Terrorizing Gender: Transgender Visibility and the Surveillance Practices of the U.S. Security State

While it still seems a bit unreal, my book will officially be out this fall! You can pre-order a copy directly at the University of Nebraska Press’ website or at other major booksellers. A huge shout-out to @cassilsartist for the amazing cover art and @micahbazant for their beautiful portrait of CeCe!


About the Book

The increased visibility of transgender people in mainstream media, exemplified by Time magazine’s declaration that 2014 marked a “transgender tipping point,” was widely believed to signal a civil rights breakthrough for trans communities in the United States. In Terrorizing Gender Mia Fischer challenges this narrative of progress, bringing together transgender, queer, critical race, legal, surveillance, and media studies to analyze the cases of Chelsea Manning, CeCe McDonald, and Monica Jones. Tracing how media and state actors collude in the violent disciplining of these trans women, Fischer exposes the traps of visibility by illustrating that dominant representations of trans people as deceptive, deviant, and threatening are integral to justifying, normalizing, and reinforcing the state-sanctioned violence enacted against them.

The heightened visibility of transgender people, Fischer argues, has actually occasioned a conservative backlash characterized by the increased surveillance of trans people by the security state, evident in debates over bathroom access laws, the trans military ban, and the rescission of federal protections for transgender students and workers. Terrorizing Gender concludes that the current moment of trans visibility constitutes a contingent cultural and national belonging, given the gendered and racialized violence that the state continues to enact against trans communities, particularly those of color.


“Mia Fischer’s Terrorizing Gender valuably unsettles normative assumptions and reveals precarious implications of the vaunted transgender ‘tipping point.’. . . Terrorizing Gender’s compelling necropolitical critique floodlights the conditions and obfuscations of trans precarity, and its closing call to embody Tourmaline’s politics of ‘nobodiness’ offers a promising glimpse of visibility’s queer future.”—Charles E. Morris III, professor in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University and coeditor of QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking


Terrorizing Gender is an incendiary contribution to media studies and transgender studies. With brilliant rigor, Fischer shows how recent U.S. transgender visibility has occasioned a revival of narratives presenting trans people as deviant and threatening. . . . The result, as Fischer masterfully illustrates, is an extremely limited public trans visibility, premised on replicating white supremacy and violent policing of those trans people who do not or will not comply with state regulation. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in transgender politics and media.”—Aren Z. Aizura, assistant professor of gender, women, and sexuality studies at the University of Minnesota, and author of Mobile Subjects: Transnational Imaginaries of Gender Reassignment


“Methodologically innovative and theoretically sophisticated, this brave book exposes how transgender people in the United States are increasingly subject to state-sanctioned violence and surveillance practices. . . . This book will occupy a central place on my shelf as it bridges the fields of surveillance, trans, and media studies, and critical race and feminist theory. I can’t wait to teach it.”—Shoshana Magnet, associate professor at the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies, University of Ottawa


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Spring 2019 is a wrap, well almost …

Ah another semester teaching is in the books, well almost. Final grading hell is just commencing but I am super proud of the many things my students have accomplished this semester. My graduate seminar COMM 5710 Intro to Media Studies dug deep into various debates, critical frameworks, concepts, methods, and theories surrounding critical media studies (CMS). Given that this was an intro course, we mapped the contours of the field using rather broad strokes. Our interdisciplinary inquiry included media and cultural studies, feminist, critical race, and queer theory, as well as popular music and surveillance studies. For 15 weeks we considered the critiques and possibilities this work generates concerning various aspects of media production, reception, and the text themselves. Our readings and objects of study encompassed a wide variety of media, including radio, film, TV, social media, and music among others. After developing a toolbox consisting of key theories informing CMS, we started applying our knowledge to examine various domains of contemporary media culture, including, for example, popular feminism and the #MeToo movement, racialized algorithms, and digital surveillance. Our overall aim has been to develop critical approaches for examining media as both a key part of our everyday lives and as an object of scholarly inquiry. I can’t wait to read/watch all their fascinating final projects!


My undergrads in COMM 4000/5000 Communication & Sport really blew me away this semester, it was such an engaged, motivated, and smart bunch! We spent a lot of time assessing how the business of sports is fundamentally changing through new technology developments, especially in regard to streaming platforms and social media. We also reflected on how our own social identities shape our participation with sports. While the readings were at times long and theoretically dense, the exposure to differing approaches to the study of sports media allowed us to recognize how power, privilege, and difference (including race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and nationality) intersect with sports and how sports reinforce, and sometimes challenge, socio-cultural norms.

