“How Can It Be? She’s a boy.” Transmisogyny in Sleepaway Camp
She’s a boy. My body trembles and shakes at the rupturing of self and the dissolution of my identity. Three words make me inhuman. Three words make me a monster. Three words make me something to be feared. She’s a boy. My skin is soft, running up my body, and shimmers in the sun. My curves are slight, but they’re mine so I take what pride I can muster in knowing that this reinforces my own self-truth. I take a bra off my chest at the end of the day just like every other woman. My breasts hang freely, and I can feel their weight, they feel full, they’re still growing, because this body is not something I was given, but something I grew into. My arrival delayed by a false puberty. Everyone would assume that this person who walks among them is a woman, but there’s a disruption, a disturbance, a negation between her legs. It signifies her sorrow and her muted womanhood that she has to reconcile every day. I can’t let anyone find out. Three words end me. Three words reset. Three words puncture flesh and rip away everything I am. My life slips through my fingers like smoke and evaporates into nothing, because if I’m not who I say I am then I am nothing. Inhuman. Gender defiant. Fractured Femininity, but femininity nonetheless. Misgendering is violence. It changes my sex in an instant and defies my personhood. She’s a boy.
By 1983, the slasher genre was already feeling overstuffed and contrived. Film after film of Halloween and Friday the 13th knock-offs established a structure that soon became overly predictable: stalker sequence, murder sequence (oftentimes after sex), reveal the killer behind the mask, and then the final girl (usually a virgin) must slay the beast. Director Robert Hiltzik saw his way out by banking on audience expectations developed from this formula, and adding a then-novel twist ending to his debut film Sleepaway Camp. With this surprise ending, Hiltzik built on the cabinet of horrors audiences didn’t—and yet did—want to see: murder, blood, ghosts, demons, nightmares, grotesque creatures, and transgender women.
Sleepaway Camp opens as Angela (Felissa Rose) is about to go to camp, eight years after a boating accident claimed the lives of her father and brother Peter. She lives with her eccentric aunt and her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) who will be attending camp alongside her. Upon arrival, her painfully shy and introverted demeanour—and everyone’s general fascination with her disposition—leads her to be mocked, nearly molested, and generally treated cruelly. But as is often the case with films of this genre, something is amiss. When teenagers go off to fornicate and frolic, they begin dying one by one, with no real clue as to who is behind their murders. When it is eventually revealed that Angela is responsible for the rising body count, what could have been a Carrie White-esque narrative twist contorts into something altogether more sinister. Angela shifts from martyr to monster with a second reveal that she is not in fact Angela, but Peter.
Sleepaway Camp is a curtain-yanking picture with a reveal that works only to make a woman with a penis a vessel for horror. It is a trap narrative rechristened in the structure of the slasher genre, where, instead of a lover being revealed as a deceiver, a murderer is exposed as a transgender woman. This harmful, false narrative furthers the notion that we are not who we say we are, and that we are more prone to committing violence than of being victims of it ourselves. The film asks its viewers to build sympathy towards Angela, who has had a difficult life leading up to this summer at camp, before transforming her into a monster in the final few frames. By making Angela a whipping post for constant teasing she becomes the central character. In horror movie tropes she is set up to be the “final girl,” someone you rally around when she is eventually confronted with the incarnation of evil. However, Hiltzik subverts this idea by making Angela not the victim but the killer, and—in what the movie suggests is a worse transgression—not a girl but a boy. Sure, this surprise plot point separates Sleepaway Camp from countless other slasher films of its day, but more importantly, it is also its undoing. By venturing into the complicated gendered territory first explored by Hitchcock’s fascinations with violent queerness in Murder! (1930), and in Psycho (1960), the film portrays the transgender female body as monstrous and murderous.
The real-life implications of creating a scene where a woman is shown to have a penis to the disgust of others cosigns the idea that transgender bodies are freakish. Sleepaway Camp‘s final moments are particularly egregious. In the dead of night, camp counsellors Ronnie (Paul DeAngelo) and Susie (Susan Glaze) find a naked Angela cradling the head of Paul (Christopher Collet), the boy she has fancied throughout her time at camp. As they approach Angela, they can hear her gentle humming as she strokes his head. At this point, one might expect to find a disheveled Angela catatonic from witnessing her boyfriend’s murder. Instead, the clock is turned back to the boating accident that opened the film, and the mystery of Angela is fully revealed. She died in the incident with her father, and it is her brother Peter who has been raised as Angela this entire time by a disturbed aunt who dreamt of having a little girl of her own. “Angela. It means Angel. You’ll like that name, won’t you, Peter?” says Aunt Martha.
