Toward a Theory of Female Phallicism

by K. Allison Hammer

The 2020 Netflix documentary Disclosure gives an historical sweep of transphobia in Hollywood, briefly revisiting that nadir of ’90s transmisogyny— The Crying Game (1992). While I’m highly skeptical of Disclosure’s optimism about the transformative power of mainstream representation, celebrity culture, and Hollywood itself, I was grateful for its renewed attention to the Crying Game’s viral transmisogyny. Thanks to Disclosure, the scene in which Fergus pushes his girlfriend to the ground after discovering her penis—then vomits into a bathroom sink—comes once again into mainstream view. As GLAAD Director of Trans Media and Representation Nick Adams offers, The Crying Game precipitated a ripple effect of men vomiting in response to the penis of a trans woman, similar to ripple effect” of cross-dressing psychopathic serial killers on film in inspired by Psycho. This copycat phenomenon in film and television, which included Family Guy (2010), The Hangover: Part II (2011), and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), normalized for generations this oft-comedic gag reflex. The Crying Game was also shortly followed by David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly (1993), based on David Hwang’s play, in which a married heterosexual man (Gallimard) falls in love with a trans woman who has a penis. As a result of this “monstrous” hybridity, Gallimard kills himself in shame in the final scene of the film.

If Disclosure’s generous claim is correct, that change is occurring in both the range and depth of trans representation, what new trans theories can, and should, develop as part of this cultural shift? And further, which dearly held queer and feminist theories must be challenged?

Toward a Theory of Female Phallicism

In response to these questions, I am proposing a theory of femme phallicism that both expands how we theorize moments like these on film and widens the scholarly perception of the range of relationships that trans women can and do have to the phallic.

First, it’s important to understand that in Western societies, the heteronormative, colonial and racialized epistemology of the body requires that “male” and “female” sexual morphologies, and their attendant parts, remain completely distinct from one another. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan insisted that the distinctness of these morphologies is what sustains the very structures of society and culture. Psychoanalytically, their separateness is grounded in the idea that those assigned female at birth “are” the phallus (the Lacanian “privileged signifier” that allows access to power”), while those assigned male “have” the phallus. The body of a trans woman with a penis is so threatening because it conjures both at the same time, the threat of castration (as a “woman” is the phallus) and masculine castration anxiety (as a “man” has the phallus and fears its loss). The supposed sex/gender “contradiction” of a trans woman with a penis thus threatens the fiction that one cannot both “be” and “have” the phallus at the same time. The nausea at the site of a trans woman’s penis indicates the disorienting effect of this contradiction—this nausea, this loss of bodily control, also functions as a sign of a loss of masculinity, a feminization that is a direct result of this collapse of morphological distinction. If indeed language, the Law of the Father, the act of naming itself, relies on keeping these sexual morphologies separate, then the phallic status of the cisgender man must lessen in this moment.

However, as Judith Butler argues in Bodies that Matter, in the chapter “the Lesbian Phallus,” the phallus is in actuality both “transferable” and “substitutable”— these separate spheres of “having” and “being” the phallus a fabrication that benefits white cisgender men in particular. Butler destabilizes the connection that both Freud and Lacan establish between the penis and the phallus, offering how both Freud and Lacan fix the phallus and the penis together through a series of denials, disavowals, and negations, through which the fusion is assumed and naturalized. Yet, the body of a trans woman with a penis troubles Butler’s theory of “transferability.” A trans woman’s penis clearly does not fit into Butler’s field of “body parts, discursive performatives, alternative fetishes” that can resignify the phallus. Butler does state that the phallus/penis equation becomes destabilized through “various and unanticipated anatomical (and non-anatomical)” phallic appearances and utilities. However, by naming this theory the (implied cisgender and butch) lesbian phallus, it’s obvious that any other body part will do— just not that one. Butler thus raises the question of whether phallic transferability only occurs at the expense of cisgender queer femmes and trans women.

