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Relationality and Opacity: Approaching Trans in Cinema



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Pickett-Palmer, Lili 


This thesis seeks to attend to modes of trans relationality in cinema. Recent scholarship, most notably by Eliza Steinbock and Cáel M. Keegan, has pictured cinema as a privileged medium for diversifying the range of trans-related effects and affects available to film audiences, exploring how trans embodiments and cinema might share a liberatory capacity to transform modes of perceiving and experiencing. My study offers an alternative angle of approach, asking how trans has become associated with the capacity to transform. I turn to trans studies genealogies of how trans embodiments have been instrumentalized as metaphors for mutability, mouldability, or interchangeability. In particular, I follow Jules Gill-Peterson’s and C. Riley Snorton’s tracings of this tendency through histories of racialization. One strand of this thesis approaches cinema as a medium that abstracts and instrumentalizes trans experiences, shaped by these histories. A complementing strand argues that such abstractions cleave imperfectly to the lived complexity of trans experience, leaving room for manoeuvre and offering measures of opacity. Reading for opacity, I propose, offers ways to read for forms of trans relationality that persist in excess of the abstractions that have put trans towards other purposes. In chapter one, I trace and interrogate themes of isolation, irreversibility, and impossibility through Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons. I put 13 Moons in conversation with a series of Christer Strömholm’s photographs and Sébastien Lifshitz’s film Bambi. The transfeminine desires and intimacies documented in these artworks offer a fresh perspective on the forms of negativity and relationality associated with 13 Moons. Chapter two focuses on sites of convergence between Black and trans in British cinema, surveying films by Derek Jarman, Sankofa, and Neil Jordan, and artworks by Travis Alabanza and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley. Through this archive, I follow fugitive practices of Black and trans kinship transecting conditions of fungibility. In chapter three, I connect histories of trans children to readings of three films: Tomboy (Céline Sciamma), Little Girl (Lifshitz) and She Male Snails (Ester Martin Bergsmark), asking how trans children are alienated from their agency and instrumentalized as figures for development, plasticity, innocence, and futurity. I consider, however, how these films also make it possible to partially glimpse the force of trans children’s expressivity through the distorting abstractions they are asked to bear.





Wilson, Emma


Trans studies, Film studies, Queer theory, Race, Temporality


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC (2096228)