Over*Flow, Special Episode: In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: Sleepaway Camp
Cáel M. Keegan / Grand Valley State University


Opening image of the film Sleepaway Camp
Setting the horrible scene.

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.


Screenshot fo the film's final image
Sleepaway Camp’s final image.

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).


Screenshot of Martha presenting Peter with a new gender
The original violence: Martha presents Peter with his new gender.

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.  


Screenshot of Angela/Peter hesitant to join girls
Angela’s (Peter’s) trans masculine affect.

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.


Screenshot of Aunt Martha
The actual monster.



Image Credits:

  1. Setting the horrible scene (author’s screen grab).
  2. Sleepaway Camp’s final image (author’s screen grab).
  3. The original violence: Martha presents Peter with his new gender (author’s screen grab).
  4. Angela’s (Peter’s) trans masculine affect (author’s screen grab).
  5. The actual monster (author’s screen grab).


References:

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.




In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: The Silence of the Lambs
Cáel M. Keegan / Grand Valley State University


Buffalo Bill performs for the camera.
Buffalo Bill performs for the camera.

Author’s Note: This column is the second 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 installment discusses The Rocky Horror Picture Show

It was bad from the start.

Unlike other films that contain sensationalist representations of transgender people, The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) has always been considered a “bad” text—having met with vocal queer resistance immediately upon its release (Bloomer). While other bad transgender media objects have become “bad” because they have not aged well under the pressure of recent trans politics, Silence’s badness has shifted: A text that originally seemed to rely on the stigmatization of effeminate queer masculinity today appears to rely on the pathologization of transgender women. This evolution of the film’s perceived “badness”—from homophobic to transmisogynistic—has been driven by the growing separation of sexuality from gender as cultural phenomena, a process that has made transgender identities more clearly distinct from gay and lesbian ones. Today, Silence is understood by many transgender people to be one of the most “significant and impactful examples of pop culture transmisogyny” (Truitt). In a moment saturated with calls for better transgender representation, why bother examining such a banished text at all?

In my first column in this series, I noted how recent “positive” forms of transgender media representation do not seem to be improving political or social outcomes for all transgender people (Keegan). As transgender scholars and artists have pointed out, the rising media visibility of transgender identity appears to be linked with increased policing of and violence against transgender people, especially poor transgender people of color (Stanley). When ACT-UP and Queer Nation protested Silence at the 1992 Academy Awards, they did so on the premise that positive media representations would lead to positive social treatment of queer people. But what if that visibility story is true for some of us, precisely at the expense of others? What if The Silence of the Lambs isn’t simply a story of transmisogynistic violence, but a story about how that violence figured in the process through which gay and lesbian identities secured national belonging?

The Silence of the Lambs follows a young FBI recruit, Clarice Starling (Jodi Foster) as she tracks down Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine)—a murderer who has been kidnapping and flaying women to make a suit of female skin. Starling is tasked with interviewing the psychoanalyst Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) about Bill’s psychological profile. From Lecter, we learn that Bill “believes he is a transsexual” and has likely been denied access to medical transition. Following clues provided by Lecter, Starling locates and kills Bill, earning her place in the FBI. Silence is at once the story of a cop beating a criminal, a Reaganite hangover film championing the FBI, and a feminist tale about a woman rising within the patriarchal structures of the U.S. federal government. The film remains a cultural juggernaut and a mainstay of American horror cinema. 

Given its intensely stigmatizing depiction of trans femininity, The Silence of the Lambs is indeed a very bad transgender object. And yet, it has always also been a story about how one type of queer subject was welcomed into the arms of the state through the sacrifice of another, far less acceptable kind: Starling is the ostensibly working-class lesbian feminist hero who finds and destroys the transgender monster. Silence helps us understand how representations of transgender psychosis were a foil against which late-20th century gay and lesbian normalcy was culturally produced. In a period when queer politics increasingly demanded outness, gay and lesbian identities—including Foster’s—were under intense pressure to exteriorize themselves as representational (Turque). Out gay identity was to have no interiority in which “perversion” could hide. In Silence, we see that perverse interiority transferred to the transgender figure, who replaces gay and lesbian identities as the dark, queer corner of the national imaginary. 

