It’s Time to Reject the “Cross-Dressing Killer” Archetype: An Open Letter to JK Rowling and the World

Dear JK Rowling and the world, Please stop employing the "cross-dressing killer" archetype. Your fictional representations are killing real-life trans women. Sincerely, Radical Copyeditor

A month ago, I was hired to do a sensitivity read of a manuscript prior to publication, because the publisher wanted to ensure that the book was sensitive to trans communities. When I read it, I was horrified. It was a murder mystery that featured a cross-dressing killer.

I wrote a seven-page letter to publisher and author alike, explaining in painstaking detail that the fictional cross-dressing killer is a harmful archetype and describing the impacts of this archetype, including the decidedly not fictional trend of violence directed at Black trans women.

So it was with a sense of having a recurring nightmare that I read that JK Rowling’s fifth installment in her pseudonymously authored murder mystery series, Troubled Blood, released today, features a cross-dressing killer.

Over the last six months JK Rowling has revealed herself to be rabidly gender-essentialist and anti-trans in over-the-top ways, which has felt like a downright betrayal to all of the trans and queer people who found joy in the Harry Potter series. With the release of this new book, the author’s spectacularly public anti-trans stance takes on a new meaning.

Already, people are making “what’s the big deal”–type comments throughout the social media universe, so I’ve decided to deviate from my normal style of blog post and share some of what I wrote last month in my efforts to stop the publication of a different cross-dressing killer story.

The thing is, words matter, but the wielder of those words also matters. Hateful, biased words cause harm, but that harm is magnified by the power and platform and agenda of the person wielding them. The uproar and outrage and pushback being directed at JK Rowling is directly proportional to the amount of power she has to cause harm. The fictional cross-dressing killer she created is not an aside; it’s propaganda for her agenda.

Language is a spectrum from violent to liberatory. We can use our platforms to magnify violent, harmful language or magnify liberatory, healing language. For me, the choice is clear. And as I told that author and publisher last month, it’s incredibly urgent and vital for those who believe that trans people are real and deserving of life and liberty to be able to identify anti-trans narratives, stereotypes, and archetypes, and work to counter them.

So this post is a lesson in the power of cross-dressing killer stories and an open letter to the world to stop telling them.

~ ~ ~

There is no trend of men creating false identities as women to commit or escape capture for their crimes, nor is there a trend of trans women, cross-dressing men, or gender fluid people being murderous—there is only a trend of mainstream media sensationalizing any story that involves a whiff of gender nonconformity. And, of course, there is the trend that exists in fiction.

In the 2011 book Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the US, authors Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock write about the archetypes that have been constructed over many decades that paint all sexual and gender “deviants” as inherently criminal. They write:

The specter of criminality moves ceaselessly through the lives of LGBT people in the United States. It is the enduring product of persistent melding of homosexuality and gender nonconformity with concepts of danger, degeneracy, disorder, deception, disease, contagion, sexual predation, depravity, subversion, encroachment, treachery, and violence. It is so deeply rooted in U.S. society that the term stereotype does not begin to convey its social and political force. The narratives it produces are so vivid, compelling, and entrenched that they are more properly characterized as archetypes—recurring, culturally ingrained representations that evoke strong, often subterranean emotional associations or responses.

… Written and rewritten across time, space, and the evolution of queer identities, these archetypal narratives may be best understood as means to criminalize queerness. Based on these established criminalizing narratives or scripts, queer people are targeted for policing and punishment regardless of whether they have actually committed any crime. … Criminalizing scripts are at once political and cultural creations, taking hold in the public imagination through symbiotic relationships between law enforcement and mass media.

… The archetypes and their accompanying scripts are remarkably powerful in directing not only the initial gaze, but also subsequent interpretations and actions, of police, prosecutors, judges, juries, and prison authorities. It is almost impossible to overestimate the societal clout of these symbolic representations.[1]

The cross-dressing killer (or “lethal gender bender”) is one such archetype that Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock write about. Horror films like Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and Silence of the Lambs popularized the trope of the psychotic man who dresses in women’s clothing and hates and kills women. There are many, many more fictional people than real people who fit this archetype—since Psycho (1960) there have been more than forty other films that feature cross-dressing or “sex-changing” killers, plus untold numbers of such characters in TV shows and novels.[2]

This cultural invention and the mainstream fascination with it has real, deadly impacts on trans people’s lives. Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock lay out in vivid detail how archetypes including this one have operated over the course of decades in U.S. police forces, courtrooms, and prisons to criminalize LGBTQ people, normalize violence against us (including by police), and secure disproportionately harsh sentences for crimes.

It bears noting that a character does not actually have to be trans in order to embody the cross-dressing killer archetype. All they have to do is cross-dress. Creating a cross-dressing character is an act of creating an implicitly trans character. It’s how such characters will be read by many readers and it perfectly fits the ever-present cultural narratives about deceitful, depraved, and/or violent gender deviants. A fictional man who dresses as a woman to commit or escape crimes also can’t help fueling the myth that trans women are men wearing women’s clothing—a myth that is so ingrained in popular culture that even many self-avowed allies of trans people believe it.  

