There I was, listening to the radio in five o’clock traffic while driving home from work last week when suddenly an on-air conversation took a peculiar turn into the Horror genre.
“TCM [Turner Classic Movies] Reframed” was being featured during an episode of NPR’s All Things Considered. According to the commentator, “TCM Reframed” has been created for the sole purpose of “re-examining” movie classics with a kind of “disclaimer” in the hope of “reconciling” Hollywood’s classic films (often drawn from from Classic Literary works) whose cultural failings do not measure up to the scrutiny of modern times. And in their sights is the movie Psycho. Psycho, they said, is an anti-trans film.
But the commentary of the hosts (Jacqueline Stewart and Ben Mankiewicz), did nothing to enlighten me as to why. In fact, I was left wondering what movie they were talking about. Because from where I sat, someone seemed to be plucking things out of context in order to make a shocking allegation of bigotry.
“Cancel Culture” and the Arts: Is It Ever Okay?
Work and words taken out of context…bending scenes or themes or plots into strange configurations just to see if they can be bent…and in some cases, wishful thinking…
There has long been the sense that this is how Criticism is done and “cancellation” occurs, and it has been a contentious battle to convince artists and writers and filmmakers that the truth is otherwise. It’s enough for some of us to never want to attract ANY attention – because…what if we aren’t perfect? What if we are found wanting? Do we really want our work to be vilified because times change?
It simply does not help when an armchair expert takes a shot at Criticism, and it’s why we recoil defensively when we find a favorite piece of writing, art, or film held up as an example of wrong-doing and evil intent. But it is also why we feel it as an attack on ourselves – and why we second-guess: the environment today is very predatory. Or did we miss something? Were we asleep when we fell in love with or potentially write a classic? Or is Something being made of Nothing?
How do we know? And what do we do when a work stands accused?
And where do we draw the line on defense? On our own reactions?
Sitting in my car, I had to ask myself those questions – when that talk show on NPR about the concerns of trans people for their representation in the Arts singled out the movie Psycho as a deliberate attack on their community…
Exactly WHEN is a work worthy of condemnation and banishment? And what if the accusing community is wrong?
I don’t know about you, but I find the term “cancel culture” offensive – not essentially what is done, but minimizing the power of society’s judgment to a mere snarky term. We have no right to “cancel” anyone; but we have every right to ostracize or shun, to avoid and not-support. We have every right to communicate to someone that their behavior is not acceptable in a civilized, enlightened society. But labels are offensive. And so are attempts to convince people about the evilness of someone or something else.
People are capable of making up their own minds. All we need is the facts.
What was intended by the creator of a work is everything. And it is high time we all grew up and realized that our world and the people in it are not perfect, but often their work is perfectly representative of a time or a point in their own personal growth. And that there are other times when the creator of the work and his or her literal footprint in the world – their legacy – has more to do with them than any “art” or “good” they might have done. If their name cannot be separated from their acts as human beings, then ostracism is an appropriate response, even if it comes at a cost of arts, sciences, or religion.
Before we tackle Psycho, let’s look at the times when banishing someone or their work is potentially justified – at the examples of the kinds of questions that must be asked before such an action is taken.
- The Question of Unclean Hands (example: Hitler and His Art) Most people know that Adolf Hitler was also a failed artist. And there have been those who think we should at least look at his art before we shun it, despite the fact that the Arts community of his time passed judgment on his skill as an artist long before he became what we all recognize. Let’s just disregard for a moment how many modern artists, writers, and musicians are also dismissed by our respective Establishments: the problem is not the artwork itself. The problem is not poorly executed portraits or flowers in vases. The problem is that what the artist CHOSE to do with his life in a fit of angst afterward had such far worse consequences to the rest of the world that even if he had been another DaVinci and produced wondrous works, most human beings wouldn’t want to endure their presence in the world because they serve as a reminder of those other, more despicable deeds.
No one wants to read a children’s story by a child molester, a crime novel by a murderer, to see paintings by a man responsible for the genocide of over six million human beings. This is when not “cancelling” – but full-on REJECTION is due and justified.