Nothing better probably exemplifies these paradoxes than our final unit on sports activism, in which we examined the impact of Muhammad Ali and his legacy on contemporary forms of sports activism, whether it is Colin Kaepernick protesting police brutality, LeBron James starting the I Promise School, or Kyle Korver calling on fellow white athletes to recognize and use their privilege for those who remain marginalized and oppressed. Students really let their knowledge, critical thinking and media production skills shine with their final video projects. They tackled anything from pay inequalities between the women’s and men’s US Soccer team, paid patriotism, exorbitant MLB contracts, the sexual harassment many female gamers encounter in esports, the challenges of trans and intersex athletes, to heroic willpower of adaptive athletes. Below are links to some of my favorite clips from this semester – enjoy!





In the meantime, happy grading to all my fellow educators and summer break is near!

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The Cistakes of Allyship

“I don’t believe in allies. I want to see people operating in solidarity. That’s something totally different.” ~ CeCe McDonald, March 2018


I know, it’s been a hot second but finally some research and work updates!

In the spring 0f 2018, Leland Spencer kindly invited me to be part of the special issue “Transcending the Acronym” he was co-editing for the journal Women & Language (Issue 41, no. 1).  This special issue assembles critical essays seeking to expand our understandings of the LGBTQ+ acronym and identities. In the issue’s forum section, several of us were asked to respond to a provocation essay by G. Patterson, “Entertaining a Healthy Cispicion of the Ally Industrial Complex in Transgender Studies” (pp. 146-150).  These short forum essays raise, at times, uncomfortable yet important questions and invite future research. Below is an excerpt from my own response to this provocation essay. I strongly encourage you to check-out this fantastic issue in its entirety!

Many of us in the academy desperately need to re-evaluate our commitment to social justice, specifically to rethink the usefulness of “allyship.” As someone whose research engages media representations and the state’s surveillance of trans people, I continue to wrestle with my own subject positionality and questions of accountability. I self-identify as a White, cis, masculine-of-center queer who is a non-U.S. citizen, and has benefitted from class and European privilege all my life. The communities that inform my research are primarily poor, trans communities of color with limited access to housing, health care, and secure employment. Given these differences, I regularly contemplate in what ways and/or to what extent my scholarship is guilty of extracting value from the voices and labor of trans people (of color). It is precisely these questions, which point to gross discrepancies in material privileges, life chances, and survival, that I want to consider here: particularly how cis scholars can, to use the language of Black trans rights activist CeCe McDonald, operate in solidarity with trans people.

            1. Join university committees and actively advocate for genuinely inclusive campus cultures. Too often “diversity” committees function merely as a façade, which allow universities to celebrate diversity and inclusion while ignoring how institutional violences continue to harm marginalized populations. Moreover, those who choose to serve on these committees are often multi-marginalized and faculty of color who are already over-burdened with service commitments. When I joined my campus’ LGBTQ faculty committee, I was not surprised, but still disappointed to find that the majority of members were White, cis, straight folks with “good intentions,” but who had thus far failed to address issues like the lack of gender-inclusive restrooms in the student union or the exclusion of trans people from domestic partnership benefits. While it is imperative that POC and LGBTQ perspectives are represented on these kinds of committees, it is equally crucial that those claiming allyship do the work of researching issues, talking with and listening to trans people, and assertively tackling the concerns raised and solutions proposed by those they claim to be allies with.

            2. Regularly incorporate intersectional trans voices and topics in your syllabi. I consciously incorporate transgender topics in all of my courses. In Introduction to Media Studies, for instance, I discuss how the celebrity of Caitlyn Jenner problematically exoticizes trans experiences and reasserts the narrow confines of “acceptable” trans visibility as White, wealthy, and binary-identified. In my Sports Communication class, we look at how “fair play” rhetoric is leveled against trans women athletes to assess the ways that sports are a political, not just a cultural arena. Constituting a key component of critical and social justice focused pedagogy in the classroom, exposure to marginalized perspectives helps students sharpen their critical thinking and civic engagement skills. Skyping-in trans guest speakers, such as Kye Allums, who was the first openly trans NCAA basketball player, to share their lived-experiences is a valuable way to do so. No matter the class, incorporating the perspectives and experiences of trans people should not be the exception, but the rule.

