Bright Lights Film Journal

Glen or Glenda: Psychiatry, Sexuality, and the Silver Screen

Normalizing “deviant” genders and bodies is just one of many tropes in Wood’s complex camp classic.

At first glance, Ed Wood‘s Glen or Glenda (1953) seems little more than a poorly crafted B film that exploits sexuality, and the gender transgression of transvestitism, to shock and entertain its audience. However, if one takes a look beyond the campy surface, Glen or Glenda actually presents a rich amalgam of the human depravity depicted in film noir, the manipulative authority of the medical profession, the power of sexuality, the twentieth century ambivalence toward modernity, and the horror and guilt of sexual and gender deviance. While Wood’s emphasis on Freudian psychoanalysis, and the medicalization of sexual and gender difference were clearly critiques of the superficial perfection, gender roles, and pop-culture of the Eisenhower ’50s, this film, with its celebration of male to female transvestitism, at the expense of homosexuality and female to male transvestitism, is much more than a straightforward criticism of socially constructed, and socially accepted, sexualities and gender expressions. Rather, it is an attempt by Wood, who himself was a male to female transvestite, to normalize an otherwise “deviant” form of gender expression by portraying it as, ideally, a guilt-free expression of male heterosexuality.

Dissecting Glen or Glenda

Also known as I Led Two Lives, Behind Locked Doors, I Changed My Sex, and He or She: The Transvestite, Glen or Glenda is essentially a complex documentary-style “educational” film, which has remarkably eluded the realm of academic scholarship for the past fifty years.1 While individuals, such as Marjorie Garber, have briefly incorporated the film into their works on transvestitism, Glen or Glenda has been marginalized by both audiences and critics, perhaps because it raises so many questions about the categorization of sexuality and gender within American society. While the film enjoyed some early success, particularly in the southern United States, as an underground “fantasy flick,” within a few years of its release it was virtually forgotten, until it was resurrected as a cult classic (along with many other Ed Wood films) in the 1980s. While many of the film’s sensibilities are clearly products of 1950s American culture, Glen or Glenda nevertheless presents an important contribution to our understanding of the ways in which social constructions of “normal” versus “abnormal” human behavior shape, and are shaped by, sexuality and gender expression.

Stylistically, Glen or Glenda falls into the genre of film noir. This cinematic approach, which originated in Weimar, Germany in the 1930s, but was not employed in the United States until the 1940s, portrayed the darker side of life. Concentrating on human depravity, perversion, manipulative sexuality, failure, despair and the “forbidden,” film noir also implied a certain cinematic style — the use of light and shadow, nightmare sequences, voice-over narration, flashbacks, “eminent” doctors, hard-boiled detectives, and a seedy, urban landscape to portray a world gone wrong.2 Wood was heavily influenced not only by noir predecessors, such as Double Indemnity (1944), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), but also by the horror movies of his idol, Bela Lugosi. In fact, Glen or Glenda, like Tod Browning’s horror film Freaks begins with a typically noir disclaimer: “In the making of this film, which deals with a strange and curious subject, no punches have been pulled — no easy way out has been taken. Many of the smaller parts are portrayed by persons who are, in real life, the characters they portray on the screen. This is a picture of stark realism — taking no sides — but giving you the facts — all the facts — as they are today.”

One of the major contributions of film noir is that it reflected 1940s and ’50s cultural trends, such as the postwar redefinition of American masculinity and femininity; the influence of psychoanalysis on popular culture; and isolationism, both on the personal and political fronts.3 While the “escapist” gothic and horror elements in Glen or Glenda are actually manifestations of the stresses of modernity, the noir aspects highlighted Wood’s discontent with modernity. Moreover, as seen in Glen or Glenda, film noir also tended to upset the traditional power balance between the sexes, constructing women as powerful, and thus threatening, and men as weak and effeminate.4 While Glen’s fiancée is hardly a “black widow,” her power over Glen is apparent throughout the film: she is the cause of his anguish, and is symbolic of the social scrutiny he faces on a daily basis. He spends most of the film in a guilt-ridden state, wondering whether or not he should “come out” to his fiancée about his transvestitism, and what her possible reaction might be: horror, acceptance, or curiosity. Very quickly, the audience discovers that for Glen, cross-dressing is not a free choice, but rather a dangerous and guilt-ridden obsession.

