Still via Screen Classics
Content warning: transphobia, discussion of outdated and potentially offensive ideas
“Glen or Glenda” is a 1953 transgender exploitation film directed by Ed Wood. It was made incredibly cheaply and quickly and is full of out-of-date ideas and terms about gender and transitioning, with film critic Leonard Maltin describing it in his 2004 movie & video guide as “possibly the worst movie ever made.” That being said, as a transgender woman, I have never felt more seen while watching a film than while watching “Glen or Glenda.” The movie’s critical panning has held it from the fruitful examination it deserves due to its radical stance on gender as it relates to the self and society.
While the film takes a layered approach to storytelling by including storylines within storylines and avant-garde dream sequences, the titular section of the film is about Glen and her fiance, Barbara. Glen, born male, is happiest when presenting as female. I will be referring to this character as “Glenda,” which is the name she uses for herself when female presenting. The story’s central conflict is Glenda’s reluctance to come out to Barbara. She must choose between coming out before the wedding, which risks the marriage being called off, or coming out after the wedding, which risks ruining her and Barbara’s relationship. The familiarity of this conflict comforts me and many other trans people: longing to come out but being kept back by the safety of the closet and the pressure of a deadline.
Alongside Glenda and Barbara, the movie features a character named “The Scientist” who provides meta level commentary by reacting to the story’s events. The narrative framing of The Scientist’s cryptic poetry transforms what is already a strikingly progressive film into something more radical. Over a shot of a busy city, he narrates:
“People all going somewhere! All with their own thoughts, their own ideas. All with their own personalities. One is wrong because he does right. One is right because he does wrong. Pull the string! Dance to that which one is created for!”
In the context of gender, The Scientist’s words here are incredibly liberating to me. The idea of transition as a dance represents the uniqueness of humanity paired with the devolution of traditional morality which for so long has upheld society and its notion of gender. A command to “Pull the string” resonates emotionally with my experience of coming out. It provides an inherence and depth to my trans-specific emotions in a way I do not often see portrayed in media.
The Scientist reappears during Glenda’s dream sequence, repeating a short poem which goes:
“Beware. Beware! Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys, puppy dog tails, and big, fat snails! Beware! Take care! Beware!”
This line services the film in several ways. It repeats again and again throughout sections of the dream sequence. This repetition, paired with its mysterious and unfamiliar language, mimics the societal dread and confusion that being trans can come with. The film rejects masculinity in the same way many trans women reject their own. I could not explain my reasoning for being trans other than feeling myself to be; something within me knows of the big green dragon and longs to escape my fate: to change from a boy to a woman and avoid the dragon.
The Scientist’s repetition of this poem throughout the dream sequence is paired with striking images: Glenda and Barbara getting married (with Glenda presenting as Glen) while the devil looks on. Joyful brass band music plays as close ups of The Scientist’s face Kuleshov effects Hays code-era lesbian bondage scenes — with unknown clothed women tying each other to couches and posts while gagged. The dream is staged more like a ballet than a film, with simplified, stage-like sets, deliberate, choreography from the actors, and dialogue solely through The Scientist’s echoed warning. Further in the sequence in what I consider to be the film’s most beautiful moment, an angry mob chases down a frightened, masculine-presenting Glenda. They catch up with her and she is surrounded, obscured from view. Miraculously, when the crowd parts, Glenda stands angelically in her feminine clothes. The music swells, and Barbara embraces Glenda. The beauty is quickly taken away when Barbara is revealed to be the devil. Re-disguised as Barbara, he laughs at Glenda mockingly.
This dream sequence — similar to the rest of the film — is complicated and contradictory, while remaining deeply relatable to my and others’ experiences of being trans. The simultaneous comfort and discomfort of sex, the longing for societal acceptance, and the fear of rejection from those closest are just some of the themes addressed in Glenda’s dream sequence.
After this dream, Glenda chooses to come out to Barbara before the wedding. They go to a psychologist, outdatedly positing that Glenda is a character created by Glen because she didn’t receive enough love from her mother. Consistent with the title of the film, “Glen” and “Glenda” are treated as two separate people. Tragically, the film uses its proposed psychological explanation to split Glenda and Glen. The narrator informs the viewer that:
“Time passes. Soon, due to a happily married life, the remembrance of the psychiatric treatments, and Barbara’s love and understanding, Glenda begins to disappear forever from Glen. Glen has found his mother, his little sister, his wife, and his Glenda all in one lovely package. Thus, Glen’s case has a happy conclusion.”
Devastatingly, the film does not take this back and ends soon after.
This element of the film is difficult to wrestle with. Upon first watch, I wished I could exhume it from my mind and from the film. On its own, it seems heart-wrenchingly outdated and self-contradictory. Glenda’s gender euphoria is painted so beautifully throughout the film that it becomes hard to accept that this is how the film ends; however, the film is juggling so many ideas that this conclusion is not its only interpretation.
“Glen or Glenda” is a complicated film. In writing this piece, I have made broad generalizations and left out many integral elements which lend a clearer understanding of the broader work. The remedy to my ineptitude is to watch the film. Its complexities mirror trans life in a way that other films simply do not. Societally, there is not an agreed-upon reaction to transgender people. Many people have different thoughts on transgender people — and many of those opinions contradict. In a moment that once again breaks the conventional norms of storytelling, Glenda finds herself in the Scientist’s study immediately after coming out to Barbara. Disappointed, the Scientist sends her away. The film clearly is telling us two conflicting ideas: one to “Pull the string! Dance to that which one is created for!” and one where Glenda disappearing forever from Glen is a happy conclusion. These conflicting ideas are where much of my love for the film lies: wrestling between the 1950’s progressive understanding of gender and a view of gender that feels radical even for 2023.
Through this, I see myself in both Glen and Glenda. The fear and the liberation. The societal pressure to stay in the closet and the need to escape it. I am at a point in my life where many different people are telling me many different things about my gender. “Glen or Glenda” serves as a stark comfort and reminder at this time in my life: to know that trans people have always been around and to fear the big green dragon that eats little boys, puppy dog tails, and big fat snails! Beware! Take care! Beware!
Author: Juliet Clark (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Michel W (He/Him), Bella (She/Her)