            3. Use your institutional privileges to invite and adequately compensate trans people. Giving trans people a platform to tell their own stories challenges the hegemonic knowledge production that takes place in the ivory tower. If you benefit from the relative job security of a tenure-track line, consciously use start-up funds and grant money to invite trans speakers to campus. Recently, I co-organized with a student to host the #BlackExcellenceTour featuring CeCe McDonald and fellow activist Joshua Allen.

Securing funding for speakers like these often takes extra time and effort because universities typically do not value the experience of young, trans and queer people of color. In our case, we had to cobble together funds from over ten different programs. Many trans rights activists exclusively rely on honoraria to pay rent and cover basic living expenses. Do not haggle down their fees, especially when your department or school happily pays such fees to “established” public figures. Advertising to the whole community to attract larger audiences to these events is an effective means to enact publicly accessible scholarship that reaches beyond pay-walled academic journals and high tuition fees.

          4. If your research is drawing from the voices and experiences of trans people, give credit where credit is due. I want to reemphasize Patterson’s point about the importance of acknowledging trans people’s intellectual labor. This begins with proper citational practices. For example, when referencing trans and queer of color critique as frameworks of analysis, acknowledging their origins in Black and women of color feminisms should be a given.  This also entails listing our trans research informants as co-authors in our publications. Because individualistic tenure requirements incentivize predatory and exploitative academic behavior, White cis scholars can and should deploy their leverage to undermine academic hierarchies, especially those who are already granted tenure.

Undoubtedly, these are only small and incomplete steps scholars can take to make the academy less cis-centric, transphobic, homophobic, and racist. But in so doing, we can ensure that alternative epistemologies produced by trans people do not just accumulate “diversity capital” for neoliberal universities and individual scholars, but actually benefit the communities from which they emanate. As CeCe McDonald reminds us: “interrogate your privilege, whether it’s your class privilege, your race privilege, or your gender privilege” (interview with the author, 2018). By scrutinizing how our privileges inform and censor our everyday (inter)actions we can become better co-conspirators, and less self-serving allies.


To cite this article: Fischer, M. (2018). “The Cistakes of Allyship.” Women & Language, 41(1), 159-161.



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Challenging Cis Privilege in Popular Feminism

Image result for ngozi adichieIn recent years, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of several award-winning, bestselling novels has gained recognition for centering a strong African feminist perspective in her work.[1] In 2012, Adichie gave a TED talk, “We Should All be Feminists,” which articulated an accessible feminist manifesto that vividly recounted her own experiences with sexism in Nigeria. Beyoncé famously sampled selections from Adichie’s talk on her self-proclaimed feminist track “Flawless” in 2013, cementing Adichie’s place within popular feminism. When asked, in a March 2017 interview for Britain’s Channel 4, whether it mattered “how you’ve arrived at being a woman” and whether a trans woman is “any less of a real woman” Adichie responded, “trans women are trans women” and their experiences differ from those of “regular” women:

Image result for trans women responding to adichie

“[I]f you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of changed, switch gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”

Her answer elicited a fierce debate on social media, with many trans activists decrying her commentary as transphobic. I engage these responses to Adichie’s comments to scrutinize the ways in which popular feminism remains a contested terrain that continues to privilege certain feminist subjectivities over others, particularly cisgender over trans women.

Adichie’s comments imply that trans women are not “real” women because, she assumes, trans women all grew up with and benefitted from male privilege. Echoing the essentialist feminism of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), Adichie defines womanhood purely by a specific set of experiences under patriarchy that presupposes a definite correlation between biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and perception. But the vast majority of trans women’s experiences dispel Adichie’s contention that they have universally benefitted from male privilege: trans women, particularly those of color, remain disproportionally impacted by poverty, discrimination, harassment and violence (see James et al. 2015). In fact, 2016 marked the deadliest year on record for trans people in the U.S. (Quinlan 2017).

Trans actress Laverne Cox responded to Adichie in a series of tweets questioning her reliance on the gender binary and the problematic narrative that neatly demarcates trans people’s lives into “pre” and “post” transition. Reflecting on her own experience growing up in Alabama, Cox (2017) noted, “patriarchy and cissexism [p]unished my femininity and gender nonconformity. The irony of my life is prior to transition I was called a girl and after I am often called [a] man.” Adichie’s claim that all trans women have had male privilege, thus, erases a multitude of trans experiences and fails to account for the complex workings of gender, specifically the violent realities of transmisogyny.