The Birth of Glen and Glenda

The film begins with narration by the god-like psuedo-scientist Bela Lugosi, and an on-screen medical authority, psychiatrist Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell). We are first introduced to Lugosi as he is mixing chemicals in a laboratory flanked with scientific paraphernalia: skulls, flasks, skeletons and dusty textbooks. Playing the role of Dr. Frankenstein, Lugosi becomes obsessed with the ultimate “monster”: the gender-bending Glen/Glenda. In omnipotent fashion, he gives life to this monster, and thus the film begins, or as Lugosi states “Life is begun.” The audience is then introduced to the tale of Glen/Glenda, a male to female transvestite, through a conversation between police Inspector Warren (Lyle Talbot) and Dr. Alton.

Warren visits Alton after the life of Patrick/Patricia has ended. He is involved with the suicide case of “four-time loser” Patrick/Patricia — a repeat offender who was arrested for cross-dressing four times. At the crime scene, Warren finds a note written by Patrick/Patricia citing society’s taboo against cross-dressing as the reason for the suicide. Patrick/Patricia desired a sex-change operation but could not afford one, so he/she believed that personal liberation could come through death: “May I wear in death what I could not in life.” Seeking medical insight into the phenomenon of transvestitism, Warren visits the doctor, hoping that their conversation might provide an “ounce of prevention” for future deaths, and shed some light onto why such an individual would kill himself/herself. Their conversation leads to the tale of a guilt-ridden cross-dressing man, Glen (played by Ed Wood, under the pseudonym Daniel Davis), who is struggling with the dilemma of whether or not he should tell his fiancée, Barbara (played by Dolores Fuller, Wood’s real-life girlfriend), about his passion for ladies’ lingerie and angora sweaters.

Gender Performance in Glen or Glenda

Sympathetic to the conflict and guilt faced by male to female transvestites, Glen or Glenda, with its “educational” documentary style, clearly attempts to eradicate the ignorance surrounding transvestitism. While Dr. Alton refers to cross-dressing as transvestitism, “yes, in cold, technical language that’s the word — however unfriendly and vicious that may sound,” we soon learn that “in actuality it is not an unfriendly word, nor is it vicious if you knew the persons to whom it pertains.” Through voice-over narration, the audience learns that transvestites are not freaks of nature to be eliminated by society, but rather mistakes of nature to be embraced for their variety: “If the creator had wanted us to be born girls [or boys], we certainly would have been born girls [or boys]…but are we sure? Nature makes mistakes…we can correct that which nature has not given us. Yet the world is shocked by a sex change [when it clearly should not be].” Lugosi, in god-like authoritative tones, convinces the audience that nature can make mistakes, and that society should not be hasty in forming its opinion about transvestites: “Because one does ‘wrong’ [i.e., conforms to society’s heterosexist rules], does that make it right? Because one does ‘right’ [i.e., follows his/her sexual/gender proclivities], does that make it wrong? Society, judge ye not.” We also learn about the unfortunate guilt that accompanies male to female transvestitism — namely, the shame a transvestite faces as he looks at his girlfriend’s clothes without being able to wear them — and that this guilt would never exist in a truly free society.

The film also attempts to normalize the male to female transvestite as an otherwise average “heterosexual” man who happens to enjoy women’s clothing and “performing” the female gender (in this case, transvestitism is not part of Glen’s psyche or identity; it is simply a preferred activity or habit). Despite his campy cross-dressing, throughout the film, Glen is portrayed as the ultimate heterosexual: his proposal to Barbara is the stuff wedding magazines are made of, and his conversation with his divorced cross-dressing friend Johnnie (Charles Crafts) reveals his sincere affection and concern for his fiancée. The audience soon learns that Glen is not the only “normal” heterosexual transvestite: there are “hundreds of thousands of Glens across the nation.” They exist on every level of society, ubiquitous yet concealed, simultaneously exposed and hidden to the gaze of the public eye. We are then shown an “average” man and asked: “Would you be surprised to know that this rough, tough individual is wearing pink, satin undies under his exterior clothing? He is. Then there is your friend the milkman who knows how to find comfort at home. He wears ladies’ undergarments.”

