There are a suite of 1990s films whose entire legacy is owed to their queer audiences, who have often given box office and critical flops a new afterlife as cult classics.
When I was growing up, these were the DVD sleeper hits that had barely registered at the cinema: Hocus Pocus, for example, became a beloved Halloween favourite from annual television airings. Drop Dead Gorgeous became what Jia Tolentino has described as a “venerated artifact of Y2K camp" via DVD and word of mouth. But I’m A Cheerleader, a lesbian teen rom com set in a conversion therapy camp, was trashed on release, but is now considered a seminal gay film. The same is true of Death Becomes Her, the 1992 Robert Zemeckis dark comedy starring Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis.
Death Becomes Her is about greed, vanity, sex, ageing, femininity, beauty and death. In other words, a typical weekend for your average drag queen or particularly messy transsexual woman (I speak from experience). Yet, at the time of its release, appreciation was limited. Condemnatory assessments such as “one of the most heartless mainstream pictures ever made” (Orlando Sentinel) and “fancy special effects and relentless sadism” (Chicago Reader) are typical of the film’s initially negative critical reception.
It is true that the film’s two female protagonists are deliciously amoral. Streep, in a screen performance more physical, campy and bombastic than many of the more restrained turns which have defined her career, plays Madeline Ashton, a narcissistic ageing actress. Hawn plays Helen Sharp, a writer and lifelong nemesis of Madeline, who has repeatedly stolen her boyfriends, culminating in the theft of Helen’s fiancé (plastic surgeon Ernest Menville, played by Willis). Both women find themselves propelled by spite, obsession and a horror at their own ageing bodies into drinking a magical potion (sold to them by Isabella Rossellini as a nudist sorceress) that promises to give them permanent youth and immortality.
Writing for Vanity Fair in 2017, Kristy Puchko neatly encapsulates why Streep and Hawn’s vainglorious anti-heroines might appeal to queer audiences and, specifically, to me as a transsexual woman: “These are women… who are ignored by the world unless they are beautiful. It’s no wonder that they break the rules of nature by taking a seductive serum to become flawless goddesses of glamor and youth.”
I mean, ladies, who hasn’t violated the rules of nature and irrevocably transformed their bodies to become a flawless goddess?
Of course, this is not the reality or even the aspiration of gender transition. But it does approximate some of the very real pressures on trans women’s femininity. Rarely a day goes by where I am not reminded that I exist in a culture in which my entire success – or, rather, my palatability – as a trans woman is rooted in how attractive I am. When I decided to embark on medical transition, I confided in another trans woman. “This isn’t what I’m supposed to say,” she told me, “but just look good. It’s the best advice I can give for an easier life.”
The recent release of Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen – a new Netflix documentary about the troubled and, frankly, violent history of trans representation in cinema and on television – has started a new conversation about decades of mischaracterising trans people, particularly trans women, as violent, mad, deranged, repulsive, ridiculous, hypersexual and dangerous, as well as the psychic effect it has had on trans women ourselves.
The film’s contributors – all of them trans - share with the audience how routine misrepresentation altered and damaged their own self-perception. The film opens with a repurposed clip from actress Jamie Clayton’s character in Sense8: “Do you know that feeling when you’re sitting in a movie theatre, and everyone’s laughing at something, and you just don’t get it?”
For many of us who grew up as trans people in the 1990s and earlier, such a feeling of unease defines our experience of seeing people who were allegedly like us represented in mainstream culture. In my particular case, the alienation I experienced seeing transphobic depictions of trans women made me reluctant to engage with any depictions of transness at all. Even now, I tend to avoid watching any film or television about trans people without a rigorous vetting process.
It’s this alienation from actual representation that explains my enduring love for a film like Death Becomes Her. The film has always acted as a kind of surrogate for themes and tensions which informed my own femininity. Helen’s entire physical transformation into a glamorous, immortal bestselling author comes after seven years in a mental asylum, driven mad by her own hatred of Madeline, who stole her man. Helen’s pursuit of beauty is an expression of unbridled jealousy and rage. She will do whatever it takes to be the victor. It’s dark, deranged and a bit sexy. It’s also, I regret to say, deeply transsexual.
