Problematic Films: In Defense Of SLEEPAWAY CAMP

Sean Abley in conversation with Calpernia Addams

By Sean Abley · @GayoftheDead · September 28, 2021, 9:00 AM PDT
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SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

Editor's Note: In Problematic Films, Sean and a guest interact with the more troubling elements of some older horror films that may not stand up to today's societal standards, but are still absolutely worth examining on a critical and occasionally emotional level. As he said in his I Spit On Your Grave conversation with BJ Colangelo, "sometimes what is first thought a flaw is actually a feature, or maybe the pros do outweigh the cons. And sometimes, we just love a film with a bad take because it speaks to us in a way others don’t." Sean understands that he may not have standing to defend these controversial films, so in this column, he's speaking with different critics, journalists and creators who do.

Read more from Sean here.


In this ongoing column, I have conversations with people who have standing to defend horror films that may not have aged particularly well in one department or another. This month, I'm talking with Calpernia Addams about Sleepaway Camp, an enduring, classic '80s slasher flick with an infamous trans plot twist. Calpernia has been at the forefront of trans visibility for decades, and has been an incredibly good sport every time I've texted her over the years to use her as a one-person focus group for my ridiculous questions about trans material. We're both about the same age (in our fifties), so we've been on the front lines for several eras of activism, including the ongoing battle for accurate representation in mass media. Be forewarned; this conversation definitely veers into "the kids and their devices don't understand…" territory…

Calpernia Addams is an actress, musician, author and activist, also known for her work in and for the transsexual community through Deep Stealth Productions. Deep Stealth produces entertainment and educational material promoting understanding and growth centering on the trans community. Recently she spoke at Oxford University, was thanked by name in Jared Leto's Oscars acceptance speech, starred in Facebook's first national TV commercial, was the national face of OCC Makeup, and performed alongside Jane Fonda in the tenth anniversary production of The Vagina Monologues at the New Orleans Super Dome to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Calpernia starred in MTV/Logo's Transamerican Love Story, a show examining dating and romance for trans people. Her memoir, Mark 947, details her Southern childhood and service as a field medical combat specialist with the Navy and Marines in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War.

Do you remember the first time you saw Sleepaway Camp?

Well, I have to preface that by saying something that I've said a billion times in interviews — I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian cult and one of the many, many strange things about it was that we were not allowed to see movies in a movie theater. So I grew up never seeing E.T. or Star Wars or Disney's Cinderella, all the films of my childhood. I was born in 1971, so I was kind of a kid in the '80s. But once I got out on my own, I voraciously consumed movies and especially loved horror. So the first time I saw Sleepaway Camp, it was probably a rented VHS in the early '90s. And I watched it alone because I wasn't cool or popular or pretty, and I didn't know a lot of people who liked horror much less, at that point, an almost ten-year-old film.

When you say you didn't know a lot of people who liked horror, was that because of your religious background, like you were still sort of in the thick of it and people around you didn't like horror, or did you just assume that people around you didn't like it?

Well, the minute I turned seventeen, I joined the Navy and left home and never looked back. So, at the time, I was renting movies and kind of catching up on stuff. I think my small friend group just liked really mainstream stuff. I was in the Navy, so it was a lot of young people, sort of Heartland of America-type folks. And I was always the weirdo, you know, watching Truffaut's The 400 Blows or something crazy like Sleepaway Camp. I liked the weird stuff. I wasn't really watching, like, Meg Ryan or that kind of thing.

I'll preface my question by saying I believe language and experience don't always evolve at the same time. Sometimes language has to catch up, or we have to modify or create new language so we can more accurately define or reflect experience. For example, ages ago, someone who was actually transgender might think they were a gay man because society didn't have the language for what it meant to be trans, and so their experience was limited and thus their identity was as well. So when I ask this question, I'm asking it in that context: When you first saw Sleepaway Camp, where were you on your gender journey?