Glen or Glenda posits that transvestites are “harmless” individuals who “prefer to wear the clothing of the opposite sex or gender.” Dr. Alton, the medical authority of the film, confirms this: “Transvestitism is the term given by medical science to those persons who desperately wish to wear the clothing of the opposite sex, yet whose sex lives, in all instances, remains quite normal (i.e., heterosexual).” The narrator negates any associations with homosexuality by regularly intoning that transvestites are “normal men,” and completely unlike “mentally-disturbed” homosexuals, who are the true sexual “menace.”5 While Glen begins his transvestitism by wearing his sister’s dress as a Halloween costume, and later suffers from “cross-dressing as a compulsive habit,” the menace in the film is not the “normal” transvestite who wears ladies’ clothing, but rather homosexuals, and effeminate men, whose interest in female fashion and cosmetics goes beyond mere aesthetics: “Glen only wears make-up and wigs in order to wear the clothes he loves in public…It is true the homosexual, at times, does adopt the clothing or make-up of a woman to lure members of his own sex. But this is not so for the transvestite. Transvestites are not interested in those of their own sex. The clothing is not worn to attract the attention of their own sex, but to eliminate themselves from being a member of that sex.” The camera then focuses on two “homosexual” men, who, with a hint of sexual attraction, exchange sinister glances on a seedy street corner. The narrator then states that Glen/Glenda would never participate in such perverse activities for he/she is not attracted to the same sex and is “not half man and half woman [like a hermaphrodite], but man and woman at the same time.” As Glen or Glenda strongly conveys, a “true” transvestite could never be a homosexual, for according to the film, homosexuality is a despicable, deviant lifestyle, which would never attract a clean-cut, white, middle class, “good” transvestite like Glen. When Inspector Warren asks Dr. Alton if “Glen had any homosexual tendencies,” the psychiatrist firmly attests, “Absolutely not! It is very seldom that a true transvestite does.”

The sympathetic portrayal of male to female transvestites is not surprising given Wood’s own fondness for cross-dressing and the fact that as a Marine, he often wore ladies’ lingerie under his uniform.6 As illustrated by the voice-over narration in Glen or Glenda, he even considered cross-dressing his patriotic duty: “Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt, or even the lounging outfit he has on, and he’s the happiest individual in the world. He can work better, think better, play better, and be more of a credit to his community and government because he is happy.” However, a deeper analysis of Glen or Glenda‘s portrayal of transvestitism reveals a substantial critique of the not-so-innocent 1950s. Glen’s appropriation of garments associated with the opposing sex or gender (such as a pink angora sweater with matching purse and gloves) clearly “subverted the understanding of inner and outer space, and mocked the expressive [and heterosexual] model of gender roles” which existed during the “perfect” Leave It to Beaver era.7 Glen presents a form of deviant gender expression which defies disciplinary action and social order, and challenges the concrete gender categories of male and female. According to literary scholar Marjorie Garber, this “transvestite effect” is the result of a “category crisis.” A category crisis occurs when there is an increased permeability in social and moral borderlines; that is, a failure to distinguish between categories. Clear-cut binaries, such as male and female, become categories that no longer contain meaning.8 In this case, the stresses of modernity induce a categorical crisis, which leads to Glen’s cross-dressing. Under this configuration, the entire film then becomes a vehicle whose ultimate goal is to formulate “heterosexual” solutions to the crisis of Glen’s transvestitism.

Another concept to consider when analyzing the normalization of transvestitism in Glen or Glenda is what queer theoretician Eve Sedgwick has called “homosexual panic.”9 In other words, was Glen, or Ed Wood for that matter, truly a homophobic heterosexual who liked to wear women’s clothing, but wanted to distance himself from the “deviant” same-sex lifestyle through bigoted rhetoric? Or, as Adrienne Rich might maintain, was Glen a closeted homosexual who, because he was afraid of society’s response to his sexuality and gender expression, tried to mask his deviance by following the dictates of “compulsory” heterosexuality: in this case by accentuating his impending marriage, sporting his masculine suit, and including some anti-gay sentiment for good measure? Did Glen, as a true homosexual, “panic” and try to negate his sexuality by separating himself from his actual identity as much as possible? After all, as Senator Joseph McCarthy was claiming that the government was riddled with Communists, homosexuals were also being charged with infiltrating top government offices. The Cold War portrayed homosexuality as yet another “un-American” menace, and, as a result, just weeks after Eisenhower was inaugurated in 1953, he issued an executive order barring homosexuals from all federal jobs (including members of the military, such as Wood). Given this context, Wood could have been using the “homosexual menace” as a foil to legitimize and normalize his male to female cross-dressing.10

