Cross-dressing, sex-changing and film.

Fragments from an analysis of screening male femaling.

Dr. Richard Ekins

Trans-Gender Archive, University of Ulster.
Gendys Conference, 1994



Dr. Ekins is a
profilific writer in
this area.
For further details
see our bookshop:
Male femaling
and as editor with
Dr. Dave King: Blending Genders

This paper considers male cross-dressing and sex-changing in the movies (Bell-Metereau, 1993; Dickens, 1982; Slide, 1986)(Ekins, 1993)Screening male femaling arises whenever and wherever males, 'femaling', are screened.

Screening raises a multiple pun. An apparatus puts the male femaler on screen. In Hollywood cinema, particularly, the apparatus hides the male femaler behind a screen. Furthermore, it uses the male femaler as a screen for its ideological agenda, and it screens out socially unacceptable and heterogeneous cultural constructions of male femaling.(Cohan and Hark, 1993: 3)

My qualitative analysis (Strauss, 1987)of several thousands of male femaling sequences in several hundreds of movies suggests that so-called 'Hollywood cinema' uses four basic screening processes when screening male femaling. These processes are 'medicalising', 'ghettoising', 'humourising', and 'personalising'. In addition, 'Altering Eye' cinema-film "made in a spirit of resistance, rebellion and refusal"(Kolker, 1983) - frequently celebrates male femaling. This celebrating, I term 'eulogising'.

This paper illustrates the five basic screening processes with reference to selected films, focusing particularly on a number of clips from five different films chosen to exemplify each basic male femaling screening process.

1. Medicalising.

The medicalising of male femaling began in the late 19th. century. (King, 1981)It received new impetus with the application of the sex-changing technologies of the mid 20th century.(King, 1981) It reached its screening high point in Psycho(1960), in which the psychiatrist explains all.

In Psycho, Norman - neither woman, norman - Bates, a motel proprietor, lives under the influence of his aged invalid mother:

"Norman takes care of mother and, in return, she protects him from temptation and corruption, particularly in the form of attractive single women who come to stay at the motel."(Monaco, 1992: 734)

In her role as protector, mother stabs one of these women - Marion Crane - to death, leaving Norman to clear up the mess and dispose of the corpse. Suspicions are aroused and Marion's sister, boyfriend, and a private investigator start their enquiries at the Bates Motel. Mother is forced to intervene again. This time she kills the private investigator. It then transpires that mother has been buried these past ten years and 'mother' is none other than Norman dressed up as his mother. Indeed, he has become his mother. How are we to explain this? Quite simple, says the psychiatrist.

Norman, brought up by his clinging, demanding mother has never disidentified satisfactorily from her. When she meets another man, Norman kills her and her lover in a fit of jealous rage. Consumed with guilt, he is now bereft.

He preserves his mother's body and in due course becomes her. He becomes what he can no longer have.

"Why was he . . dressed like that?" asks Marion's boyfriend?

"He was a transvestite," says a law enforcement official.

"Ar, not exactly," our psychiatrist continues. "A man who dresses up to achieve a sexual change or satisfaction is a transvestite. But in Norman's case he was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive. And when reality came too close: when danger, or desire, threatened that illusion, he dressed up. Even to a cheap wig he bought. He'd walk about the house. Sit in her chair. Speak in her voice. He tried to be his mother. And . er . . now he is."

Clip 1: 'The Psychiatrist Explains'

(3¼ mins) Psycho (1960)

2. Ghettoising

Medicalising separates the sick from the healthy, the crazy from the sane. And it tends to individualise. Norman, male femaling, as his mother, is a crazed individual separated from himself. He is a danger to himself and to society. He must be removed from society and placed in an asylum. With this effected we can rest easy in our beds. He has found his rightful place. We are protected from danger.

But what is to be done where male femalers are not so 'obviously' crazy? What when they resist medicalisation? What when individualising is not so possible? What when there is male femaling in groups?

This scenario is likely to give rise to ghettoising. Male femalers will be confined to the ghetto. They will be screened as a minority, isolated and segregated in a particular group or area, out of harm's way.