A theory of female phallicism offers the ways that the penis of a trans woman does represent a “substitutability” of the phallus, because the penis is reimagined as belonging to a woman’s body. Not only do trans women have phallic power, but phallic power itself becomes feminized. Female phallicism thus challenges more profoundly what Butler cites as the constructed divisions between “body parts and wholes, anatomy and the imaginary, corporeality and the psyche.” At the core of this theory is therefore a questioning of what it means to be “female.” One of the many reasons that people find to despise trans women is a form of what I call trans-phallo-misogyny, which confirms that the penis and phallus never fully separated. Instead, the penis become a weapon for further isolating and oppressing trans women. Some Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFS) may “allow” that trans women can assume the “spirit” of womanhood, but the body remains intractable. As long as you have a penis, (or are still haunted by the corporeal memory of one), you cannot “count” as female. Biological determinism within TERF communities argues that the fused penis/phallus haunts the transfeminine subject, whether it is materially present or not. Thus, the dissolving of gender categories, a longstanding aim of feminism, and the resignification or queering of the phallus, all too often occur through the degradation or omission of trans women.

The Crying Game (Revisited)

A theory of female phallicism helps us to understand the depth of what we are witnessing in The Crying Game, the stakes of what Dil’s black, female, trans body represents: the entrenched (as in “in the trenches”) warfare of gender and race categories. It is not just Fergus’s violent reprisal that is troubling about this film, but rather how Dil’s penis becomes a structuring device, up to and including the moment of “disclosure.” From the beginning, the film’s viewers are encouraged to assume the gaze of Fergus (Stephen Rea), a member of the IRA who develops an unexpected friendship with Jody (Forest Whitaker), one of the organization’s black kidnapped victims. Jody makes a last request of Fergus: to seek out his girlfriend, Dil, a hairdresser in London, and to take care of her in his absence. The film first encourages sympathy for, and identification with, Fergus as a character because his conscience will not allow him to murder Jody. Second, Fergus not only finds Dil but also gives up his life of crime. He becomes what sociologist Miriam Abelson calls the irresistible goldilocks man, neither too soft nor too hard. Dil, famous for her rendition of the Boy George classic, “the Crying Game,” become his love interest, and Fergus is thus “deceived.” By the time the film depicts Fergus vomiting in the bathroom sink, viewers have been seduced into believing that Fergus is a “good guy.” Viewers thus accept (with gratitude) that Fergus decided to pursue her despite Dil’s transness.

While we don’t see Dil’s penis again, for the rest of the film, it looms as a darker evil than any IRA murder or kidnapping. Dil as the racialized abomination, “true” trickster and murderer, crystalizes after Fergus confesses that he played a role in Jody’s death. Dil ties Fergus to the bed and threatens to kill him with his own pistol if he doesn’t promise to love her forever and never leave her. Dil, now in possession of the gun as symbolic phallic substitute, poses a direct threat to all men, even to “good men” like Fergus. Her penis becomes viewed as a weapon against the very structure of society, a crime for which Fergus later pays the price by going to prison on her behalf. Dil threatens the very integrity of gender, as an organizing principle of family, culture, and politics, and the nation.

The Crying Game captures the essence of trans-phallo-misogyny, one symptom of which is the violent, sickening reaction to the trans penis, either present or imagined, not as a singular moment but as an ongoing, buzzing anxiety. The naturalization of this panic and dread—and this ensuing semantic lockdown, gridlock, pandemonium—is not only a single plot point but a haunting that persists. This panic and dread not only repeats uncannily in film and television, but creates a “ripple effect” across culture and politics with real material consequences for trans women.

Toward New Phallic Futures

If indeed the phallus is not the penis, then it follows that the penis also does not have to be the phallus, with all of the cisgender masculine power embedded in this term—or put another way, phallic power itself shifts to become a transfeminine power. Take the example of Julie Serano who in Whipping Girl describes her own penis as a fundamentally changed body part. She pleads with TERFS in particular to question the logic of their vicious biological determinism: “those who patrol the gates of women-only spaces are often dead set on discriminating against me, driven by the ridiculous belief that my girly little estrogenized penis is somehow still pulsating with hypermasculine energy.” By embracing her girly penis, Serano urges us toward a female phallicism that is more dexterous and supple.