Image result for laverne cox on adichie tweets

The backlash Adichie received for her statements about trans women points to some of the challenges that have accompanied feminism’s resurgence as en-vogue. Just as second-wave feminism privileged white women’s perspectives and experiences, Adichie’s comments demonstrate that cisgender perspectives and experiences, replicating a cis-hegemonic feminism. In a blog post responding to Adichie’s comments, trans activist and writer Raquel Willis (2017) quipped that “Adichie being asked about trans women is like Lena Dunham being asked about Black women. It doesn’t work.” The comparison Willis draws between Adichie and Dunham recalls the fraught history of white feminism claiming to speak for “all women,” while ignoring the unique experiences of women of color. Similar to women of color feminisms pushing back against white universalizing experiences of gender (see e.g., Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981; Crenshaw 1991; hooks 2000), trans women’s fight against the dominance of cis privilege in popular feminism illustrates the ongoing importance of an intersectional approach to feminism, which acknowledges how overlapping identities create a variety of life experiences, none of which are more or less authentic or valid than another.

Thus, the debate surrounding Adichie is not an isolated incident but reflects broader historic contestations over the popularization of feminism. For example, while the 1968 Miss America pageant protest by second-wave feminists in Atlantic City has been (wrongly) mythologized by media as the famous “bra burning” incident, it is less commonly known that on the very same day, women of color activists organized a counter Miss Black America contest to challenge not only the sexism and denigration of women, but the racism of the national pageant, which had never had a black contestant The separate Miss America protests can shed light on persisting divisions within the feminist movement today: while the national Women’s March in January 2017 drew record crowds wearing pink “pussy hats” across the country, the organizers faced criticism for continuing to sideline trans women and their concerns despite promoting inclusionary principles in their mission statement.

Image result for women's march trans women

After vehement outcries against her comments, Adichie attempted to clarify her statement in a Facebook post (2017). She claimed that she did not mean to invalidate the experience of trans women, asserting that “diversity does not have to mean division.” But she also denigrated trans women’s self-identification as an “impulse” stemming from “a need to make trans issues mainstream” rather than a genuine sense of self. She went on to criticize trans visibility as having produced a conflation of trans issues with cis women’s issues, which she argued should be treated separately. Yet, trans women activists have consistently pointed out that because their experiences do indeed differ, it is precisely the unique perspectives of trans women that can provide necessary insights into the complex workings of patriarchy and its intersection with other systems of oppression.

Adichie’s insistence on separating trans from cis women’s issues thus raises larger questions about for whom and what feminism is actually for. Is it mainly, as Adichie insists, about the equality between men and women or, as is the case for trans and other marginalized women, is it a question of life and death, of literal survival? While social media posts and commenters on her Facebook post expressed support for Adichie, many urged her to stop clarifying and instead listen and learn from trans women. One commentator insightfully noted,

It’s probably safe to say you don’t have trans and/or gender nonconforming people in your life that you actually share community with. … Because if you did, you would understand on a deep level the fallacy of your rationale. … [G]iven your popularity, power and influence, you [s]hould be deeply concerned about the weight of your words and the impact it will have on the lives of trans and gender nonconforming people … (Osaze 2017).

Image result for beyonce flawless

On the one hand, popular feminism has become more palatable for a broader audience, particularly through celebrity figures proudly re-claiming the label “feminist” such as Emma Watson and Beyoncé. But on the other, the Adichie controversy reveals the dangerous tokenism that accompanies popular feminism, where figures with name recognition are asked to provide – often perfunctory – commentary on issues that do not comprise their own lived experience and/or intellectual grounding.

What this demonstrates is that whenever feminism does become fashionable, there is also a simultaneous loss of nuance to feminist analysis in order to render it easily digestible for mainstream media consumption. When single figures become elevated as spokespeople, the privilege and responsibility of such a position should entail an acknowledgement that one cannot possibly speak to and for all lived experiences. Thus, Adichie’s assumptions about a community that she is not a part of, yet feels entitled to speak for, are patronizing and ill-conceived. Regardless of Adichie’s position on trans women’s place in feminism, she should defer to the perspectives and experiences of trans women when asked about them.

