[The Final Girls Club] ‘Dead Ringers’, the Mutant Woman, and the Violence of Trans Fetishisation

Logo: Rachel Parker

The Final Girls Club posts on the 1st, 3rd and 4th Monday of the month. It aims to take an analytical and retrospective look at female-led horror cinema and how these films hold up in the context of current issues surrounding gender, sexuality and politics.

Content warning: this piece discusses transphobia, sexualised violence and incest, and includes several uses of transphobic slurs in an examinatory context.

“at the hospital they ask me if i know where your parts go / but i tell them your body isn’t made from skin they know” – jordaan mason

David Cronenberg’s filmic work is synonymous with its usually-confrontational, arguably-radical sense of body politics, even in his non-horror works using the body as a stemming-point from which adaptations to a changing world are formed. If the body becomes in question, disputable, due to the unreliability of its surroundings, then so do the conditions imposed on it, most notably in terms of gender. The film of his to tackle gender most admirably and transgressively is his 1988 film Dead Ringers, a blackly comic treatise on the abject body and practices of marking and othering.

Much like the denaturing of the phallus as an innate signifier of maleness in his debut feature Shivers, the central focus on two male gynecologists in Dead Ringers complicates the signifiers of the yonic image. The vagina itself, despite being key to the narrative, is never shown in the film apart from in diagrams, therefore becoming a liminal space upon which the men the narrative is filtered through can impose their own projections of gendered and sexed bodies. By linking the vagina with femininity first, and sexual conquest second, Beverly and Elliot Mantle are able to remain in a comfortable position where biology rules all and they do not have to question any functions of gender. The Mantle twins’ workmanlike routine of seducing and sharing women has only had a groundwork to permit itself for as long as it has due to their learned constructions of both the woman and the courting ritual. Pervasively apparent throughout the film is that their work as gynecologists and their sex life are inexorably interlinked seeing as their gynecology work and sexual conquests are a cause-and-effect, the latter sourced from the former, and here Cronenberg lays bare the hollowness of the heteronormative sex act by pertaining it to be synonymous with sterility and medical practice. Their occupation amounts to a series of blueprints for unfeeling vaginal penetrations; a means of creating survey maps of the anatomy they fear in order to force regularity as a condition onto it. Regularity as a condition creates an average, palatable vagina at the centre of things; one that the Mantle twins can tally up across all their conquests, in blissful fallacy that everything between a woman’s legs will be predominantly the same when minor variations are disregarded. 

However, their essentialist synchrony becomes problematised by the arrival of a patient – and lover – named Claire Niveau, who shakes their perceptions of gender and therefore remodels the palatable vagina. Both twins immediately become fascinated by the fact that her inability to bear children comes from a cervical malformation they term a ‘trifurcated cervix’, which self-explanatorily means her cervix has three openings. Due to the seeming fictionalisation of this condition, a critic can see it as a catch-all for a myriad of circumstances in which the female body can disrupt expectations and be marked as other. A clear one here, and one supported strongly by the text, is transness: many of Niveau’s specifics are effectively analogous to those of many trans women, such as the taking of hormone injections, the inability to get pregnant, and having genitalia that is deemed “abnormal” and therefore met with a reaction that extends across the terrains of curiosity, repulsion and fetishisation. When Niveau addresses in dialogue the parts of herself that do not adhere to a reductive framework of the woman as childbearer, her concerns register to the trans viewer as evocations of gender dysphoria, most viscerally when she states that her infertility means “[she’ll] really never have been a woman at all, just a girl”. As well as with the dysphoria caused by not “matching up” to the most rigid definitions of womanhood, this line is resonant with the sense of “missed” adolescence experienced by trans people who did not get to transition at a sufficiently young age to have had teenage years that their current definition of self is not at a remove from. Often in the case of trans women, a girlhood is attempted to be recaptured; sometimes through overcompensations and irresponsibilities, through mistakes that never had the chance to be made. 

