The “uncanny valley” or bukimi no tani (不気味の谷) is a concept in the field of human aesthetics first articulated by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970 that explains the relationship between a human’s subjective response to a rendering of something corporeal and the degree to which the rendering imitates the original. As a pioneer in robotics developing nir craft, Mori attempted to make nir creations look more and more human over time. Initially, people responded more and more favorably to this effort, but eventually Mori found that if a robot came too close to appearing human, people felt disturbed and repulsed by it instead.
The concept of the uncanny valley has since been applied to other fields, such as computer animation. Despite astounding increases in the capabilities of computer animation, most scenes need to retain a cartoonish quality in order to appeal to audiences. Likewise, I think the uncanny valley may have played a part in the shift in fine arts from realism to surrealists like René Magritte in the early 20th century.
The uncanny valley is often depicted graphically with human similarity on the horizontal axis, and empathy on the vertical axis, with highlighted examples, like that from the New Scientist below.
Several theories have been proposed to explain the origins of the uncanny valley. Some suggest the uncanny figures trigger cognitive processes that have evolved to select against mating with partners in poor health. Others suggest they trigger a fear of death. However, having encountered the uncanny valley initially through learning about architectural rendering for my work as an urban planner, and seeing that the phenomenon applies not only to anthropomorphic creatures, but also to simple objects such as buildings and trees, I subscribe to the theory that conflicting perceptual cues lead to uncertainty, cognitive dissonance, anxiety, and aversion. When robotic characteristics predominate, anthropomorphic features stand out and draw us in; but when anthropomorphic characteristics predominate, the subtle inhuman cues stand out and bother.
From Uncanny to Untransy
I would like to apply the concept of the uncanny valley to male-to-female crossdressing and transgenderism. Doing so may seem offensive to some because trans women are sometimes viewed as inhuman by the general public. It’s not unheard of for trans women to be referred to using the pronoun “it.” However, I believe the revulsion people feel toward some trans women is not a deliberate hatred but rather an inevitable consequence of being inundated for life with perceptual cues that trick us unto the belief that male and female are discrete categories of beings.
Below is a juxtaposition of the Repliee Q2 “actroid” with former boxing manager Kellie Maloney. I chose Mx. Maloney for this comparison as ne’s already a tabloid sensation and I didn’t want to subject any of the hundreds of similarly-looking lower-profile trans women and crossdressers that appear in a random Google image search to the degradation of this comparison. I guess it’s still pretty mean, but I felt compelled to include the comparison to illustrate my point. It’s okay. Jesus died for our transphobia.
Anyway, you can see Kellie would never be able to climb out of the valley by attempting to appear more female because of those unfortunate boxing paws! It appears even getting a hand transplant from the actroid wouldn’t be able to help.
The problem is that the default human morphology is female, and takes on male-typical secondary sex characteristics only through androgenization, which is progressive throughout life, and irreversible. Therefore, male characteristics on trans women stand out much more than female characteristics (apart from breasts) on trans men. Females became the second rather than the first sex only through being tagged with cultural markers which are strictly withheld solely for little vagina-kids and “women.” These markers can never eliminate male characteristics, which for late MTF transitioners will almost always stand out.
What’s a Crossdresser to Do?
The answer’s simple: fuck passing! If everyone is going to know you’re trans anyway, why not accept it and be aesthetically appealing while you’re at it? I’ve illustrated this concept graphically with a typology of female-likeness and it’s relationship with the Untransy Valley below.
Early transitioners very closely approximate “real” women. And, as demonstrated in nir book Redefining Realness, Janet Mock is at least one-hundred and ten percent woman. Nearly all crossdressers and late transitioners fall into the bottom of the uncanny valley, unless perhaps they get facial feminization surgery (FFS).
Drag queens have a great understanding of the untransy valley. Or some of them do, anyway. While they pad and sculpt their silhouettes to resemble the female form very precisely, they usually paint their faces with absurdly garish makeup. I hadn’t always understood this. I mean, they look ridiculous. But if their bodies are going to closely resemble a female’s, they have to be cartoonish to stay out of the uncanny valley. Good drag queens are the Pixar of the gender-non-conforming world.
Transgender people don’t generally want to be a joke, however. I want to express my self-identification with girly-ness in a tasteful and authentic manner, preferably full time. In order to avoid falling into the uncanny valley, I’m finding it indispensable to turn my focus away from appearing female, and toward self-expression with the iconography of womanhood. It’s necessary to back away femaleness even farther than the drag queens in order to achieve that. Getting acquainted with Jasper Gregory and Alex Drummond, the best examples I have of people who are making a similar effort, as highlighted in my last post, has helped me get pretty close to where I want to be.
Keys to the Integrated Transgender Look
Below is a photo of me in the outfit I wore to a polyamorous speed dating night last weekend. Yay! I feel pretty good about the look. I suppose I subjected another trans person to derision in this article, so I’m perfectly prepared for you to do your worst if someone wants to serve me comeuppance. In any case, I’d like to talk a bit about the keys to making the integrated transgender look work. Hopefully the tips are helpful to another budding trans grrrl.
