Effects of the Male Gaze and fetishism on transfeminine representation in popular media

I. Introduction
Transgender women[1] and transfeminine-aligned[2] people have been victims of targeted harassment for decades. The Stonewall Riots and subsequent LGBTQ liberation movements of the 1970s onward[3] in the U.S. and other Western countries saw expansion of their rights and recognition in the public eye, but trans women, especially trans women of color, still face extreme prejudice and intolerance due to their identity. Even as recently as in 2019, the Human Rights Campaign reported the deaths of 27 transgender and gender non-conforming people[4] in the U.S., the majority of which being Black trans women[5]. Although work is still needed and being done to further empower and liberate these women by directly addressing issues such as violence and homelessness, a more insidious form of intolerance and ignorance has been consistently present in the form of popular media representations of them. Only in recent years have said representations grown to more accurately convey the struggles and reality behind trans women as opposed to using their identity as the “butt of a joke” or to perpetuate harmful stereotypes. These historically observed negative representations spawn from roots of misogyny[6], which itself manifests as the Male Gaze[7] in media portrayals of all women, but in the case of trans women also enters the realm of fetishism and dehumanization.

II. Silence of the Lambs: Blanchardism[9], the trans woman as a predator, damaging stereotypes with real- world consequences

Ray Blanchard is a sexologist whose work on the subject of the psychological factors contributing to transsexualism has led to longstanding damage on how the public perceives trans women and projects those views onto media representations of them. The Blanchardian stereotype of the autogynephile -- a man who is sexually aroused by the thought of himself as a woman, and how this allegedly leads to transition -- is a leading argument used to inaccurately portray trans women as predatory and fetishizistic; in reality, it is the same men making said argument who have historically fetishized and exploited trans women[10].

Exemplative of the dangerous autogynephile trope is the character of Buffalo Bill, the antagonist of the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs. Buffalo Bill is characterized as viewing himself as transsexual (despite “not being one” according to the film’s psychiatrist characters) and desiring a female body, thus motivating his work as a serial killer who is creating a ‘woman suit’ out of his victims’ skin. This is an explicit and extremely damaging representation that embodies the societal effects of Blanchard’s typology, described by author Marjorie Garber as “cultural anxiety” surrouding transsexual identity[11]. Numerous transfeminine people have expressed their contempt towards this character and how it reflects upon their community and experiences negatively, furthering inaccurate explanations and manifestations of their gender dysphoria as well as the fetishistic view of transfemininity[12] in the eyes of cisgender[13] men (the transmisogynistic Male Gaze).

III. The Danish Girl: more insidious forms of fetishism & how they invalidate through the Male Gaze

Media by cisgender people that markets itself as being pro-trans; meant to sympathetically explore trans women’s stories and struggles; makes the trans woman its protagonist; can still be transmisogynistic in how it portrays transgender bodies and the implications of specific framing and characterization. A key example of this is Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, loosely following the life of Lili Elbe, one of the first women to undergo sex reassignment surgery in 1930. This film is already inherently problematic and biased in its portrayal of a real-life trans woman by casting a cisgender man (Eddie Redmayne) to play her, as well as being directed by another cisgender man. While these men are able to sympathize with Lili and other trans women’s struggles to an extent, it is impossible for them to deliver a portrayal that holds true to the unique experiences of trans women, making the production subject to the implicit clutches of transmisogyny.[14]

The main way this film contributes to transfeminine fetishisation is the way Lili’s body is filmed pre-transition. Lili inspects herself in a mirror, posing femininely and manipulating her genitalia in a way consistent with self-feminizing actions taken to relieve gender dysphoria[15]. This action in itself is not transmisogynistic and does hold true to the experiences of pre-transition trans women seeking to express their identity within the restraints of their current bodies (as does Lili’s feminine expression through clothing and makeup shown throughout the film), but the way this scene is shot is heavily problematic[16]. Lingering shots of Lili’s hand placed tastefully over her genitalia and other framing reminiscent of the Male Gaze’s depiction of female characters work to objectify and fetishize her body in a way that is consistent with real-world treatment of trans women in fetishistic spaces. This portrayal is especially insidious in its perpetuation of these issues since it is marketed as a sympathetic view of transfeminine struggles, while directly contributing to contemporary manifestations of those struggles.