With the current political threats to health care, reproductive rights and immigrant communities as well as the rescindment of federal protections for trans students and the surge in discriminatory “bathroom bills” across the U.S., feminism cannot afford to exclude transgender voices from formulating strategies for resistance. If we are serious about dismantling patriarchy we need to combat not just sexism, but cissexism and transmisogyny. Furthermore, confronting and posing challenges to systemic racism, classism, ableism, and Islamophobia will not be successful if trans women continue to be marginalized in the feminist movement. By failing to include the perspectives of trans people (popular) feminism becomes complicit in the replication of the very systems of violence and oppression that we set out to dismantle. In February of this year, three young black trans women – Ciara McElveen, Chyna Doll Dupree, and Jaquarrius Holland – were murdered within days of each other, precisely because their womanhood was not deemed authentic. The voices of trans women need to be front and center not because they are “just like” cis women, but because of their own unique experiences as women.

Image result for Ciara McElveen, Chyna Doll Dupree, and Jaquarrius Holland


This piece was published in a special edition of Feminist Media Studies‘ Criticism & Commentary section (co-edited by Sarah Banet-Weiser, Susan Berridge, and Laura Portwood-Stacer) and is available here:

Fischer, M. (2017). “Trans Responses to Adichie: Challenging Cis Privilege in Popular Feminism.” Feminist Media Studies. Online first: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2017.1350520




Adichie, Chimamanda Nogzi. 2012. “We Should All Be Feminists.” TEDxEuston. Accessed March 17, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc&feature=youtu.be

Adichie, Chimamanda Nogzi. 2017. “CLARIFYING.” Facebook post. March 12. https://www.facebook.com/chimamandaadichie/photos/a.469824145943.278768.40389960943/10154893542340944/?type=3

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. 1999. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Channel 4. 2017. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on feminism.” Interviewed by Cathy Newman. March 10. Accessed March 20, 2017.  https://www.channel4.com/news/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-on-feminism

Cox, Laverne. Twitter post. March 11, 2017. https://twitter.com/lavernecox

Crenshaw, Kimberlé.1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and

Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43(6): 1241-1299.

hooks, bell. 2000. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Cambridge, MA: Southend Press.

James, Sandy E., Herman, John L., Rankin, Susan, Keisling, Mara, Mottet, Lisa & Anafi, Ma’ayan. 2016. Executive Summary of the Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

Moraga, Cherríe and Anzaldúa, Gloria E. (eds), 1981. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown, MA: Persephone Press.

Osaze, Ola. 2017. Facebook post. March 12. https://www.facebook.com/chimamandaadichie/photos/a.469824145943.278768.40389960943/10154893542340944/?type=3

Quinlan, Casey. 2017. “At least 7 transgender women have been killed in 2017.” ThinkProgress, February 28. Accessed March 20, 2017. https://thinkprogress.org/six-transgender-women-killed-2017-1d3a2ccd988b#.dvlzase37

Welch, Georgia Paige. 2015. “‘Up Against the Wall Miss America’: Women’s Liberation and Miss Black America in Atlantic City, 1968.” Feminist Formations 27(2): 70-97.

Willis, Raquel. 2017. “A Trans Woman’s Response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.”

Medium.com. March 11. Accessed March 18, 2017. https://medium.com/@raquel_willis/a-trans-womans-response-to-chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-bb7955004244#.opp6eo3zr


[1] The author would like to thank Njeri Githire, K. Mohrman, and Laura Portwood-Stacer for their thoughtful comments and discussions.

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Reflections on COMM 4000/5000 “Communication and Sport”

My apologies for being super tardy with keeping the blog updated – the Spring semester simply got the best of me, yikes. But I survived year one on the tenure-track – yay. And now summer is here with time for research, writing, and yes – getting that blog updated.

I want to start with some reflections on my COMM 4000/5000 “Sports Communication” class from Spring 2017.