The authors of Queer (In)Justice make a compelling case for how archetypes like the cross-dressing killer have permeated our cultural consciousness to such a degree that they have shaped public perceptions of trans people as inherently deceptive, mentally ill, depraved, and violent. The recent excellent film Disclosure documents that for the entirety of the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first century, the only representations of trans people in mass media were as jokes, victims, or slashers—and that this had profound negative impacts on actual trans people.[3]

Trans producer and actress Jen Richards reflects on how the cross-dressing killer archetype informed and was informed by foundational transphobic arguments against the existence of trans women: “[Silence of the Lambs is about a] disgusting psychotic serial killer who hunts women in order to kill them and skin them in order to wear their bodies and literally appropriate the female form. Which is exactly the feminist argument against the existence of trans women—that we are trying to appropriate the female form, and here he was doing it literally.” She also speaks to the fact that the longstanding trend of trans women characters in film and TV being portrayed by men plays into the false but prevalent myth that trans women are actually men in disguise.[4]

It’s easy to see how this has fueled the anti-trans rhetoric that undergirds the backlash against trans rights, in which efforts to pass nondiscrimination legislation have been painted as attempts to allow men into women’s bathrooms and locker rooms.[5] The documentary The Most Dangerous Year covers the rise of so-called “bathroom bills” in the United States in 2016 and how the rhetoric of supporters of such anti-trans legislation directly draws from archetypes like the cross-dressing killer.[6] In such rhetoric, there’s no difference between male pedophiles wearing dresses and trans women. The specter of the mythical cross-dressing predator overshadows everything.

Although there is no trend of cisgender men posing as women in order to commit crimes or evade capture and punishment for them, there is a very real trend of Black trans women being murdered simply for being Black trans women, and this trend is actively fueled by fictional cross-dressing killers in film, television, and literature.

We are in the middle of what will likely be the worst year ever for reported murders of trans people in the United States. At least twenty-four trans people have been murdered so far this year, most of them Black trans women. In a single nine-day span two months ago, six young Black trans women were killed.[7]

In Disclosure, ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio notes, “The trans character on television and film—those sort of representations of transness may incite rage in a viewer, and that viewer doesn’t have access to the character, they have access to the person on the street.”[8] Representations of deceptive, violent people who cross-dress in literature and film result in actual violence and murder for the most vulnerable trans people, and this violence has reached epidemic proportions.

To make matters even worse, trans people are currently center stage in the so-called culture wars. We are seen as a “wedge issue” and anti-trans rhetoric and actions have become a calculated strategy on the part of conservative entities, following a successful pivot after they supposedly “lost the fight” against same-sex marriage, at least in the United States. Anti-trans legislation has been rampantly proposed ever since, and we have been explicitly targeted by the Trump administration and its allies for discrimination and worse—most recently, a proposed rule that will allow homeless shelters that receive federal funding to discriminate against trans people (and 1 in 5 trans people experience homelessness at some point in our lives).[9]

~ ~ ~

It’s a testament to the strength of the cross-dressing killer archetype that the author and editor of the manuscript I read last month both sincerely believed that there was a real-life criminal trend of men creating false identities as women in order to commit crimes or escape capture, and that the character in their book reflected reality.

After reading my letter and my plea to not publish a book that utilizes a violent anti-trans trope, the publisher planned to ask the author to rework the manuscript so that it does not include a cross-dressing killer. I was relieved and grateful that this particular author and publisher were receptive to my feedback and are taking steps to address their unconscious biases and the very real harm that can come from them.

Unfortunately, JK Rowling and her publisher Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown, had no such qualms. The once-beloved author has shown her true stripes, and they are incredibly ugly and harmful.  

When we stop telling harmful stories, they fade and no longer have life. I hope you’ll join me in calling on writers, publishers, television and film studios, and media outlets everywhere to reject the cross-dressing killer archetype and stop telling these stories.


[1] Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock, Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 23–26.

[2] Rani Baker, “Do Transsexuals Eat Women?” Medium, October 31, 2016; Joelle Ruby Ryan, “Reel Gender: Examining the Politics of Trans Images in Film and Media” (phD diss., Bowling Green State University, 2009).

[3] Disclosure, directed by Sam Feder (Los Gatos, CA: Netflix, 2020).

[4] Disclosure.

[5] German Lopez, “The Ugly Myth about Transgender People Opponents of a Houston Civil Rights Law Used to Win,” Vox, November 3, 2015.

[6] The Most Dangerous Year, directed by Vlada Knowlton (Warren Township, NJ: Passion River Films, 2019); “Documentary Review: ‘The Most Dangerous Year’ Chronicles Transgender “Bathroom Bill” Protests,” Movie Nation, April 11, 2019.

[7] Devin-Norelle, “Six Black Trans Women Were Found Dead in Nine Days,” them., July 14, 2020.

[8] Disclosure.

[9]The Discrimination Administration,” National Center for Transgender Equality; Katelyn Burns, “The Trump Administration Is Targeting Homeless Trans People in the Middle of a Pandemic,” Vox, July 2, 2020.

2 thoughts on “It’s Time to Reject the “Cross-Dressing Killer” Archetype: An Open Letter to JK Rowling and the World

  1. Thank you for your work on this, and for citing these resources. It is so important. There is a triple conflation here with gender non-conformity, criminality, and “psychosis” which has deep roots in our culture and institutions. There is similar advocacy needed to push back against the archetype of the “psycho killer,” which creates a false belief that people with certain psychiatric diagnoses are more dangerous and violent than the general population, and therefore deserving of the police brutality that they are subjected to. Folks at the intersections of trans and Mad/neurodivergent experiences are especially at risk. I love your blog!

    Like

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