IV. Euphoria: multi-faceted representation in the contemporary age

By far the most culturally relevant and impactful representation of the transfeminine experience in contemporary media is the series Euphoria, which follows the high-school years of Jules Vaughn (played by actual trans woman Hunter Schafer) among other queer[17] characters. Jules’ transness is explored throughout the series, with the first season discussing how her gender dysphoria has been present since childhood and how now, as a teenager, she seeks to express herself in a way that validates her identity in the eyes of men in a cisnormative society. By directly addressing how the Male Gaze affects trans women in the real world, as well as showing Jules’ evolving relationship to her identity in the ‘special episode’ centered on her -- written by Schafer herself -- Euphoria succeeds, in the eyes of most transfeminine viewers, as positive and accurate representation of their demographic that is aware of the issues in most popular media portrayals.

Additionally, in contrast to the fetishism of productions such as The Danish Girl, it has been remarked that Euphoria’s treatment of Jules’ body is much more tasteful and does not attribute itself to oversexualization and transmisogynistic objectification. However, it has also been argued that the presence of storylines focused on Jules’ navigation of her sexuality that result in various sex scenes, especially in season two, has resulted in this representation becoming once again subject to the unavoidable impact of the Male Gaze, especially in how this intersects with fetishization of same-sex relationships. Director Sam Levinson is no stranger to the Male Gaze permeating his work on Euphoria[18], with ever-growing public disdain for his treatment of actress Sydney Sweeney and the amount of scenes requiring her to be shirtless; trans audiences also remarked that Schafer’s work in the writers’ room on the Jules special episode was far more nuanced and accurate to their experience as opposed to some of the storylines in the main series. It is important to recognize the positive evolution and growth of trans representation in the contemporary age, but it also must be noted that the Male Gaze continues to influence all works dealing with the sexual and gender identity of women, both cis- and transgender.

V: SOPHIE, Arca, hyperpop and how their maximalist presentations of hyperfemininity reappropriate the Male Gaze as a form of empowerment as well as boldly expressing transness

Hyperpop as a genre has seen an exponential amount of growth in popularity and influence in the past 3-4 years. Originating from the 2010s “bubblegum bass” movement headed by label PC Music and late trans producer SOPHIE, hyperpop has found a powerful and unique influence in its own cultural niche that has unfortunately strayed from its ideological origins. Key features of bubblegum bass and early hyperpop include(d) maximalist aesthetics commenting on consumerist culture and oversexualization in marketing; hyperfemininity and embracing it in the face of misogyny; and trans women finding empowerment in their unique experiences with femininity. SOPHIE embodied all these sensibilities[19], with her 2010s project PRODUCT drawing inspiration from 90s club and ballroom culture (distinctly tied to the LGBTQ community, specifically trans women) and featuring pitched-up female vocals and lyrical subjects that emphasize feminine sexuality. Her 2018 album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, headed by a music video revealing her identity as a trans woman, directly discusses transness on almost every song, and as a whole discusses themes of inner beauty and explorations of identity (‘Immaterial’, ‘It’s Okay to Cry’, ‘Whole New World/Pretend World’). SOPHIE’s bold influence has spread throughout the music industry, working with big names such as Lady Gaga and Charli XCX to shape the pop sphere of the 2020s, and her legacy post-death lives on to carry unabashed transfemininity in all its forms.

Arca is another extremely influential transfeminine producer and artist, who has worked with names such as Bjork, Kanye West, and FKA Twigs. It is unique in its expressions of trans identity, since it identifies as both nonbinary and transfeminine (using she/it/they pronouns), as well as exploring the intersections between this and her identity as a Venezuelan woman. Arca has also had a large presence in the hyperpop scene, bringing in elements of deconstructed club and other influences from IDM and reggaeton (neoperreo) that have expanded the genre beyond its largely electropop-based sound. Her work is characterized by bold representations of transfeminine bodies, intertwining with cyberpunk and transhumanist mechanical aesthetics both visually and sonically, with lyrical content that discusses her view of her own body and sexuality[20] (‘Nonbinary’, ‘Time’, ‘@@@@@’, ‘Vanity’, etc.). Arca is representative of the empowerment found by trans women through creative mediums and the growing influence of hyperpop in how it is a unique movement built on expressions of hyperfemininity, especially those by trans women. Other key transfeminine figures in the movement include Laura Les of 100 gecs, Kim Petras, Ayesha Erotica, and osquinn.

