The Increase of Transgender Characters in Movies and Television

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #102, Summer 2003.

by Gypsey Teague

Early films brought escape to the people with comedy, drama, horror, and romance. In the silent era, crossdressing was used for humor or comedy, often in conjunction with a situation that forced an individual to elude or escape from others. In his early films, Charlie Chaplin used this technique. In 1914, he played a prizefighter in ?The Knockout.? His girlfriend wanted to see him fight; since women were forbidden from entering boxing arenas, she dressed as a man. A year later, Chaplin donned a dress in ?A Woman? to escape the angry father of his beloved.
Through the years of black-and-white and into the early color years, the themes remained the same. In 1935, the Marx Brothers dressed in drag in ?A Night at the Opera.? In 1948, Ingrid Bergman wore armor
as Joan of Arc. Cary Grant slipped into a WAC uniform for 1949?s ?I
Was a Male War Bride.? For pathos, one of the prisoners of 1952?s
?Stalag 17? stuck a mop head atop his own to become a dance partner for another prisoner. Meanwhile, at MGM, Elizabeth Taylor was having her hair cut short by Mickey Rooney in Technicolor for ?National Velvet,? because girls could not ride in horse races.

In 1959, one of the finest examples of crossdressing comedy arrived at the theaters. Billy Wilder?s ?Some Like it Hot,? starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, raised the bar to new levels. Although Curtis and Lemmon joined an all-girl band in an attempt to escape gangsters in Chicago, the subjects covered in the film were wider than skirts and flirts. How women walked, talked, dressed, dated?all were explored with considerable compassion.

This goodness and light changed drastically in 1960, when Anthony Perkins, in a gray wig and housedress, knife in hand, slashed his way into the culture in Alfred Hitchcock?s ?Psycho.? After ?Psycho,? crossdressers were viewed as deranged killers or psychotics who suffered from mental illness, which for effect, often led to death or destruction. A new age of film had arrived, and with it a belief that there was something deviant or dangerous about transgenders.

The list of housefrau slashers lasted into the seventies and beyond, with two notable villains emerging. In ?Dressed to Kill,? Michael Caine, as a deranged psychiatrist, hacks his way through the movie in a blond wig and skirt. In the movie version of ?Silence of the Lambs,? Jamie Gumb skins his female victims so he can don a suit sewn from their skin and become a woman?thus proving any plot gimmick may be pushed too far if given enough time and typing paper.

It?s interesting to note that many comedies put the largest or ugliest men in the role of the crossdresser, with the audience knowing it?s a man and thus requiring a great stretch of the imagination to accept these men as women?hence making the plot even more ridiculous and funny. Examples of this gimmick are ?Big Momma?s House,? with Martin Lawrence; ?Deuce Bigalow,? with Rob Schneider; ?The Glass Bottom Boat,? with Paul Lynde; ?Hairspray? and ?Polyester,? featuring the crossdressing actor Harris Milstead in his role as Divine; ?Mrs. Doubtfire,? with Robin Williams; ?Risky Business,? with a young Tom Cruise being set up with a rather large crossdressing hooker; ?Tootsie,? with Dustin Hoffman; and ?Young Doctors in Love,? with Hector Elizondo.

The second way crossdressing is played for laughs is in fooling an unsuspecting victim. The central character takes for granted that the crossdresser is nontransgendered?until, for effect, the truth is discovered. An example of this is ?Bachelor Party,? in which one of Tom Hank?s friends thinks he has found the perfect woman until he realizes she is a man, and an auto mechanic at that. Another example: Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee in a bar, flirting, believing a girl isn?t a girl only when he grabs her private parts. Finally, think of Gene Hackman as a confused right-wing politician being confronted with Nathan Lane in ?The Bird Cage.?

Police and private detectives sometimes crossdress to entrap individuals, and this has spilled over into the movies. John Candy is a private detective who must infiltrate a woman?s group in ?Who?s Harry Crumb?? In ?Nighthawk,? a crossdressed Sylvester Stallone traps a mugger. Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone, as wrongfully-accused policemen, don wigs in ?Tango and Cash.?

Musical themes have become big in movies with crossdressing, perhaps begun by the cult classic ?The Rocky Horror Picture Show,? in which Tim Curry plays Dr. Frankenfurter, the Transsexual Transvestite from Transylvania. ?Hedwig and the Angry Itch,? ?To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,? ?The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,? and the aforementioned ?The Bird Cage? are all over-the-top musical movies in which the soundtrack is as important as the dialog. Such extravaganzas, similar to earlier Busby Berkeley musicals, have taken the comedic, clown-like attitude of the drag queen and propelled her to the front of the stage.

The transgendered are no longer funny, pathetic characters to be laughed at at their expense. They?re real people with real lives who are trying to fit into a society that has no hole for their peg. Fortunately, there are filmmakers out there who are willing to attempt to educate the moviegoer.

An early film that attempted to teach acceptance and understanding was Ed Wood?s ?Glen or Glenda,? filmed when it was still illegal for a man to dress as a woman in public. It wasn?t until later that other directors, producers and writers were able to inject education into films with
transgender characters. In ?Little Big Man,? the transgender role in the Plains Indian Tribes is explored?that status of male who has chosen not to be a warrior, and in so doing has adopted the dress and duties of a woman. Another example is the Canadian Film Industry?s ?Better Than Chocolate,? in which a pre-operative transsexual is disinherited by her family because of her desire to become a woman. Finally, a tragic film that mirrors actual events played out in our all-too-real world is ?Boys Don?t Cry,? with Hilary Swank playing the doomed-to-die lead character, Brandon Teena.

Such conscience-expanding films are fortunately becoming more
common and, in so doing, have made a transgendered character someone to look out at not with disdain, but as just another human being with all the rights, privileges and problems that come with that character?s
position in society.

