In the 1980 thriller film “Dressed to Kill,” a tall woman in dark shades, a leather trench, pink lipstick and a blond wig corners an unsuspecting housewife leaving a midnight tryst and brutally slashes her to death in a flurry of aestheticized violence. This sequence happens in the first few minutes of the movie. Part of the twist, we learn later, is that the mysterious serial-killing blond woman is in fact, a cisgender male. In other words, a crazy man in a dress.
The “crazy man in a dress” trope, of course, is not a new one. With “Dressed to Kill,” writer-director Brian De Palma was clearly borrowing from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” These works are part of a long legacy of pop cultural artifacts, from film to television to literature, that have used the homicidal, crazy man in a dress as a means to an end. Such characters have also been seen in the movies “Freebie and the Bean,” “Sleepaway Camp” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” It is an arguably lazy trope that has, over time, been used to quickly communicate that the killer is dangerous and perverted. And now, J.K. Rowling’s latest novel (written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith), is reportedly using this plot device as well.
On Monday, PinkNews published an article about the first review of the novel, called “Troubled Blood,” with the headline: “JK Rowling’s latest book is about a murderous cis man who dresses as a woman to kill his victims.”
Considering Rowling’s history of using transphobic rhetoric online, particularly against trans women, it’s not surprising that the review sparked outrage and controversy. Last year, the author came under fire for her support of Maya Forstater, a researcher who lost her job after posting transphobic tweets about a colleague.
“Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?” Rowling tweeted in December.
Rowling then doubled down multiple times on her beliefs regarding “sex and gender issues.” In a June essay, she defended herself against accusations of being a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or a TERF.
“I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe,” she wrote. “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman — and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones — then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.”
But the truth is rarely that simple. Numerous studies have debunked this seeming danger as an overblown and overwrought myth, finding that there is no actual direct correlation between trans-inclusive bathroom policies and violence against women. Declarations that there is are often specious at best. But linking to research and studies is often irrelevant in this so-called debate anyway, because so much of it hinges on a specific and intense commitment to following transphobic narratives and tropes rather than a commitment to considering the actual lived experiences of trans women.
A review of Rowling’s novel published Tuesday in The Guardian concluded that PinkNews’ headline was pure clickbait, calculated to create a controversy where there wasn’t one. According to The Guardian’s review, the controversial character in question, Dennis Creed, isn’t really the villain of the story but actually a minor character. The review states that Creed is a “now-imprisoned and notorious serial killer who once tricked some of his female victims into his van by wearing a wig and a women’s coat to appear unthreatening.” Apparently, Creed is never referred to as “trans” or even “transvestite,” per The Guardian.
Indeed, Creed is in keeping with the portrayals of real serial killers such as Ed Gein, Hadden Clark and Jerry Brudos, who all reportedly dressed “like women” during at least a few murders. This was picked up by true crime novelists and became a trope, eventually used implicitly to associate trans women with unstable men in dresses.
Even if the character is minor, even if such characters have been seen time and time again throughout our culture, ultimately I wonder how these distinctions are relevant to the core of the criticism against Rowling or anyone else who uses such a trope. There’s a subtlety to transphobia that we don’t see, because we’re not meant to see it. That subtly lies with making transphobic stereotypes so pervasive that they go unquestioned, unchallenged, undiscussed. So when trans and gender-nonconforming people call out these stereotypes, we should listen. Just because something is a common trope doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful, complicated and worthy of critique. (Especially if it’s a lazy trope.)
Of course, we should always be wary of the kind of moral panic that gestures toward censoring or silencing artists. But we shouldn’t pretend as though art doesn’t have real-life impact. Rowling can write whatever she pleases. She can — and will — continue to live her best life in peace and security. But critiques, callouts and challenges to her work and the way that work intersects with opinions she has freely shared (when she could have just sat and eaten her food) are necessary, however unpleasant they are to her and those who share her views.
Because Rowling’s work, for better or worse, does not exist in a vacuum. Creed may be a minor character, but he is part of a much bigger cultural conversation. It’s not really about her, after all. It’s about real life. On top of the policies that normalize job discrimination and police the ways in which trans people engage in public life, at least 26 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been violently killed this year. No, a single book and a single character did not directly cause this violence, but it’s worth considering how these realities interact.
In a year when a gender reveal party sparked wildfires across the state of California and when the murders of transgender people surpassed the total for last year in just seven months, it would be beneficial to all of us to start considering the ways in which the conflation between gender and genitals, the gatekeeping of so-called manhood and womanhood, and the manifestations of that gatekeeping in the pop culture we all consume and enjoy has harmed trans people, and how that harm shows up in the world.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.