Nevertheless, the film’s overwhelming desire to normalize male to female transvestitism, and then eliminate it through heterosexual means (i.e., to cure it through marriage to a “good” woman like Barbara), yields a poignant commentary on cross-dressing, the fluid nature of sexuality, and the artificial boundaries of socially constructed gender roles and anatomical dictates. Much of the angst of the film revolves around the fact that Glen’s body is trapped in an indefinable, transitional state in which his visible exterior gender is at odds with his interior biological sex (i.e., what is on the outside of his body — female clothing — does not correspond to what is on the inside of his body — male sexual organs). Glen’s apparent femininity, which is at odds with his supposed masculinity, constitutes what Judith Halberstam would call a gender-reversal.11 Such reversals are socially problematic because they challenge Sigmund Freud’s observation that “when one meets a human being, the first distinction that is made is ‘male or female?'”12 In Glen/Glenda’s case, the problem arises because this distinction cannot be made with unhesitating certainty. As a result of their ambiguity, transvestitism and gender-reversals are usually accompanied by guilt, humiliation, and shame — all of which require social explanations.

Glen’s ability, and inability, to transcend gender lines not only illustrates the constructedness of gender categories, but also illuminates the extent to which these constructions are staged on, and derive meaning from, the body. The campy “spectacle” of men representing the feminine is problematic not only because it suggests that “femaleness” is artificial and can be performed by anyone, but because it also implies non-dominant, non-authoritative, and even impotent, masculinity.13 Clearly, this constituted a direct challenge to Eisenhower America, which stressed the strict separation of the private domain of the passive, female homemaker, and the public domain of the aggressive, male businessman. Moreover, by invoking the “lesser civilized parts of the world,” where “the male happily adorns himself with fancy objects, such as paints, frills, and masks,” Wood ridicules the white, middle class, stuffy suburban lifestyle of Levittown, USA, and its emphasis on technology and racist notions of civilization. However, the irony of the film is that Wood is situating himself within these very categories by claiming that male transvestitism is “normal.”

Wood even posits transvestitism as a natural by-product of the evolutionary process. He claims that the stresses of modernity have led to a sort of tribal atavism — or return to “primitive” activities — which propels “civilized” men to seek more comfortable clothing (i.e., women’s clothing). This involves abandoning masculine garments, such as the fedora, which prevent proper blood flow to the brain, cause baldness, and reduce productivity. In fact, Glen or Glenda even suggests that since men have the “natural” ability to design female clothing, they should be permitted by society to wear women’s clothing: “Little Miss Female, you should feel quite proud of the situation. You, of course, realize it’s predominantly men who design your clothes, your jewelry, your makeup, your hair styling, and your perfume.” Thus, according to Wood, transvestitism is a justifiable, and understandable, response to modern life. Marjorie Garber corroborates Wood’s critique by suggesting that “the appearance of a transvestite figure…[is] a sign of a category crisis elsewhere: not, or not only, in the realms of gender and sexuality, but also in registers like politics, economics, history, and [society].”14 In this case, the appearance of transvestites could mark a world under conceptual tension and categorical ambiguity — in other words, the “modern” world of Communist-obsessed Cold War America.

Glen’s gender transgression can also be interpreted as a “dirty” or “polluted” by-product of modernity. As members of the margin, transvestites are inherently dangerous: “Danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither in one state nor the next; it is indefinable.”15 In other words, disorder is a marginal state, and therefore a source of power, danger, and pollution. Transgressive sexuality is the ultimate form of pollution, paralleling the sordid air rising from the smokestacks of modern America. Eisenhower America’s desire to attain both individual and collective purity, and its fear of “dangerous” bodily pollution, mirrored its desire for hierarchy and order amidst its struggle with modernity. When the human body is the literal and figurative stage for social fantasies, anxieties, and aspirations, gender transgression becomes more than just a personal choice. Rather, it is a violation of everything that an ordered, modern, and democratic society represents. As transvestites, these men and their dirty habits offended the order from which American society derived meaning.16 Since “rituals of purity create unity in experience,” Americans came to believe that any marginal group who contradicted the social rituals of sexuality and gender could threaten unity and somehow contaminate the rest of the nation.17 This idea contributed to the medically-enforced campaign to eliminate the deviant and dangerous transvestite.

