trump administration, which is known to be considering moving to decategorise trans and non-binary people out of existence. There is hope though that others will follow the Wachowskis’ lead and, having already stormed the barricades, transition to their true transgender selves from within the system, the better to be able to produce mass-market films (or television, which is less risk-averse – see the Wachowskis’ Sense8 (2015-2018)) which come from a place of, and speak to, authentic trans experience – that of pioneers like Christine Jorgensen, and of all those who have followed in her footsteps, like the forever moving image-hungry writer of this very article.
Thanks to Vinegar Syndrome, Joe Ziemba at AGFA, Wim Jansen at Movie Ink, Amsterdam, Transas City
Cerise Howard is the Artistic Director of the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia, a member of the International Jury Board of the East-West: Golden Arch awards, a co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and a co-founder of tilde: Melbourne's Trans & Gender Diverse Film Festival. A freelance writer and peregrine film critic, her regular outlets include Senses of Cinema, and Plato's Cave on Melbourne radio station 3RRR. Away from film she plays bass for Queen Kong and The HOMOsapiens, a Melbourne-based punk, performance art, queer rock band. And how!