Well, for anyone who doesn't know much about me, I am a trans woman, I was assigned male at birth, and I went through a medical, social and legal transition to female. I grew up very feminine, and I contrast that with "effeminate," [which] to me, effeminate is kind of like, you know, 'three snaps in a Z' "Gurl…" thing. You know, it's like a fun, funny drag queen parody of womanhood. I was very feminine, there were no snaps in a Z or "Oh, gurl…" kind of things. And I realize some of these might be social constructs, but I was soft and empathic, and I was often called a sissy or a faggot or whatever growing up. And because I didn't have any exposure to what trans was, or that it was even possible, I grew up assuming that I must be gay because that's what everybody called me and I was attracted to boys. And so at the time that I saw Sleepaway Camp, I was still having to live as a boy, and I didn't know much at all about trans women, except maybe what I might've seen on Jerry Springer, you know, parade the girls out and the audience yells, "That one's a man! That one's real! That one's a man!" All very, very negative stuff. And I really sort of didn't like myself—you know, why would you, when you'd been criticized and been mean to your whole life? So I never thought I would even be pretty enough to be even one of those Jerry Springer girls. And a movie like Sleepaway Camp, when the big reveal comes, it does just sort of drive that home that, you know, being something like that is horrifying and disgusting and a joke.

But I can see it through two lenses. If I put my academia politics hat on, I'm like, "Wow, that is just about as bad as it gets. That's (Silence of the Lambs) Jame Gumb-level negativity thrown towards a trans character." But if I put on my film aficionado cap, or my sardonic irony sense of humor cap, I can enjoy the movie for what it is, which is sort of a splatterfest, shocker, crazy artifact of the 80s.

When you saw the movie and you saw the big reveal at the end, did that in any way speak to you on the level of, "I'm that person as well?"

Well, even still, I don't see anything about Angela that is like, you know, "that's me" or anything. It's so Grand Guignol, it's so ridiculous, and she's a warped, psychopathic killer, blah, blah, blah. I don't see any of myself in Angela. I felt what the director wanted you to feel. I felt disgusted and shocked and grossed out. And I think even if she had been, you know, a "cisgender" woman, and I put air quotes around that term, "cisgender," it's so scientific. I don't think most women watching that final scene, if she had a vagina in the final scene, I don't think most women would look at that and be like, "That's me! That really describes my experience."

[Laughs] Right. So I guess the context I tried to put that question in was… You know, the gays identify with Carrie, because she kills all the bullies. But I always think, "But she dies at the end. Shouldn't we aim higher?" We identify with certain parts of the film because that's all we have to hang on to, even though it's far from perfect.

Well, seeing [the film's ending], it was just like my whole life— and I don't mean to sound like a sad sack when I say this—but I've been so used to being punched in the gut metaphorically and literally my entire life about being feminine, and then being trans, that it just felt like another punch in the gut from somebody outside of me, somebody who wasn't me. The character didn't feel like anything real. It just felt like somebody, you know, an outsider putting together this elaborate cinematic moment to, once again, punch me in the gut. But at the same time, as a horror aficionado and a schlock cinema aficionado, and as somebody with a sense of humor, I really enjoyed the film. I would not campaign to have it banned. I would not, you know, protest it or anything. I wouldn't have made it. I'm not particularly thrilled about a lot of it, but it's here and since it is here, I'm going to appreciate it as sort of part of the canon of transphobic, but kind of fun to watch, films.

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What are the parts that you remember about it that you liked?

Ooooh, all the guys, there's so much male skin on display in this movie. And, you know, of course, a lot of them are probably high school age people, but the target demographic is probably about the same age, or so I would guess. There's way more guys with their shirts off than there are girls in bikinis in this, and this was back in that weird little moment in time where straight guys could still wear crop tops. So there's like a lot of these really muscular, hot, athletic, straight guys, shirtless and in their underwear and crop tops and teeny shorts. And the one that really stood out, let's see that counselor… Paul DeAngelo as Ronnie! He was built! [Non-verbal appreciative noise.]

