Editors' note: Jeremy Redlien is the creator of the blog Queering the Closet where he writes philosophical articles (mostly) on LGBTQ issues and does reviews of queer films.
There is an argument to be made that as a cis-gendered queer man, I am not the best person to discuss the issue, but as a person who has watched many a queer movie, there comes a time when certain patterns become so obvious that they bear commenting on. In this particular case, the pattern involves the presentation of trans villains in Hollywood films and how this is reflected in TERF ideology.
Just in case there are people out there who are still unaware of what TERFs are: TERFs stands for Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminism and lest the name does not make it entirely clear, they are an extremely transphobic bunch. The main tenants of TERFdom (as far as I can tell) revolve around the idea that trans woman are not "real" woman and are simply pretending to be such in order to obtain the awesome privilege that comes from being a trans* individual.
Furthermore, there is the concept that trans woman are stealing the entire concept of femininity from "women born women". In her book, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male TERFer Janice Raymond states that "All transsexuals rape women's bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves".
In the grand scheme of things, TERFs are not really doing anything radical or all that original by promoting such ideology. Rather, they are simply repeating half baked ideas that the Hollywood patriarchy has been pushing for decades.
In Hollywood stories, trans villains frequently make women their primary target to victimize, stalk, and/or kill. Furthermore, they also take extra steps to appropriate some form of femininity from other women, either by stealing their clothing, their identities, and in the most extreme cases, their bodies. Furthermore, the idea that these characters are not "real" woman is usually emphasized in some manner.
The most recent example of this is The Lone Ranger, where one of the bad guys' evil minions runs around stealing women's clothing and then runs around in them - right before being written out of the story altogether.
Psycho tries to get around the charge of transphobia by having a psychologist state that the main character is suffering from multiple personality disorder, but that does not change the fact that Norman Bates has stolen his mothers' identity and runs around wearing her clothes.
Silence of the Lambs takes a serial killer sociopath, Buffalo Bill, and adds the shockingly mundane twist of having the character kill women for their skins - which the killer intends to wear. The character also had their gender identity undermined by Dr. Lector who describes Bill as not a "true" transsexual even though the killer had sought transitive surgery. That line made me wonder if Dr. Lector ate the film's credibility with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective has the bad guy stealing Snowflake the Dolphin along with the identity of a woman hiker who went missing. It is never actually explained in the plot whether or not the baddie actually killed the hiker or simply took advantage of the situation when she went missing, but that's not a terribly important detail. Also in this case, the character has their female identity undermined by having them take on the identity simply to commit the crime. Jim Carrey's character goes out of his way to humiliate the villain by pointing out that their breast enhancement surgery could have been done "over the weekend" in addition to the disgust he shows at having "kissed a man."
The truth may have been out there in The X-Files: I want to Believe but so was the transphobia when the filmmakers "borrow" the plot of Silence of the Lambs. They even try and one-up the transphobia and dramatic tension by having the evil sociopath kidnap a woman so he can transplant his head onto her body. This is disappointing, as The X-Files showed that the plot of The Silence of the Lambs could be ripped off sans transphobia in the sublime first season episode "Beyond the Sea." However, it is worth noting that this is the one instance where the villain's gender identity is not undermined in any manor.
I thought Dressed to Kill (starring Michael Caine as the gender transgressive killer) was going to avoid the pattern, but then a scene near the end of the Unrated Cut included a bit where the character attacks a female nurse and steals her outfit. (I have no idea if this scene is in the original version since I've only seen the unrated version.) Caine's character, however, does have their gender identity undermined with the explanation that while they were a "true" transsexual, they had a male partner that tried to block their transition. This led to Caine's character becoming a killer.
One thing I did not find as frequently in these films is the TERF idea that "trans women shouldn't use female restrooms/locker rooms/etc. because NOT REAL WOMEN." It only shows up definitively in Psycho and the flick's famous shower scene. Even if the reason that Norman Bates can access the bathroom is because he is the owner of the hotel, the shower scene can still be seen as giving life to the idea that trans* women present a threat by using the bathroom.
Dressed to Kill also features its trans* killer stalking a woman taking a shower (in a scene that is a direct
rip off of homage to Psycho) before creepily seducing her. It is also made clear eventually in The X-Files: I Want to Believe that the bad guy used (or rather had his male minion use) a woman's locker room at a public gym to track down potential victims.
Silence of the Lambs, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and The Lone Ranger do not show characters using their female identities/appearance to invade bathrooms, locker rooms, or any kind of female-only spaces in order to terrorize woman.
The characters who always end up being the killers or villains in these films never match the way trans* people that I know talk about their lives and experiences. They have nothing in common with these characters who are depraved killers and criminals. None of the trans* people I know have committed homicide or have extensive criminal pasts. Discounting drag queens who deliberately mimic celebrities, I don't know any trans* people who have stolen or attempted to copy other peoples identities.
If you start to look at these movies through the lens of TERF ideology, it's easy to realize how negative the films are. Its time for Hollywood to stop promoting TERF ideology on the silver screen.