Despite newly affirming images of transgender people proliferating across US visual media, there has been a concomitant rise in anti-transgender attitudes, transphobic legislation, and trans antagonistic violence. The assumption that more and better images of transgender people are key to achieving transgender equality strains under the weight of an emerging contradiction: “good” representation does not necessarily mean reduced social or political antagonism for transgender people. Rather, the emergence of “good” (i.e. marketable) trans media objects illustrates how the most politically challenging aspects of transgender identification are increasingly forced outside the horizon of representability. This essay turns away from “good” transgender representations and toward an archive of recently canceled “bad” transgender media objects, offering new assessments of their unexpected value. Claiming badness as a trans property that must be embraced to achieve sex and gender liberation, it defends bad trans objects as unrecognized sources of transformative potential.
The very improvisatory ephemerality of the archive makes it worth reading. Its very popularity, its effects on law and on everyday life, makes it important. Its very ordinariness requires an intensified critical engagement with what had been merely undramatically explicit.—Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City
There is a moment in Disclosure (Sam Feder, 2020), a recent documentary on the history of transgender media representation, when trans director Yance Ford directly offers the core claim of the work: “We cannot be a better society until we see that better society.” The sentiment reflects the film’s impulse to demonstrate a “proof” of visibility as change, restating a currently prevailing attitude that positive images of minority groups will lead to better political and social treatment for those groups in reality.
Disclosure explicitly calls for a proliferation of new and better transgender media objects that would dilute the toxicity of the past archive. This animating thesis reflects how the use of validating media representation has become a primary pedagogical model for the social treatment of transgender people. For example, when Time magazine announced the arrival of the transgender “tipping point” in 2014, it did so by overtly displaying an image of authentic transness on its cover: Laverne Cox became the first transgender person to ever appear on the front of the magazine. In print next to her foregrounded image, the Time cover proclaimed transgender issues to be the “next civil rights frontier.”1
And yet, despite newly affirming images of transgender people proliferating across US visual media, there has been a concomitant rise in anti-transgender attitudes, transphobic legislation, and trans-antagonistic violence.2 The thesis articulated in Disclosure—that more and better images of transgender people are key to achieving transgender equality (if not liberation)—strains under the weight of this emerging contradiction: the transgender “tipping point” period has demonstrated that “good” representation does not necessarily mean reduced social or political antagonism for transgender people. Even Disclosure director Sam Feder, in conversation with media scholar and activist Alexandra Juhasz, admits: “I’ve learned that visibility does not equal progress.”3 In fact, media visibility may ensure further persecution as the wider public becomes more familiar with—and more hostile toward—transgender identities.
As public knowledge about transgender embodiments has increased, and as anti-transgender attitudes have strengthened, the pathways for viable transgender representation also appear to have tightened around new standards of positivity and respectability. The emergence of the “May Test” (a transgender variant of the Bechdel Test for women’s representation) reflects this narrowing of what journalists and activists consider to be “good” trans media. According to the test, a transgender character must be portrayed by a trans actor; be depicted as “safe, stable, and secure,” “happy,” and “in love”; and not be “a sex worker, dealer, or thief.” Trans identity cannot be used to produce humor or generate a plot twist, and gender transition should not be the focus of the story.
In an article outlining these requirements, test creator Kiley May explains that these qualities are intended as a corrective to the last thirty years of transphobic and tokenistic media images, which often featured negative stereotypes of transgender people or cisgender actors dressing as the “opposite” gender in order to mock transgender identities.4 Yet even as the “good” transgender representation that the May Test demands has exponentially multiplied, there remains in trans culture a sense of dissatisfaction with the results of this increased cultural visibility, which has not led to improved social or political status for most transgender people.5 Viewing Disclosure, one senses a collective desire for some other mode of representation to emerge, but which, and how? The paradox underlying such desire is that “good” transgender media objects seem to have unanticipated negative effects—a reality that raises the related question of whether “bad” transgender objects might still contain unappreciated value.
“Good” Trans Objects
What qualities would typify a “good” trans object?6 In the current “tipping point” era, good trans media objects are considered “good” when they fold transness into the visual economy of existing normative media. They have become profitable “goods” because they effectively assimilate transness, minimizing the threat that transgender embodiment poses to the dominant models of gender and sex upon which realist, mediated worlds rely. Good trans media objects are “good” precisely because they allow an engagement with transgender identifications without giving up the economy of sexual difference itself—that is, they successfully absorb transgender identity into their representational fields without threatening the intelligibility of preexisting gender identifications. Their assimilative strategies mirror recent bureaucratic efforts to incorporate trans and intersex people into the tracking and management of sex/gender through the addition of new legalistic categories (such as the X option on US passports) while continuing to operate as if the sex binary remains scientifically reliable and crucially meaningful.
“Good” trans objects produce this same effect, covering over the tension between the reality of transgender existence and the desire to retain normative organizations of sex and gender. In the tipping-point era, this is often achieved not by erasing transness, but by foregrounding the transgender figure to the extent that gender normativity recedes into a largely invisible backdrop—a field against which the “authentic” trans image appears, but one that also seals off and surrounds what the trans object can actually come to mean.7 The “good” trans object, then, tends to be one that deploys the transgender figure precisely by cordoning off its deconstructive capacities, so that it functions primarily to extend the logic of the existing gender system—either by contrast with or assimilation to its premises.
Jenji Kohan’s television series Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, 2013–19) inaugurated the tipping-point era of transgender media representation. The program was hailed as groundbreaking for its authentic casting of trans actress Laverne Cox as trans woman inmate Sophia Burset. Although Sophia’s inclusion as yet another type of woman does augment the show’s highly diverse cast of women characters, this is largely the extent of her narrative and symbolic functions. Sophia’s presence is never permitted to move beyond a “truism” cycle that reiterates itself through the repeated questioning and verification of her womanhood.8
Rather than challenging the medical and legal mechanisms through which womanhood is determined and enforced (the show is careful to stress that Sophia has undergone lower surgery), the series uses her figure to extend and augment them through a pattern of contrast with and then assimilation into the reified category of woman. This supplementary role is encapsulated by Sophia’s job within the prison, which is to work as a hairstylist, accentuating and caring for the femininities of the other women. Sophia is a “good” trans object because she presents a mode of transness that supplements the existence of womanhood as a concept, but she otherwise remains stranded on the margins of meaning and relation.
The success of Orange Is the New Black, which ran for seven seasons on Netflix, illustrates the marketability of “good” trans objects designed largely for middle-class, white, normatively gendered consumers. Its same strategies are perceptible in other popular mainstream media, most notably in Pose (Ryan Murphy, 2018–20) and The L Word: Generation Q (Ilene Chaiken, 2019–), which foreground transgender characters but also simultaneously contain them as diversifying supplements to prior texts—Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990) and The L Word (Ilene Chaiken, 2004–9). These programs allow audiences to feel good about transness specifically because it is presented as a value-adding augmentation to prior, less “good” texts.
In order to reorient desire away from “good” trans objects such as these and toward a different, less comforting, “bad” media archive, this analysis mobilizes several overlapping motivations. First, “good” transgender representations have much in common with emerging modes of governance directed at transgender people in their effort to contain transgender difference as just another type of gender performance, partitioning it off from challenging the legal and medical mandates of sex assignment.9 The proliferation of “good” trans media objects has therefore done very little to abrogate and may even accentuate existing modes of antagonistic trans scrutiny, which largely focus on the policing of transgender people’s material bodies.
Second, because they are created for mainstream audiences, “good” trans images tend to reproduce the “hierarchy of verisimilitude” that enforces gendered standards of beauty and comportment for trans people.10 Despite the demand for greater diversity in representation, the great majority of transgender media images are thin, able-bodied, conventionally attractive, and gender normative—and therefore do not problematize the standards for becoming recognizable as a gendered subject. Third, as trans media scholar Eliza Steinbock has pointed out, the style of aesthetic foregrounding used to advertise “good” trans media (as typified by ads for Pose) tends to retrench the schema of binary sexed embodiment through the very delineation of trans as an iconized exception.11 Fourth, the pressure to elevate this new mode of transgender representation as a corrective to prior, “bad” media objects often causes both viewers and critics to disregard earlier texts that reflect transgender identity’s more complicated representational history.
Finally, there is a need for caution regarding the emerging political imperative to become a “good” trans object oneself, rather than to recognize how goodness has been constructed to serve capitalist, white-supremacist, settler colonial, and patriarchal ends. The emergence of “good” trans media objects illustrates how the most politically challenging aspects of transgender identification are increasingly forced outside the horizon of representability.
“Bad” Trans Objects
It is a tongue-in-cheek canard in online trans culture that the word “bad” may derive from the Old English bæddel, meaning “hermaphrodite” or “effeminate man.”12 This possible etymology of “bad” reflects a history through which intersex, trans, and gender-nonconforming people were squeezed out of social and legal roles as the theory of a universal human sex was gradually split into a legal and medical binary. From the seventeenth through the nineteenth century, what had been a range of available social and legal roles for trans and intersex people was slowly restricted until there were only two sexed categories: “male” and “female.”13
This binary failed to capture the preexisting diversity of the human species, but was a convenient enforcement mechanism for white supremacy, settler colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchal definitions of citizenship. Whatever could not be sorted into the emergent white, bourgeois categories of male/female became increasingly understood as “bad” and marked for medical and carceral “correction.”14 In this sense, badness is a property that indicates the presence of something unclassifiable within the established categories used to delimit sex and gender. “Bad” objects are therefore objects that refuse to fit neatly within the purportedly closed system of sexual difference, gesturing at the existence of possibilities beyond deterministic, binary categorizations.15
In place of the popular journalistic and internet discourses that increasingly demand the production of “good” trans objects, this analysis suggests a return to the trans abject—that is, the “bad” trans object that cannot fit within the aesthetic system being agreed upon to represent reality. The bad trans object threatens the very stability of sexual difference itself, and therefore must be either ignored or erased. Looking carefully at bad trans objects can help expose how the exemplary trans media of the current moment might actually reflect new restrictions on the transgender imaginary.