Ronnie! [Non-verbal appreciative noises.] I feel like I need to do more research on this movie because there's like side boob, maybe one time, when a girl takes a shower, but then fully naked guys. There's that scene on the dock where all the guys are with their butts out…

And they're in those big, baggy, grandpa underwear, but yet it's young, hot guys, so it still works. And so, you know, hot, hot, hot with all that. (Only for all the "of age" actors. If there were any other underage actors, I didn't see them at all!) [Both laugh.] And the one other thing that stands out to me is at the end, you finally get a scene with Aunt Martha, where you see the moment of trauma where the person becomes, or gets forced to become, Angela and Aunt Martha is doing a spot-on perfect "Little Edie Beale" impression, but she doesn't know she's doing it.

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Oh, she even has on red, white and blue! Very patriotic!

If you listen to how she talks, it's that weird cadence and accent. It's a Little Edie Beal impression, but I know she doesn't know she's doing that, but if you listen to it, it's exactly spot-on.

The first time I saw this film I thought she was a drag queen. She's in a different movie. It's a movie that I want to see, but like, her makeup is different, her mannerisms. She's so mannered. And I just thought, "Who is this creature?"

It's a really weird scene. And you can see her breath when she's talking. So whenever they shot that it must've been cold.

The other thing about the movie towards the end, is that we find out Angela had two gay dads, and they're presented in, I think, a positive scene where they show the two men in bed together. And it's not presented as if it's a bad thing. It's just presented as if it's part of her life growing up. Now, even as I say that, I realize that just presenting it in the '80s would be contextualizing it as "perverted" to an audience, but I didn't see it that way when I first watched the film.

There's an excellent Belgian film called Ma vie en rose, and it's about a very young boy, he looks to be about seven or eight, who is incredibly feminine, and it's a beautiful movie. It sort of does these surrealist visuals and stuff where he's playing with his Barbie doll, and then it goes into this surrealist landscape where Barbie takes his hand and he flies through the air and he wants to be a girl, you know, so bad. And that movie is a really beautiful, excellent portrayal of a young person dealing with gender issues. I would recommend it to anyone. Sleepaway Camp, on the other hand, is, you know, sort of the other side of the coin. Probably the worst portrayal of the assignment on every level, but it's horror; it's meant to horrify.

There's a writer named Harmony Colangelo, who wrote a long article in defense of this film. Her argument is that Angela is not truly transgender; she's technically a crossdresser. That's long been my thought on the film, but I would love to know what you think of that point.

I love it, and I would agree because this parallels— if you look at Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a lot of people are like, "Oh, Hedwig is a trans story..." Actually, what happened in Hedwig and the Angry Inch is Hedwig's lover all but forced Hedwig to, you know, attempt medical transition. Hedwig seemed happy being a gay male, but he was forced into this transition. This whole situation with Angela is a child who was forced into this quote-unquote transition. So I would agree with that. Angela is not even really trans—I mean, there's no back story saying that she wanted to be a female. It almost goes back to the David Reimer story, where a pair of twins—this is in real life—one of the twins had a botched circumcision, which destroyed the twin's penis. And so Dr. John Money suggested raising that twin forced to be a girl, even giving them hormones. But the child grew up and was, you know, super butch, super tomboyish. And finally, as an adult transitioned back to male. You can force somebody to change their body like that, but your gender is in your soul, whatever you force the body to do.

This movie could be a testament for living your truth. If you don't live your truth, if you're forced to not live your truth, that's when the problems start.

In the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which psychiatrists use to diagnose all sorts of mental issues, it doesn't list being transsexual as a mental illness, but it lists "gender dysphoria" and dysphoria is depression. So what it lists as a mental illness, is being depressed or unhappy about your gender. For me, transitioning took away my unhappiness. So now I'm no longer quote-unquote "mentally ill." It's not being trans, it's being unhappy about being the wrong gender. That's the illness.