Starling and Bill are a pair: Both desire mobility, but only one is pointed in a direction the state can tolerate. Starling, who is “not more than one generation from poor white trash,” desires upward class mobility through identification with her deceased police father and therefore with the patriarchal law. Bill, her negation, desires downward gender mobility but has been denied institutional access and therefore directly seeks out female flesh. The difference is that while Starling is permitted to abstract her desire, Bill must literalize. If there is one horror at the center of all horror cinema, it is the literalization of white patriarchal capitalism’s actual relations, which is the turning of bodies into objects. Starling must therefore do away with Bill. For such doing, she will be rewarded.


Our first view of Starling.
Our first view of Starling.

Starling wants to fly. Our first image of Starling is of her climbing, rope in hand, up out of the mud—training in her FBI sweatshirt to become an agent of the state. In a later training sequence, she’ll make a fatal error, forgetting to “check the corner” of her field of vision. This is precisely the dark corner from which, later in the film, Bill will emerge. If Starling checked the corners of her desire, she would notice that she and Bill share a connection: Bill is an inverse reflection of her own ambition to cross social categories, to move her body into new meaning. But while Starling goes up, Bill goes down—setting up a filthy basement workshop at the lip of a dry well, a dark reservoir where excess flesh is stored, to be transformed. 


Starling forgets to check the corners.
Starling forgets to check the corners.

The value of Silence today, then, isn’t simply in the importance of Starling as a feminist icon (Marshall), or in the example of Bill as an expression of transphobia (Truitt): It is instead their relation to one another as a formal exploration of which kinds of queerness would be welcomed into national belonging and which would be marked as irredeemable. Silence demonstrates this lesson at the level of both character and montage: Close to the end of the film, Starling follows her own clues to Bill’s location while the FBI races to what we discover is a different address. For a moment, clever parallel editing lets us believe that these exteriors lead to the same interior space. But we are mistaken. Only Starling has gone to the right place.


The incorrect exterior.
The incorrect exterior.

The real transgender horror of Silence is, ultimately, that the inside does not match the outside. Starling enters the house, draws her gun, and begins to descend. In the basement, in pitch blackness, she and Bill will almost touch. Bill will emerge from the unchecked corner and reach out a hand. We will expect Bill to simply kill Starling, but instead there will be a hesitation, a strange gesture from Bill that is almost loving, as if to say: in just this short moment, before one of us is destroyed by the other—be here with me in the dark.  


Bill reaches for Starling.
Bill reaches for Starling.



Image Credits:

  1. Buffalo Bill performs for the camera. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Our first view of Starling. (author’s screen grab)
  3. Starling forgets to check the corners. (author’s screen grab)
  4. The incorrect exterior. (author’s screen grab)
  5. Bill reaches for Starling. (author’s screen grab)


References:

Bloomer, Jeffrey. “When Gays Decried Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme Became an Early Student of Modern Backlash.” Slate, 28 April, 2017. https://slate.com/human-interest/2017/04/director-jonathan-demme-faced-down-silence-of-the-lambs-gay-backlash.html

Keegan, Cáel M. “In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: Rocky Horror. FLOW, 28 November, 2019. https://www.flowjournal.org/2019/11/in-praise-of-the-bad/

Marshall, Sarah. “Over 25 Years, Clarice Starling’s Impact on Film Heroines Still Resonates.” Bitch Media, 2 March, 2016. https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/over-25-years-clarice-starlings-impact-film-heroines-still-resonates-hearken

Stanley, Eric. “Unrecognizable: On Transgender Recognition in 2017.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 116.3, July 2017. 605-611. 

