Dressed to Kill (1980), and separating the art from transphobia

On September 8, Brian De Palma’s 1980 erotic thriller Dressed to Kill got a much-coveted Criterion Blu-ray release, officially joining the likes of Citizen Kane and Seven Samurai in a select pantheon of world cinema. True, said pantheon also includes such undisputed masterpieces as The Rock and Armageddon, but who am I to question my critical peers?

I digress. The point is, Dressed to Kill has been deemed enough of an artistic accomplishment to become part of what many cinephiles consider a kind of movie elite. To be included in the Criterion Collection is to be granted a form of cultural immortality and prestige that few films ever receive. And all kidding aside about some of Criterion’s more questionable inductions, Dressed to Kill truly deserves that honor: It’s an enrapturing, pulse-pounding film that elevates trashy, sensationalistic material to an artistic expression of primal sensuality.

It’s also one of the most nakedly transphobic films ever made.

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The film’s plot revolves around call girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) accidentally witnessing the murder of adulterous housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) by a mysterious blonde woman in sunglasses. After a few narrow brushes with the killer and some private sleuthing with the victim’s son, our heroine discovers the person responsible may in fact be Bobbi, a transgender patient of psychiatrist Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), the same shrink that the victim was seeing. And if your exposure to mysteries hasn’t been limited to episodes of Dora the Explorer, you’ve probably guessed the plot twist by now.

Dressed to Kill (1980), and separating the art from transphobia

So yes, this is essentially a film about a crazy trans woman killing sexually active cis women for the audience’s visual pleasure, thereby reinforcing inaccurate stereotypes of trans people as dangerous and delusional while simultaneously perpetuating a popular cinematic tradition of “punishing” women who break traditional sexual mores with death or severe trauma. These are all very negative and harmful messages; and yet, Dressed to Kill isn’t a great film in spite of its regressive gender politics; it’s a great film largely because of its regressive gender politics.

How on earth does that make sense? I’ll try my best to explain. It goes without saying, of course, that my opinions are those of a straight cisgender male, i.e. this movie’s main target audience. As such, they neither represent nor invalidate any transgender person’s opinion or experience of the film.

First off, let’s talk about Brian De Palma. To casual viewers, he’s the guy behind Scarface, Carrie, The Untouchables and the first Mission: Impossible movie. To cinephiles, depending on who you ask, he’s either a master of genre movie codes and aesthetics, or a shallow, sleazy Alfred Hitchcock imitator. While I stand firmly in the former camp, his reputation as a dirty old man with a Hitchcock boner is not entirely undeserved. In fact, it’s precisely one of the characteristics that make his thrillers so interesting: He revisits classic scenarios popularized and/or codified by Hitchcock and mixes in giallo-inspired schlock and New Wave postmodernism to get down to their common primary motivator: Hot, dirty, heterosexual desire.

Dressed to Kill (1980), and separating the art from transphobia

De Palma’s brilliance lies in seizing the base, vulgar instincts subtly explored in the original movies, and exposing them and cranking them up to eleven. Movies like Body Double and Blow Out don’t just recycle premises from Rear Window, Vertigo, or The Conversation; they explore cinema’s inherent voyeurism and remind us of our own weakness for it—all while reveling in both.

The same thing goes for Dressed to Kill: It’s not a love letter to Psycho so much as a tongue-in-cheek pastiche that repeats its plot structure, updates its themes, and embraces the inherently silly, exploitative nature of its story in order to better pinpoint the impulses and fears that Hitchcock spoke to so efficiently: The thrill of sexual and moral transgression and its uneasy coexistence with the guilt and discomfort they provoke within us.

Dressed to Kill (1980), and separating the art from transphobia

Psycho’s original audience wasn’t shocked and hooked by Marion Crane’s theft of her client’s money so much as her sexy affair with Sam Loomis that motivated it in the first place, hence her update into sexually frustrated cougar Kate Miller. Norman Bates’ dual personalities were a strange and new enough thing on their own, but what really disturbed people was the fact that his “killer personality” was female, which is why De Palma takes it a step further by making the killer transgender and doing away with the tragic Freudian backstory that helped make Norman so sympathetic and compelling. Whereas Norman’s murders were motivated by sexual guilt borne from an unhealthy relationship with his mother, Elliott is driven to kill by “Bobbi” perceiving his arousal by women as a threat to the promise of transitioning.

