Sunday, September 16, 2018

Trans Literature: Transgender as a Trope in Cisgender Stories

"I see you shiver with anticipation...
I'll remove the cause but not the symptom"

Dr. Frank N Furter
Rocky Horror Picture Show


Part 1 of this three part talk will consider "Transgender as a Trope" in cisgender stories in order to provide a background for the norm into which trans literature has arisen and also to articulate the particular limitations and failures that make trans narratives and trans methods of reading necessary. Admittedly, there are stories told by cisgender people where the trans person is more fleshed out but these are rare exceptions and will be discussed more in the next section as they represent early participation in trans literature as a literary archive. As will be seen, for most history even trans literature about trans folk was rarely written by trans folk. Thus, the focus of this section is to consider the ways that trans figures typically appear when they do appear in cisgender stories. 

In each case, there is often a pornographic or fetishistic erotica that epitomizes each trope as trans characters are frequently invoked as figures for body genre narratives. Body genre narratives are those that excite the body in some way: horror (fear), comedy (laughter), thriller (anxiety), or porn (arousal). Thus, there is an apparent bent towards the gothic, the fantastical, the comedic, and the pornographic in how trans tropes are constructed and used by cisgender narratives. 

Additionally, each trope has evident connections to hierarchies of power, especially between the sexes. This makes sense, because trans tropes are typically used in the service of cisgender stories. The trans figure and trope is thus primarily or merely a device to move the story forward in some way. Because most narratives depend on conflicts of power in some way, trans tropes are often used as ways of humbling, changing, or empowering cisgender people. Also, there tends to be a sustained power differential between the cis and trans person as a way to explain why the story is not and should not be taken over by a trans figure no matter how charismatic. Indeed, those trans figures who tend to be the most charming and powerful are typically those imagined with malevolent intent, because they are a danger or threat to the integrity of the cisgender narrative.


It's a man shouts Ace Ventura at the climax of his detective story
as he strips naked the villain, revealing her tucked genitals

The Trap

A staple of cisgender stories that require a dramatic twist, "The Trap" is the name that cis folk have given to transgender people who pass as their identified gender until the moment that the narrative needs to reveal their trans-ness and reassert their birth gender.

In crime stories, "The Trap" provides both a red-herring and a last minute twist. Early in the narrative, the trans person may be included as a suspect or accomplice but will be discarded because the detective and audience do not clock their trans-ness. Midway through the narrative, they are put into the background. Then, at a dramatic climax, the protagonist and audience discover the trans person's trans-ness, allowing certain pieces of evidence to click into place: semen samples, lip-stick, or a deep voice. Going back to the trans person, the confrontation is usually performed as an unmasking, Scooby-Doo style, where the wig is removed or the dead-name is named. The trans person gets angry, often breaking gender norms in some way that signals to the audience that the trap has been disarmed.

"The Trap" is usually found in detective stories but may be present in other narratives to provide melodrama or comedy. For instance, Ace Ventura famously has a trans "trap" villain who is not only revealed at the end but publicly stripped naked and ridiculed. Even more "classy" comedies like Frasier include an episode that involves the protagonist being arrested for picking up a woman he did not know is a sex worker and did not know is trans. In this case, the "Trap" is sprung midway, complete with her suddenly using a deeper voice and her large manly muscles unveiled once she is brought into the full light, so Frasier can be doubly embarrassed by his friends and family for daring to help a trans woman out of the rain.

To this day, "The Trap" remains a common term of derision for trans-folk. Often they are framed as threats to heterosexual men's heterosexuality, acting like folk-lore which teaches them to maintain the power and integrity of their manhood so they do not get "trapped." "Trap" porn is also a popular sub-genre that positions sex with trans folk as an act only ever performed when the trans person is so passing as to be indistinguishable and also the sexual aggressor taking advantage of the cisgender man, who wouldn't sexually engage with them otherwise. This way, cis het men can have their manly man cake and eat some trans cake too!


Ursula the Sea Witch was famously based on the performer Divine

The Mystical Drag Queen

The mystical drag queen is in many ways inspired by the tradition of mystical black men and women. This is not accidental as drag queens have long been associated with gay and trans folk of color. The mystical drag queen is framed as a kind of shaman, a being that exists between the normal world and the queer extraordinary world. 

Within cisgender narratives, mystical drag queens tend to provide advice, threats, or services for the cis protagonists. Typically, when the mystical drag queen is framed as a figure of danger, she will exist somewhere dark and secluded where the cis hero must seek them out or else find themselves by accident. She will often broker some deal with the hero to help them along on their path or back on their feet. This may involve some level of sacrifice, change, or embarrassment. After all, the mystical drag queen is a figure of transitions and liminality. She always takes with one hand as she gives with another. The more benevolent mystical drag queen on the other hand may be found out on the streets, usually harassed and marginalized by the wider community. Because she is a humiliated figure, she is also humbled, asking little from the cis protagonist beyond the bare level of respect and kindness.

