The first academic investigations of trans cinema and media arose from feminist and queer scholarship. However, this scholarship often conceived of trans as an imagined position unconnected to the experiences of actually existing people. This ranged from theorizations of (cis) spectators’ ambivalent identifications with gendered viewing positions to analyzing trans representations as embodiments of queer and postmodern theory. In the last two decades, transgender studies has coalesced as a discipline, with its own academic journal, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, and conference, Trans*Studies. Transgender studies acknowledges trans people as speaking subjects rather than objects to be studied.1 In response to scholarship that investigated trans people as either specimens or imagined positions, Jacob Hale has laid out some of the field's ground rules (for trans and cis scholars alike): “Interrogate your own subject position”; “Don't totalize us”; and “Don't imagine that you can write about the trope of transsexuality … without writing about transsexual subjectivities, lives, experiences, embodiments.”2 During these same decades, trans people have become increasingly visible in popular media, and the amount of audiovisual work made by openly trans artists has grown exponentially. Many new theories and histories are emerging today at the intersections of trans studies and feminist media studies.

Activists began using “transgender” in the 1990s as an umbrella term for transsexuals, transvestites, and everyone else “who move[s] away from the gender they were assigned at birth.”3 Today, “transgender” and “trans” usually refer to people whose gender identity is at odds with the sex assigned them at birth, while “cisgender” or “cis” refers to people whose gender identity aligns with their assigned sex. However, some argue that trans (often written “trans*” or “trans-”) is better understood as process rather than fixed identity. For example, as Eva Hayward and Jami Weinstein write, “Trans* is not a thing or being, it is rather the processes through which thingness and beingness are constituted.”4 

In film studies in the 1980s, psychoanalytic theory acknowledged cross-sex identification as a common, though temporary, experience. While feminist scholars rightly observed that cinema invites spectators to fantasize about inhabiting other genders, they conceptualized “transvestism” as a universal psychic phenomenon rather than a specific identity, lived experience, or axis of oppression.5 This same decade, Homer Dickens, Rebecca Bell-Metereau, and Anthony Slide showcased cross-dressing across film history.6 In a now-classic essay on Hollywood cross-dressing films, “Sexual Disguise in Cinema” (1985), Annette Kuhn pointed out that while these films offered “a utopian prospect of release from the ties of sexual difference,” they ultimately confirmed “a ‘natural’ order of fixed gender and unitary subjectivity.”7 

Cross-dressing and transsexuality became central tropes of postmodern and queer theory in the 1990s, inspired by Judith Butler's influential work, the rise of trans activism, and several provocative films. Marjorie Garber's book on cross-dressing, Vested Interests (1992), epitomizes the postmodern approach to trans representation. While Garber performs some interesting close analyses, she describes “the transvestite” in abstract terms, an approach roundly criticized by trans scholars.8 Chris Straayer's 1992 analysis of the “temporary transvestite film” offers what is still the most comprehensive account of gender disguise films.9,Paris Is Burning (1990), Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Crying Game (1992), Ma vie en rose (1997), and Boys Don't Cry (1999) inspired a wave of writing on trans representation. Jack Halberstam emerged as one of the first trans scholars analyzing this trans cinema, from “posthuman gender” in The Silence of the Lambs to the “transgender gaze” in Boys Don't Cry.10 Although many trans people made films in the 1990s and new transgender film festivals were founded, these practices did not receive as much attention as their non-trans queer brethren.11 The only book-length work on trans cinema, Transgender on Screen (2006) by John Phillips, made transphobic assumptions, misgendered characters, used offensive terminology, and failed to cite trans scholars.12 

In the 1990s and 2000s a new wave of scholarship investigated the interconnections between trans identities and diverse media practices. Joanne Meyerowitz described the American media's role in popularizing transsexuality, Jay Prosser analyzed conventions of transsexual autobiographies, Sandy Stone and Stephen Whittle separately described the importance of the internet for transgender communities, José Esteban Muñoz analyzed tactics of queer and trans artists of color, and Viviane Namaste criticized cinematic representations of trans women and US trans activism alike for leaning on unreconstructed nationalism to affirm trans lives as livable.13 