Three mainstream US films now regarded as transphobic—Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982), It’s Pat (Adam Bernstein, 1994), and The Assignment (Walter Hill, 2016)—illustrate how political resources can be discovered, however unexpectedly, in bad places. All three of these texts have recently been labeled by film critics and journalists as “bad” examples of cinema that stereotype or fetishize transgender embodiment, yet all three also point to possibilities that “good” trans objects typically fail to explore.16 From their banished location at the margins of the trans media archive, these films offer an entry into questions about sex and gender deeper than those posed by most of today’s mainstream “good” transgender media.
Returning to certain media texts that have been labeled as “bad” transgender objects can contribute to the development of new techniques for reading, valuing, and expanding upon the qualities of trans badness they contain. This claim is especially pressing in a media environment that increasingly circulates palatable, traditionally beautiful images of transgender life (such as those featured in POSE, Netflix’s Tales of the City [Gail Barringer, 2019], The L Word: Generation Q, and Gossip Girl [Joshua Safran, 2021–]) through an inclusion-based vision that does not disrupt oppressive taxonomies of sex and gender.17 Although they are less critically or popularly valued than today’s “good” trans objects, the three seemingly trivial “bad” objects that follow point to a broader vision for trans politics than the provisional inclusion into gender-normative worlds that “good” media currently provide. As such, “bad trans” texts function much like Lauren Berlant’s “silly” objects, whose very ordinariness as apparently transphobic “requires an intensified critical engagement” with their core ideas.18
Gender Ad Lib: Tootsie
The May Test’s prohibition on using transgender identity to produce laughter provokes the question of whether comedy can ever be good for trans politics. As highlighted in Disclosure, film comedy has traditionally relied on the cross-dressed or transgender figure as a source of erotic pleasure as well as amusement—a tradition dating back to the very beginning of the filmic medium.19 Trans theorist Julia Serano has noted two major transgender media stereotypes: the “deceptive transsexual” (commonly depicted in thrillers and horror films), who fools others into perceiving a sex that they do not anatomically possess; and the comedic “pathetic transsexual,” who fails to be convincing in their gender performance and functions largely to generate humor.20 The excess of “pathetic” trans images in film comedy has resulted in a skepticism about the genre as one that only ever positions trans identities as objects of derision. The recent furor over transphobic content in comedian Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special The Closer (2021) stems from this long history of transgender bodies being used to generate laughter, the consistency of which has led trans culture to eschew comedy in favor of a more paranoid interpretive sensibility.21
The recent stage revival of the cross-dressing comedy Tootsie has been met with some of this same suspicion, reflecting current journalistic sensitivities about older, “bad” forms of humorous transgender representation.22 However, the original Tootsie is not exactly the “bad” film one might assume. A romantic comedy about a struggling actor who dresses as a woman to land a soap-opera role and unexpectedly becomes a feminist icon, Tootsie inventively uses the conventions of the cross-dressing comedy to present a fascinating set of retorts to the anti-transgender attitudes of late-1970s feminism.
Janice Raymond’s transphobic book The Transsexual Empire (1979) notoriously claimed that transgender women were actually men driven by patriarchal privilege to infiltrate women’s spaces and movements.23 Released only three years later, Tootsie presents a utopian cinematic counterpoint, illustrating how womanhood is constructed through collective action and how male-assigned bodies can contribute to feminist solidarity. In Tootsie, women with histories of living as men are simply another kind of woman. Rather than being proof of “male entitlement,” their lived experience as male-assigned is represented as an asset to the women’s movement. Tootsie therefore repudiates anti-trans feminist discourses, which accuse trans women of being “men” but redefine the actual feminist qualities of trans women (assertiveness, empowerment) as “male privilege” for their own exclusionary purposes.
Tootsie follows the story of Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman), an out-of-work actor who decides to present as a woman, “Dorothy Michaels,” to audition for a part on the popular daytime soap opera Southwest General. Dorothy gets the part and proceeds to play the role as an overt feminist, often ad-libbing over lines written by the male director that portray the show’s women characters as passive. She also befriends the women of the cast and develops a close relationship with her costar, Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange). Dorothy’s feminism catches the public’s attention, and she becomes a national media sensation with a massive female following. However, she ultimately chooses not to continue her Southwest General role, eventually revealing herself as Michael on-screen. The film ends as Michael reunites with Julie and the two agree to pursue a romantic relationship as a man and woman.