With that, Peter raises his head, and with a match-cut to Angela’s now catatonic face, a curtain is pulled back. The extra diegetic sound of a drumroll turns into a blaring horn, and Angela’s head whips quickly around to display a frozen and malicious grimace. Her teeth are bare, mouth wide open, her eyes are blank and hard. Paul’s head rolls off her lap before another cut back to Ronnie and Susie, both shocked to find Angela covered in blood with a knife in her hand. But that’s not what they’re terrified of, and Hiltzik knows that simply being a murderer is all-too-common fare in a horror film. That’s not exciting enough. He needs another final moment of shock. This is his ‘Jason comes out of the lake’ moment, his final stinger. He pulls the camera back to show Angela’s body little by little, and consistently cuts to Ronnie and Susie’s reaction, until finally, a penis. Angela’s gender is switched to male with one phrase from Ronnie: “How can it be? She’s a boy.”
But even then Angela is not quite a boy, but something else entirely. As if the blunt horns sounding in the background of the scene aren’t unnerving enough, Hiltzik couples their blare with Angela’s animalistic hissing and moaning. Her humanity is lost when her penis is shown. The final frame is a static close-up of Angela’s face still frozen in terror before the picture blurs and turns green to disorient even further. In its sickly green hue it becomes clear that Sleepaway Camp is deeply transmisogynistic.
There is another insidious conflation to account for in the final sequences of the movie, and that is the equation of mental instability with having grown up in a gender role not concurrent with your identity. Nearly every single transgender person grows up being raised in a gender role that does not fit, and that doesn’t mean that they are mentally ill or seriously violent. The case of Peter, who would grow up and slowly evolve into Angela, represents a false portrait of growing up transgender. While Peter to Angela is a forced transition, it mirrors an unintentional cissexist notion from parental figures that gender can be fixed. In my case specifically, I grew up knowing that I wasn’t a boy. I attempted to reject any and all ideas of masculinity that I didn’t accept as a true part of myself. When I did show predispositions towards things that could be more easily classified as feminine, I was told this was wrong. Worse yet, I faced abuse from parental figures who felt they had control over my body. Despite the best attempts of my parents to socialize me as male I grew up knowing that my gender was female, and I am not mentally ill because of it. It is far from easy to tell your parents that the gender they are trying to socialize you into doesn’t fit. Yet, even though this reality is often met with resistance and denial, that does not automatically translate into a murderous impulse for the transgender subject. Films such as Sleepaway Camp, Dressed to Kill, and even Psycho paint a different picture of gender variance, and it is one of murder.
Sleepaway Camp would be relegated to the footnotes of the slasher genre if it didn’t reflect a more insidious worldview, or, if there were positive representations of transgender people in media. Unfortunately, the film is one of many examples of misconstrued ideas about gender variant bodies. Cinematic representations of transgender people often relegate transgender female bodies to three different modes: ridicule (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), sympathy through death (Dallas Buyer’s Club) or fear (Dressed to Kill, Sleepaway Camp). All of these are toxic when presented with few alternatives, and while television shows like Orange Is the New Black and The Wachowskis’ Sens8 are seeking to give these bodies agency—and more importantly, humanity— the trinity of ridicule, fatal sympathy, or fear remains the dominant characterization. When looking at a greater cultural whole, and if one is to assume that cinema humanizes through narrative, one can easily see why a steady diet of the previous modes of transgender storytelling make us (at best) sacrificial lambs.
I’ve been a transgender woman my entire life, and my body is constructed through science instead of coming naturally. The comfort in finally knowing that your body represents an internal sense of self is liberating for those of us who grew up feeling completely disassociated from their bodies. A phallus is the quintessential representation of maleness in our culture, a notion that Sleepaway Camp reiterates. The film insists that a cock inarguably makes you male, and that is a dangerous idea to latch onto. This concept deconstructs us down to a single body part, down to genitals we had no choice in. Despite Sleepaway Camp’s best efforts to prove otherwise, we’re not demons, and we’re not lambs, we are human.