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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

New on Video: An Open Letter to Brian De Palma's Transphobic Dressed to Kill

Posted By on Wed, Aug 5, 2015 at 12:00 PM

sc_42_dressedtokill.jpg


Okay, Dressed to Kill. Let's talk.

On a purely cinematic level, you're pretty brilliant, particularly in the context of director Brian De Palma's career up to that point. It's the second to last film in a string of movies (1973's Sisters through 1981's Blow Out) which, if not always strictly good, were always fascinating, and clearly made by a person who sopped up the techniques of the classical era and had a firm grasp of how to tell a story entirely visually. Hell's bells, you're awash in split diopter shots, and I'm a sucker for those.

Indeed, you may be one of the last major Hollywood pictures to be filled with the sort of hazy lighting that defined much of the 1970s, the kind that demands a high-definition presentation, which is why it's a good thing the Criterion Collection is releasing you on Blu-Ray on Aug. 18.

On the other hand, and in spite of the free publicity I'm giving you right now, I would be perfectly happy if nobody ever watched you again, because you're deeply transphobic. So fuck you, Dressed to Kill.



I mean, goddamnit, Dressed to Kill. That De Palma was doing his own riff on Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is impossible to deny (even if De Palma himself sorta denies it), featuring as it does the brutal murder in the first act of its ostensible protagonist — a restless blond named Kate (Angie Dickinson) who has recently done a bad thing — by a mysterious woman who turns out to not be a cisgender female. (And I feel like that's the least offensive way I can possibly phrase it, because fuck you so much, Dressed to Kill.)



The killer, Bobbi, is in fact a split personality of Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), and Bobbi takes over when Elliott feels attracted to a woman. Your gender politics are pretty questionable across the board, and when you were first released you were raked over the coals for your intentional-or-otherwise misogyny towards cisgender women, but that's a separate issue. No, I hate you because of the fact that you spend a lot, and I mean a lot of time establishing that the killer is not only transgender, but is "unstable," meaning that the when what I'll generously call the "female side" — because being trans is described as "opposite sexes inhabiting the same body," ugh — feels threatened by sexual arousal, Bobbi takes over the body and brutally slays the woman who caused the hated penis to fill with blood and Jesus Fucking Christ, I just can't even.

Also, black men are either unhelpful or actively out to harm pretty white cisgender women.


You never use the word "transgender," of course; you were released in 1980, long before the terminology rightfully shifted from "sex" to "gender." Your Psycho DNA is also further confirmed by a post-climax which a psychiatrist explains in thuddingly tone-deaf terms exactly what the killer's pathology was. It would be a great time to say that Bobbi isn't really transgender, but no, you don't go that far, because the audience is already spooked by the word "transsexual," and to say that your killer isn't one of those people would be effectively defanging yourself.

Your younger and far more popular sister The Silence of the Lambs did this sort of self-defanging to an extent by stating that "there's no correlation between transsexualism and violence" (thank you!) and that "transsexuals are very passive" (fuck you!), but it still shaped the negative public perception of trans women for much of the 1990s. Even worse, a scene which brought a degree of sympathy for the villain was cut. I'm not a fan of Silence, and as far as I'm concerned Mads Mikkelsen on NBC's Hannibal has become the definitive Lecter, but I really wish this version of the scene had made it into the film.


There's nothing in as you as human as that moment, Dressed to Kill, and your horrible post-climactic psychiatrist spiel almost, almost, almost wouldn't be so bad if you hadn't already had a scene earlier in the film in which a clip is shown at length of a transgender woman named Nancy Hunt on Donahue, an episode which allegedly inspired your director De Palma to create a film about a psychotic trans woman in the first place. I'm sure your use of her image and words were perfectly legal, and that when Ms. Hunt agreed to be on the show she signed a document saying that how the footage was used was completely out of her hands, but it's still beyond fucked up. I do appreciate that Donahue checks his privilege and corrects himself before using the word "normal," but that's a plus in ol' Phil's column, not yours.

But if she saw you, Dressed to Kill, Ms. Hunt was probably horrified to be an unwitting poster for girl such transphobia — not that the word "transphobia" existed at the time. It also apparently didn't exist in 2001 when the extras from the 20th Century Fox DVD that have been ported onto your Criterion disc were originally shot, since none of the interviewees mention your horrible portrayal of trans people when discussing the controversies surrounding you. For that matter, neither does the essay included with your Criterion edition, though the writer does have the good taste to refer to Nancy Hunt as a transgender woman, rather than as a transsexual.


Joe Bob Briggs once said something to the effect that when the monster dies, the credits should roll. In your case, Dressed to Kill, you go on for another goddamned 15 minutes. One of those scenes is the aforementioned Psycho-lite "psychiatrist explains it all" scene of why being a transsexual made the killer a killer (fuck you, by the way), after which the credits do not roll. Nope, we then a get a scene in which the two surviving protagonists further discuss your director's conception of being transgender, including a graphic discussion of gender reassignment with a heavy emphasis on the penis, of course.

It's a scene that has absolutely no reason to exist other than to shock the audience long after you've run out of steam. Still, look at the hilarious reactions of the old woman sitting behind Daniel Radcliffe Keith Gordon while Nancy Allen graphically describes a penectomy. You've got jokes, Dressed to Kill!


And then you go on for another 10 interminable minutes and I don't even care anymore. Except that's obviously not true; I wouldn't have gone this far if I didn't care. You may say that I'm being oversensitive, Dressed to Kill, or that I need to lighten up or that you're only a make-believe movie, or all the things the privileged say in response when movies like you vilify and demonize and dehumanize people like me. See, here's the thing: I had just turned 7 years old when you were first released. While I of course did not see you in the theater, it wasn't too long before I was aware that the killer in the movie was, to use the outmoded parlance of the time, a woman trapped in a man's body.

In all likelihood, I first came across that detail in the Mad Magazine parody, and it joined the countless other negative images of transgender people that forced me into the closet for the next two decades.

click to enlarge MAD MAGAZINE #222
  • Mad Magazine #222

I don't blame Mad for that, though, and not even their use of the problematic term "drag queen." They were just working with what you gave them, and I take some solace in the fact that your sort of cheap, easy transphobia is no longer okay in the mainstream media — feel free to accuse me of being politically correct if you want, Dressed to Kill, because I'd rather be P.C. than be what you are — and if any young trans kids do stumble across you these days, I have no doubt that they'll recognize you as an outmoded, irrelevant artifact of a time period that wasn't really so long ago, but feels like a million years.

In conclusion: fuck you, Dressed to Kill. You make The Silence of the Lambs look downright progressive in comparison, and you're a waste of some really sweet diopter shots.



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Sherilyn Connelly

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