Truitt, Jos. “My Auntie Buffalo Bill: The Unavoidable Transmisogyny of Silence of the Lambs.” Feministing, 10 March, 2016. http://feministing.com/2016/03/10/my-auntie-buffalo-bill-the-unavoidable-transmisogyny-of-silence-of-the-lambs/

Turque, Bill. “The Age of Outing.” Newsweek, 11 August, 1991. https://www.newsweek.com/age-outing-202878




In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: Rocky Horror
Cáel m. Keegan / Grand Valley State University


Image 1: Dr. Frank N. Furter takes the throne.
Dr. Frank N. Furter takes the throne.

Author’s Note: This column is the first in a three-part series examining instances of “bad” transgender popular culture. In this series, I will explore how the demand for “good” transgender representation is shifting the history and aesthetics of transgender media.

Let’s be honest: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman, 1975) is a bad transgender film. 

Despite America’s ongoing cultural fascination with Rocky Horror, which continues its run as the longest theatrical release in US history (Schwab), the 1975 cult classic is much-maligned in current transgender politics. As the transgender community has gained a new cultural voice in the past decade, we have also taken issue with the legacy of media purporting to represent our identities and experiences: Transgender activists and audiences have rejected earlier modes of story-telling that pigeonhole us as murderous villains or tragic victims, and we have demanded greater authenticity in writing, casting, and direction. The emergence of mainstream transgender identity politics has resulted in a new set of conditions that must be met for transgender media to be considered “good.” 

“Good” transgender media is media that casts transgender actors as transgender characters. It is media that is written and directed by transgender creators. It is media that allows transgender characters to be more than just narrative or political tokens. “Good” transgender media is authentic, progressive, and diverse. Good transgender media is Pose (FX, 2018-present), not Boys Don’t Cry (Peirce, 1999). It is Tangerine (Baker, 2015), not Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983). Good transgender media is media that makes us visible, but in the right ways—specifically because they are not the bad, old ways we endured during the bad, old days, before we had a marginal amount of control over how we were represented.

And yet, as “good” transgender visibility has risen, so too has the violence directed against transgender bodies: Five years after Time magazine heralded Laverne Cox’s role on Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013-19) as a transgender civil rights “tipping point” (Steinmetz), anti-transgender murder and hate crimes are on the rise. Rights and protections that were provisionally extended to us during the Obama era have been dramatically and intentionally rescinded. Transgender people have become the new (old) gender scapegoats of a whiplash conservative retrenchment, carried out at a dizzying pace. 


Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine, 2014.
Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine, 2014.

In this context, one has to wonder about the relative value of media visibility: Of what value is cultural recognition, when it can so easily be weaponized against us? Or, as transgender studies scholar Eric Stanley puts it, “What are the stakes of familiarity, when familiarity breeds contempt?” (p. 609). The bad, old days are back, with a vengeance: Welcome to the New Bad Era.

By the standards of “good” transgender media, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is most certainly bad. Not only does the 1975 film feature a cisgender actor (Tim Curry) as the transgender/cross-dressed Dr. Frank N. Furter, but it represents that character as deranged, sexually manipulative, and violent. Although the film has become a staple of 21st century pop nostalgia, Rocky Horror is often excoriated in transgender communities for its seeming citation of these stereotypes, which by the late 1970s had become entrenched in American popular culture as well as in certain strains of feminist discourse. 


Sweet transvestite: A signed photo of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter.
Sweet transvestite: A signed photo of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter.

Janice Raymond’s infamous claim in The Transsexual Empire (1979) that “all transsexuals rape women’s bodies” (104) comes four years after Rocky Horror’s release, but the elevation of anti-transgender feminist discourse in our current moment makes it difficult to not view Rocky Horror as a citation of those attitudes. Richard O’Brien, the genderqueer/non-binary creator of the original Rocky Horror stage musical, recently intensified this suspicion of the film when he stated that he agreed with feminist Germain Greer that transgender women could not become women, but were instead “an idea of a woman” (Duffy). 


The Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien, who identifies as “third sex.”
The Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien, who identifies as “third sex.”

All of this means that Rocky Horror epically fails the current representational and political standards of “good” transgender media. The critiques of Rocky Horror and O’Brien that transgender women have made and continue to make are justified and necessary. But still, there is something about this film that exceeds its apparently transphobic address.