A still from 'Dead Ringers'.  Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons)  is shown getting into his bright red surgical gown, he is being dressed by another surgeon. His arms are outstretched.
20th Century Fox

Beverly and Elliot Mantle, upon their coming to know Niveau as a sexual partner, become subsumed in a probing fascination with this abjected woman, this medical wonder. It is a clinical, antiseptic curiosity; one that is given shape in the examination room and churned down into some arrangement of eroticism in the bedroom. When faced with a body unlike their own, the inquisitor in intention and fetishist in execution (duplicated in this scenario) wishes to know it deeply by ensnaring it and penetrating it. Not content with an encyclopaedic or ethnographic distance, the trans fetishist must collect souvenirs from inside their subject; they must know that every part of this long-contested person-category is as real as reported. Elliot states on one occasion that there “should be beauty contests for the insides of bodies”: even when the fetishised subject is so for something less observable to the passerby, such as a trifurcated cervix or “passing” transness (arguably both become one in the context of Dead Ringers); their difference still becomes pedestalised by the inquisitor/fetishist, invoked as a backhanded “beauty”. 

The fetishist of transness known colloquially as the “chaser” usually considers themselves straight or makes an insistence that whatever their sexuality is, it is untroubled by their attraction to trans people. However, the straight chaser typically sees the object of their fetishisation as an anomalous exception to what they see as their default attraction. From that vantage, “trans woman” becomes a broken-off category to “woman”, which then allows the chaser to break “trans woman” off into various subcategories that pornographise this identity – “tranny”, “dickgirl” – and nurture their transmutation into a fetish object. By the sexualised and objectifying application of Beverly’s marked terms for Claire, such as “trifurcate” and “mutant”, they too enter a process of conversion from words to weapons, ones used to hierarchise by force. As the weapon can be multipurpose and not always used to maim, Beverly’s use of these othering words code-switches depending on relation. There is use of them by Beverly in curiosity, but most notably in a directly antagonistic manner that aims to use the traits of the incongruent body as carriers of shame now that they are too proximally distant from him to be of use to fetishise. The centerpiece of this behaviour is a sequence in which he calls a man he believes is having sex with Niveau in his absence and crassly divulges the details of her genital malformation to him in the hopes of it being a deterrent. While he wishes for it to bring shame and adversity to Claire, (particularly given her position as a movie star, echoing cases in which personalities have had their trans status ‘outed’ as a form of blackmail and a violence against self-determination) he is still aroused by her vagina, clearly finding sexual satisfaction in the idea of Niveau being “examined” by the man and projecting his desires onto this vindictive fantasy. 

To Beverly Mantle, the abject body is fetishised but not loved; there is a conditionality in his admiration, in that he will turn the reason he chases her against her if anybody gets in the way – or is perceived to get in the way – of this pursuance. What he hopes repels other partners is, by contrast, his fixation; he subconsciously others himself by assuming that he is the only one who could love a girl whose body is the way it is, that others would not be as brave and tolerant as him. By his purposefully coarse disclosure that the man he is addressing is “fucking a mutant”, Mantle attempts to invoke the perpetual motivator for many an act of transphobic violence – that of deception. Violence against trans people often stems from refusal of identity, from an unchallenged core belief that a trans person is one sex pretending to be another; if one is to hold this belief they will subconsciously see the actions of any trans person that affirms their gender as one of deception. (A key difference between “identifies as a woman” and “is a woman”: the former is a get-out-of-jail-free card that allows one to use it while not truly believing that who they refer to is a woman.) Due to the undisputed nature of these narratives surrounding gender, the cis man on a path to becoming chaser pathologises his attraction to the trans woman as emphatically Not Straight, as “the best of both worlds”, as something that makes him wonder if he’s secretly gay, because to him the trans woman represents the deceptive and forbidden – and from there arise atrocious terms such as “trap”, and the violent acts that a “trans panic” defense attempts to act as a vindication for. Beverly, seized by a seething entitlement and jealousy, attempts to redirect this history of vilification towards the non-compliant recipient of his lust in the hope that humiliation or violence will result to her person from this refusal of acquiescence to his wants: a ritual punishment for existing outside of what it is said that a body can be.