One persistent question for trans cinema scholars is, What is trans cinema? Jonathan Rachel Williams, Helen Hok-Sze Leung, and Eliza Steinbock lay out competing answers: films with trans characters, films made by trans filmmakers, films with a trans aesthetic, films that circulate among trans viewers, films open to trans readings, and more.14 Steinbock, a former programmer at the Netherlands Transgender Film Festival, investigates trans cinema aesthetics stretching from Georges Méliès's early cinema trick films to trans-made pornography, while Cáel M. Keegan describes the Wachowskis’ popular trans* aesthetic.15 Williams and Keegan also investigate trans spectatorship.16 Keegan further argues that recent trans films directed by white cis men enact a form of “aesthetic gentrification” that “occup[ies] queer, trans, and of colour histories.”17 This extractive approach was recapitulated when Black trans filmmaker Reina Gossett revealed that David France, a gay white filmmaker, had stolen her research on Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson.18 

Trans scholars challenge cultural appropriation and stereotyped representations, and have asked whether the drive for visibility is a trap.19 Trans women are persistently stereotyped as “deceptive” or “pathetic,” according to Julia Serano, and the news media radically circumscribe what types of trans people are allowed to speak and about what, as Namaste shows.20 Even when representation is “positive,” increased media attention to trans people correlates with higher rates of violence and political backlash. While some trans actors have new opportunities, many trans women of color are at increased risk. When trans people are granted mainstream visibility, it is often as spectacularized objects of suffering, not as political, speaking subjects.

Helen Hok-Sze Leung describes a new generation of “trans auteurs” who “construct a complex relation between their trans identification and their aesthetic signature on screen.”21 Other scholars explore intersectional trans artistic practices, such as Kai M. Green, who articulates a “Black TransFeminist approach” to filmmaking, and micha cárdenas, who identifies a “trans of color poetics” in media art that explores ways to modulate perceptibility (as trans, as being of color, et cetera) in order to contribute to the survival of trans people of color.22 Though most scholarship focuses on the West, Leung has analyzed Chinese-language films through a trans lens, as well as “the regional production of trans meanings that negotiate between local subjectivities and globalized categories” in the Cantonese-dubbed version of the Thai film The Iron Ladies (2000).23 Susan Stryker shows that Christine Jorgensen's cameo in the Filipino comedy We Who Are Sexy (Kaming Mga Talyada, 1962) stages a postcolonial encounter between “Eurocentric transgender” and local forms of gender variance.24 Scholars have also described the media labor of Indonesian waria paid by journalists for interviews, representations of hijras in Bollywood cinema, and trans representation in Iranian cinema.25 

If feminism is, at its core, about combating the dangerously unfair ways that power and oppression, recognition and repudiation, are distributed to individuals based on how their bodies are categorized, trans concerns lie at the heart of feminism. Today, scholarship at the intersection of trans studies and feminist media studies is taking off, offering new approaches to film and media aesthetics, spectatorship, embodiment, and authorship. Previous approaches that ignored actually existing trans people have been eclipsed by innovative scholarship grounded in concrete engagement with trans scholarship, politics, and cultural production.


