Tuesday, June 23, 2020

T is for...Trans Killer Tropes

In honor of it being Pride Month, each week I'm going to do a short write up about a movie with some sort of LGBTQ+ representation. This week, I'm writing about Brian De Palma's problematic and campy classic Dressed to Kill.

Who's Dressed to Kill? What is this about?

Dressed to Kill begins with an introduction to Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson): Kate is a bored and sexually frustrated housewife who wants to find a solution to her problems. She tries to accomplish this, not by bothering to try to communicate with her husband, but instead seeking a hookup at a museum after her therapist Dr. Robert Elliott (Sir Michael Caine) turns her down first. After learning that her hookup has VD, Kate rushes to leave the hotel. Instead of returning home, she is murdered in the hotel elevator by Dr. Elliott's psychotic transgender patient Bobbi. Kate's murder is witnessed by plucky sex worker Liz Blake (Nancy "MVP" Allen). Bobbi, witnessing Liz's witnessing of her murder of Kate, sets her sights on killing Liz next. With the police being useless, Liz's only hope lies in a team up with Kate's son Peter (Keith Gordon) to stop Bobbi once and for all.

How is Dressed to Kill queer?

Dressed to Kill's primary queer element is found in its killer, Bobbi: Spoiler alert (even though I rarely give those here), but the Bobbi the killer is actually the repressed femininity of therapist Dr. Elliott. In what has been debated to be either an extensive homage or a total rip-off of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, Dr. Elliott is revealed at the end to be a transwoman in denial of her true gender. Keeping in line with the film's rampant theme of duality, we are given two explanations about Dr. Elliott/Bobbi: The first is the police explaining that whenever Dr. Elliott/Bobbi is aroused by a woman, such as Kate or Liz, their arousal activates Bobbi, whom seeks to eliminate whatever woman is causing the arousal. The second is Liz explaining to Peter how exactly the surgery Bobbi wanted, but Dr. Elliott didn't want, works in aiding the transition from male to female. There is also a lengthy scene literally split between Liz and Dr. Elliott that features Dr. Elliott watching a talk show interview featuring real life transwoman Nancy Hunt as the guest talking about her experience as a transwoman, something that is meant to contrast with the nature of Dr. Elliott/Bobbi.

Sir Michael Caine as Dr. Elliott / Bobbi in Dressed to Kill

Is this good queer representation?

If there's one thing you can say about Dressed to Kill, it's that it's very much a product of its time: There is a lot of now outdated terminology and tropes present in the film,  the worst of it being the use of the depraved/psychotic queer person trope. Especially since not only is the killer transgender, but since Dr. Elliott/Bobbi is a woman trapped in a man's body who is explicitly sexually aroused by other women, she's also a lesbian to boot. Characters that are explicitly or implicitly lesbian and/or trans have been villainized or depicted in other unflattering fashions for years, and Dressed to Kill is no exception. Not to mention that with the controversy surrounding trans visibility, particularly in terms of casting trans performers to play transgender roles, there is no way that De Palma would be able to cast Michael Caine as Dr. Elliott/Bobbi today without backlash. Frankly, as it stands, I think that this entire movie most likely couldn't get made today without some serious revamping.

However, as I said, this is a product of its time and as much as the queer representation is messy, there's a few points of potential redemption in its favor. The first is that De Palma is careful to use (then) proper terminology in the film: As one example, in the year 1980 (the year of Dressed to Kill's original release) terms like "transsexual" instead of transgender or transwoman were actually considered correct. It wasn't until around 1987, seven years after the the film's original release, that the usage of the latter terms started to take the place of transsexual as being the preferred vocabulary. The second is the aforementioned use of the interview with Nancy Hunt: When you consider that the movie uses the troubling trope of the psychotic and murderous queer character, in this case a killer transgender lesbian, it's cathartic to see another representation of a transwoman being shown, even if it is just in a single scene. It almost feels like the movie is displaying some sort of self-awareness in this scene, wanting to tell us that, despite its antagonist being transgender, not all transgender people are evil killers and here's an example. While making a spectacle out of one transwoman, it normalizes another to assure viewers not all trans people are a certain kind of way.

The duality of trans representation in Dressed to Kill

And then, there's a third and final redemptive point to Dressed to Kill, and that is the second explanation scene. As described above, Liz describes the nitty gritties of a male to female transitional surgery to Peter in full detail. While the description may sound like De Palma asking us gawk at transgenderism once again, he adds an element to alert the viewer that this is not the case: Having an older woman, played by Mary Davenport of De Palma's earlier film Sisters, react with shock and disgust to Liz's dialogue throughout the scene. 

By putting focus on Davenport's reactions, rather than Liz's speech, De Palma gives the scene a much-needed tongue in cheek sensibility. It calls for his intended audience to laugh at an older generation for being dumbfounded and offended by this aspect of transgenderism and to find Liz's speech as informative as Peter does. Frankly, while Dressed to Kill is problematic in several ways, even beyond the queer aspects (Don't get me started on the horrible representation of anybody who's not white in the film, because I will call out De Palma for that), De Palma makes an effort for the film to be fair in terms of queer representation for 1980. And, if you watch it with that in mind, you will find that Dressed to Kill is still worth a watch in 2020.

No comments: