Monsters, Time-Travel, and Aliens: Tracing the Genealogies of 'Trans' through Feminist Science Fiction Writing and Film

  • Sabine Sharp

Student thesis: Phd


The past three decades have seen the term ‘trans’ circulate more widely in Britain and the United States, moving from the obscurity of activist and legal discourses in the 1990s into the spotlight of mainstream media, cultural production, and national politics. In popular discourse, this increased visibility is thought to confer a sense of legibility to ‘trans’. By contrast, this thesis understands ‘trans’ as a conceptually unstable category that obscures certain tensions between the subcategories it supposedly merely includes. Combining historicization of media, political, and legal discourses with close readings of feminist science fiction writing and film, I examine the complexities and contradictions that continually trouble attempts to hold ‘trans’ as fixed or coherent, particularly as this pertains to racialisation and colonial histories. In order to better navigate the fraught debates triggered by the new cultural visibility of ‘trans’, I ask if feminist science fiction might offer alternative approaches for thinking about this category. Contributing to an emerging body of trans scholarship questioning the liberatory promise of visibility and representation, my thesis critically analyses the assumptions that underpin calls for better trans representation and the liberal politics of legal recognition. This thesis traces the emergence of ‘trans’ across the shifting formations of sex and gender over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I investigate how three science fiction tropes – monsters, time-travel, and alien language – inform the discursive production of ‘trans’ through scholarly, political, legal, and media discourses. The six chapters of my thesis are organised in pairs around these three tropes. The first chapter of each pair examines how this trope figures in contemporary ‘trans’ debates: the effects of references to Frankenstein (Shelley, 1818) in feminist and trans scholarship, the role of time-travel in historical narratives of the 1973 West Coast Lesbian Conference, and the positioning of trans terminology as an alien language in recent debates. The second chapter of each pair explores how feminist science fiction film and writing might offer new ways to approach ‘trans’. My analysis of monstrosity moves from reworkings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) in feminist and trans scholarship to examine how Salt Fish Girl (Lai, 2002) and ‘Hopeful Monsters’ (Goto, 2004) explore the racialisation of monstrosity. I then move on to analyse 1990s feminist time-travel films, including Orlando (Potter, 1992), Conceiving Ada (Leeson, 1999), and The Sticky Fingers of Time (Brougher, 1997). The thesis concludes by analysing how the Native Tongue trilogy (Haden Elgin, 1984; 1987; 1994) and the film Friendship’s Death (Wollen, 1987) explore ideas of constructing a feminist ‘alien language’. Combining a genealogical approach with close readings of feminist science fiction also prompts a reckoning with the emergence of science fiction itself in order to grapple with the racist and colonial discourses with which this genre has historically been entwined. Over the six chapters of this thesis, I explore the science-fictional qualities of contemporary trans discourse and the possibilities feminist reworkings of the genre offer for trans cultural analysis beyond the liberal model of representation and visibility. This thesis argues that the discursive terrain out of which ‘trans’ has emerged as a new social form is steeped in science fiction; attending to this science fictionality can allow us to grasp the conceptual instabilities of this identity category. Moreover, feminist science fiction works offer imaginative tools with which to reimagine ‘trans’ in light of these instabilities: as a monstrous multiplicity of texts, as historically and geographically located, and as radically unintelligible and untranslatable.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJacqueline Stacey (Supervisor) & Kaye Mitchell (Supervisor)


  • trans
  • genealogy
  • feminism
  • science fiction
  • transgender
  • colonialism

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