As Chris Straayer once noted, cross-dressing comedies tend to resolve their forays into gender inversion with final appeals to heteronormativity.24 Tootsie, however, does not end quite so neatly. In the final scene, the transfeminist potential that Dorothy introduced into Michael’s and Julie’s lives lingers as an expanded and yet lost set of possibilities. “I miss Dorothy,” Julie says wistfully as the film closes. It is not that Julie has realized a queer attraction to Dorothy, but that she misses Dorothy’s integration of masculine assertion and feminine care—a combination that traditional heterosexual masculinity fails to offer. Although Michael insists that Dorothy is still present, the film does not confirm his assertion. Tootsie is a bad trans object precisely because it introduces the pleasure of trans and queer forms of gender in ways that point to the limited horizon of the cisgender heterosexual couple, undermining the genre’s typical narrative conclusion.
While cross-dressing films have a long history in Hollywood, Tootsie departs from the genre’s conventions in that Michael does not dress as a woman to elicit “pathetic” transphobic humor. Dorothy is actually good at being a woman—perhaps even better at it than her “real women” counterparts—because of having more practice (as a man and as an actor) in breaking the gendered rules that women are expected to obey, by both men and other women. The film contrasts the gendered hierarchy of New York City casting offices and agent meetings with the melodramatic, experimental space of the soap opera—a lowbrow, nonrealist environment that allows Dorothy to ad-lib in resistance to how the women’s roles are written, altering the structure of the plot and script.
Through Dorothy’s feminist interventions, the Southwest General set becomes an improvisational consciousness-raising space where gender roles can be revised and reassigned on the fly. Such latitude is permitted because Dorothy’s ad libs and rewrites are extremely popular with women viewers, who constitute a controlling share of the soap opera’s audience. Backed by her fans, which include a diverse mix of Cosmopolitan, Woman’s Day, TV Guide, and New York Magazine readers, Dorothy applies a trans style of Method acting that rearranges how gender functions and who gets to act as a feminist agent. This transfeminist praxis of improvisational role reassignment eventually lands her on the front of Ms. magazine—a speculative feat that would have been impossible in 1982. At the time of this writing, Ms. has still not featured a transgender woman on its cover.25
Perhaps most challengingly, Tootsie suggests that women who have lived as men might make better feminists than women who never have. Such a proposition flips the assumptions of trans-exclusionary feminisms upside down: while transphobic feminists such as Raymond assume that trans women are domineeringly masculine, Tootsie implies that trans women can make ideal feminist leaders precisely because they are women who were not socialized as such.26 Dorothy engages on set as an actress who has not been fully inculcated into the television industry’s norms for women, but her assertiveness is never presented as some kind of essentially “male” quality, precisely because she is seen as a woman in those situations.
Halfway through the film, Michael indeed explains to his agent that he actually considers himself to have become a woman through other women’s appreciation of Dorothy. Michael is able to dress and present as Dorothy individually, but it is the support of other women that makes Dorothy into a person and a woman, socially and politically. Tootsie therefore proposes a trans-inclusive ethos of feminist solidarity, under which women’s liberation is only ever enhanced by expanding who gets to count as a woman. If Tootsie is a bad trans object, it is because the film points productively at the ongoing need for a feminism without rules regarding who is considered a “real” woman, or who gets to become one.
Not Making Progress: It’s Pat
The pilot of the Abby McEnany sitcom Work in Progress (Showtime, 2019–) circulates around a chance encounter between the lead character, Abby (a self-described “fat, queer dyke”), and the real-life actor Julia Sweeney, who became famous in the 1990s for portraying the ambiguously sexed character “Pat” on Saturday Night Live. Abby (Abby McEnany) notices Sweeney at a restaurant and confronts her, explaining how Pat “ruined her life.” The scene is followed by a flashback in which a younger Abby is insulted at a party by a college-aged man who derisively calls her “Pat,” echoing Work in Progress showrunner McEnany’s actual experience.27 Pat, as Abby explains to Sweeney, was a bad object used by bigoted people to make fun of gender-nonconforming people like herself. Introduced by a short jingle—“What’s that? It’s Pat!”—the androgynous sketch character was a staple of Saturday Night Live from 1990 to 1993. Sweeney appeared in the role a total of thirteen times before starring in a feature film, It’s Pat, in 1994.
