Example Media Essay

Cross Dressing Can Support as Well as Undermine Gender Norms

Discuss with reference to 2/3 films.

The representation of stereotypical gender identities in filmmaking has evolved throughout cinema history, primarily in accordance with changes in political and social values. The traditional gender stereotyping of the dominant male- the all-powerful, masculine hero - and the spectacle of an emotional, submissive but desirable female counterpart, continues to dominate the filmmaker's approach to image and narrative in mainstream commercial cinema. However there are examples of films which break with this stereotype as the boundaries which define this traditional role of the male and female are blurred.

Many film critics have considered the essential appeal of cinema in relation to audience participation and the viewer's willingness to temporarily suspend their views and judgments; to draw parallels, make assumptions and interpretation with the film's fictionalised 'reality'. The importance of the relationship between the spectacle and the spectator, the viewed and the viewer, continues to be integral to film theory and criticism. The viewer watches a film with pre-determined thoughts, values, expectations and prejudices. It is the purpose of the filmmaker to draw upon, guide and manipulate the audience's emotions and sense of 'realism'. As David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson consider, "Film form can make us perceive things anew, shaking us out of our accustomed habits and suggesting fresh ways of hearing, seeing, feeling, and thinking."

The audience's interpretation of a film, the way in which we identify with the characters, is, as is often in life, judged upon initial appearance. The mise-en-scene of a film; namely the use of setting, lighting, costume, with the movement of the actors, visually dictates the story and the viewer's sense of 'realism'. These elements are of equal importance and as influential as the filmmaker's use of camera shot, movement, technique and frame composition. Costume, props and make-up function as a guide in a film, contributing to a narrative with the creation of a specific mood. Assumptions can be made about a character before they have even spoken, based entirely upon their physical appearance. Film genres play with costume props and make-up extensively, typically for the purpose of creating realism, or to give impact to an image.

The representation of cross-dressing in commercial mainstream cinema has conventionally been avoided or included for comic purpose. The disguise by the divorced husband played by Robin Williams as a female housekeeper in 'Mrs Doubtfire' (1993) typifies the humorous and inoffensive approach to the taboo subject which had been previously explored in films such as 'Some Like It Hot'(1959) and 'Tootsie' (1982). These were roles in which the male protagonist finds it necessary to disguise themselves as women so as to ensure their success and happiness in life, and is not meant as a representation of gender confusion or sexual ambivalence. Each dresses in drag for comic effect, it is visual clown comedy. Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire is a divorced man determined to remain with his children in any way possible, so becomes their female nanny. In 'Tootsie' an unemployed actor disguises himself as a woman to get a role in a soap opera and becomes a star. In 'Some Like It Hot' two musicians witness a mob hit and escape in an all-female band disguised as women. The audience are in on the joke alongside the men (played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) while the fellow characters remain humorously oblivious. The light hearted, harmless, and unquestionably unrealistic, approach to gender identity in such films reflects cinema's historical aesthetic tradition of telling a story which is the 'norm', familiar to its audiences, and marketed as entertainment for mass appeal

The portrayal of cross-dressing in relation to gender and sexual confusion in cinema is stereotypically of a character tormented by pain and uncertainty. The film is subjective, following their personal journey as they seek personal happiness and fulfilment, and a release of their fears. Such gender identity is typically explored by filmmaker's through psychoanalytical representation. A film which exemplifies such depiction is Alfred Hitchcock's film 'Psycho' (1960). The film tells the story of Norman Bates, a crazed individual whose obsessive need of his mother (he literally preserves her body in his basement), leads him to become her. The silhouette of Norman wearing a dress and wig as he raises his arm and slashes the defenceless heroine of the film as she has a shower is perhaps the most well-known images of cross-dressing in cinema history. A psychiatrist explains to the viewer as the film ends, "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 in a cheap wig he'd bought. He'd walk about the house, sit in her chair, and speak in her voice. He tried to be his mother." Hitchcock is able to successfully manipulate his audience into identifying with each of the film's victims in turn; firstly, with his female protagonist Marion Crane and then the male/female antagonist Norman Bates. The viewer's emotions are shifted as Hitchcock forces us into exploring and comprehending the complex world of his mind and reconsider his identity and our interpretation of him.

The gender coding of masculine restraint, with the emphasis upon physique and not emotional charge, is evocatively explored in 'Boy's Don't Cry' (1999), a film which powerfully addresses the issue of sexual identity and gender roles. The film tells the story of Brandon Tenna (played by Oscar winning Hilary Swank), a young girl who successfully integrates herself into a small town Nebraskan community as a man, has a loving relationship with a woman, and who is later raped and murdered when it is discovered that he is in fact biologically female, given the birth name of Teena Brandon. Based upon a true story, filmmaker Kimberley Pierce explores not what it means being a lesbian but what it is to be a woman who feels that she is a man. Teena cuts her hair, tapes her breasts, and puts a sock down her trousers, hiding her female identity, and making not a sexual but a social transformation. The film is a graphic portrayal of the manifestation of hate, ignorance and ultimately the use of violence as a display of "manhood". Significantly, it is not Teena who is represented as being crazed, but her attackers as they brutally rape her and shoot into her defenceless body. The viewer is forced to confront their own biases and prejudice as Pierce positions us without remission or apology throughout the shockingly explicit ordeals that Teena Brandon suffers. Pierce said of her film, "I think it's a universal story that affects people regardless of their sexual orientation … the point is to engage the audience as deeply as possible with all the characters and allow the audience to see itself reflected in all of them, in the tragedy as a whole." What makes the film so hauntingly frightening is its believability; that the rape and murder were so predetermined and could so likely happen again if a similar situation were to arise. Pierce asks the viewer to consider this.
Cinema has the capacity to shift and change an audiences understanding and evaluation of a subject matter. The individual expression of an artistic vision by the filmmaker is open to a flexibility which invites interpretation and rethinking. The varied representations of cross-dressing in films throughout cinema history, to the present day direct addressing of the taboo in films such as 'The Crying Game'(Neil Jordan, 1992) and 'Boy's Don't Cry' exemplifies how complex subject matters might don't necessarily alienate film audiences.


Bordwell, David & Thompson, Kristin. Film Art, New York: McGraw Hill. 1990.

Francesca Miller. Putting Teena Brandon's Story on Film. Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume: 7. Issue: 4. 2000.