In Personal Services (1987), inspired by a book about Britain's most celebrated Madam, Cynthia Payne, (Bailey, 1982) male femaling looms large. Here, harmless lost souls find a home from home, away from it all. Here, male femaling is screened as being part and parcel of the fringe world of prostitution. Dolly, apparently a harmless ageing prostitute's maid, turns out to have 'a willy'.

"You're a man, Dolly."

"No, I'm not,"she replies.

Punter, Ex-Wing Commander Morton, the film's major male protagonist, is a male femaler:

"Two hundred and seven missions over occupied territory, Madam, in bra and panties."

"Shut up!"

"Yes, Madam."

"Filthy mind."

"YES, Madam!"

And yet, as Madam found to her cost, even male femaling in the ghetto is too much of a threat. As Dolly puts it, prophetically, outside the courtroom, following Madam's first arrest:

"Look at all these men. I know all their secrets. that's why they want to lock us up."

Order must be restored. The ghetto must be expunged. And it eventually is, albeit with an ironic sting in the tale.

Clip 2: 'The Ghetto is Raided'

(3¼ mins.) Personal Services (1987)

3. Humourising.

Although Psycho is widely thought of as "the most astounding, audacious and successful horror film ever made" (Harris and Lasky, 1993: 219) repeated viewings highlight its grisly humour.Personal Services, too, is very much played for laughs, as the last clip illustrated. Humourising male femaling, however, reached its own screening apotheosis in Some Like it Hot (1959).

As Monaco(1992: 869)adeptly puts it: "A master comedy that revels in inventive effervescence. Unemployed musicians (Lemmon and Curtis) witness St. Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago, flee in drag to Miami with an all-girl band. Dazzling work by Lemmon and Monroe, memorable Curtis (his drag voice was dubbed), unforgettable supporting work from Brown, Shawlee, Raft, et al. The best authentic capturing of roaring twenties atmosphere put on film, with flawless script by director Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. HOT was the most commercially successful of Monroe's film, and if she was hell to work with . . it didn't show on film. Brown's closing line may be the funniest closing tag in the history of motion pictures...... [Some Like it Hot] remains a tremendously popular film with both audiences and critics."

Stigmatised as male femaling may be, off-screen, how does it come about that it provides the basis for a highly successful commercial film? The answer lies in its particular use of humourising. Lemmon and Curtis are two very definitely heterosexually oriented MEN. The audience knows it, and they know it. Vital to the plot is the fiction that both have entirely bona fide credentials for male femaling. Their lives depend on it, and look what good clean heterosexual fun they're having in the process. Much of the comedy comes, of course, from the fact that we're in on the joke and the gullible film characters are not. All these factors screen the 'screen reality' - the invasion of women's private spaces by men, which in other contexts might be found so distasteful. Private prurient fantasy becomes public humourised 'screened reality'. Therein, surely, lies the great appeal of Some Like it Hot. We can have all the fun of male femaling, without any of the pain. This is Hollywood cinema at its finest.

Clip 3: Josephine and Daphne Join the Girls

(3 mins.) Some Like it Hot (1959)

4. Personalising

Male femaling in the real world involves a lot of pain for the gain. The examples of medicalising, ghettoising and humourising that I have introduced so far, give no inkling of this. It is personalising which emphasises the subjective aspects of male femaling, particularly, the personal journey, and its pains and gains. Here the emphasis is upon 'experiencing' male femaling.(King and Ekins, 1995: Part 1)

Ekins(1993) outlines an ideal-typical career path of the male femaler. The phases denote increasing involvement in femaling: from 'beginning' to 'fantasying' to 'doing' to 'constituting' through to 'consolidating'. King(1993: 161) emphasises the fact that stages may vary in duration, may be skipped or may occur in different sequence. He stresses, too, how we might devise different patterns of stages for different types of male femalers.