By structuring its pilot around the figure of Pat, Work in Progress seeks to draw distinctions between itself as an example of “butch respectability” and the “bad” trans objects of the past, framing Pat as a dangerous example of transphobic mockery created at the expense of queer and trans people.28 However, the humor surrounding Pat, both on SNL and in the feature film, was not quite the same derision that is directed at Abby in Work in Progress. Instead, the laughs were almost always generated by other people’s unhealthy obsession with classifying Pat’s sex. Returning to It’s Pat after the transgender tipping point, what at first seemed to be a wildly transphobic film now appears to actively resist many of the stigmatizing tropes of transgender representation—most critically, the underlying system of sex assignment that makes the fact of Pat’s existence an impossibility. If Pat is a “bad” trans object, it is precisely because Pat’s presence forces the viewer to confront the paradox of material bodies that remain unclassifiable under a purportedly natural binary sex schema. The fundamental joke of It’s Pat is therefore the joke of binary sex itself, a categorizing system that is treated as a form of material truth grounding both gender and sexuality, but that ultimately cannot be relied on.
It’s Pat follows the titular character, Pat Riley (Julia Sweeney), as they fall in love with and get engaged to another ambiguously sexed and nonbinary person, Chris (Dave Foley). As the relationship unfolds, Pat’s new neighbor, Kyle (Charles Rocket), becomes erotically obsessed with discovering Pat’s sex and begins to stalk and harass Pat. It is Kyle’s obsession with classifying Pat that is the major source of violence and conflict in the text. But unlike other trans-themed texts from this period, the film continually stymies this desire and blocks it from achieving any kind of release.29 Kyle steals and decrypts Pat’s diary in an attempt to learn the “truth” about Pat, but the diary ends up containing nothing but self-important, humdrum details. Kyle is driven insane by the lack of a revelation, finally attacking Pat in the catwalk area above an ongoing rock concert. As Pat falls into the stage rigging, their pants are caught on a hook and they dangle, exposed above the stage. However, Pat’s sex is not revealed to the viewer or to Kyle, who is dragged away by security guards.
It’s Pat ends with Pat happily marrying Chris without any ceremonially gendered roles. By never resolving the question of Pat’s sex, the film refuses to participate in the “reveal” that is an expected convention of trans-themed films.30 However, It’s Pat goes even further, suggesting that a genital reveal is actually less pleasurable than the enjoyment of not being able to know what or where sex is. The film’s happy ending is one in which viewers know enough to know not even to ask the question of sex, thereby opening up other modes of trans and queer relationality.
While the use of “it” to describe Pat in the film’s title could be interpreted as dehumanizing, the text largely presents this use as a limitation of both epistemology and discourse rather than any failure on Pat’s part. Because Pat does not fall into any known sexed category, there is no way to explain what Pat is. Pat is just … Pat. Pat therefore becomes a kind of tautology that the other characters, especially the obsessive Kyle, get caught in and cannot escape. Because there is no “true sex” to be located and disclosed, the loop of “Pat is Pat is Pat” can never be closed. Pat is a conundrum that frustrates the other characters’ curiosities and exceeds their vocabularies: there is simply no answer to the question Pat continually raises.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with Pat, however, only with the anxiety Pat produces in other people. Pat isn’t confused by their own sex, but other people are. Part of what makes Pat so infuriating to the other characters, and so funny to viewers, is Pat’s blithe lack of concern about the unsettling ambiguity they introduce to every situation. Pat is annoying to the other characters in the film precisely because Pat is so unselfconscious, so utterly uninterested in the “difficult confession” that constitutes modern sexuality that even their “secret” diary is just a laundry list of petty observations.31 When Pat goes to get a makeover to “look like their own gender” (whichever that may be), they end up with the exact same hairstyle as before. In a direct repudiation of the conventions of transgender and intersex representations, there is no mystery to be revealed from under Pat’s clothes or within their flesh. Pat simply exists.
Still, the mere existence of Pat is enough to “ruin the lives” of those around them who are existentially attached to the concept of binary sex. Pat’s indeterminacy unravels their genders and sexualities, revealing their instability and provoking discomfort and panic. Because people cannot know Pat’s sex, they struggle to figure out whether or not they are in a homosexual or heterosexual situation.32 This discomfort is passed along to the audience as a source of dramatic tension as well as humor: Is the scene a date or a hangout? A seduction or a same-gender gossip session? Neither the audience nor the characters in the film can tell. This tension illustrates how the conventions of straight, gay, and lesbian modes of desire require clearly sexed bodies—a fact the film pokes fun at when Pat visits a queer bar called “L.G.T. Vegas.” (By excluding the “B” from “LGBT,” the film removes a sexual orientation that would ostensibly not be troubled by Pat’s ambiguity, pushing the categorical badness represented by “T” directly up against the sex-dependent categories of “L” and “G.”)