Deviant Bodies and Medical Scrutiny

The intentional inclusion of medical and legal authorities in Glen or Glenda not only secures its status as an example of film noir, but also conveys the increasing authority of the medical profession during the post-war era. In fact, Ed Wood wanted to make the medical element in Glen or Glenda so authentic that he even hired a consultant, Dr. Nathan Bailey, to assist with the scientific details of the film.18 Moreover, by focusing on the tormented and degrading compulsions, dreams, and hallucinatory states of the characters in Glen or Glenda, Wood was able to elucidate the dark psychoanalytic side of sexual/gender deviance, while simultaneously justifying the scrutiny, manipulation, and control exercised by medical and legal authorities, such as Dr. Alton, Bela Lugosi, and Inspector Warren. The patients’ confessions, as well as the examination and scrutiny perpetrated by these authority figures, “manipulated individuals into entering the domain of science, constituting them as cases while subjecting them to disciplinary surveillance.”19 According to Foucault, the “medical gaze” and patient confession were instrumental in understanding the sexual body because it removed the sexual from the body, and transplanted it to the domain of the intellect where it could be “accessed, transferred, suppressed, manipulated, and dominated.”20 Glen/Glenda’s confessions thus produced knowledge-power which allowed for “pleasure in the truth of pleasure; the pleasure of knowing [and producing] that truth, of discovering and exposing it, and the fascination of seeing and telling it.”21 It is no wonder then that the medical, and legal, authorities in the film relished every minute of Glen/Glenda’s guilt and anguish, constantly repeating the fact that this story, in all its glorious detail, must be told.

This objectification and scrutiny allowed Glen/Glenda’s body to enter the discursive realm, where it became a subject of inquiry to be unveiled, undressed, and penetrated by masculine science. In this realm, deviant and “pathological” bodies, such as the bodies of homosexuals and transvestites, were exposed to medical scrutiny and manipulation. As both Elizabeth Lunbeck and Jennifer Terry delineate, nineteenth and twentieth century physicians, and in particular psychiatrists, “assessed” an individual’s mental and physical health and categorized patients on a spectrum ranging from “normal” to “abnormal.”22 Under such a system of classification, the abnormal, or “marked,” pathological (e.g. homosexual, diseased, transvestite) body could be easily identified and distinguished from the normal, or “unmarked,” bodies of healthy white heterosexuals, which, as the majority, were produced by default.23 Such a construction facilitated the medical identification of deviant genders and sexualities, and endowed American physicians with the ability to locate, analyze, discipline, and manipulate “pathological” bodies. Consequently, one’s gender and sexuality, which were visible to physicians through the manifestations of the physical body, determined social inclusion or exclusion.

Dr. Alton’s fascination with Glen/Glenda, and his attempts to explain and classify his/her deviance, is apparent through his conversations with Inspector Warren. Under the guise of authority provided by the comfort of his office and the presence of his nurse, Alton, casually chain-smoking on cigarettes, theorizes about transvestites. He concludes that while they are not as “disturbed” or depraved as homosexuals, they are still mentally abnormal, and that society will ultimately be their savior. Thus Alton’s statements support Foucault’s contention that the abnormal individual is better served by the surveillance of the panopticon (i.e., the gaze of society) than by the unhealthy or unappealing environment of the prison or mental ward that he or she would have typically encountered.24 Lugosi’s gaze, which resembles the shadowy surveillance of the central tower of the panopticon, is particularly noticeable in the film. Lugosi, like the central tower of the panopticon, observes Glen/Glenda without his/her knowledge. Under such a configuration, power is transferred from the observed (i.e. Glen/Glenda) to the observer (i.e. Lugosi, or society in general), thus simultaneously manipulating and punishing the deviant individual.

Dr. Alton’s conversations with Inspector Warren also elucidate the extent to which popular psychoanalytic theories had entered public discourse and mainstream interpretations of gender and sexuality. Throughout the film, various medical, and non-medical, characters mention Freudian buzz-words with relative ease: Barbara refers to “German medical psychiatry,” Dr. Alton refers to psychiatric therapy and “consulting a competent psychiatrist for cure,” and Glen repeatedly mentions his mental anguish and alludes to guilt complexes and neuroses. In one scene, Inspector Warren and Dr. Alton even psychoanalyze Glen/Glenda. The analysis begins with an examination of Glen/Glenda’s childhood. During this scene, it is revealed that Glen’s mother and father did not love their son. Moreover, Glen’s mother suffered from an Electra complex that ranged from extreme love, to extreme hatred, of her own father. The result was that Glen’s mother only loved her daughters, so, to gain his mother’s acceptance, Glen became Glenda. In Freudian fashion, Inspector Warren interjects that “Glenda was invented as a love object to replace the love Glen did not receive when he was young.” In other words, Glen created Glenda in order to sublimate his repressed sexual/maternal desires, and compensate for a lack of female attention. Dr. Alton also reminds the audience that because Glen’s transvestitism is basically a result of his tormented past, Glen could reverse his condition and become a completely “normal” heterosexual man. He could accomplish this by transferring his maternal desires to his future wife, Barbara, thus killing Glenda and reaffirming the archaic notion that a “good woman can cure any male to female transvestite, homosexual, etc.” According to Dr. Alton, “Glen has found his mother, his little sister, his wife, and his Glenda all in one lovely package” — Barbara. He assures the audience that “soon, due to a happy married life, his psychiatric treatment, and Barbara’s love and understanding, Glenda will begin to disappear from Glen forever.”