Here’s what I’ve done to find a look that works for me.
- Embrace my beard. Nothing appears as delusional as a crossdresser trying to appear female with five-o-clock shadow sticking out of a centimeter’s thick layer of foundation. Since I’ve got dark hair, I’ve either got to zap it or unwrap it. Why get electrolysis? I love my girly beard. It exudes confidence. It screams love me or get the fuck out of my way. I don’t even need the pepper spray in my purse. I will thrash you. Of course, there isn’t a day when I don’t look in the mirror and hold my hand up over my chin and picture myself without it. But I never end up shaving it because I want to live life. Instead I apply a sort of metrosexual technique and trim it down to 2mm every day and wax the cheek line every few weeks. I don’t want to relegate myself to brief trysts in dance clubs on dark nights before I turn into a pumpkin.
- Shape and fill my brows. This has three important effects. First, raising the brows softens the bony brow ridge, which is a hallmark of male facial structure. Second, it prevents the man-in-a-dress look by balancing the ruggedness of the beard with softness and attention to detail, and by drawing attention away from the chin and up to the eyes. Finally, it just looks pretty! Without YouTube I don’t know I would ever have realized that most women’s brows are not naturally resplendent. Since I had no idea how to do this myself initially, I got them done professionally and then maintained them myself. It took me forever initially to work up the courage to the tell the gal at the threading salon that I wanted them to look like a woman’s brow, but it was worth it. I wouldn’t recommend try it at home until you know what the fuck you are doing because a mangled brow is just about the ugliest.
- Limit body modifications to those women do themselves. The previous points can be outlined with this general principle. Many women shape their brows. Most women do not shave their beards. Similarly, I’ve left the breast forms and hip pads and wigs at home in the closet where they belong, and brought out the waist cincher and hair conditioner instead.
- Think separates, not dresses. Because of the foregoing, the clothes I select need to fit an androgenized, not estrogenized body. Since the ratios of shoulder width, chest circumference, waist, hips, torso, and legs are vastly different from someone with a different hormonal mix at puberty, dresses will almost never do. I’m a size 8 in the hips, 14 in the chest, and god only knows what in the shoulders. How could I possibly wear a dress and look good?
- Select tops carefully. I can pretty much take any bottoms in size medium off the rack and know they’ll work, especially if they make my hips appear wider with a pattern or flare. Tops are another story altogether. I sometimes have to try dozens of tops in the fitting room to find one that works. Frequently I have to layer several ill-fitting tops with multiple neckline shapes to cast a satisfying silhouette. Because of my long torso, crop tops are obviously a no-no unless I have a reeealy high-waisted, long skirt. Reading up on dressing for an inverted triangle or rectangle body shape to make the most of what I have helps me not waste my time in the dressing room.
- Don’t accentuate breasts you don’t have. We all know I would love to have breasts, but I don’t. Many tops are styled differently in a band around the bust and are designed to cup and boost and mold breasts into an attention-gathering shape. These are completely off-limits unless I want to look like a pervert. Likewise, I don’t wear a bra. This is so important to avoid playing into people’s belief that transvestism is all just a sick fetish. Autofemmephilia is more acceptable than autogynephilia, I’ve found.
- Epilate my arms and hands. This makes a world of difference in how nail polish and bracelets and three-quarter lengths sleeves look. Epliators are terrifying, but after waxing first, it’s super easy and nearly painless to maintain. With an epilator, like waxing, I’m never prickly. Unlike waxing I don’t have to wait for the hair to grow out to remove it again. Right now I epilate pretty much all over except for my chest (applying principle number 3) but I’m thinking about doing that again as well. Waxing my chest never worked well because the hair always stayed coarse and had to be grown out. Yuck. Maybe epilating will be better.
- Throw any stilettos in the trash. I don’t adopt symbols of women’s oppression. Cinderella’s stepcisters shouldn’t have to slice their toes off so I can become a princess.
- Tailor my outfit to the occasion. Women don’t pick their kids up from school in a ballroom gown. I think the advice “dressing your age” is too broad though. It’s been important to revive the little girl that’s been suffocating since I was born. I just save the cartoon characters for queer night at the roller rink since I don’t want to look like a pedophile.
By following these guidelines I’ve been able to crossdress openly in most contexts with steadily decreasing shame and anxiety, and receive not only acceptance from those who can give it, and peaceful avoidance from those who can’t, but also flattery from some and a few invitations to go out on a date! Of course no one thinks I’m a woman, but I’m not sure I need that or even want that. Plenty of people interact with me differently than they do when I’m pretending to be a man. And it’s never a forced feeling with tacit agreements to avoid the issue and anxiety about doing it right. Why would I let Dr. Sylvester McMonkey McBean sell me a skydiving trip that may never make it over the uncanny valley when I can just picnic on this hill?