American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Reel Gender: Examining the Politics of Trans Images in Film and Media

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Popular Culture

First Advisor

Susana Pea

Second Advisor

Bill Albertini (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Vikki Krane (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Rekha Mirchandani (Committee Member)


This dissertation examines transgender images in film, television and media from the 1950s through the present, with an emphasis on images from the 1980s through today. The primary goal of the dissertation is to interrogate the various gender and sexual ideologies contained within the representations to determine the social status of trans people in American society. How do these images function to both encourage and stymie the liberation of transgender people in the United States? The dissertation deploys trans, queer and feminist theories to critically analyze the cultural work performed by these mass-media texts. What are the trends within the trans media canon, and how do they relate to the treatment of real-world gender-nonconforming people?

In order to answer these questions, I separate the trans images into four different stereotypes. For each of these stereotypes, I analyze three to four films to compare and contrast the way the films deal with the issues of gender and sexual variation. The first stereotype I examine is the Transgender Deceiver. The Transgender Deceiver utilizes drag and gender transformation to obtain something they want from society. While the films analyzed are comedies (Tootsie, Just One of the Guys, Sorority Boys, and Juwanna Mann), I argue that they are not as innocuous as they appear due to the way they stereotype gender-variant people as duplicitous, selfish and conniving.

Next, I examine the trope of the Transgender Mammy. Through turning my analytical lens on To Wong Foo, Holiday Heart and Flawless, I look at the stereotype of the fabulous, servile and palatable trans-feminine subject. In these films, the characters exist to fix the problems of gender-normative people, add color and spice to their broken lives, and become worthy through their devoted service to the hegemonic class.

The Transgender Monster describes the use of gender-transgressive killers in horror and slasher films. While films such as Psycho and Silence of the Lambs are more well-known for this disturbing representation, I examine three teen horror "B-Movies" to examine this trend: Terror Train, Sleepaway Camp and Cherry Falls. While trans people are frequently murdered in vicious hate crimes, these films perform a reversal of reality by presenting transgender folks as killers. By doing so, they cement fear of gender variance and perpetuate the continued demonization of transgender women.

I end the dissertation by examining the Transgender Revolutionary. I look at four documentaries (Fenced Out, Toilet Training, Cruel and Unusual, and Screaming Queens) to demonstrate how this "new wave" of documentary film diverges from traditional representations of transpeople in documentaries by focusing on trans political agency.

The final chapter summarizes the findings of the dissertation, explores theoretical tensions in the work and contemplates new directions for transgender media. I assert new paradigms for gender and sexuality through a discussion of "degendering." Media can play a powerful role in documenting the emergence of exciting new transformations in the ongoing movement for gender freedom.