Early reviews of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s new suspense novel Troubled Blood report that it is about a cis male serial killer who dresses up as a woman to commit his murders.
This demonization of trans people is distressing, but it’s not surprising. Rowling has earned a reputation as a transphobe. She has compared trans healthcare to gay conversion therapy, has baselessly fearmongered about the (nonexistent) dangers of trans women using women’s bathrooms, and has threatened to sue trans people who criticize her transphobia on social media.
Based on descriptions from readers of previews, the plot of Rowling’s latest novel (written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith) sounds like its been deliberately engineered to reproduce the worst cultural stereotypes and caricatures of trans people—tropes which portray them as violent murderers, violators and deceivers.
Probably the single most enduring portrayal of trans identity in Hollywood is, unfortunately, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 slasher film Psycho. In the movie, motel owner Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, is driven mad when his mother remarries. He murders her and then periodically takes on her identity to murder again.
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Psycho used, and codified, numerous hateful transphobic myths. Trans people, like Norman, are frequently portrayed as mentally ill, though trans identity is, correctly, no longer diagnosed as a mental health condition. Trans people are also often portrayed as “evil deceivers and make believers” in the words of one scholar. Just as Norman deceives his victims and the police, so trans people are supposed to be hiding their true selves. Again, like Norman, trans people are often portrayed as violent murderers or rapists. Transphobes who seek to ban trans women from women’s bathrooms often suggest trans people are sexual “predators” who want access to bathrooms so they can rape cis women. Further, Psycho suggests that sexual arousal triggers Norman’s transformation into his homicidal mother, conflating trans identity with sexual deviance.
Psycho was enormously successful and influential. It established gender swapping, and trans identity, as a central part of the slasher genre. Numerous horror/slasher films followed in which the final reveal is that the murderer is the “wrong” gender, or is trans.
In Brian de Palma’s 1980 Dressed to Kill, an open Psycho homage, the murderer is a therapist who cross-dresses so as to murder any woman who causes him to become aroused. The less high-concept first Friday the 13th film released the same year shuffles Psycho’s concept; the killer Jason is revealed to be Jason’s mother.
The most influential transphobic successor to Psycho is Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Silence of the Lambs. The killer in the film, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) is presented as a man who wants to become a woman. To accomplish this, Bill murders women and makes a coat of their skin. This vampiric appropriation of flesh echoes some of the most hateful rhetoric in the bible of feminist tranpshobia, Janice Raymond’s 1979 The Transsexual Empire. Raymond argues that trans women seek “strong female energy” and “want to capture it”—as if trans women are some kind of psychic bloodsuckers, who long to tear femininity from cis women and feed upon it.
Silence of the Lambs goes out of its way to say that Bill is not trans, but is simply mentally ill and confused. Rowling fans, perhaps, will argue similarly that her cis man in a dress is not a trans person, and is therefore not meant to be an attack on trans people.
The problem is that one of the main ways trans people are harmed is by denying that they are trans. As critic Jos Truitt says, “ the explanations for why Bill isn’t trans are, in fact, an accurate depiction of how medical gatekeepers tried to keep trans women they did not think would ‘pass’ as acceptable women from transitioning.” Transphobes portray trans women as cis men to deny their identities, to prevent them from getting proper health care, and to claim they are violent empowered murderers.
Clearly, in reality, trans people are not violent empowered murderers; rather, they are a targeted minority who face terrifying levels of violence. A 2015 survey found that 46 percent of respondents had been harassed in the past year; and 9 percent had been physically assaulted over the same time period for being trans. Forty-seven percent reported being sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. More than half had experienced intimate partner violence.
People often justify prejudice via projection. Hitler believed Jewish people were planning to exterminate Aryans; this was his pretext for committing genocide against Jewish people first. White people in the US have often called Black people lawless criminals to obscure the systemic criminal theft of their property and lives. When Hitchcock, Demme and now Rowling portray trans people as dangerous assaulters and rapists, they normalize and excuse ongoing physical and sexual assaults and discrimination against trans people.
Cis creators have treated trans people as monsters and serial killers for decades, doing the same tired reveals and telling the same tired lies to cover up the same bigotry and hatred. Rowling carries on an ugly, and long played-out tradition. Her many readers deserve better.