Pat, however, is attracted only to other ambiguously sexed and nonbinary people—an orientation that is unmappable within the taxonomy of binary sex. As an unclassifiable body, Pat appears to activate forms of desire that lack any recognizable categorization: desire for the unknown, the new, the unreadable. Unlike media texts that rely on a genital reveal to put sex and gender back in order, It’s Pat never resolves into the lack/excess economy of sexual difference. It’s Pat is a bad trans object that powerfully illustrates how sexual difference is not necessary for desire, for sociality, or for politics.33
Reassigning The Assignment
One consistent feature of tipping-point-era trans media is a general attempt to correct for earlier modes of “bad” transgender representation. Historically, the bulk of “bad” past images has targeted trans women, while other forms of transgender identity have gone largely unpictured. This has resulted in fewer reasons to create compensatory “good” images of diverse forms of transgender subjectivity. For example, rather than being spectacularized, as trans women have been, transmasculinity is generally much less represented in the visual field. The overrepresentation of transfemininity in the archive ensures that the majority of tipping-point transgender texts will focus on correctives: portraying transgender women accurately and respectfully. It also ensures that most examples of transgender media are evaluated according to standards for “good” transfeminine representation (even when they might more closely relate to transmasculine or nonbinary experience).
Such conditions can lead critics and scholars to dismiss transgender media texts as “bad” even when they contain resistant or oppositional resources that might be pertinent to less culturally conspicuous transgender identities. For example, The Assignment (Walter Hill, 2016) was flatly categorized as a “bad” film for what critics assumed was a negative representation of male-to-female gender transition.34 A neo-noir crime thriller that relates the story of an assassin, Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez), who is forcibly transitioned to female by an abusive plastic surgeon whose brother Frank had eliminated in a hit, The Assignment was roundly denounced for its depiction of gender transition as “punishment” as well as the decision to cast Michelle Rodriguez in the lead role, rather than a trans woman.35
Viewed through the framework of prior stigmatizing depictions of transfemininity, The Assignment is certainly “bad.” Gender-affirming surgery is represented as disfiguring, and Frank understands himself as a mutilated man, not a woman. Yet despite male-to-female surgical techniques that function as a central plot device, The Assignment does not actually reflect the experience of trans women—because Frank does not ever identify as or seek to be seen as female. Instead, the film represents the experience of a male-identified subject who is forced by medical authority to live with a female-assigned body as a case of horror. Frank exists as a woman only because he has been involuntarily assigned a “female” morphology with which he does not identify.
While The Assignment features no transgender characters and only obliquely touches on the experiences of trans people, it more directly addresses the subjective experience of transmasculinity than many “good” media texts. Frank is forced to live and behave as a woman because he has been assigned a female body that is the product of someone else’s desire. Although he looks female, Frank never ceases to be male-identified. His gender identity remains consistent. There is no medically viable way for him to return to his original male embodiment, so he must learn to cope with the trauma of being involuntarily femininized. If The Assignment is about transgender identity at all, then, it is arguably about the experience of transgender men—a point entirely missed by press coverage of the film.
Rather than casting two different people to play Frank, the film makes creative use of prosthetics and sound (Rodriguez’s voice appears to be slightly deepened) to present Rodriguez in both male and female roles—a set of techniques often eschewed by “good” transgender media that seek to avoid presenting trans identity as a form of costume. However, The Assignment implements these strategies to ingenious effect by reversing their order—establishing the male Frank as initial and true, and Frank’s later female body as externally imposed and false. This strategy allows the film to give Frank an original male embodiment that viewers have witnessed as real and that haunts the rest of the text as a lost signifier. While it does make prodigious use of the “mirror scene” that is a common trope of transgender narratives, the text allows the audience to experience Frank’s properly sexed body before the mirror is used to illustrate his dysphoria.36 The Assignment therefore displays the missing, correctly sexed body as real rather than as an impossibility or delusion—a radical difference from the mirror scene’s classical deployment. The Assignment forces audiences to confront the gap between gender identity and sexed embodiment that is generally concealed in accounts of identification.
If The Assignment fails the standards of “good” trans media, its true badness lies in how it reveals the violent operations of medical sex assignment itself. The most oppressive force in the film is not transphobia but the power of medical authority to shape and assign sex to all bodies. The film’s title is therefore a play on words that references both Frank’s job as a hit man and the foundational violence produced by and through medically assigned sex. The film’s villain, Dr. Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver), is an unethical predator who experiments on the bodies of trans people who are desperate for surgical options. Jane’s abuse of her medical authority and her torture of Frank demonstrate how medicine creates and re-creates the logic of binary sex through all flesh, transgender or not. Most radically, The Assignment suggests that transgender politics should seek not the assimilation of transgender bodies into the current gender system but instead the eradication of the sex binary as a medical concept. Only once the mechanisms of such binaries are destroyed can transgender liberation be achieved.