While this scene illustrates that psychiatric therapy and the “love of a good woman” can cure transvestites like Glen/Glenda, Dr. Alton is quick to add the disclaimer that in some, more “advanced” cases, drastic measures are often required. After shuffling through medical files and consulting with his nurse, Dr. Alton begins telling the tale of Alan/Ann (“Tommy” Haynes), who, like Wood himself, was a former soldier who enjoyed wearing women’s clothing. Like Glen/Glenda, Alan/Ann’s gender trouble also had its roots in his/her childhood. As a young boy, Alan was interested in “girl’s sports” and “women’s work” (i.e., washing dishes, dusting, vacuuming, taking care of children, etc.). He liked playing with dolls, which pleased his mother who had always wanted a girl. Alan’s father was apathetic to his son’s existence, so Alan created his alter-ego, Ann, to make his “body appear as his mind believed it was — a woman.” Despite his triumphs during World War II, his honorable discharge, and his Silver Star for gallant action, Alan knew that he was living a lie. He began researching new surgical developments, and discovered that foreign doctors were successfully engaging in sex-change operations. Like his real-life contemporary Christine Jorgensen who, in 1952, became the first transsexual American woman, Alan/Ann went abroad and changed his sex. After numerous plastic surgeries on his face and body, Alan became Ann, a scientific creation whose life depended on hormone injections and the medical profession.

At this point, Inspector Warren begins to ask questions: “Why was this a solution for Alan but not for Glen?” Dr. Alton leaves his desk, points to a map of the human body on the wall, states that Alan was a pseudo-hermaphrodite, and provides a now outdated explanation of the medical condition (that Alan had both male and female internal and external organs — this, in fact, is the definition of a true hermaphrodite). Dr. Alton states that unlike Glen, who had perfectly normal sexual organs, Alan was a mistake of nature, and that his problem could only be solved by surgery, and not by psychoanalysis. He was given a choice: to be male or female. Given his “small, girlish hips, fair complexion, and thin hair,” Dr. Alton convinces the audience that the only solution was for Alan to become Ann. Alan then undergoes a sex-change operation which “brought out the breasts to reveal the woman within,” and “removed the man and formed the woman.”

This entire scene not only illustrates the narrator’s claim that “modern medicine and science were now capable of creating a Frankenstein’s ‘monster,'” but also the idea that Alan, the “poor fellow, could not have been happy without the help of modern science.” The fact that physicians, such as Dr. Alton, could now distinguish between different types of transvestites, homosexuals, transsexuals, and heterosexuals, reified the power and authority of medical science to pass judgment on individual lives. Moreover, as the holistic medical approach gained popularity during the post-WWII era (i.e., the concept of treating the whole patient, focusing on him/her as an individual, and not just as a “disease”), psychiatrists increasingly applied their knowledge through extensive regimens, dictating what patients could and could not do in almost every aspect of their lives. However, this invasive behavior did not just end with the patient. In post-war America, authoritative physicians could also pass judgment on society, telling the average person what he or she should accept as “normal” behavior, urging sympathy in some cases, and disdain in others.