- The Question of Intent (Example: Lovecraft – incitement, or did he just record the times?) Most of us in Horror are now learning that Lovecraft was not a particularly nice human being. He was a known racist, misogynist and bigot. Why, then, is HE not shunned? The reason is in the work. All of his writing contains antiquated, outdated dog-whistles, so much so that most of us miss them entirely today. But the essential clue is that his works are indeed “just” stories, and do not sink to the level of incitement. A wink-wink-nod-nod is not a call to incitement; it is an annoyingly rude assumption only. That is Lovecraft – a man who wrote some otherwise amazing Horror and Science Fiction – who wrote for a presumed white male audience who he assumed believed as he did.
Nowhere in his work is he trying to convert anyone, because he never felt he had to. Nowhere is he calling for anyone’s annihilation or even literally saying what he is implying (otherwise, we would all have “gotten it” with one read of his work). Instead, the racism, misogyny and bigotry is in subtext. It is a snapshot of his life and his times, and it is far from complimentary to him.
Yet there is in addition a third question we have to ask – and this is especially relevant in the question of Psycho being or not-being anti-trans. That is…
- The Question of Relevance: can the work stand without the alleged “offensive” thing? In Psycho, the main issue in this anti-trans question is that Norman dresses as his mother. But on the way to relevance, we have to ask WHY he does this. Is this action important to the story, or does either the whole work or an offensive detail in the work exploit a fear that is in fact used as or be made to function as a dog whistle? In other words, has a detail been added to embellish a fear, again to incite, to plant judgment? Because if it can be removed from the work without consequence to the story and the character, then it is not necessary to the work – it is gratuitous and it is inflammatory.
As we round the corner to talk specifically about Psycho, then, we have to ask if what the trans community in this case infers is the source of the problem (Norman dressed as his mother wielding a knife and killing people) is something that was planted in the story to incite thought or behavior that is intentionally anti-trans.
This is important. Because before we go racing off to paint Robert Bloch (the author) or Alfred Hitchcock (the director) as anti-trans, we need to ask what happens if the detail of Norman dressing as his mother is removed, what happens to the story?
This is not about “ratcheting up” fear: this is about how incidental to the story the detail IS.
So let’s go there. Let’s go back to the accusation that Psycho is an explicit attack on the trans community.
Getting Past the Knee-Jerk Reaction (What is Psycho About?)
When they said the movie is anti-trans, I felt confused: had I heard that wrong?
And then I felt curious: had I been dog-whistled yet again and totally missed it?
And then I felt angry: the speaker was talking about something that just isn’t there, I said to myself – not on the scale it was being accused of, and not in the way it was being accused of.
I admit to a snowflake moment, taking it kind of personally. But I also admit to a Literary Critical moment. And a Horror-lover’s moment. And a fan-of-the-movie-moment.
While it is true that the aggrieved community is also the most likely to identify such attacks on themselves, the critical theorist in me thinks that such a defamatory accusation has to provide proof – actual examples of how, when, where and why such a view is being presented in a work (if for no other reason than to prevent it from happening in contemporary new writing). And after listening to the two speakers’ arguments, here’s my conclusion: there no substantiating facts given in the interview, no examples of how or why the movie is anti-trans, other than presumed or imagined offense at images, at the suggestion that trans-people would feel offended and threatened by a messaging never disclosed.
If a work is racist, or bigoted, or misogynistic when it portrays a group of people a certain way – when it encourages an interpretation of those people in a derogatory manner, then there is a problem… and the speakers did not provide that example – at least in this case and in this interview. So with apologies to the trans community if I am not getting it (and in being aware I cannot know their collective pain), I respectfully disagree about the accusation of Psycho as being anti-trans. Here’s why:
The accusation made in the interview is that Psycho is a slam against transvestites in particular, and transgendered people altogether.
And we all know the story of Psycho – specifically vivid is the imagery of Norman dressed as his mother as he wields a butcher knife in the infamous shower scene. And while we could venture a theory that here we have a transvestite male murdering the “real” and “virtuous” white female… we would also have to dispense with interpreting the whole rest of the movie/story. The victim is not virtuous – she is a thief. And Norman is not a transvestite – he is psychotic.
So this whole conversation – including lumping Psycho in with John Wayne movies and Gone With the Wind and the like – really felt like a stretch.
