Moving Bodies: Sympathetic Migrations in Transgender Narrativity

By Keegan, Cael M. | Genders, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Moving Bodies: Sympathetic Migrations in Transgender Narrativity


Keegan, Cael M., Genders


Affect is not an expression of transsexuality but is, rather, the definitive condition of it.

--Lucas Cassidy Crawford, "Transgender Without Organs?" Transsexuality offers a dramatic instance of the temporal instability of the flesh.

It sets embodiment in motion.

--Susan Stryker, "Transsexuality: The Postmodern Body and/as Technology."

[1] No body seems to fire the postmodern cultural imaginary quite like the transgender body. As Judith Halberstam has noted, "The body in transition indelibly marks late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century visual fantasy" (76). Transgender bodies and lives are increasingly available for consumption in Western literature, film, televisual media, and in virtual spaces across the internet. We should be careful, however, in assuming that this proliferation of signs indicates a movement toward transgender equality. While transitional and non-conforming bodies may momentarily deconstruct the fiction of static gendered categories, transgender representation may also be manipulated to enforce these categories and to shore up their "ongoing foundational power" (Prosser, Second 11) through a proliferation of what Sara Ahmed has termed "straightening devices" (Queer 92). As bodies commonly imagined to be in migration between discrete and opposing genders, transsexual and transgender bodies "evoke tropes both of boundary crossing and the power of boundaries to (re)inscribe norms" (Alexander 71). The increasing popularity of transgender narrativity indicates the unacknowledged struggle operating at the heart of gender's intelligibility: if most of us struggle to maintain the illusion of a consistent and perceivable gender (Bornstein 65), then trans bodies reveal the social processes that produce gender even as they may reassure us that one can "come home to" or "arrive at" one's true gender in the end.

[2] This article seeks to explore the ways in which "transness"--transsexuality and the broader category of "transgender" as a multivalent and politicized term collecting multiple forms of transitional, medically transitioned, and non-conforming genders--is becoming popularly consumed in North American visual culture. In popular visual texts, transgender difference is commonly reduced to an experience of prescribed affect: the trans body is fashioned as one that "feels bad"--a dysphoric body. "Dysphoria" indicates a state of unease or general dissatisfaction, and the term is used to classify anxiety and mood disorders by the American Psychiatric Association, among other organizations. The 2013 revision to the APA's DSM V proposes to reclassify "gender identity disorder" as "gender dysphoria"--a change that increasingly defines trans identification as an emotional disorder, typified by a specific "aversive emotional component" that constitutes a juridical form of stigmatization for transgender people ("Rationale"). In Western culture, explanations for transgender identity increasingly entrench transness as mode of feeling, and "fixing" trans difference is understood as fixing the problem of how trans people feel--and make others feel--about their corporeality.

[3] Trans difference has been typified in Western culture as a question of "feeling bad" about one's body or gender, particularly because transness itself has no as-yet discovered biological etiology. In both medical and fictional literature, transgender identity has been sutured to specific forms of negative affect--rage, sorrow, wishfulness, denial--as both "instrument[s] of pathologization" (Butler 76) and expressions of what is imagined to be an inherently dysphoric ontology. The fictional transgender figure has traditionally been marked as vulnerable to or productive of extreme emotional states, portrayed either as the emotive center of a narrative (The Crying Game), as disturbed, erratic, or unstable (Silence of the Lambs, Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives), or psychotically violent (Dressed to Kill, Sleepaway Camp).

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