There has been quite a bit of discussion about the movie (Re) Assignment in which a hit-man is “turned into a woman” using various surgeries and medical interventions. There is the issue of who was cast to play the lead role, a cisgender female, as well as the transphobic, transmisogynistic, nature of the plot. The idea that the worst punishment for a man is to be made into a woman. To be forced to be a woman. This is not a new concept and is both misogynist and transmisogynist at the same time. It is usually presented in a way that devalues being a woman and that women are less than men. Where I am diverging from the discourse I have seen about the film thus far is in how it normalises a trope that is found in sexual/erotic fiction writing, particularly online. That trope is referred to as “forced feminisation.” Yes, it is out there and is, apparently, popular.
Forced feminisation involves a man being forced into a female role either temporarily or permanently. He may or may not consent to this happening to him. It may or may not involve surgeries. It usually involves some sort of humiliation, often sexual. With safe surf turned off Google generated over 99,000 results for me, and DuckDuckGo returns many pages of results (they do not show a result count). Even Amazon has more than 1,800 results under “Literature & Fiction” with far fewer results in sub-categories. Clicking through a link to an open erotic story site (anyone can create an account and upload) in the results shows a list 3 pages long of stories with the forced feminization tag. Some of the results go to porn video sites. One link goes to a Youtube video providing a “101” level of instruction on how to do it. It is out there, and it is very much “a thing.”
What does this have to do with the film (Re) Assignment? On the surface, perhaps not a lot. Digging a little bit deeper, however, I see a film that further serves to normalise that it is okay to forcibly feminise men and this can be extremely unhealthy. Many people grow up absorbing the message that it is not okay for a man to be feminine or express feminine interests. Being a man is at the top of the patriarchal pyramid perpetuated by our society’s power structures. To not want to be at the top of the power structure, and have the privileges that go along with being at the top, is seen as deviant. We have seen this for decades in how trans people have been portrayed and treated in society and by medical professionals. For trans people who were given the magical “M” on their birth certificate when they were born these messages impact on their ability to explore their gender identity when it arises. Forced feminisation stories, however, can give them a way to explore that is acceptable in their mind.
For those who are trans it is not, for the most part, a choice. Transitioning is also, for many, not a choice. The details of one’s transition, however, do involve a lot of choices and decisions that are not always easy. The forced feminisation stories provide some relief from the stress of having to decide to transition and the decisions that come along with it. Further, it may help alleviate some of the internal struggle about gender if one has internalised the message that it is wrong for a man to become a woman, that it is sinful, that it goes against nature, etc. All that said, it is problematic, to say the least when a big budget film with star names involved uses this trope.
I see this, as others have said in their writing about it, as a large step backward. It does not help people move beyond the trope of forced feminisation, but pushes them back into it. It says, even if subliminally, that men can be forced to become women through the use of surgeries and hormones. While, from what I can see, the film is not erotic, it is a revenge story. To ignore that this trope is a significant one in erotic writing ignores a part of trans narratives that is largely pushed underground. Not many people will admit to reading these stories when they seek transition related health care, even though it may be what comes up in their searches during the beginning of their journey. I certainly came across them and, being the curious type, I looked at them. I have also been approached by men who have wanted me to forcibly feminise them. There are people who are looking for this for whatever reason. Looking back, the part of me that is interested in people, motivations, and mental health thinks I should have asked some questions about the why, it would make for some interesting research.
Perhaps there is an opportunity, while being mindful and pointing out all that makes it a “staggering misfire” (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/sep/12/reassignment-review-toronto-film-festival-sigourney-weaver ), we can also take some time and make some space to (re) assign some of our discussion to examine the ways in which online erotic/sexual writing depicts the forced feminisation trope.