Susan Stryker, “(De)Subjugated Knowledges,” in The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (New York: Routledge, 2006), 12–13.
Jacob Hale, “Suggested Rules for Non-Transsexuals Writing about Transsexuals, Transsexuality, Transsexualism, or Trans____,” November 18, 2009,
Susan Stryker, Transgender History: The Roots of Today's Revolution (Berkeley: Seal, 2017), 1.
Eva Hayward and Jami Weinstein, “Introduction: Tranimalities in the Age of Trans* Life,” TSQ 2, no. 2 (2015): 196–97.
Laura Mulvey, “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946),” Framework, nos. 15/16/17 (1981): 12–15; Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,” Screen 23, nos. 3/4 (1982): 74–88.
Homer Dickens, What a Drag: Men as Women and Women as Men in the Movies (New York: Quill, 1984); Rebecca Bell-Metereau, Hollywood Androgyny (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985); Anthony Slide, Great Pretenders: A History of Female and Male Impersonation in the Performing Arts (Lombard, IL: Wallace-Homestead, 1986).
Annette Kuhn, “Sexual Disguise in Cinema” (1985), in The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality (London and Boston: Routledge, 1985), 50, 57.
Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992). For an example of the criticism see Viviane Namaste, Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 14–15.
Chris Straayer, “Redressing the ‘Natural’: The Temporary Transvestite Film,” Wide Angle 14, no. 1 (1992): 36–55.
Judith Halberstam, “Skinflick: Posthuman Gender in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs,” Camera Obscura 9, no. 3, 27 (1991): 36–53; Judith Halberstam, “The Transgender Gaze in Boys Don't Cry,” Screen 42, no. 3 (2001): 294–98.
Trish Salah, “Notes toward Thinking Transsexual Institutional Poetics,” in Trans/Acting Culture, Writing, and Memory, ed. Eva C. Karpinski et al. (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013), 167–89; Laura Horak, “Tracing the History of Trans and Gender Variant Filmmakers,” Spectator 37, no. 2 (Fall 2017): 15–16. For a critique of queer approaches see Jonathan Rachel Williams, “Trans Cinema, Trans Viewers” (PhD diss., University of Melbourne, 2011), 5–8.
John Phillips, Transgender on Screen (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
Joanne Meyerowitz, “Sex Change and the Popular Press: Historical Notes on Transsexuality in the United States, 1930–1955,” GLQ 4, no. 2 (1998): 159–87; Jay Prosser, Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Allucquère Rosanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998); Stephen Whittle, “The Trans-Cyberian Mail Way,” Social and Legal Studies 7, no. 3 (1998): 389–408; José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Namaste, Invisible Lives, 93–131.
Williams, “Trans Cinema, Trans Viewers”; Helen Hok-Sze Leung, “Trans on Screen,” in Transgender China, ed. Howard Chiang (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 183–98; Helen Hok-Sze Leung, “Film,” TSQ 1, nos. 1/2 (May 2014): 86–88; Eliza Steinbock, “Toward Trans Cinema,” in The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Gender, ed. Kristin Lené Hole et al. (New York: Routledge, 2017), 395–406.
Steinbock, “Toward Trans Cinema”; Eliza Steinbock, “Pornography,” TSQ 1, nos. 1/2 (2014): 156–58; Eliza Steinbock, Shimmering Images: Trans Cinema, Embodiment, and the Aesthetics of Change (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming); Cáel M. Keegan, Lana and Lilly Wachowski: Sensing Transgender (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming).
Williams, “Trans Cinema, Trans Viewers”; Cáel M. Keegan, “Revisitation: A Trans Phenomenology of the Media Image,” MedieKultur 32, no. 61 (2016): 26–41.
Cáel M. Keegan, “History, Disrupted: The Aesthetic Gentrification of Queer and Trans Cinema,” Social Alternatives 35, no. 3 (2016): 52.
Reina Gossett, “Reina Gossett on Transgender Storytelling, David France, and the Netflix Marsha P. Johnson Documentary,” Teen Vogue, October 11, 2017,
Aren Z. Aizura, “Affective Vulnerability and Transgender Exceptionalism: Norma Ureiro in Transgression,” in Trans Studies: The Challenge to Hetero/Homo Normativities, ed. Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel and Sarah Tobias (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016), 122–40; Sam Feder and Alexandra Juhasz, “Does Visibility Equal Progress? A Conversation on Trans Activist Media,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 57 (Fall 2016):; Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton, eds., Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).
Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Emeryville, CA: Seal, 2007), 36–41; Viviane Namaste, “Beyond Image Content: Examining Transsexuals’ Access to the Media,” in Sex Change, Social Change: Reflections on Identity, Institutions, and Imperialism (Toronto: Women's Press, 2005), 41–59.
Leung, “Film,” 87.
Kai M. Green, “The Essential I/Eye in We: A Black TransFeminist Approach to Ethnographic Film,” Black Camera 6, no. 2 (2015): 187–200; micha cárdenas, “Trans of Color Poetics: Stitching Bodies, Concepts, and Algorithms,” S&F Online 13, no. 3 (2016):
Leung, “Trans on Screen”; Helen Hok-Sze Leung, “Always in Translation: Trans Cinema across Languages,” TSQ 3, nos. 3/4 (2016): 436–37.
Susan Stryker, “We Who Are Sexy: Christine Jorgensen's Transsexual Whiteness in the Postcolonial Philippines,” Social Semiotics 19, no. 1 (2009): 79–91.
Benjamin Hegarty, “The Value of Transgender: Waria Affective Labor for Transnational Media Markets in Indonesia,” TSQ 4, no. 1 (2017): 78–95; Gurvinder Kalra and Dinesh Bhugra, “Hijras in Bollywood Cinema,” International Journal of Transgenderism 16, no. 3 (2015): 160–68; Elhum Shakerifar, “Visual Representations of Iranian Transgenders,” Iranian Studies 44, no. 3 (2011): 327–39.