This week, while reading on the fascinating exploration of the “She-man” as introduced by Chris Straayer, I believe I saw a correlation between that concept and a problem within the contemporary Hollywood: cisgender straight men portraying trans female characters. Straayer describes the She-man as “glaringly bi-sexed rather than obscurely androgynous or merely bisexual… [and] Rather than undergoing a downward gender mobility, he has enlarged himself with feminine gender and female sexuality” (263). Straayer goes on to cite several instances in pop culture as examples of the She-man: Dr. Frank-n-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Divine the drag queen, and David Bowie. These examples and several others exist within the genres of comedy, pastiche, camp (or pseudo-camp according to Sontag in some cases), and kitsch. The She-man is never meant to be serious. But what happens when the She-man appears laterally in a serious genre (like drama) and the male performer is lauded not for the glamour and craven power and sexuality he creates, but for stoicism and sentimentality? Here I am thinking of Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning role in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-nominated role in The Danish Girl (2015). Note that this is not to suggest any relation between men in costumes and transgender women, the two things are unrelated. But it is impossible for audiences to see both A-list actors in costume and take them for actual trans women; the cultural context outside of the texts of the films is too strong for anyone to not see the artificiality. Indeed, both the actors were highly acclaimed for their performances. The She-man is never meant to wholly transition from male to female, but to acquire power from the act of transgression, of occupying the space of two sexes; Leto and Redmayne never transition (only transgress) because (1) they are not trans women, and (2) the cultural context and audience reception never allows them to. In this cultural moment starved of the high-profile She-men of the 70s and 80s, both Leto and Redmayne were received as She-men when they played trans women in dramatic, evocative stories and acquired power and rewards for their efforts. The actors, of course, did not play She-men, but became She-men. Straayer notes the trouble the She-man poses for women, who have added difficulty when trying to transgress sex (279-280), but it also seems that the She-man is even harmful to trans women who, looking for proper representation in the media, only find cisgender straight men in costumes, further confusing the public’s perception of their lived experiences.
Straayer, Chris. “Chapter 4: The She-Man: Post-Modern Bi-Sexed Performance in Film and Video.” Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientation in Film and Video. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996: p. 262 – p. 280. Print.