As a transgender person, I’m not supposed to appreciate Rocky Horror. And yet, I do. Why? 

The film was perhaps my first encounter with anything that might be called “transgender” representation, and even today I find myself returning to it over and over again, trying to grasp its strange politics. If we look closely, we find that what at first glance looks like a nonsensical film about an insane cannibalistic transgender scientist who tortures innocent people is simultaneously a story about a transgender alien (Dr. Frank N. Furter) who has left his home planet looking for a place where his queer desires will be accepted. He travels from planet to planet, but they are all the same, and he is consistently rejected. Finally, he lands on Earth and discovers how to create life. He uses these powers to create a human companion for himself, Rocky Horror, but this cross-species relationship offends the aliens from his home planet, who kill him. The film ends with a lament about how Earth, without the transgender figure of Frank N. Furter, is “lost in time, and lost in space/and meaning.”

If we set aside our modern instincts that Rocky Horror is representationally “bad” and examine these deeper features of its narrative, we find that the film ingeniously inverts the medical discourses of transgender pathology that were developing in the mid-1970s: In the film, Dr. Frank N. Furter has seized the means of gender production from the hands of the medical industry, and has produced his own “monster”—the ideal, white cisgender body of Rocky. This is a reversal of the classic story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, which has often been used to symbolize the relationship of surgeons to transgender people. In Rocky Horror, the transgender creator is granted the power of scientific knowledge, while the cisgender body is reduced to the speechless object of his desire.


Rocky Horror’s monstrous cisgender body is revealed.
Rocky Horror’s monstrous cisgender body is revealed.

This reversal is indeed terrifying and revolting, precisely because it places the transgender subject in control of gender and sexuality. We witness the resulting mayhem through the perspective of the chaste, heteronormative couple—Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon)—who fall under Dr. Frank N. Further’s thrall and are “transduced” into gender non-normativity, queerness, and sexual liberation. Rocky Horror thus reverses the process of gender transition, producing trans bodies (Brad and Janet become copies of Frank N. Furter) from cisgender ones.


Wild and untamed things: Frank N. Furter copies in the film’s ending kickline.
Wild and untamed things: Frank N. Furter copies in the film’s ending kickline.

This very radical transgender politics often goes unrecognized by audiences, I would argue, precisely because the film’s representational address appears to be transphobic.

Is Rocky Horror bad? If we wish to limit the archive of transgender media to objects that primarily uphold the standards of positive representation, then yes, it’s pretty bad. But if we’re willing to consider a less comforting and more confusing archive, then we might find room for The Rocky Horror Picture Show—a film with a now-alien politics that looks very unlike our recent efforts to make transgender life normal, included, respected.

Perhaps the actual question is, do we want to be good?



Image Credits:

  1. Dr. Frank N. Furter takes the throne. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine, 2014. (author’s screen grab)
  3. Sweet transvestite: A signed photo of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter. (author’s screen grab)
  4. The Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien, who identifies as “third sex.” (author’s screen grab)
  5. Rocky Horror’s monstrous cisgender body is revealed. (author’s screen grab)
  6. Wild and untamed things: Frank N. Furter copies in the film’s ending kickline. (author’s screen grab)


References:

Duffy, Nick. “Rocky Horror Star Richard O’Brien: Trans Women Can’t be Women.” Pinknews, 8 March 2016. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2016/03/08/rocky-horror-star-richard-obrien-trans-women-cant-be-women/

Raymond, Janice. The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. MIT Press, 1979.

Schwab, Katherine. “After 40 Years, Rocky Horror Has Become Mainstream.” The Atlantic, 26 September 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/09/after-40-years-rocky-horror-has-become-mainstream/407491/

Stanley, Eric. “Unrecognizable: On Transgender Recognition in 2017.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 116.3, July 2017. 605-611.

Steinmetz, Kathy. “The Transgender Tipping Point.” Time, 29 May 2014. https://time.com/135480/transgender-tipping-point/