Some transgendered characters, however, don?t fit into any of the previous categories. Consider The Lady Chablis, a transsexual performer from Savannah, who played a prominent part in John Berendt?s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and who played herself in the film by the same name. Next is Tula, whose real name is Caroline Cossey. Cossey is a post-operative transsexual who became a Bond girl in ?For Your Eyes Only.? Finally, there is RuPaul Charles, the self-declared fiercest drag queen of them all. RuPaul has
in the past twenty years defined the drag queen persona in all medias: he is a recording artist, stage personality, drag entertainer, and in ?The Brady Bunch Movie,? the female guidance counselor at the local high school.

No mention was made that RuPaul was not a real woman. He played a role that could have gone to any woman
in Hollywood.


Like its bigger brother the silver screen, television first used the crossdresser for comedy and entertainment. Who can forget Uncle Miltie in a dress and wig? Other comedians followed suit, for instance, Flip Wilson as Geraldine. As on the larger screen, the dressing was played for laughs. During the seventies and eighties we saw shows such as ?Bosom Buddies,? with Peter Scolari and a young Tom Hanks. The cast of ?Hogan?s Heroes? often fooled the Germans in dresses, and in ?M.A.S.H,? Jamie Farr as Corporal Klinger was seldom without a dress. This was the norm unless a drama used a transgendered person as the villain. A notable exception to this was the comedy, ?All in the Family,? in which Beverly, a crossdresser, is introduced. Beverly is a crossdresser who the normally bigoted Archie sets up on a date with one of his friends as a joke. Later in the series, Beverly is murdered by a mugger, causing Edith to question the rationale of mankind and God herself. I feel this was the start of the transgendered person as human being in televisionland.

Fortunately, the past ten years has seen improvements in understanding and acceptance of transgendered people in society, and this change in mood has had an impact on television. Transgendered characters are now more usual to be portrayed with understanding, pathos, and acceptance. ?Ally McBeal? featured a number of cases and topics with transgender characters. The most important was a regular character, a pre-operative transsexual, who first sued her employer for privacy and then began dating one of the practice?s attorneys. At about the same time, the second crossdressing character in prime time received his own series. ?Ask Harriet? was about a sportswriter named Jack who, because of his attitudes, couldn?t get a job and was forced to become Harriet the advice columnist for the same paper that fired him in the first place. This show, although a comedy, began to showcase the transgendered as real-life people, not caricatures. Jack, forced to deal with issues women are faced with on a daily basis, even as a male chauvinist began to understand women are more than the sum of their parts.

After that came ?The Drew Carey Show,? in which Drew?s brother Steve was shown to be a crossdresser. This character was done with such dignity that I would offer Steve as perhaps the most dignified character on the show. Issues such as acceptance, placement in the work environment, and social time were explored, and the show registered well with the critics.

Possibly capitalizing on this acceptance, other shows picked up on this theme and aired episodes in which a transgendered character was more than a bit player or a piece of comic relief. Shows that deserve mention are: ?Chicago Hope,? where a circumcision error results in a boy being raised as a girl, but later, as a teenager, wishes to go back to being a boy; ?Gideon?s Crossing,? in which a male-to-female transsexual must make a decision to stop hormone treatment, thus giving up her femininity, or succumb to breast cancer; or the somewhat vacuous ?Popular,? in which the shop teacher, Don Jackson, becomes Miss Debbie. Here, the failure of the system is given attention when the PTA and school board choose to fire the successful teacher for transitioning, even over the protests of the student body.

Lest we begin thinking the small screen has fully evolved, along comes Jenny McCarthy as the once-male ex-best friend of Dennis Spade?s character Finch on ?Just Shoot Me.? By the end of the show, Finch has made a perverse pass at the young blonde and the main character Jack Gallow, played by George Segal, is taking her to dinner and commenting to Finch that he finds her amazing. ?She has something special,? he says.

Throughout all this, the talk show pundits have been using the transgender as a ploy for shock
ratings. Beginning notably in 1988 with Phil Donahue in a dress, every host on television has had at least one episode with a transgender theme. Jerry Springer even made fun of this in his own movie, ?Ringmaster,? where art imitated art, which imitated life. Maury Povich regularly asks his audience to guess whether the women on stage are ?real?? or Memorex.

Here, also, is where we saw the talent of RuPaul on her VH1 show of the same name. The show reached its highest form with the Christmas episode, produced mostly in black-and-white, and featuring the songs on RuPaul?s ?Ho Ho Ho? Christmas album, done in homage to Joan Crawford.

Sadly, the best example of trangenderism on television made it only through one season. ?The Education of Max Bickford,? starring Richard Dreyfus, featured, as one of the main characters, Max? best friend Steve, who went away for a year and returned as Erica. This introduction of a fully-developed character in a major drama series showed that transgendered characters could have suitable roles. Important issues such as dating, sexual reversals, the ex-spouse and children, all were touched upon and well-written. It was not for the lack of supporting cast that this show was canceled, and I recommend it in reruns.

Transgendered men and women are now more accepted in their roles of heroes, heroines, villains, comedians, friends and neighbors. The shock value has worn off, and their fifteen minutes of fame has been passed to someone else. With that passing, the transgendered may join other minorities that have found acceptance in society. Their place in the movies and television is secured.

Gypsey Teague is a librarian at a small Midwestern university. She is also an adjunct professor of business and city planning. She has advanced degrees in City Planning, Landscape Architecture, Business Administration, and Library Sciences. She has been a military officer, judo instructor, high school English teacher, boutique owner, writer, and fortune hunter. Her latest novel, The Life and Deaths of Carter Falls, is due out early summer 2003 by Publish America. She may be contacted at

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