The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

TV and films have long taught audiences transphobia

Today’s political assaults on trans rights build on media depictions of trans people as dangerous

Demonstrators pose holding placards ahead of the London Trans Pride rally on July 9 in London. (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
6 min

So far in 2022, a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills have filled up state legislative dockets, with more than 300 proposed in over 35 states. The legislative focus centers on the trans community by banning trans people from spaces such as bathrooms, locker rooms or athletic teams that fit their identity.

Worse, some are designed to prevent trans people from existing at all. These proposed laws criminalize gender-affirming care for trans children and adolescents, ban legal changes of gender for trans adults and bar discussion of trans identities in the classroom.

Such anti-trans rhetoric can seem startling, but a closer look at how American television and film have portrayed trans characters demonstrates a troubling history that probably still contributes to many of the sentiments and stereotypes underpinning these legislative efforts.

For decades, popular culture has relied on assumptions about the trans community that implies there is something different, even disturbing and dangerous, about them. The origin of this stereotype is most likely Ed Gein, an alleged cross-dresser in Wisconsin who murdered two local women in 1957. According to recent scholarship, local investigators linked Gein’s “transvestism” to his grave robbing and desecration of his victims during a forced confession, and leaked the revelation to the press.

Robert Bloch used the case to create his murderous protagonist in the novel “Psycho” (1959), following on the popularity of other trans psychotic killers as in “The Lady was a Man” (Shane, 1958) during this starkly homophobic decade. Bloch’s novel became the basis of the film “Psycho” (Hitchcock, 1960) and influenced the plot of an episode of the television show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (NBC, 1965) soon after.

Although sodomy and cross-dressing laws were already in place at this time, the mid-20th century began a more explicit war against gender and sexual nonconformity. Already struggling with the post-World War II restabilization of gender roles, society roiled when faced with new scientific theories about the commonality of non-heterosexual behavior and advances in surgical and physiological treatments which enabled transsexual women such as Christine Jorgensen to physically transform themselves. Medical transition techniques commonly performed today, like jaw and forehead reshaping, breast augmentation and vaginoplasty, could effectively “erase” one’s sex as assigned at birth, adding to concerns about how to identify “real” women.

By the 1970s, an archetype of a violent trans criminal had become firmly entrenched in popular entertainment. Variations on this archetype appeared on the most popular television crime dramas of the 1970s and 1980s, from “The Streets of San Francisco” (ABC, 1974) and “Police Woman” (NBC, 1976) to “Magnum, P.I.” (CBS, 1982) and “T.J. Hooker” (ABC, 1984). These psychotic mass murderers impersonated nuns or nurses to target women but were ultimately “exposed” as men, often with a dramatic wig reveal.

During this time, horror films and thrillers — freed from the restrictions of network television with regard to more explicit sexual references and depictions of genitalia — began to sexualize the trans murderer more explicitly. The disturbed incestual longings of Marguerite in “A Reflection of Fear” (Fraker, 1972) and Dr. Elliott’s sexual frustration in “Dressed to Kill” (De Palma, 1980) led to perhaps the most famous trans serial killer, Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs” (Demme, 1999). His erotic “tuck” dance before the mirror connected his grotesque decortication with gender dysphoria, a durable image that the American public has never forgotten.

Comedic satire also contributed to these negative depictions. The film “Myra Breckinridge” (Sarne, 1970), an adaptation of Gore Vidal’s best-selling 1968 novel, featured a trans woman who graphically raped a blond young actor using a strap-on. Reviews, like in Time magazine, called the film a “nadir in American cinema,” reflecting not only this tasteless act but the added presumption that a trans woman would transition to seek out sexual dominance over heterosexual men. This ridiculous notion also supported commonly accepted attitudes about homosexuality as a mental illness, its official diagnostic category until 1973, as well as ongoing debates on female sexual power during this period of second-wave feminism.

This deceptively sexy female aggressor with a “secret past” persisted into the 21st century. Handsome young men in films such as “American Wedding” (Dylan, 2003) were hit on by a conventionally attractive woman with a deep voice, height or musculature. During such performances, a woman’s “real” sex — and the men’s fearful disgust — becomes comedic fodder. And yet the persistence of these stereotypes may be why some Americans continue to believe trans feminine predators exist despite ample evidence to the contrary.

In fact, trans women are more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of homicide, and trans people are four times more likely to be the victim of a violent attack than their cisgender counterparts. But even on this point, television and film have generated a narrative that portrays trans women as responsible for their own victimization. Or, as a 2005 “Law & Order” episode noted, it’s their own fault for “playing a dangerous game.”

In this way, more recent scripted narratives may sympathize with trans victims of assault or harassment but still suggest that the world isn’t “ready” to embrace the trans community. Even if a trans character is attacked by her boyfriend’s business partner as on “Law & Order: SVU” (NBC, 2016), a stranger as on “Doubt” (CBS, 2017) or other children as on “Council of Dads” (NBC, 2020), this transphobia is presented not as an indictment of misguided social attitudes but as an admission of intractable prejudice, something to shrug at rather than work to change. Even the usually unflappable Detective Tutuola on “SVU” admits during a trans woman’s murder investigation, “This whole gender fluidity thing is coming out more nowadays, but the truth is, it’s confusing, and a lot of people can’t make sense of it all. Me included.”

But how the characters and the storylines that define trans people are written matters in the greater context of how they are seen and treated in our society. This problem will persist unless creators are cognizant of these ramifications as they address trans issues, and viewers become aware of their own perceptions and conclusions drawn from the movies and shows they’ve seen and continue to watch.