Just in case the conflation between dissociative identity disorder and gender dysphoria is too vague, a message Bobbi leaves on Elliott’s answering machine explicitly identifies her as “a woman trapped inside a man’s body” and accuses him of “not helping [her] to get out”. The message is clear: If you don’t help trans people transition, their fragile little minds will eventually snap into murderous rage.

A gross misrepresentation to be sure, but again, nothing that wasn’t already present in Psycho in a different form. Sure, De Palma neither challenges nor subverts these messages, but what he does is just as interesting: He takes a headfirst dive into the psyche that spawned them.

Consider the opening half-hour we spend getting to know Kate Miller: The movie opens with her masturbating in the shower until a strange man creeps up on her and sexually assaults her… only for it to turn out to all be just a fantasy to help her cope with her husband’s unsatisfying sex. Aside from this kind of bait-and-switch sexy opening being pretty common in Brian De Palma movies, it’s a great way to introduce the movie’s ideas and tone to the audience: what you’re being told is “you are entering the realm of pure lurid sexual fantasy, where everything you see is motivated by sexual desire and nothing is what it seems”.

Dressed to Kill (1980), and separating the art from transphobia

The entire first act is driven and shaped by Kate’s need to get laid, leading to an epic 11-minute sequence in which she seduces, evades, then chases a nameless stranger across the Museum of Modern Art in a wordless game of cat and mouse that culminates in them having sex in the back of a taxi. It’s one of the most powerfully erotic scenes ever put to film, and a spellbinding expression of longing, desire, fear, and ecstasy that you rarely get to see from female characters in mainstream movies, let alone middle-aged married women. For all his sleazy tendencies, De Palma shows a genuinely sympathetic understanding of straight female desire, heightened by Angie Dickinson’s superb performance and Pino Donaggio’s score, both of which add to the scene’s dreamlike quality.

Dressed to Kill (1980), and separating the art from transphobia

After getting “punished” for her bit of nookie with a magnificently edited murder and, it is implied, an STD (her pick-up had recently contracted gonorrhea and syphilis), the erotic dream seamlessly transitions into a nightmare as we switch to our “real” protagonist, high-priced escort Liz Blake. She’s a fairly run-of-the-mill slasher movie heroine, but it’s worth noting that the character she’s updating is Marion Crane’s virginal, innocent sister Lila, the “good girl” who gets to survive the movie. Replacing her with a sex worker manages to slightly minimize both movies’ sexist treatment of sexually active women, if not subvert it outright (like so many movie prostitutes, Liz is never seen having sex).

Dressed to Kill (1980), and separating the art from transphobia

We thus go from the fantasy realm of sexual desire to its cranky old neighbor, sexual fear. The fear in question is the sexual unknown, represented by an androgynous, unknowable feminine Other that’s constantly trying to kill you and will never stop haunting you, even when she’s safely locked away.

It’s this fear that lies at the heart of the movie’s scary and suspenseful scenes, from the chase scene in the subway to the confrontation in Elliott’s office. This is why Dressed to Kill’s artistry cannot be divorced from its transphobia: They both come from the same place.

Dressed to Kill (1980), and separating the art from transphobia

In our current progressive era, where art and pop culture are held accountable for their representation of minority groups more than ever before, it’s become increasingly difficult for some viewers to conceive that a movie can be bigoted and good, let alone good partly because of its bigotry. After all, if bigotry is bad, then doesn’t it follow that any movie that perpetuates awful stereotypes is also bad by definition? What separates Dressed to Kill from the kind of crude joke about “trannies” you might hear at a drunken frat party?