The Mystical Drag Queen is found in fantasy and horror, especially in the nefarious role, but may be akin to a gay best friend in more realist narratives, especially when she takes on the humbled benevolent. Among the pseudo-villains, some of the most famous examples include Dr. Frank N. Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show and Ursula from the Little Mermaid. Both figures occupy dark haunts and draw the heroes into a world of sorted sexual and moral transgressions. They bring them across some threshold of normative limitation, before setting them back on the road transformed. Benevolent mystical drag queens include the cast of To Wong Fu Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar, Wanda from Neil Gaiman's A Game of You, and Sophia from Orange is the New Black. In both these cases, the trans woman or drag queens of color (admitting one white leader in the case of the former film) arrive into the lives of the put upon white woman. They provide advice and kindness, helping them rediscover their womanhood and even their sexuality before disappearing into the background. Above all, it is made clear that this is not the story nor even the world of the mystical drag queen, who must be content to exist on the margins of the story as a threat or helper.

To this day, even as trans folk are beginning to be included in more media they remain side characters who exist in a world that touches upon but is not wholly the same as the other cisgender characters. In some cases, they have replaced the role of the gay best friend as the gay or lesbian characters are upgraded to more complex fleshed out roles or excluded entirely with the trans person taking on the representative weight of all LGBTQ people. After all, the mystical drag queen is fundamentally a signifier of a wider darker more morally complex universe that exists just outside the fairly normative scripts of the main story.


Google "sissification" or "gender transformation" without Safe Search
and be prepared for a massive archive of erotica

The Sissy

The Sissy is an old staple character within narrative for the reason that most literature has been produced by men within various forms of patriarchal hierarchies. The sissy represents the failed or corrupted man, the man turned woman. The sissy has been studied by feminists as a symptom of patriarchal definitions of gender that set men opposite and above women, with the sissy being any man who demonstrates a trait shared with women. The sissy has also been studied by queer theory as a symptom of homophobic power structures that demand the performance of hyper-heterosexuality and toxic masculinity and eschew gayness as sissies who embody a disorder or failure in this system. Yet on the face, the Sissy is a definitively trans character, a man who has become a woman, often against his will, making him a victim of women, gay men, trans-ness, or even communism, liberalness, or higher education.

Because the sissy as a target made up of feminine men (i.e. non-hyper masculine men) and gay men has been so extensively studied, I will consider the particular form of sissy trope that tends to involve some sort of overt trans identification, even if this identification comes only after harassment, abuse, seduction, or some sort of literal or metaphorical castration. The most overt example of the sissy appears in pornography or erotica, usually involving a domineering woman or domineering women who decide to punish or curb the man into a sissy. In this case, the sissification embodies the loss of the man's power, represented by his loss of man's power. Often, the domineering woman will eventually leave the sissy for a "real man." At a certain point in this process of depravity, the sissy learns to embrace the new life given and submits to the role of woman, often become the subordinate to some other men as well. Yet the process of sissification need not always be overt as pornography makes it out to be. Some sissies are marked as feminized by subtler signs, such as wearing a frilly cooking apron, crying at romantic comedies, speaking in a higher voice, or some other feminine affectation. These sissies likewise loss their manhood because they lost their man's power to women. They cook because their wives make them. They get called "mom" because their wives are working out of the house. Their wives "wear the pants in the family" and because of hetero patriarchal assumptions, this demotes the man to the role of the woman or sissy.

The non-erotic sissy is often represented in narratives that understand themselves as operating under realism with a progressive bent, usually framed by comedy as a way to defuse tensions or as a way of self-consciously apologizing to conservative audiences. Indeed, the sissy is often represented within more conservative narratives and media as a way of marking liberal men (now called "lib cuck" men) who have lost their proper masculine traditions and thus regressed into the women they increasingly resemble. Yet even when presented by liberal or progressive media, the sissy is still presented for laughs because although there is a desire for diversity or for virtue-signaling, the cisgender story tellers are not comfortable with this diversity or are not confident that their audiences will be comfortable. An example of this comes also from the comedy Frasier which includes a couple scenes where trans characters are referenced (but rarely shown), especially by the eccentric liberal woman of the core cast (Daphne) when she references having dinner with her "transvestite uncle." When asked whether the "uncle" lives as a woman full-time, she says, "oh no, his congregation would never stand for it." This wording and exchange, concluding in a laugh-track, demonstrates how even when a narrative is trying to signal diversity and even compassion for trans people in their networks, they often cannot help but undercutting the virtue move with a joke at the expense of the trans people. The sissy in this way is the acceptable trans person only because the sissy represents that shameful part of the self or of the family, which we want to include but not without reminding everyone of the proper patriarchal pecking order - pun intended.


The Cast from To Wong Fu

Next up: Transgender as Text

Okay, so we can see many of the problems that have come from letting cisgender people, especially cisgender men, tell the stories of trans people, especially trans women. One of the evident responses to these mischaracterizations, reductions, and caricatures is to allow trans people to tell their own stories or at least to put the trans person at the center of the narrative. What happens when trans people become the subjects of trans narratives? How does transgender affect narrative? How do different narratives affect how transgender is structured and understood? Stay tuned to find out!


Chandler's "Dad" from Friends

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