In her 2019 video “Beauty”, about her facial feminisation surgery, YouTuber Natalie Wynn explains why revenge can be such a powerful motivation for transfeminine performances of glamour and beauty. “Why am I like this?” Wynn asks of her own all-consuming desire to be conventionally beautiful. “Well, part of it is vindictive transsexualism, pure and simple,” she says. “To all the people who’ve ever called me a man, I want to say ‘fuck you’ by looking like the undeniable visual archetype of a woman, which is a beautiful, feminine woman.”
Such a bold public admission – that a trans woman wants to be beautiful – is still taboo in a society where trans women are only permitted to talk about our transitions in medical terms; only as a matter of need, never a matter of want. It is respectable to need to be saved from ugly wretchedness, it is not respectable to want to be gorgeous.
Coded queer characters offer representation without such respectability politics. Even when it is more humane, such as in FX’s Pose or Amazon’s Transparent, trans representation often is more about humanising us to cis people or giving cis people an education than letting trans people be richly flawed human beings. By contrast, by juxtaposing transfeminine themes onto cis characters, Death Becomes Her has always allowed me space to contemplate the darker side of what being a woman means in our culture, without all the right-on exposition. More importantly, the film’s high camp allows the wit and vitality of its one liners (particularly in its unhinged second half, when both Helen and Madeline summarily execute each other as part of their feud and become increasingly grotesque living corpses) to lighten the load of its darker themes about the fine line between beauty and monstrosity.
When arch-rivals Helen and Madeline realise that they are both undead freaks of nature, who will never die, but whose nature-defying bodies need careful preservation, they end their lifelong feud and form a co-dependent sisterhood against the mortal world. (This sort of intensity in a friendship between women who share such an extreme and unique experience is another parallel with trans girls, who all have at least one story of a nemesis who became a friend.) Ernest, now an alcoholic and a high-end undertaker instead of a surgeon, is no longer the object of either woman’s desire, but becomes their lackey, charged with disguising their deathly pale skin tones. In the end, he flees this toxic triangle and Madeline and Helen are left to each other, forever.
The heroines’ attempts to maintain each other’s beauty become more desperate and slapdash as the decades pass, and they end the film resembling disfigured waxworks. Despite this, queer audiences still root for them – “they may be monsters, but maybe monsters are fun”, the film seems to say. Again, this embrace of the grotesque has always been easy for me to over-identify with in a society where trans women are frequently described or portrayed as monsters in order degrade us.
Embracing the monstrosity others have ascribed to us has been a longstanding tactic for reclaiming power as trans women. “The transsexual body is an unnatural body,” historian Susan Stryker stated boldly in a 1993 monologue, “it is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born.”
Stryker later insists she “want[s] to lay claim to the dark power of my monstrous identity” because she sees in it a kind of freedom. “I who achieve the similitude of a natural body only through an unnatural process, I offer you this warning: the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie. Do not trust it to protect you from what I represent… I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine. I challenge you to risk abjection and flourish as well as have I. Heed my words, and you may well discover the seams and sutures in yourself.”
Death Becomes Her is so delightful precisely because it’s about the seams and sutures of womanhood; womanhood is, after all, continuously dissected by and for a culture that’s fame hungry and youth obsessed. The film’s melodrama and refusal to conform neatly to any of the genres it draws upon – comedy, noir or horror – allows queer audiences to project our own meanings onto it in a safe and enjoyable way.
Death Becomes Her lets us laugh at it, ourselves and at a society which tells us women should be beautiful, but without trying, that we should be fuckable, but not want to be fucked, and that, if one is to be a woman, one should never ever be a man-made “synthetic” one. Thanks to Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep, being unnatural has never looked so fun.