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There's the Almodóvar film, The Skin I Live In, that also deals with what Angela goes through, what I would call "forced transgenderism"? I know that's not the technical term…

Well, there's a genre of pornography called "forced feminization." And, a lot of heterosexual men are actually very aroused by this genre of pornography wherein they're forced—usually by a very gorgeous, sexy, dominant woman—they're forced to be a quote-unquote "sissy." It's all about another sort of adjacent genre, "bimbofication," [Both laugh] where they're forced to be a bimbo. And what it really speaks to, in my mind, is a very deep-seated misogyny, because for them to be female and be a woman is extremely humiliating. And the arousal comes from that humiliation. I'm fascinated by all these things, especially around gender. So I've read about all this stuff and the real turn-on comes from like, "Oh, I'm a humiliated sissy" or whatever [Laughs].

And I actually looked up the director of this film, and [my research] says he's been married forever, has three children. And I cannot say anything about him, of course, because I don't know him, but I have met directors and writers in Hollywood who are heterosexual men who have written supposedly trans scripts that they wanted to run by me. But they all play out like these humiliating, forced feminization-bimbofication type stories. And then I later come to find that they not only wanted me to read and consult on the script, but they also wanted to sort of engage me in some kind of thing where I was going to feminize them or some fetishy thing. So I think that's out there. There are some straight writers and directors who are engaging in this fetish through the machinery of making a movie. And maybe that happened here.

Name names.

[Laughs.] I'll tell you off the record.

I think it's interesting that gender, as a subject matter, has really just taken the forefront of the LGBTQIA+ situation. Gender has become the topic. And I also notice that while that's happening, what you're describing has become much more prevalent in pornography, this whole "becoming a sissy" situation. I find it fascinating, and it seems like we could be on the precipice of something really great, possibly, if we can continue in this direction but take the shame out of it. I guess that's no fun for these guys that want to be humiliated for being a sissy if we're taking the shame out of it. [Both laugh.]

I just hope people, young people especially, take a breath and try to see things through the lenses of earlier generations, which comes back to this movie because I'm sure a lot of younger people who care about gender expression and trans portrayals would love to burn every copy of this movie. And I'm very, very anti-censorship. I want it all out there. Even the horrible stuff—ideologically, of course, not like animal torture videos or anything, but I want no censorship.

The person I mentioned earlier, Harmony Colangelo, her wife BJ Colangelo was the one I talked to about I Spit On Your Grave, and I asked her what kind of access we should have for that film. And she said it should be accessible, people should be able to get it, but maybe it should be a thoughtful choice when you choose it. And I wonder if that fits Sleepaway Camp, or if this is a little bit more okay if it's in the video store? Where do you see this film falling when it comes to access?

Well, as a person of my generation, I'll admit the first time I started hearing the term "trigger warning," I really rolled my eyes.

Same!

And I was like, "Suck it up…" Because I, our generation, I mean, we really had to go through it. And I thought, you know, toughen up, get a backbone, deal with it. And I have heard newer people talking about that attitude and saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if you didn't have to sustain all that damage to build those callouses and walls?" And there is an argument for that, but at the same time, I am proud of my toughness and strength. I don't know; I mean maybe put trigger warnings on the video, and let the old ladies like me roll their eyes, but it might protect some people who would really be destroyed by that image. But I feel like if you're watching an '80s slasher flick, you're probably not too delicate.

[Laughs.] Yeah. You know what you're signing up for. It's funny – we're doing exactly what our parents did, which is wishing that the young people would get it and forgetting that the young people never get it the way we think they should, but they have a unique important perspective as well.

It's like, you're going up an escalator backward as a young person; you cannot see what you're going towards.

So in summation, if you were to write your dissertation on Sleepaway Camp, what would your abstract be?

I would just say that I enjoy Sleepaway Camp for what it is, which is schlocky '80s horror with a unique twist ending. And I think it's the worst possible portrayal of a supposedly trans storyline, a la Buffalo bill, or Dressed to Kill, or any of those types of films. But at the same time, I don't want it censored or canceled. And if you just sit back and let yourself, it can be an enjoyable watch.


If you're feeling like it's time for a rewatch, click below to stream now.