With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
26.09.16: Marjorie Garber's Vested Interests
One of the most significant studies of transgender identity in popular fiction, Vested Interests is a treasure trove of information about pop culture's various depictions of transgender identity. Much more than Gilbert and Gubar's essay on cross-dressing, Garber spotlights not only transvestism but also transsexuality and its fraught relationship with mainstream fiction. Disturbing, Gothic portrayals such as Psycho, Dressed to Kill and Silence of the Lambs from the cinema are all mentioned, and so too famous real-life trans cases such as the stories of doctor James Amanda Barry and jazz artist Billy Tipton, whose secret lives have gone on to inspire fiction writers in the twenty-first century. The overall effect is to highlight the diversity of transgender identity, although male-to-female transgender characters in fiction remain largely confined to the context of horror or temporary desperation. Female-to-male depictions in film, meanwhile, seem to be disappearing with the twenty-first century now in full-swing - is this a reflection of the success of feminism over the last hundred years?Garber also highlights the tendency of past pop cultural depictions to use cross-dressing as part of a 'normalizing' arc, eg in the comedies Some Like It Hot and Tootsie, where men dress as women, in a temporary fashion and out of desperation, before returning in the end to 'normality' as a better person. Garber describes such arcs as 'both unconvincing and highly problematic,' in their failure to include the complex effects of changing gender on an individual, and it is notable that few films exist about gender-changing with such personal conflict or complexity, either in terms of transvestism or transsexuality. The recent release of The Danish Girl, in 2015, despite its flaws, may be an intimation that a new era of more complex, realistic treatment of transgender identity is coming our way.