In Glen or Glenda, men, as well as authority figures such as Dr. Alton, are also the guardians of socially constructed gender roles. While Dr. Alton confirms that after the surgery Alan is now Ann, a “happy and lovely young lady,” he also reminds the audience that “acting like a woman and being a woman are two different things. Ann must learn how to do her own hair, making the correct styling adjustments to suit her facial contours. She must also learn how to walk like a lady, and be properly instructed on how to accept a woman’s world.” Through this one statement, Dr. Alton affirms the notion that gender roles require practice because they are learned and then performed. Dr. Alton also reveals the medical profession’s desire to “know” and “instruct” when he suggests sexual therapy for Ann: “Psychiatric treatment will explain to her the part of the woman in sex [i.e., sexual intercourse]. Alan had known the male’s part, but soon learned he knew very little of the woman’s.” Sex-change operations clearly caused an upheaval in the way society thought about “God-given” gender roles and sexes, and, as Dr. Alton illustrates, the medical profession, which had made transsexualism possible in the first place, was willing and able to fill in all the gaps. Moreover, those willing to provide instruction were male physicians, implying that men, and not women, were the best instructors of how to be “female” or “feminine.”

The medical prognosis in Glen or Glenda is that those who cross the ultimate boundaries of gender or sexuality are grossly deviant and morally despicable, with distinct and noticeable characteristics. Moreover, the fate of such individuals is predictable: death, destruction, or profound tragedy. It is not surprising then that criminal transvestites, who were arrested for public cross-dressing, and those who want to have sex-change operations but do not have any anatomical inconsistencies, such as Patrick/Patricia, are “disciplined” through undignified deaths (i.e., murder or suicide). On the other hand Glen/Glenda, who, at the end of the film, engages in a “normalizing” Foucauldian confession to his fiancée, is happily embraced and placed into a category all his own. When Glen finally tells Barbara, she is sympathetic: “Glen, I don’t fully understand this, but maybe together we can work it out.” She takes off her coveted angora sweater and, as a gesture of human compassion, hands it to Glen, for as Dr. Alton warns, “to take [cross-dressing] away from [the transvestite], may be as harmful as taking away an arm or a leg.”

Dragons, Devils, and Sexual Fantasies

The symbolic dream sequences and stock footage in Glen or Glenda have been constant sources of derision and confusion to both audiences and film critics. While Wood has been accused of inserting unnecessary footage just to stretch Glen or Glenda into the length of a feature film, it is obvious that the scenes he selected are not only strategically placed, but also connected to the complexity of Glen’s dilemma. The dream sequence acts as a sort of confession, with Glen/Glenda playing the lead actor in a visual narrative about his/her gender confusion. The sparring dragons and devils in the film denote the struggling guilt-ridden conscience of Glen/Glenda; the buffalo roaming the countryside symbolize Glen/Glenda’s “weighty” decision to tell his fiancée about his transvestitism; scenes of steel factories and phallus-shaped beams being reshaped and melted illustrate both the inevitability of progress and modernity, as well as Freudian fears of castration that could accompany a sex-change operation. Moreover, the voice-over conversation between two men during the “steel” scene, as well the sultry woman’s voice cooing “so long Joe, see you tomorrow,” suggest that the average blue collar “Joe” could also be yearning to wear women’s clothing.

During the dream sequence, the Dracula-esque Bela Lugosi, acting as an omniscient demi-god, watches over the denizens of Los Angeles in a Frankenstein-style laboratory, making remarks such as “Watch out for the little green dragon that sits at your doorstep (i.e., the homosexual). He eats little boys, you know. Puppy dog tails, and big fat snails! Bevare! Take care!” as lightning crackles overhead. During the same sequence, Glen/Glenda finds his fiancée trapped under a crucifix-esque tree in the living room, most likely “crushed” by the guilt and shock associated with Glen’s lifestyle. Glenda tries to remove the tree, but cannot for Glenda is only a campy imitation of womanhood. Glen, the hero, clean-shaven and dressed in his masculine suit, succeeds in liberating Barbara by lifting the symbolic tree of deceit and deception, redeeming and purging his character of his transvestite proclivities. As the tree magically disappears, Lugosi shouts “Pull ze string!” urging Glen to yank on the cord of the curtains obscuring his true identity and “dance to that for which one was created.” Glenda then rips off Barbara’s blouse, suggesting, in Freudian fashion, that violence can occur from repression. When Glen awakens, the narrator tells us that he has decided to tell his fiancée about his transvestitism. Thus the dream sequence, with its mood of uneasiness, alienation, and loneliness, resolves Glen’s dilemma and feelings of guilt.