The Assignment closes by making this exact gesture. Having tracked down and systematically killed Dr. Jane’s hired goons, Frank finally corners her in her surgical suite. The scene cites the Frankensteinian tradition of the creature confronting its creator with the consequences of her overweening hubris. Jane attempts to reason with Frank, offering to simply disappear and leave him alone. In response, Frank shoots and incapacitates her. The camera pans over Jane laid out on a surgical table, bleeding, as Frank holds a knife in his hand over her body. The film then flashes forward: Jane is incarcerated, taking a bath in a women’s prison. As the camera pushes further into the scene, it reveals what the film has hidden below the lip of the bathtub. In monstrously fitting revenge, Frank has removed Jane’s fingers. Not only can she no longer operate, but she is also deprived of the ableist privileges she exercised over the bodies of her patients. The mechanism by which sex assignment was involuntarily carried out has been dismantled.
Unlike many of today’s “good” transgender media objects, The Assignment closes by pointing directly at the source of transgender oppression. That critics and activists dismissed the film as “bad” suggests a narrowing of the ability to read what counts as trans politics, whereby liberal attempts have come to supplant more abolitionist imaginaries. However, it is only by being truly bad, by insisting on the incompleteness of what currently pass for sex and gender, that these systems can truly be overturned. In a world where transness is commonly punished and often selected for eradication, the status of being thought of as “good,” as “valid,” to have nice things said by the systems that govern trans life, is hard for trans people to resist. And yet, a trans politics of abolition requires the desire for something else, something as yet outside of the available systems of classification, something that might make nearly everyone feel … bad.
Truly embracing badness means moving beyond a politics in which cisgender people grant the least disruptive forms of transgender identity a marginal amount of inclusion. It means, instead, pursuing a world in which the distinction between cis and trans ceases to exist altogether, because the systems enforcing binary sex and gender are dismantled. Achieving this new, bad world might very well mean looking backward at the lessons that less currently valued media objects contain. This analysis is therefore intended as a form of “trans care” for the dated, awkward, inauthentic archive of bad trans media, for the trans people who love the bad object that the transgender body is, and for all those who wish to find ways of continuing to be resistantly gendered subjects—now and into the bad future.37
Katy Steinmetz, “The Transgender Tipping Point,” Time, May 29, 2014, https://time.com/135480/transgender-tipping-point/.
Oliver C. Haug, “Halfway through the Year, 2021 Is Already the Worst Year Ever for Anti-Transgender Legislation,” Ms., July 16, 2021, https://msmagazine.com/2021/07/16/2021-worst-year-ever-anti-trans-legislation/.
Sam Feder and Alexandra Juhasz, “Does Visibility Equal Progress? A Conversation on Trans Activist Media,” Jump Cut, no. 57 (Summer 2016), www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc57.2016/-Feder-JuhaszTransActivism/index.html.
Kiley May, “There Wasn’t a Bechdel Test for Trans Representation, So I Made One,” Vice, November 26, 2019, www.vice.com/en/article/7x5nje/there-wasnt-a-bechdel-test-for-trans-representation-so-i-made-one.
GLAAD’s annual tracking of LGBTQ media representation shows that the number of transgender characters on scripted television has more than quadrupled since 2015. See GLAAD, “Where We Are on TV: 2020–2021,” www.glaad.org/whereweareontv20.
For additional discussion of the current cultural value system that splits “good” from “bad” transgender media objects, see the first part of my three-part series “In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object,” in FLOW, November 28, 2019, www.flowjournal.org/2019/11/in-praise-of-the-bad/.
See Eliza Steinbock, “The Wavering Line of Foreground and Background: A Proposal for the Schematic Analysis of Trans Visual Culture,” Journal of Visual Culture 19, no. 2 (2020): 171–83, in which Steinbock writes, “What transgender visual culture studies must analyze and critique … is this wavering line of foreground and background that outlines the categorical value of trans as it arrives into the domain of the visual” (172).
Ralph J. Poole, “Towards a Queer Futurity: New Trans Television,” European Journal of American Studies 12, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 12–21.
One recent example of this trend is Quebec’s Bill 2, which was brought forward by Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette in October 2021. The bill proposes changes to the province’s family law, including the possibility of having separate sex and gender indications on government ID. Adding an additional marker would mean that transgender people would be allowed to change their legal gender markers at will, but would be required to undergo sex-reassignment surgeries to change the additional sex marker. The Trump administration’s 2018 memo that proposed to narrowly define gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth (effectively transforming “gender” into “sex”) is another example of the effort to restabilize “sex” as transgender identity is assimilated into the concept of gender as a social, rather than biological, phenomenon.
Hil Malatino, Trans Care (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 40.
Steinbock, “Wavering Line of Foreground and Background,” 172.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “bad.”
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 30–44.
Kyla Schuller, “The Trouble with White Women,” Duke University Press blog, January 11, 2018, https://dukeupress.wordpress.com/2018/01/11/the-trouble-with-white-women/.
