Monthly Archives: July 2014

Tropes vs. Trans Women

The title is a reference to Anita Sarkeesian’s brilliant series of videos about misogynistic representations of women in Western media (and, more recently, in video games). All episodes start thus:

A trope is a common pattern in a story or a recognizable attribute in a character that conveys information to the audience. A trope becomes a cliché when it’s overused. Sadly, some of these tropes often perpetuate offensive stereotypes.

(This was a sneaky way to give definitions. For more on everything trope-related, see TvTropes.)

I’m not as good as she is for digging up examples from various media, but I’ll compensate with bland theorizing and historical tidbits. In any case, there isn’t the same amount of media representation, negative or otherwise. If you know any examples, give them in the comments, I’ll add them where appropriate (with thanks!).

First, it’s important to understand that, from a transmisogynistic point of view, trans women are men in disguises. A consequence of this is that, in transmisogynistic fiction, it is impossible to properly distinguish a trans woman and man cross-dressing for whatever reason. Therefore, I will treat all male-assigned people assuming a female identity (even one that the plot frames as temporary or instrumental) as “trans women” when necessary for the purpose of this discussion.

I will call these two very common offensive tropes against trans women 1) the Deceitful Seductress and 2) Wearing a Dress for the Girls.

  1. The Deceitful Seductress is the case of the sexy trans babe using her feminine appeal to seduce men — which often fails in disgust when trans status is revealed. AFAIK, this is best exemplified in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, as described in this article. I have not and probably won’t watch the movie. There are many more contemporary examples of this trope, including, more recently, on Family Guy. This is probably the most frequent negative portrayal of trans characters in modern media.
  2. Wearing a Dress for the Girls is a situation were a male character assumes a female identity and disguise in order to reach out for other women, especially through access to female-only spaces, and often for the purpose of sex. I don’t have any contemporary examples in mind, but such schemes were frequent in Medieval/Early Modern literature (Harris, 2005) — for example, when men tried to access nuns and seduce them.

The relationship of both of these with trans women is different. The first one is directly transmisogynistic. The second one is so only accidentally, by the consequences it has when extended to trans women. However, they are related and have real consequences. In fact, the use of these schemata in real life discourses follows the same fictive narrative as in movies or books.

Now, let’s look a bit deeper at the implications of these narrative devices.

The Deceitful Seductress

In the Deceitful Seductress, the fictional process goes thus: a “man” disguises as a woman (up to and including getting genital surgery, sometimes) in order to use feminine sex appeal to seduce straight men into having intimate contact. Because trans women are framed as men, this is gay intimate contact. Basically, straight trans women (i.e. “gay men”) trick straight men into having gay sex.

It is obvious at first sight that this is offensive because it denies trans women’s female identity by reducing it to a lowly ploy. However, this trope, used as a plot device, is also fairly homophobic. Apart from assuming compulsory heterosexuality, the disgust that follows the reveal shows how (male) homosexual relationships are thought as abhorrent and unnatural. This reinforces Harris’s (2005) conclusion about 17th-century literature and drama. He argues that in “transvestite texts”, anything that occured because of a character’s cross-dressing was taken as unreal because the taboo on male homosexuality was respected. The only potential transgression of heterosexuality was lesbian homoeroticism (i.e. women and female-to-male cross-dressed characters or women and male-to-female ), but relationships between women were thought as non sexual because of the period’s phallocentric conception of sexuality — which is still fairly present to this day, as the lack of recognition of lesbian sexualities shows. This allowed to dismiss them as unimpo rtant or unreal. In the Deceitful Seductress, the consequence of revealing “cross-dressing”/trans status is male homosexuality, which is thought as real and dangerous to masculinity. Therefore, characters like Ace Ventura or Brian from Family Guy can’t just do as if nothing happen, as if the “cross-dressing” was unreal and unsexual. Instead, they puke.

This is not only transmisogynistic, but also misogynistic. Femininity is taken as an instrument to attract men, and nothing more. And guess what? Feminine sexuality is often reduced to an instrument manipulate and tricking men! The difference is that femininity, here, is taken as fake. In this trope, femininity is not a pre-existing trait that is exploited by a character, but a costume this character can tack on for the only purpose of tricking men.

Wearing a Dress for the Girls

In some ways, this is the reverse trope of the latter: here, a “deceitful” man tries to access women (or women’s spaces) by looking like one of them. Whereas the Deceitful Seductress is likely a villain or a secondary character seducing a main character and portrayed pejoratively as deceitful, a man Wearing A Dress For The Girls will be a major character and portrayed melioratively for displaying smarts (or, at worst, portrayed as ridiculous). The transgression of heteronormativity is displaced too: in the first case, the presented situation is straight and the “real” situation is gay; in the second case, the presented situation is lesbian and the “real” sitution is straight.

In the same way, it perpetuates harmful stereotypes about men and masculinity. It works on the assumption that men only want sex and that it’s normal for them to attempt anything for the purpose of seducing women — even dressing up as women to gain access to women specific spaces. As such, this narrative is part of rape culture.

However, the way in which putative desires might be transformed from the homoerotic encounter to satisfy the male character’s heterosexual desire is left open, and can vary from rape (the disguise only allows access to the space) to transfer of platonic into sexual love (the disguise allows to create a relationship, and the reveal changes the type of relationship) to maintaining a relationship in the disguise with lesbian overtones (the disguise becomes permanent or durable). In think the first two are relatively straight-forward, I’ll exemplify the last one with L’Astrée. In this 17th-century novel, Céladon wants to access his former love Astrée, who banished him from her sight and thinks he is dead. Therefore, he disguises as female Alexis, and maintains a homoerotic bond with her, without ever taking of the disguise and resolving the issue (Harris, 2005).

This trope is accutely real, and I see it more often as a mental schema in real life than as a fictional tool. It’s behind the trans-exclusive feminist idea that trans women are “men trying to access wymyn’s spaces” and bringing patriarchy with them, as exploited in Raymond’s Transsexual Empire and in various cases of exclusion of trans women from women-specific spaces in the feminist/lesbian community. The sexual component is accutely exploited when people try to refuse access to women’s bathroom, as it is thought that they are really men whose uncontrolable sexuality leads them to follow the Wearing A Dress For The Girl narrative in order to rape unsuspecting women in the bathroom.

Works cited

Harris, Jospeh (2005). Hidden Agendas: Cross-Dressing in 17th-Century France, Tübingen, Gunter Narrr Verlag.