VI. How audiences are able to directly influence and hold power in the media they consume

Now with the widespread use of social media, audiences are able to directly communicate with their favorite directors, writers, artists, and other creative producers more than ever before. This allows audiences to easily express aspects of their identities they would like to see expressed in the media they consume, and critique poor representations as well. A prime example of this is the growth of independent film review sites like Letterboxd which provide a voice for all audience demographics, including trans women, to publicly express their unique views on films and the representation within. Audiences are also able to control which media they consume, using social networks and other digital forums to find productions they might be interested in and be notified of these pieces’ exact types and accuracy of representation. Streaming services have taken this concept of audience control to an even higher level, with personalized algorithms and the idea of choice ruling the vehicle of media consumption used by most audiences. This allows audiences to specifically seek out media that suit their desires for representation or media that do so inaccurately, then being able to express their opinion on the latter production to a public forum online.

VII. ‘Mediation’ of collective identity

The influence of the Male Gaze and fetishism will be continually seen in media depicting trans women as long as it is produced by cisgender people, since they will always, even unintentionally, project their inherent cisnormative biases onto the representation they provide. Through the aforementioned modes of communication within trans women’s communities online, a collective identity is formed based on the types of media consumed and the positive representation sought out. This combats the collective identity formed by cisnormative society’s view and depiction of trans women in problematic media. By taking the burden of media production into their own hands, trans women are able to further the newly formed positive collective identity and create media that fits their desires for representation as well as uniting their community around individual creative contributions that represent them as a whole.


[1] People assigned male at birth who identify with a female gender identity
[2] People assigned male at birth who align with a more feminine identity and may or may not fully identify as trans women
[3] LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, 1969: The Stonewall Uprising, (last visited May 7, 2022)
[4] People who do not conform to the norms expected of their gender
[5] HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN, Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2019, HRC Foundation, https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2019 (last visited May 7, 2022)
[6] Prejudice against women
[7] The feminist concept that portrayals of women in media are viewed from the eyes of heterosexual men and serve as objects for their sexual/viewing pleasure
[8] A form of sexual objectification (or sexualization) of transgender women or a sexual attraction to transgender identities
[9] School of thought derived from the work of Ray Blanchard that namely seeks to categorize trans women into two types: the “autogynephilic transsexual” and the “homosexual transsexual”
[10] Jane M. Ussher, Alexandra Hawkey, Janette Perz, et. al., Crossing Boundaries and Fetishization: Experiences of Sexual Violence for Trans Women of Color, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0886260520949149, 12 Aug 2020
[11] Marjorie B. Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-dressing & Cultural Anxiety 116 (1997)
[12] How transfeminine individuals experience the concept of femininity and how this can be categorized
[13] People whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth
[14] INDIEWIRE, Regressive, Reductive and Harmful: A Trans Woman’s Take On Tom Hooper’s Embarrassing ‘Danish Girl’, Carol Grant, https://www.indiewire.com/2015/12/regressive-reductive-and-harmful-a-trans-womans-take-on-tom-hoopers-embarrassing-danish-girl-213499/ (last visited May 7, 2022)
[15] A disconnect between and discomfort regarding sex characteristics, social perception, and other denotations of “gender” imposed based on birth sex and the actual gender identity of a transgender individual
[16] LETTERBOXD, Review of ‘The Danish Girl’ by Sally Jane Black, Sally Jane Black, https://letterboxd.com/fuchsiadyke/film/the-danish-girl/ (last visited May 7, 2022) [17] Umbrella term encompassing individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or with other non-cisgender and/or non-heterosexual labels
[18] STRATHCLYDE TELEGRAPH, HBO’s Euphoria: Beautiful Cinematography, But Harmful, Watery Writing, Rachel Cronin, https://strath clydetelegraph.com/2022/02/07/hbos-euphoria-beautiful-cinematography-but-harmful-watery-writing/ (last visited May 7, 2022)
[19] POLLINATE, Glimmer in the Slick; A Meditation on SOPHIE’s Legacy, Cornelia Smith, POLLINATE, Glimmer in the Slick; A Meditation on SOPHIE’s Legacy, Cornelia Smith, https://pollinate.co/blog/glimmer-in-the-slick-a-meditation-on-sophies-legacy/ (last visited May 7, 2022) (last visited May 7, 2022) [20] THE NEW YORK TIMES, Arca Once Made Electronic Music. Now She Builds Worlds., Isabelia Herrera, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/03/arts/music/arca-kick.html (last visited May 7, 2022)

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