While the term “bad object” is generally associated with the object relations theory of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, I use it here in sympathy with Lauren Berlant’s idea of the “hated archive,” introduced in The Queen of America Goes to Washington City. For Berlant, the general academic disdain and dismissal directed at hated cultural objects means that they require even more intense and careful scrutiny. Berlant, 10–13.
See, for example, Glenn Kenny, “The Problematics: ‘Tootsie,’ the Movie about a Man Who Was a Better Man When He Was a Woman (Played by Dustin Hoffman),” Decider, September 4, 2019, https://decider.com/2019/09/04/the-problematics-tootsie/; Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, “Work in Progress Redeems Saturday Night Live’s Traumatic ‘Pat’ Character,” Jezebel, December 9, 2019, https://jezebel.com/work-in-progress-redeems-saturday-night-lives-traumatic-1840314102; and S. E. Smith, “Your Film Isn’t ‘Transgressive,’ It’s Transphobic,” Bitch Media, September 23, 2016, https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/michelle-rodriguez-sigourney-weaver-new-film-transphobic-re-assignment.
Here, see T. Benjamin Singer, “From the Medical Gaze to Sublime Mutations: The Ethics of (Re)Viewing Non-Normative Body Images,” in The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (London: Routledge, 2006), 601–20.
In The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, Lauren Berlant defends her popular, lowbrow archive by arguing for the value of reading cultural texts situated below the level of “serious” meaning. She names these “silly” objects whose very ordinariness “requires an intensified critical engagement” with their ubiquity and cultural normalization. Berlant, 12.
For a record of American cinema’s early cross-dressing histories, see Laura Horak, Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908–1934 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016).
Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2016), 36–41.
Jules Gill-Peterson, “Paranoia as a Trans Style,” Sad Brown Girl, February 2, 2021, https://sadbrowngirl.substack.com/p/paranoia-as-a-trans-style.
See, for example, Christian Lewis, “’Tootsie’ May Be Funny, but It’s Hella Problematic,” Out, May 6, 2019, www.out.com/theater/2019/5/06/tootsie-may-be-funny-its-hella-problematic.
Janice Raymond, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979). Trans theorist Sandy Stone responded to Raymond’s personal attacks on her in The Transsexual Empire in her essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” (1987), now regarded as a founding document of trans studies. See https://sandystone.com/empire-strikes-back.pdf.
Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientations in Film and Video (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 42.
This fact was confirmed on October 20, 2021, through direct correspondence with Sonia Carroll, a research assistant at the Smith College Special Collections, where the Ms. magazine archives are housed.
Raymond, The Transsexual Empire, 101.
Danielle Turchanio, “How ‘SNL’s’ Pat Inspired Abby McEnany’s ‘Work in Progress,’” Variety, June 17, 2020, https://variety.com/2020/tv/features/abby-mcenany-work-in-progress-julia-sweeney-pat-snl-1234625920/.
Sarah Kessler, “Are You Being Sirred? Work in Progress, Nanette, Douglas, and the New Butch Middlebrow,” Film Quarterly 74 no. 3 (Spring 2021): 47.
Well-known films from this decade that feature a dramatic “reveal” of the trans character’s genitals include The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992), Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (Tom Shadyac, 1994), and Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999).
Danielle M. Seid, “Reveal,” Transgender Studies Quarterly 1, nos. 1–2 (2014): 177.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction (New York, Vintage Books, 1990), 39.
Chris Straayer notes this form of confusion as a standard convention of cross-dressing films, in which romantic moments are “paradoxically both heterosexual and homosexual.” See Straayer, Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies, 58.
In refusing the structure of sexual difference itself, It’s Pat breaks with the contemporary antisocial turn in queer theory, which argues that retaining sexual difference is necessary in order to pursue a gay political agenda. This was foundationally articulated by Leo Bersani in Homos, in which he argues that sexual difference must be retained as a symbolic economy because otherwise there could be no gay political subject. It’s Pat therefore anticipates trans, nonbinary, and intersex challenges to the prior framework of gay rights. See Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 55–76.
Jude Dry, “‘The Assignment’: The 8 Most Offensive Moments in a Movie That Equates Trans People with Sick Gender Experiments,” IndieWire, April 7, 2017, www.indiewire.com/2017/04/the-assignment-most-offensive-lines-moments-michelle-rodriguez-1201802486/.
Jordan Crucchiola, “Writer of The Assignment Insists the Movie Is Not Transphobic, Because There Aren’t Even Trans Characters in It, Variety, April 4, 2017, www.vulture.com/2017/04/writer-of-the-assignment-insists-the-movie-isnt-transphobic.html.
For a broad discussion of the “mirror scene,” see Cáel M. Keegan, “Mirror Scene: Transgender Aesthetics in The Matrix and Boys Don’t Cry,” in The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema, ed. Ronald Gregg and Amy Villarejo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 176–77.
Malatino, Trans Care, 5.