J K Rowling’s new book and the sad history of trans women as villains

When I first watched Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, I knew I was a ‘gender traitor’. I felt it in my heart

SE Fleenor
New York
Monday 05 October 2020 15:36 BST
AAuthor JK Rowling
AAuthor JK Rowling (PA)

JK Rowling’s new novel Troubled Blood comes in at 900 pages, and according to The Telegraph's review, the “moral seems to be: never trust a man in a dress”.

Troubled Blood’s villain is a ‘psychopathic serial killer’, according to the book’s Amazon page, and turns out to be a man who dresses as a woman,” wrote Lisette Voytko of Forbes.

The trope of trans women as villains — in literature and film — is hardly new.

In 1960’s Psycho, Norman Bates dons a dress and murders a woman in the shower. In 1983’s Sleepaway Camp, a young camper named Angela is revealed to be a victim of abuse, a murderer, and a person with a penis — all of which is conflated in the overall message, seeming to say: trans people are trans because we’re abused, and we’re probably dangerous to boot.

The first trans person I saw onscreen was the villain from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. In the film, the killer assumes the identity of a woman in order to steal the beloved mascot (a dolphin) of the football team she used to play on. In the “gotcha” moment at the end of the film, she is stripped down to her underwear as Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura delivers his crime-solving monologue, pointing at her bulge for effect. Both Ventura and his buddy spend a gratuitous montage chewing gum, gagging, and performing their horror at having kissed a trans woman in earlier scenes.

I remember how it felt to see that caricature of a villain, how ashamed I felt in her place, and how quickly I realized that all my gender-bending defiance of norms was going to have to be something I put away as I grew up. Being a feminine boy or a masculine girl was one thing, but being a full-on “gender traitor” was another. And I knew in my heart just how traitorous I was.

When we talk about the easy, thoughtless deployment of cliches like the “trans villain”, it’s important to understand the real world in which these ideas live and their repercussions. These aren’t just words said between friends, which is its own kind of cruelty. These aren’t just words tweeted into the void — again, cruel in their own right. J K Rowling is one of the wealthiest people in the world: someone who could never write another word, could never tweet again, and her life would still be set. This woman has $670 million.

According to the Human Rights Campaign analysis of the United States, “2020 has already seen at least 26 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means,” and in 2019, “23 trans women were murdered, at least 91 percent of whom were Black trans women.” Those numbers are important to note, especially when you notice the gap between popular cultural depictions of trans women as predators when the reality is that they are often murdered like prey.

What damage does it do when Rowling — a successful, high-profile author — writes a character like this which starts the conversation all over again? Surely it impedes the progress we could have been making instead? To me, it feels clear that it keeps the conversation around trans issues at a 101 level, constantly putting us in a reactionary, defensive posture, rather than letting us take the discourse further. We could be having much more interesting conversations about what gender means and how transness is a norm both in nature and in pre-colonial cultures. We could be talking about the powerful love between couples who transition together or about trans youth who fight and fend for themselves in a world deeply invested in their self-denial.

But no. We're still talking about made-up serial killers.

Sometimes it’s hard to live in this world as a fat, trans, nonbinary person. Sometimes I want to give up. And, if Rowling’s book were the only one on the horizon, I might give up. But it’s not. There are amazing books being written by trans authors about trans experiences, stories that entertain and delight, never once trying to pit you, a cisgender reader, against trans people. Go read Aiden Thomas’ new young adult book about a trans brujo, R M Lemberg’s novella about trans elders, Meredith Talusan’s memoir about transitioning, or Kacen Callendar’s trans love story.

There are better choices than Troubled Blood. You don’t have to hate-read it. I certainly won’t.

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