What do we do when something seems to come out of left field – when a reader or movie-goer sees something totally different than we thought was there? Do we automatically apologize, automatically defend, or do we just listen and then think about what is being said?
I say we should wait for the supporting facts of the argument, and I hope someone from the trans community will actually explain the facts that lead to the conclusion that the movie is anti-trans. Because the next question is: how should we react as a genre – especially when a Horror Classic is being accused of being a weapon of bigotry? I think the answer is we respectfully hear the accusers out. And then we ask our own Critically-based questions to see if they are right.
We are indeed in new and different times. And we are also just beginning to realize how privileged some of us have been in the creation, writing, and depictions of our own opinions… Horror is over-represented in this area: it has been white, male and upper-class heterosexual in much of its modern history. So what most of us grew up on — that same modern Horror – has also been heavily slanted toward the viewpoint and prejudices of those same white males.
Most of the time this has been annoying noise – tributes laid on the altar of society’s (if not the author’s) ego. Our own silence has meant we’ve had an enshrined “norm” in the genre that has often been misrepresented to all of us as the Horror “formula” – and nothing else was Horror, nothing else was allowed or awarded or respected. We were not allowed to criticize it, so most of us just stopped looking at it or reading it. This does not minimize the harm, the endless psychic assault that says most of us will not be allowed to participate in something we care about. But it also means if we are going to start apologizing for mis-navigating the past, we are going to be doing it a long, long time. And those who are making the loud accusations in the fever of the moment had best be preparing their own mea culpas for those they are offending without knowing or thinking about it right now. I say again, none of us is perfect.
And so that is what makes it particularly galling that we might have missed something that should have been obvious. Is Psycho anti-trans?
I believe it is not.
Again, I think we have to listen to such accusations, which we have not fully heard. But I also think we have to answer them, and that not always will we agree with the accusers in the end. It doesn’t make us complicit. It doesn’t make us “tone-deaf.” It does make us part of the conversation that needs to be had.
Horror has plenty of offenders and offenses. There is no need to take works out of context – and that is what I believe the speakers in the NPR interview are doing. We are nowhere near to asking those three questions given above, but we need to ask them.
This is not to say that a viewer – particularly a trans community viewer – should or should not feel a certain way about certain scenes. Horror – in film most commonly – is all about the scenes, because Horror is all about conjuring the most disturbing mental imagery that we cannot get out of our heads. But before we condemn an entire work, we should consider the entire work – not just the scene.
We have to consider the messaging not just of a few images, but of the narrative in play. And at no time is the messaging in Psycho exclusive to trans people. The messaging of Psycho is right there in the title – it is directly targeting the mentally ill (and not in the way we first interpret it). Psycho takes our prejudices against the mentally afflicted and turns our stereotypes inside out. Norman is likeable. Norman is vulnerable. Norman is himself a victim – of society, of his own mother, of his illness.
So let’s explore why I believe Psycho has nothing to do with the trans community, let alone attempts to defame it.
The Argument In Defense of Psycho
Norman is never depicted as gay, or as transgendered, or as a transvestite. He is always depicted as mentally ill. The messaging is not that he dresses as his mother to be dressing as a woman in general, that he does so with pleasure and is therefore mentally ill – but that he is mentally ill and thereby dresses as his mother when his alternate self wakes and he becomes her. There is nothing remotely the same about a person identifying as the opposite gender, or enjoying dressing like the opposite gender, and a person having a literal psychotic break with reality that is beyond that person’s control. It’s why we have criminal verdicts that are tempered with the words “by reason of insanity.”
These are just not the same things! And to say or infer that they are is to nod to the very bigotry the movie (and therefore the book) is being accused of. It is to participate in the same mythology – to breathe life into a prejudice psychiatry has largely already debunked – that which aligns LGBTQ issues with mental illness.
Do we really want to go there again? To dredge up the allegation that the trans community is mentally ill?
