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.