In a photograph of Tala Candra Brandeis called “Biology is not Destiny,” from the collection “Our Vision, Our Voices: Transsexual Portraits and ‘Nudes,’” Loren Cameron also captures an image of a trans woman who displays without shame her girly penis. Tala sits cross legged on soft fabric, her penis lying on a diagonal against her right ankle. Her right arm rests against her right knee, as her left arm extends outward, inviting the viewer to enter this scene of femme softness and vulnerability, even while her tattoo sleeves suggest a kind of phallic bravado. She adorns her wrists with multiple bracelets and her fingers with multiple rings in a gendered mashup of femme-ness. She tilts her head to the left, as though to proposition the viewer, her long hair falling loosely over her left arm. In this photograph, Cameron resists the demand that trans women reject their penises so they may discover an untroubled conclusion to their search for “correct” womanhood. This provocative image is a profound example of how female phallicism both diagnoses and dismantles trans-phallo-misogyny.

Femme phallicism can also include how trans women who choose to have bottom surgery “harness” Butler’s phallic transferability through a dildo. Paul Preciado asserts that the dildo reconfigures the sexual boundaries of the fucker/fucked body, as the dildo refutes the idea that the limits of the flesh always coincide with the limits of the body. The distinction between synthetic and “biological” becomes delightfully blurred, as the dildo, like other technologies of sex relegated to the side of the “unnatural,” lurks at the outer limit of the racist, male-dominated capitalist system(s). For Preciado, the dildo questions the logic that outside of two sexes and two distinct kinds of bodies exists only a no-man’s land of pathology and disability. However, unlike Paul Preciado and Jack Halberstam, who focuses on drag kings and transmasculine phallic power, the dildo isn’t privileged over the penis—neither can be designated as the “original” or the “simulacrum.” Through female phallicism, the dildo becomes a trans female phallic political and artistic tool that disrupts the policed borders of racial and sexual difference.

Trans women may also discover new virility in the penis/phallus that allows for a transfeminine transmasculinity, or a trans woman’s butchness. Such a view departs from Halberstam’s Female Masculinity, by emphasizing the female in the phrase, and by questioning what we might mean by the second term “masculinity.” Or maybe the penis can be re-imagined as dildo, or the dildo can be re-imagined as penis. The point here is that the crucial task of separating penis from phallus cannot occur through omitting the trans woman’s body, a violence that continues to occur because of the willful cultural fetishization of the fleshly penis as ultimate symbol of white cis-het manhood. The implied masculinity of phallic power instead becomes an expansive female potentiality.

Change will require more than simply a positive restoration of trans women to the Hollywood screen, through changing our media diet alone, but also by forging new theories that are inclusive of trans women. This requires, of course, cultivating more fluid boundaries between masculine and feminine, regardless of whether one is a binary or a non-binary trans person. In such a phallic utopia, Dil would be loved for being, in Zackary Drucker’s words, “a beautiful woman with a penis.” Her body would be cherished because of, not despite, her beautiful female phallus.


Photo credit: The Crying Game, directed by Neil Jordan, featuring Jaye Davidson and Stephen Rea. (1992; Los Angeles: Miramax, 2013), Videorecording.


Abelson, Miriam. Men in Place: Trans Masculinity, Race, and Sexuality in America. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.

Cronenberg, David, dir. M. Butterfly. Performed by Jeremy Irons and John Lone. 1993; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2009. Videorecording.

Cameron, Loren. “Our Vision, Our Voices: Transsexual Portraits and ‘Nudes.’” 1993.

Feder, Sam, dir. Disclosure. Disclosure Films, Bow and Arrow Entertainment, and Field of Vision (II), 2020.

Halberstam, Jack. Female Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

Jordan, Neil, dir. The Crying Game. Performed by Jaye Davidson and Stephen Rea. 1992; Los     Angeles: Miramax, 2013. Videorecording.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in  Psychoanalytic Experience.” 1936. In Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, translated by Bruce Fink, 75–81. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

Namaste, Viviane K. Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Preciado, Paul B. Countersexual Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl. New York: Seal Press, 2016.

K. Allison Hammer is an interdisciplinary, cross-genre scholar and cultural critic. In their work, they reveal the echo of the past in the present through intersectional archives including film and media, literature, music, and performance. Hammer’s insights are featured in their first monograph, Masculinity in Transition, which will be published in fall 2023 by the University of Minnesota Press. They take a critical approach to masculinity as a complex gender formation that is tied to different embodiments, subjectivities, sexualities, identifications, and ideologies. They are currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Vanderbilt University.