To say that Psycho is telegraphing that message seems a stretch. To say it encourages people to see the trans community as “psycho” is to disregard the outstanding acting job of Anthony Perkins depicting a severe mental illness, to insult the intelligence of the audience, and to paint all of Horror with one broad brush. Horror (for all of its faults) is paying dearly for our recent past history of white male dominance; its roots are entwined with so much more than white male insecurity and homophobia. So I also resent the attack on the genre – a genre which has long offered a voice to the marginalized and remains a format for psychically embellished revenge, and a genre which needs LGBTQ voices.
And while the fear and belief of some that indeed the trans community must be mentally ill is a mainstay of many bigots – while it was a theory when the movie was made and the book was written – it is NOT the story here. Yes, it plays on those fears if one already has them. Yes, it may pose that question for some – but if so, it does it backward. And it is NOT the focus of the story – but it cannot be separated from it.
There is simply no way that Norman can be separated from his overbearing, abusive mother who drives his illness. There is no way that Norman can be separated from the symptom of his dissociative identity disorder because that is what causes him to become his mother. Again this has nothing whatsoever in common with a person who is trans or a person who takes pleasure in dressing as the opposite gender. Norman is NOT trans. He does not REPRESENT trans. He is mentally ill.
Is it meant to shock? YES!!! Is it meant to horrify? YES!!! Because mental illness is terrifying enough to the average person without that same person becoming so lost as to “become” a whole other person…and have that avatar commit the worst of crimes in your own body…
If anyone has a right to judge this movie and book, it is the mentally ill community. It is the person who lives with a disease like schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder.
The rest of us are reacting to scenes…to images we are assigning our own meanings to…
As I have said before, Horror is a genre where societal and cultural flaws are exposed as well as a genre that offers a unique platform for venting about such flaws. But we should always be alert to attempts by those who think to “bend” a Horror classic to service their own personal narrative. That, my friends, is gratuitous exploitation.
Granted, I have no idea how trans people feel about this. I invite their feedback, because it is clear that if they are indeed offended to such an extent as to demand “reframing” this movie, I am simply not seeing the same film.
Does Norman dressing as his mother to become his mother play on non-trans fears of those who dress as women (and by extension the trans community)? Surely. For how long have we all been told that stepping out of our assigned gender roles is a kind of certain mental illness? How long have the powerful people in our lives hidden, jailed, silenced, or murdered anyone who challenged the status quo? No doubt Norman dressing as his dead mother carries an inference about trans people being mentally ill – just as we have tried to paint the gay and lesbian community as mentally (if not spiritually) ill. But that is not the focus of the story…
At no time do I see the movie exploiting trans people – even if it exploits our prejudices connected to trans people via the mental illness “theory”…it is about dissociative identity disorder and its frequent connections to child abuse, to verbal and physical abuse, to sexual abuse…It is about our collective and very human terror of actually BEING so mentally ill in so unforgiving a world.
When I look at the book and movie Psycho, I still see a work of art. It takes a very scary mental illness and makes the ill person human. Despite his crimes, despite our fear of him or of such mentally ill people, we empathize with Norman. We fear FOR him. As overwhelming as the idea of such an extreme case as Norman’s version of mental illness may be, he is both protagonist and antagonist, and we as the audience are unable to look away without taking some idea of the human tragedy of that illness with us.
So for the trans community who might feel threatened by subtextual messaging in the movie Psycho, I would say I am sorry you have been made to feel that way, that these are the scenes that define this movie for you. I personally think the movie and book did a pretty good job of stepping out of the oppressive shadows cast by the 1940’s and 1950’s on ALL of us – from women trapped in narrow life roles to perceptions of the mentally ill. But I don’t think it was a commentary on trans people or those who like to dress in women’s clothes – even if there are those who want to drag such hateful thinking into our social associations.
Yes, it played on existing fears – but Psycho is no more about trans people than it is about serial killers: it IS about child abuse, mental illness, and our fears of becoming our parents. It’s about being a flawed and broken human being in a tightly boxed world. Surely we can all respect that for having been so poignantly and shockingly represented in its time.
And surely there are better movies – even in Horror – that show our cultural prejudices against trans people. (There certainly are plenty in the fiction area, especially when it comes to who gets published in the genre no matter how good the writing.)
In THIS genre, there is no need to force such arguments.
And I think that is exactly the case in this TCM attempt to make Psycho a poster child for all of our sins.