To what extent can portrayals of Norman Bates in Psycho and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs be interpreted as reflecting the values of a transphobic society?
Transphobia can be defined as fear, disgust, stereotyping, or hatred of transgender, transsexual and other gender non-traditional individuals because of their perceived gender identity, expression, or status. Transgender is an umbrella term denoting or relating “to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender.” Transsexual refers to a person either pre-op or post-op. A transvestite or cross dresser can be defined as a person of either sex who derives erotic pleasure from cross-dressing. Gender should be understood to mean the ‘hetero-normative’ social and cultural codes of masculinity and femininity, rather than the biological male/female anatomical sex. Although the essay focuses on two films containing transgender serial killers, it must be noted (in order to understand the extent of the stereotype) that many more depictions of transgender killers exist in the horror/thriller genre: Dressed To Kill (1980), Cherry Falls (2000) and Sleepaway Camp (1983) to name just a few.
The quintessential monster in popular culture has transformed enormously over the past century. It has been argued by Judith Halberstam that typical depictions of the Hollywood monster as a racial or animal hybrid have now largely been replaced in popular culture. Halberstam uses the examples of Frankenstein, the most notorious nineteenth century monster, pointing out that he is a racial hybrid, and also identifies the classic figure of the werewolf, a crossbreed of different species. The evolution of the villain often reflects society’s anxieties. Darwinian thought brought about a fear of a fusion of species, the hybrid monster therefore reflected concerns about racial selection and eugenics. In our present era, villains with some form of disfigurement (The Joker, Terminator, Voldemort, Freddy Kruger, and Darth Vader) are in the majority, and unfortunately hint at a social uneasiness in relation to disability. Similarly, the ‘gay villain’ owes its roots to historical homophobic institutions and principles such as the belief that homosexuality was a curable psychological disorder. In this case the transgender killer, inexorably connected to homosexuality in common public perception (despite the fact that many transgender individuals are actually heterosexual) can be interpreted to indicate an underlying structure of transphobia in society. This essay will address a niche in LGBT representation on film: the transgender serial killer.
Transgender identities in popular culture are now synonymous with either comedy or monstrosity according to John Phillips, and he addresses these two categories in his book Transgender on Screen. Of course, as transgender persons are in the minority in the LGTB community, so too are portrayals of them in popular culture. While representations of homosexuals, bisexuals and lesbians on film can vary from derogatory to favourable, there persists, with few exceptions, a tendency to portray transgender characters as comedic, sneaky, monstrous or even evil. The scarcity of transgender representations on film does not mean that they should be thus categorised as inconsequential. It can in fact be argued that due to the analogous nature of these interpretations, a negative, distorted perception of gender transgression has been imposed upon audiences. An investigation as to what extent two portrayals of transgender serial killers in Psycho (1960) and Silence of the Lambs (1991) can be perceived as transphobic hopes to reveal the challenge which filmmakers and society face in overcoming stereotypical representations of marginal minorities. A close textual analysis of both ‘big reveals’ and an assessment of the overall implications of the portrayals of these characters will also be considered more broadly. In addition, academic responses to these movies and arguments for and against a transphobic stance will be considered.
K. E. Sullivan notes that representations of transvestites on film generally fall into one of two categories: as a means for a heterosexual character to gain access to benefits denied them as a male, such as in Mrs Doubtfire; or as a signifier of a sexually deviant monster, such as in Silence of the Lambs. Concerning the latter categorisation, in correspondence with an unveiling of the antagonist as a killer, another discovery, engineered to be more disturbing than the first, reveals the killer is also a transvestite. These exposés can either be interlinked as in Psycho, or, can provide a second shock dynamic in the narrative as occurs in Silence. The ‘big reveal’ can often prove immensely shocking for the audience, as the boundaries between ‘normal’ gender roles become entwined. In combination with an already unexpected twist, and when the transgender character is also monstrously psychotic or sexually deviant, a negative code associated with tansgenderism lingers in audience perception. This can have profound repercussions for already pervasive stereotypes, as, according to Sullivan, “monstrosity or deviance almost exclusively mark images of transgender individuals, allowing for little if any sympathy from spectators.”
It has been noted by many critics that depictions of serial killing cross-dressers owe their foundations to notorious, real life killer Ed Gein. Gein would influence a variety of fictional murderers, including Norman Bates, from Psycho; Buffalo Bill, from Silence; and Leatherface, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho was the first to fictionalise Gein, and was turned into a cinematic classic one year later by Alfred Hitchcock. Conveniently for Hollywood, Gein has supplied a vindication for the origins of Norman Bates, as well as all subsequent portrayals of transgender killers. The association between Bates’ cross-dressing and psychosis can consequently be defended by a reminder that there was in fact a real life, cross-dressing, serial killer. Yet, this assertion glosses over the surface of transphobia, which did and still does, influence media and cultural representations. News media saw the potential in the Gein story, embellishing details and adding the transvestite myth. Sullivan has pointed out that there is in fact no conclusive evidence to suggest that Gein was ever anything more than a heterosexual, psychotic, schizophrenic man, fixated with his Mother, driven to kill and steal female body parts not because he wanted to be a woman, but because he wanted to find a substitute for his Mother. With this considered, the spectator of the film must ask themselves why the cross-dressing aspect of Bates’ character is the most vital aspect of the plot? If not influenced by reality then surely the transgender component of the murderous character is based on a ubiquitous public fear of gender-transgression? Joelle Ryan states that “the linkage is not based on empirical fact or even a faithful translation of Gein’s life and tragic misdeeds, but on bias, prejudice and cultural indoctrination.” The temperament of the 1950s conformist era would certainly corroborate this claim. Freudian concepts of the nuclear family reinforced boundaries of gender normalcy, rendering all deviants of this traditional model as ‘other.’
 Andrew S. Forshee, ‘Homophobia and Transphobia’, http://www.pcc.edu/resources/illumination/documents/homophobia-transphobia.pdf [accessed 10/12/11]
 Phillips, John, Transgender on Screen (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) p. 8.
 Phillips, Transgender, p. 8.
 Phillips, Transgender, p. 8.
 Halberstam, Judith, Skinflick: Posthuman Gender in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. In Badmington, Neil, Posthumanism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000) p. 57.
 Phillips, Transgender, pp. 51 & 85.
 K.E. Sullivan, ‘Ed Gein and the Figure of the Transgendered Serial Killer’, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 38-47
 Sullivan, ‘Ed Gein’, pp.38-47.
 Sullivan, ‘Ed Gein’, pp. 38-47.
 Joelle Ruby Ryan, ‘Reel Gender: Examining the Politics of Trans Images in Film and Media,’ http://etd.ohiolink.edu/send-pdf.cgi/Ryan%20Joelle%20Ruby.pdf?bgsu1245709749 (2009) p. 182.
- Quote paper
- Leila Fielding (Author), 2012, To what extent can portrayals of Norman Bates in 'Psycho' and Buffalo Bill in 'The Silence of the Lambs' be interpreted as reflecting the values of a transphobic society?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/199824