What is noticeable, however, in personalising screening male femaling, is the stereotyping of the route to personal fulfillment. All sorts of personal horrors and unhappiness are met with on the way, but in the end, our male femaler is likely to be living happily ever after as the woman 'she' 'really' always was. In such personalising, there is rarely deliberate humourising. Rather, medicalising is co-opted in the service of personalising, as is the paraphernalia of gender role stereotyping down to its favoured denouement in a white wedding.

I Want to be a Woman(1982), for instance, tells "a poignantly true story about a female mind born trapped in a male body." Sixteen year-old Jose Maria's 'macho' father tries to 'make a man' of him. But Jose Maria prefers (quare, cannot help) to be Maria Jose. 'She' prefers tending to babies, dressing up as a girl and dancing with 'her' sister - until, that is, a man takes a fancy to 'her'. Beaten up by 'her' intended lover when he confronts 'her' male genitalia, 'she' attempts self castration. Befriended by Bibi Anderson, who is a male femaler 'herself', Maria Jose sets about 'her' course to womanhood with renewed vigour. She must act like a woman, sing like a woman, move like a woman and have the attitude of a woman. Despite set backs on the way ('she' turns to alcohol for comfort and disgusts 'her' prospective lover with a dance in the ghetto, peopled by 'drag queens' and 'sexual perverts' no less) normalisation and integration prevail. Finally, in reciprocated love 'she' is ready for her' big day.

In the finale, Maria becomes the woman she always was. She is lying on the operating table, with her long tresses attractively adorning the head of the operating table. She dreams. She is dressed in her bridal gown and is in the arms of her groom. As she spins around in his arms, she falls to the ground as if dead. Her wedding dress is stained in blood. She awakens.

"There, butterfly," says her fiancée,

"They've done it already. They've operated.

Then - then I'm a woman now," says Maria.

"Don't talk, you need a rest."

"I dreamt that I died . . . Then I became a woman."

"You're alive. And you're a woman. You've always been one."

(Maria's fiancee leans over the bed and gently kisses her)

Clip 4: Maria's Big Day

(2½ mins.)I Want to be a Woman(1982)

5. Eulogising

Medicalising, ghettoising, and humourising distance us from stigmatised people and stigmatised activities. We can be fascinated, enthralled, or appalled, but at arm's length and in relative safety. Personalising distances, too. We are watching unique and rare individuals. In mainstream cinema, moreover, the troubled individuals cease to be a trouble to themselves, to others and to ourselves, once they have been normalised and integrated into mainstream society. Stigma has been managed.(Goffman, 1968)

'Altering eye' cinema, on the other hand, makes it its business to celebrate the rebellious, the different and the perverse. Here, the radical potential of male femaling can be celebrated.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that male femalers were so very important in Andy Warhol's radical cinema of the 60's and 70's.(Koch 1985: 122 -127) Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn, in particular, was 'eulogising' embodied, as Lou Reed was quick to immortalise:

"Holly came from Miami, F.L.A,
hitchhiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way,
shaved her legs and then he was a she -
she says, `Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side."

This is well illustrated in the celebrated final episode in Trash (1970). In this sequence, Holly (Miss Santiago) attempts to convince a welfare worker she is pregnant. The welfare worker wants her 'Joan Crawford' shoes in exchange for a guarantee of welfare. Holly won't accommodate him.

Here, Trash turns the medicalising, ghettoising, humourising and personalising of mainstream screening male femaling on their heads, and co-opts them all in the service of a sequence of classic eulogising. This sequence provides a fitting end to this paper. The fact that it 'contains material that some people may find offensive' is, perhaps, precisely to the point.

Clip 5: 'Holly and the Welfare Officer'

(3¼ mins.)Trash(1970)


I wish to thank Wendy Saunderson for assistance with this paper.


(1) An expanded version of these fragments will appear as'Screening Male Femaling: Cross -Dressing and Sex-Changing in the Movies.'


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Not for publication or quotation without the permission of the author. Any comments gratefully received.
top Citation:
Ekins, R., (1994),Cross-dressing, sex-changing and film: Fragments from an analysis of screening male femaling.GENDYS '94, The Third International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England. London: Gendys Conferences.
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. Last amended 25.11.98