One word: effort. Bigoted works of art like Dressed to Kill, Gone with the Wind, or Strangers on a Train offer fascinating, sometimes frightening insight into how the artist and/or their cultural framework perceive a certain group, and remind us, through their efficiency, just how deeply-rooted these prejudices and ideals are. They show artistic and intellectual effort on the part of their creators, even if that effort is misdirected or used to support evil. Trash like The Mummy, The Blind Side, and Transformers show only laziness in their portrayals of fantasized Others, without any wit or poetry to compensate, and so they teach us nothing of interest.

We’ve come a long way since 1980 in representing sexual minorities in general and trans people in particular, in no small part as a response to movies like Dressed to Kill. How then can we continue celebrating it and others of its kind? By recognizing the talent with which they play on—and in the best cases expose—the feelings and attitudes we often hold without realizing, and using it as an incentive to challenge them.

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  • MichaelANovelli

    Also, we should never forget that art serves as a record of the era in which it is made, so even though a work may express ideas that are no longer considered positive, their continued existence can still serve an instructive purpose…

    • Thomas Ricard

      Indeed. The movie is something of a fascinating 1980s timecapsule despite the decade barely having started by the time of its release. The fact that Kate’s bloody death scene comes after she finds out her pick-up tested positive for an STD feels like an eerie unintentional prediction of the AIDS panic that would later grip America.

  • Greenhornet

    The suffix “phobia”, like so many other words in the English language, has been twisted and misappropriated to mean something it was never meant to be. “Phobia” means FEAR of something, not contempt, dislike, hatred, or even sick to death of.
    But really, if a transvestite man (Not “transgendered” or “transsexual”, those terms have also been re-defined for political reasons) came at me with a weapon bent on murder, I would have reason to be AFRAID of him.

    • Thomas Ricard

      From an etymological point of view, I do agree that it isn’t quite exact. I use it for simplicity’s sake. And of course one has reason to be afraid of any armed murderer, but movies like “Psycho” and “Dressed To Kill” (as well as “Silence Of The Lambs”) popularized and perpetuated the idea that transvestites and trans women are unstable, insane and dangerous. Even if that wasn’t their intent – “Silence Of The Lambs” makes a fine point of repeating that Buffalo Bill is not transgender but simply believes himself to be – the consequences are the same.

      • Jim Nightshade

        You aren’t insane and dangerous, I assume. Score one for the transman.

  • Endorenna

    Hmm. I understand the article and its point, but I am slightly confused by the inclusion of The Mummy in the paragraph before last. I feel like I’m missing something…

    • Thomas Ricard

      I was referring to its racist, stereotypical portrayal of Arabs as, with the exception of Ardeth Bay, being generally greedy, cowardly, smelly and self-serving.

      • Greg

        To be fair, all the American characters with the exception of Rick O’Connell were also greedy, cowardly, and self-serving. Also they are in the desert in the 1930s. Everyone is smelly.

        • James

          Exactly, Greg, which is why I hate this type of claim. Here’s the seeming breakdown:
          British Characters: A drunken ex-military pilot who seems quite deluded, a drunken, irresponsible cad and his bumbling, clumsy, foolish sister. Reviewer’s opinion: No problem.
          American Characters: greedy, self-serving, stereotypical, and cowardly. Reviewer’s opinion: No problem.
          Arab Characters: pretty much the same as the Americans. Reviewer’s opinion: RACIST!!!
          If I rolled my eyes any harder I’d strain some ocular muscles.

          • Mike

            You miss the point of the complaints completely. There isn’t a general association with the general public about American or British being generally greedy, cowardly, smelly, or self-serving. There such stereotypes ARE widely accepted as facts when it comes to Arabs.
            If any work of fiction reinforces such stereotypes does not make the specific work bigoted. The real problem is that certain stereotypes are too prevalent at certain times for certain groups with much in the way of alternative.
            I agree it’s annoying to hear some suggest any movie character should be expected to represent EVERYONE of a certain background, but it should’t hurt your story too much to have a few good or at least neutral character of different background the the lead characters who are the same side.
            Of course, in the case of Dressed to Kill there WAS a trans character on a talk show at one point who was seen as non-threatening (post-transition anyway)…so maybe even one positive portrayal will never be enough for some people regardless of context.

