Over*Flow, Special Episode: In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: Sleepaway Camp
Cáel M. Keegan / Grand Valley State University
Author’s Note: This column is the third in a three-part series examining instances of “bad” transgender popular culture. In this series, I explore how the demand for “good” transgender representation is shifting the history and aesthetics of transgender media. The first two installments discussed The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Silence of the Lambs.
There are bad movies, and there are bad transgender movies.
While the first two films I discussed in this series—The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman, 1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991)—are critically appreciated films that function in today’s culture as “bad” transgender objects, Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983) is considered bad on both counts: The film is maligned as much for its stock teen slasher genre address as it is for its “shocking” transgender imagery. But while it is often lamented as a textbook example of transmisogynistic horror (Maclay), Sleepaway Camp isn’t quite what it seems to be on the surface: While it may indeed be “bad” by the standards of respectable cinema, Sleepaway Camp is actually an unusually good transgender movie with an unfairly negative reputation.
Sleepaway Camp follows the story of a teen girl, Angela, who is raised by her Aunt Martha after Angela survives a boating accident that killed her father and brother Peter. Hoping to better socialize her, Martha sends Angela to summer camp with her cousin, Richard. Angela, who is gawky and shy, is ridiculed by the other girl campers for her lack of normative femininity and is targeted for sexual exploitation by the male staff. As the film progresses, the people who abuse Angela are murdered with increasing brutality by a shadowy figure. In the final sequence, staff members looking for the killer find Angela on the lakeshore: A sudden flashback shows us Martha deciding to raise the injured Peter as his sister, Angela (the child that actually died), claiming that she “always wanted a girl.” We then cut back to Angela (Peter) on the beach, cradling the severed head of her final victim. As she stands naked, bloody knife in hand, it is revealed that she has a penis. The film’s final image is a freeze frame of Angela’s face, her mouth hanging open in an inhuman snarl.
This notorious surprise ending is Sleepaway Camp’s major claim to cinematic importance: The final image of Angela, which superimposes actor Felissa Rose’s frozen face over a naked man’s adult body, achieves something truly uncanny in terms of cinematic effects. The moment’s “what-in-the-fuck-ness” (Mancuso) also reads today as a singularly crystalline expression of transmisogynistic imagery: “How could it be?” the camp athletics coach exclaims as he looks from Angela’s face down to her genitals, “My god, she’s a boy!” While the film never narratively references trans identity, Sleepaway Camp’s infamous final sequence most definitely indulges in the idea of the transgender body as a source of horror. If we focus on its spectacular ending, Sleepaway Camp appears to be a very bad trans object, indeed.
However, plot matters. The trouble with reading Sleepaway Camp as a “bad” transgender object lies not in its imagery, but in its story: While audiences and critics alike have interpreted Angela to be a “transgender girl” (Miller 40), Peter (Angela) does not identify or wish to live as female. Sleepaway Camp is a film about the horror of being forcibly and incorrectly gendered by others: Peter only commits murder because he has been traumatized by the denial of his gender identity and therefore his personhood. This makes Sleepaway Camp different from classically transmisogynistic texts that portray trans women as “deceptive” agents seeking to pass as cisgender (Serano 36).
Thus, while the ending of Sleepaway Camp does engage in a sensationalized genital “reveal” (Seid 176), the narrative purpose of this reveal is to communicate Peter’s original masculine gender identity and therefore his status as a victim. The plot changes how the film’s final image signifies: To quote one appreciative reviewer, “The problem is not Angela Baker. The problem is the world and the circumstances that surrounded her” (Colangelo).
This is why, despite its ending sequence, Sleepaway Camp should be considered a good trans film. The text offers us something rare: A film that sympathetically (if unintentionally) explores the specifically trans masculine experience of a boy who is forcibly assigned female and socialized as a girl. Initially, we are likely to read Angela’s reticence to join the girls in gossiping, her awkwardness with the boys’ romantic advances, as evidence of her lack of maturity. Once we know that Angela is actually male-identified, what looks like shyness becomes an expression of trans masculine affect: Peter doesn’t want to gossip with girls because he isn’t one. Peter doesn’t want to kiss boys because he is one—and he isn’t gay. In scene after scene, he sits frozen, unable to move or speak, addressed by others only in ways that erase him. In the highly gendered and heteronormative environment of the camp, there is no place for Peter to exist except through negation. Sleepaway Camp ironically captures the paradoxes of trans male identification in a manner that few narratively trans films accomplish.
Reading Sleepaway Camp as a covertly trans masculine text is valuable precisely because sympathetic explorations of trans male identity are so rare: One of the less-remarked on problems with the new focus on “transgender visibility” is that it is generally framed by the need to overcome negative histories of representation. These conditions do not work well for transgender men, for whom there is less stigmatizing media history to be corrected. This lack is one reason why the core media texts of the new liberal transgender visibility—Orange is the New Black (2013-19), Transparent (2014-19), Pose (2018- )—contain no recurring or regular roles for trans men. Given the surfeit of negative images of trans women and the near-total lack of images of trans men, why should we read Sleepaway Camp as transmisogynistic when the film is more accurately read as a trans masculine revenge tale?
The monster in Sleepaway Camp is actually Aunt Martha—the unhinged cisgender woman who forces Peter to live as a girl in an attempt to please her estranged husband. By transforming Peter into Angela, Martha seeks to create gender complementarity within her heterosexual family (one son, one daughter), a nuclear structure that she hopes will cause her husband to return. To achieve this false ideal, Martha chooses to “forget” the knowledge that Angela is a boy. However, as in all horror cinema, the repressed must return: The final lakeshore scene reveals, if anything, the violence of Martha’s actions and the depth of Peter’s trauma. Ultimately, Sleepaway Camp is a film about the monstrosity of white cisgender womanhood and its need to police the genders of others. Not such a bad film bad, after all.
- Setting the horrible scene (author’s screen grab).
- Sleepaway Camp’s final image (author’s screen grab).
- The original violence: Martha presents Peter with his new gender (author’s screen grab).
- Angela’s (Peter’s) trans masculine affect (author’s screen grab).
- The actual monster (author’s screen grab).
Colangelo, Harmony M. “The Transgender Defense of Angela Baker and Sleepaway Camp.” Medium, 23 Feb 2020. https://medium.com/@harmonymoon/the-transgender-defense-of-angela-baker-and-sleepaway-camp-82dd54ddf9cd
Maclay, Tara. “‘How Can it Be? She’s a Boy.’ Transmisogyny in Sleepaway Camp.” Cléo 3.2 (Summer 2013). http://cleojournal.com/2015/08/10/how-can-it-be-shes-a-boy-transmisogyny-in-sleepaway-camp/
Mancuso, Vinnie. “Why the Sleepaway Camp Ending Will Still Mess You Up, 35 Years Later.” Collider, 16 Nov 2018. https://collider.com/sleepaway-camp-ending-revisited/
Miller, Lucy J. “Fear and the Cisgender Audience: Transgender Representation and Audience Identification in Sleepaway Camp.” Spectator 37:2 (Fall 2017): 40-47.
Seid, Danielle M. “Reveal.” Transgender Studies Quarterly 1.1-2 (May 2014): 176-77.
Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Seal Press, 2016.