Although Glen or Glenda, with its avant-garde cinematic techniques, jarring visual discontinuities, and impassioned defense of gender diversity, boldly defies oppressive post-war social constructions, Wood’s obvious aversion to homosexuality is an overriding, and disturbing, theme in the film. One of the most fascinating examples of homophobia in the film is a ten-minute long sequence involving “lesbian” sadism/bondage, set to the fast-tempo tune of Czardas.25 During this sequence, Glen, and Wood’s alter ego, Lugosi, become male voyeurs who are both disgusted, yet strangely excited, by the activities of the women. They watch as a disinterested “strapping” young man whips and abuses a Marilyn Monroe look-alike, who is lying on a couch, writhing and squirming with pleasure. The voyeurs then observe a series of voluptuous women, some of whom resemble popular post-WWII actresses such as Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner, beckoning each other while being magically stripped of their clothing. As Glen and Lugosi sneer at a sadistic dominatrix and her “love” object (a woman in primitive shackles), a “lesbian” S&M scene ensues, during which the voyeurs also witness a rape perpetrated by a sinister pirate/gypsy. While at first the nubile, virginal, young lady, who incidentally resembles Vivien Leigh, resists her violent attacker, by the end of the scene, her legs are spread open, embracing, and even enjoying, the pirate’s advances.

While this sequence was probably inserted to appeal to the male audience of a sexploitation picture, it is much more than unfulfilled sexual fantasy or shocking stock footage. Rather, it illustrates the extent to which Wood attempted to malign homosexuals. By the end of the scene, it is clear that both Glen and Lugosi disapprove of the homosexual element of the sequence, and find the activities they have just witnessed repulsive. In fact, Lugosi shrugs his shoulders in an attempt to convey the notion that lesbian sexuality is not only frivolous, impotent, and inconsequential, but also deviant and uninteresting to male onlookers. Wood’s use of Hollywood-esque actresses during this scene also suggests that he was very critical of the studio system, which produced superficial films that capitalized on the vehicle of the artificial “sex goddess.” His use of these look-alike actresses also served as a biting satire of sexuality in general, implying that compared to the deviant, homoerotic, and hyper-heterosexual images conveyed in mainstream A-list films such as Ben Hur, male to female transvestitism was actually harmless and even “normal.” At this point, the audience realizes that just below the surface of Glen’s happy-go-lucky campy cross-dressing lies a powerful commentary on the male-fashioned alternative culture of the Eisenhower era.

Glen or Glenda concludes with a short soliloquy by Inspector Warren. He declares:”I guess I’ve seen everything there is for a policeman to see. Yet I wonder if we ever stop learning. Learning about which we see, trying to learn more about an ounce of prevention. I’m a man who thrives on learning. We only have one life to live. If we throw that one away, what is there left?” In this one statement, Warren ties all the threads of the film into one simple knot. The power of the medical profession, the manipulation and guilt inherent in deviant bodies, the social fascination with knowledge-power, and a profound sympathy for male to female transvestitism are simultaneously presented to the audience, who, by the end of the film, most likely support Glen/Glenda’s lifestyle. Glen’s case may have happy ending, but we are left wondering: “What about the hundreds of thousands of less fortunate Glens the world over?”

  1. http://www.buzzlab.com/plan9/edwood.php. []
  2. William Luhr, ed., The Maltese Falcon (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 8. []
  3. Ibid., 3. []
  4. Ibid., 9. []
  5. It is important to note that until late 1974, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental illness. This not only increased psychiatrists’ authority to diagnose and treat the “disease,” but also reinforced the notion that homosexuals were disturbed deviants and criminals who required close surveillance. []
  6. http://www.buzzlab.com/plan9/edwood.html []
  7. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1989). []
  8. Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (London: Routledge, 1992). []
  9. Eve Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). []
  10. John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). []
  11. Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998), 24. []
  12. Sigmund Freud, “Femininity,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press and The Institute for Psycho-Analysis, 1964). []
  13. Halberstam, 8-9. []
  14. Marjorie Garber, “Foreword,” in Catalina de Erauso, The Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, trans. Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), p.xv. []
  15. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1985), 2. []
  16. Ibid., 2. []
  17. Ibid. []
  18. Please see the film’s credits for this information. []
  19. Elizabeth Lunbeck, The Psychiatric Persuasion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 5. []
  20. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Part I (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 71. []
  21. Ibid. []
  22. Lunbeck, 4. Also see Jennifer Terry, An American Obsession: Science, Medicine and Homosexuality in Modern Medicine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), Chapters 1 and 2. []
  23. Sedgwick, Epistemology. []
  24. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage Books), 195-228. []
  25. It is interesting to note that because of its graphic nature, this scene was not always shown to 1950s movie audiences, and today can only be found in select DVD recordings. []