          • Greg

            The mummy was set in Egypt so the characters would be Egyptian, not Arab. Also there were good Egyptian characters on the hero’s side. Therefore the movie does not support the author’s criticism

          • Jim Nightshade

            Arabs don’t have the Eddie Munster hairline that most Egyptian males have.

      • Jim Nightshade

        I guess that Sayeed Farouk didn’t smell so bad, bud?

      • Jim Nightshade

        It’s a shame that the film wasn’t prescient enough to show Arabs in modern Britain, passing around young vulnerable underaged british girls as sex toys for their muslim brothers. I anticipate your argument–the villains in Rotherham were Pakis, and not Arabs, right?

  • Jeremy Pinkham

    “a message Bobbi leaves on Elliott’s answering machine explicitly identifies her as ‘a woman trapped inside a man’s body’ and accuses him of ‘not helping [her] to get out’. The message is clear: If you don’t help trans people transition, their fragile little minds will eventually snap into murderous rage.”

    The filmmaker makes no such statement regarding murder being the inevitable outcome of repressed gender identity. The film is about one person behaving in this manner. Would you say “the clear message” of “Breaking Bad” is that if you don’t pay science teachers enough money for their work they will eventually snap and become legendary meth kingpins?

    It’s fair to argue the portrayal of a transsexual in the film is unjust and harmful and based on poor psychology. But I don’t think it’s fair to claim the film intended the character in the film to represent an entire group.

    • Mike

      It’s fair to argue the portrayal of a transsexual in the film is unjust and harmful and based on poor psychology. But I don’t think it’s fair to claim the film intended the character in the film to represent an entire group.

      Exactly!

      • Thomas Ricard

        I understand what you’re getting at, and of course I understand that no one character is necessarily intended to be representative of any “group” they may belong to. However, the wider cultural context cannot be fully ignored. Whether we want to admit it or not, our perception of reality is influenced to some degree by its representation in fiction. Much of what we do not know of the world beyond our personal firsthand experience, we learn from fictionalized representations. Sure, we may be fully aware that it is fiction and are theoretically able to differentiate it from fact, but the messages and ideas contained within are not so easily dismissed.
        Staying on the subjects of “Psycho” and “Dressed To Kill”, one could tackle the topic of mental health and the way these films – along with practically every other “mad killer” movie ever made – perpetuate attitudes towards the mentally ill. We’ve come to associate severe mental health problems such as dissociative identity disorder or paranoid schizophrenia with violence and crime to the point that it has penetrated our collective unconscious. Yet survey after survey continues to demonstrate that such links are unfounded.
        The sad truth is that many people will, consciously or not, look upon acquaintances or friends that belong to a racial/sexual/religious/national group different from their own as représentatives – sometimes, the feeling can be mutual (see: stereotype threat). The same kind of thinking can apply to fictional characters.
        I certainly agree that to think that EVERY minority character *has* to be a positive reflection on “their” group, and be defined by it, is a dangerous way of thinking fiction as it sets impossible standards that make it impossible to write truly interesting, three-dimensional human beings. All I am arguing for is vigilance and self-awareness, and the boldness to think outside of own’s own pre-conceived notions all while recognizing their existence.

  • Jim Nightshade

    “In our current progressive era, where art and pop culture are held accountable for their representation of minority groups more than ever before…”

    Says it all for me. Please resplain to this ignorant cracka why art and pop culture ought to be held accountable for their representation of minority groups. My kin from “Deliverance” are waiting for a response, bud. Sounds to me like you want a lot of restraint imposed upon films. Do you want to ban this one? Or force DePalma to reshoot with a hetero villain?

    The United States isn’t Stalinist Russia yet, sir. We still have the right to watch films that you deem politically incorrect. I guess that if you consider this film offensive, because of transgender/nongender issues, you’d hate “Sanctuary” by Faulkner. If you were capable of reading and comprehending a great novel, that is.

    Idiot reviewer. BTW, in my opinion, the film is pretty good for DePalma. He ain’t much, though, compared to his contemporaries.