A still from 'Dead Ringers'. Claire (Genevieve Bujold) is shown in close-up to the right of the image, one of the Mantle brothers is stood behind her. She looks like a woman in her late 30s/40s with shoulder length frizzy dark hair and wearing a black shirt. Her hand is clasped to her mouth.
20th Century Fox

In terms of the politics of deception and how it applies to Dead Ringers’ conjuring of transness, it is largely clear to any viewer that the most major ‘deception’, and one so egregious as to make it hypocritical for either of them to invoke it as a critique, is the Mantle twins’ lover-sharing routine. The two unite as a deceptive force during these excursions; one that originates as a symbiosis of sorts, perhaps even a parasitism, two bodies working as one unit. The extent to which they share partners, share erotic reminiscences, share orgasms, builds up a pseudo-incestuous fervour, and perhaps the reason for the uniformity of their dalliances is to create a homosocial incest, one that shares commonalities with the hypersexualised boastful bonding common in cishet male friendship groups so as to become socially normalised. What they perform is summated in a conversation between them as boys: “they’d have a kind of sex, the kind where they wouldn’t have to touch each other”. Theirs is to continually succeed at feigning and performing normativity, whereas Claire Niveau’s is to be unwillingly cast as non-normative due to the imaging of her inability to be an archetypal patriarchal conception onto her bodily configuration itself.

The Mantle twins continually experience consternation about the potentiality of such inabilities striking them, as then they will lose the alibi and blank check of bodily-normative cishet masculinity that shrouds them. In a dream sequence that obtrudes as the single foray into plainly fantastical “Cronenbergian” body horror, the two become interlinked physically by a cord of flesh. Much like how they perform the signifiers of incest without the somatic intimacy that would nullify plausible deniability, in waking life they perform the signifiers and reciprocities of conjoined twins without facing the potential social derogation that could result from actual, corporal conjoinment. In this dream, it is Claire who bites through the cord, conveying a maternality within the twins’ shared perspective that her body dissents from—another condition imposed upon her. The simultaneous phallicity and umbilicality of this dream-image speaks volumes as to the twins’ relationships to themselves and others: Claire is fellating both of them as well as mothering them; she becomes an addition to their incest but as an adoptive rather than biological mother due to the idea that their point of adjoinment means that they are their own parents, they have a placental arrangement to keep one another alive. They perennially feed off each other’s nutrients, and via the genitally-fixated double-entendre of this image it becomes a metaphor for sex’s function as a unifier in their lives.

Ultimately, Beverly is driven so distraught by the unreachability of these bodily fascinations that he attempts to cast them onto all of his coming patients, perversely normativising Niveau’s trans body by ascribing it to others, by positing it as a mystery that can only be solved through recapture. Perhaps the most disturbing and iconic image of the film is what comes from this descent—the “Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women” drafted by Beverly and crafted by a metallurgist. They are prostheses before they are tools: extensions of Beverly’s penis, retooled for the purpose of vaginally mutilating the women who are all now othered and mutant, who are all now the woman who spurned his advances and (most unforgivably of all) took him out of his binarist comfort zone. To him, this is still “a kind of sex”, even if “they [do not] have to touch each other”: the artificial body part, the penis dentatus he has plucked from inverted myths, will do, and it will hurt, even if it only belongs to him conceptually rather than physically. He intones that “there’s nothing the matter with the instrument… it’s the women’s bodies that are all wrong” when prevented from putting these schemas of gendered and fetishised ritual punishment into practice at his workplace. 

This is the heart of the love that men such as him purport to emit: a desire to have the last word on bodies that exist despite them; a neglected self that lies unvisited and denied. Whilst the twins’ impotent violence twists inward, and Beverly fatally penetrates his brother with a tool he had such unrealised hopes for, Claire becomes the Final Girl by not being claimed, by drawing further and further away. To be trans, to know that your body is enough to unanchor somebody from their preconceptions, is something that can make you feel powerful, but it also coexists ceaselessly with the terror of how these unanchorings may manifest themselves.

Christie Evelyn (she/her) is a writer, poet and film analyst currently studying English Literature and Film. Her work navigates the inscription of gender onto the body, and the entanglements and violences involved in asserting a selfhood, when fictional or poetic; when non-fictional her writings usually tend to revolve around transfeminist readings of often-maligned films. Some of her poems have found their way into zines Datableed and Danger Zone, and others await publication elsewhere. She aims with her work to productively provoke, to generate a positive discomfort that contributes to the questioning of supposedly-entrenched systems and binaries.

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