    • Thomas Ricard

      Dear Mr. Nightshade,

      Could you kindly point out the passages in my article in which I stated or implied that I wanted “Dressed To Kill”, or any film that I might deem “Politically Incorrect™” banned? For, you see, I was under the somewhat naïve impression that my article was praising the film and acknowledging that its regressive portrayal of trans women was part of what makes it so fascinating.

      • Jim Nightshade

        You’re so brilliant, and so…profound, and your tone is so…cutting, towards those that don’t agree with you. If you’re so freaking smart, and cutting edge, give me a synopsis of the transgender issues in Faulkner’s “Sanctuary,” particularly in respect to Popeye. The doctor in the novel, you’ll recall, told Popeye’s mom that he’d never function as a man.

        Or you won’t recall it. Smarmy, uneducated troll. Tell me how Thoreau would have reacted to “Dressed to Kill.” Or Bronson Alcott. Or Margaret Fuller.

        Uneducated, smarmy, fool. Laugh it up, hairball.

        • Thomas Ricard

          I freely and humbly admit to being severely under-read, driven as I am to complete my neverending film education. I fail, however, to see what any of this has to do with what I have written. I did not call for a single work of art or literature to be banned, nor will I ever. I’m sorry that I cannot provide an adequate outlet to satisfy your anger and aggression. I hope you eventually learn to let it go.

          • Jim Nightshade

            Sure, bud. An outright ban isn’t in the works, in your view. You’d rather have the scripts pass through a committee first, to make sure that they don’t “harm” anyone on the way through.

            I was rude to call you uneducated. I have the benefit of an extensive education–self funded. Nick Carraway’s father pointed out that some people haven’t had the breaks that his son had. I made my own breaks, education wise. Again, it was rude as hell for me to call you uneducated.

            I get irritated as hell with people like you who postulate what a movie might be like without “hurting” people, or “engendering stereotypes.” It’s a film. Good god, do you think that casting Boris Karloff in Whale’s “Frankenstein” didn’t hurt poor old Lugosi? Or that “Shivers” might have hurt the feelings of people with syphilis?

            There is one instance in film history where the two of us might agree, that the film produced was simply wrong. Tod Browning’s “Freaks.” I’d like to hear your comments on that particular film. It was banned, and though I think it’s…repugnant, I don’t know if it ought to have been banned for 35 years.

            You touched off an ugly spark the other day with your comment. Not your fault. Mine. If you truly are undereducated, and not just playing possum, then your posts are at least credible and intelligent, and written in a style that shows intelligence. You certainly are not ignorant as to grammar and punctuation, as many who post here are.

            I don’t agree with your “what if” approach to films. I think it’s a dead end, and a useless intellectual exercise. Having said that, I did the same in grad school, with the classics of American Lit. Guilty myself.

            I’m not as angry as you might think. I like it when someone attempts to put me in my place, especially when said person is intelligent and well versed in film studies.

            I apologize for my ill humor and temperament. Please take care, and learn to ignore cranky old English Lit majors when you encounter them online. If you encounter another, just do your Uriah Heep impression, and be “umble, umble” again.

            –Cheers,
            Dr. Mabuse

          • John Assmith

            Jesus fucking shit-Christ this might be the most deluded display of pseudo-intellect I’ve ever seen. Because someone hasn’t read “Sanctuary” they’re a “smarmy, uneducated troll”? It’s laughable how you view your own bookshelf as the be-all end-all of whether or not someone is “educated” as you call it. Please go back to 4chan, and stop trying to pretend to assert your “intelligence” with verbose apologies to the “uneducated”.

  • tMoD

    Ugh, seriously? Must you? Must you drag a movie made over 30 years ago and examine it through today’s regressive, SJW, entitled, world view and complain about it’s portrayal of trans people?

    CISgendered? If I wanted to be shamed for the supposed bad treatment of minorities and made to feel guilty for how bad they supposedly have it, I would be on Reddit.

    Perhaps you got lost on your way there and meant for this to be posted there?

    Either way, I will just roll my eyes and look away from your shaming techniques.