Sports are an integral part of everyday life in the United States. Americans frequently dedicate their time, energy, and money to recreational sports leagues, yoga classes, and athletic gyms.  Furthermore, collegiate and professional sports such as NCAA athletics or the NFL, movies, video games and sports betting as well as fantasy leagues comprise multi-billion dollar industries in the “sports‐media-complex.” The course took as its premise that the experience of participating in and/or watching sports is more than “just a game”: sport not only reflects broader social structures but also actively (re)produces cultural values, for example, about hegemonic masculinities. By the end of the semester students gained a critical understanding that sports are not only sought out for healthy life-styles and stress-relief, but that sport is, and always has been, a political institution. While it may promote athletic beauty or temporarily divert us from our problems, it just as often mobilizes power, disciplines bodies, and reifies structures of oppression, for example, the persistent racism Jackie Robinson faced. Throughout the semester we paid attention to issues of diversity, resistance, and social justice as they have and continue to play out in the world of sport. How we communicate about sport, how sport is communicated to us, and what is communicated by sport each represent critical opportunities to evaluate, critique, and improve our society.

Part of what made this course special for me and my students was our ability to listen to and learn from a variety of guest speakers throughout the semester. Dr. Kate Ranachan from the University of Minnesota talked to us about questions of athletic labor and post-colonialism, specifically in the context of Brazilian soccer; Dr. Michael L. Butterworth guided students through a discussion on race and baseball. Especially memorable was a virtual visit from Kye Allums, the first openly trans man to play NCAA Division I basketball for George Washington University. Kye provided a candid account of the barriers sex-segregated sports  present to transgender athletes and encouraged students to get involved on their own campus to fight discriminatory bathroom laws. Finally, Dave Zirin, The Nation’s sports editor and host of the Edge of Sports podcast, engaged us in a lively discussion on the impact of  Muhammad Ali’s legacy for contemporary social justice activism by athletes such as Colin Kaepernick – who many believe still remains unsigned precisely because of his outspoken support for #BlackLivesMatter.

We covered a lot of topics and theoretical ground over the course of the semester, including why sex sells, but not women’s sports; the erotic gaze in the NFL draft; the impact of streaming deals on traditional sports broadcasting models; and the NFL’s concussion crisis to name a few.

Students’ critical engagements with the political nature of sports really came to light with their final video projects. You can see some of their videos engaging, for example, pay inequality in U.S. Women’s soccer, the role race plays in the coverage of Ray Rice and Ben Roethlisberger, or why Serena Williams deserves the title of Greatest Athlete of All Times below. Enjoy!



If you’d like to take a look at all of the video projects and want to know more about Communication and Sports, you are welcome to check out more projects and posts on our COMM 4000 Tumblr.



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Premier of Free CeCe! at the Twin Cities Film Festival

At the end of October, I was able to take a quick break from the mid-semester craziness of teaching at CU Denver and headed back to Minneapolis for the annual Minneapolis/St. Paul Film Festival. The reason for my visit was very specific – I had the privilege to attend the long awaited premier and post-screening discussion of the documentary Free CeCe (2016, directed by Jac Gares and produced by Laverne Cox) on 10/29/2016 at Intermedia Arts.

Some of you know that I have followed CeCe McDonald’s case closely as part of my dissertation work, and I am so thrilled that this important documentary, which was partially crowd-funded, is now seeing the light of day.

Image result for free cece

In June 2011 CeCe McDonald, a trans woman of color, and a group of her friends, decided to take a short walk to a grocery store in South Minneapolis. As McDonald and her friends kept walking along East 29th street, they passed the Schooner Tavern, a white collar neighborhood bar, they began hearing catcalls from across the street and were confronted with an onslaught of racial, homo- and trans-phobic slurs from some of its white patrons smoking and drinking outside the bar. Among those were Dean Schmitz, his ex-girlfriend Molly Flaherty, and Jenny Thoreson, Schmitz’ current girlfriend. What exactly was exchanged that night is still up for debate. However, McDonald and her friends testified that Schmitz and his group assaulted them with numerous slurs, calling them “faggots,” “nigger lovers,” “tranny,” and “a bunch of nigger babies.” Schmitz allegedly yelled: “Look at that boy dressed as a girl, tucking his dick in!” and “You niggers need to go back to Africa!” In an interview McDonald later remembered:

The incident in it itself was so complex. We dealt with race. We dealt with sexual orientation. We dealt with transphobia and transmisogyny. We  dealt with homophobia. … You don’t know what part of you that you’re defending. I didn’t know if I was fighting for myself because I was black. I didn’t know if I was fighting for myself because I was trans. But it all coincided.

How the two groups came to get involved in a physical altercation remains unclear; however, all parties agreed that Molly Flaherty first threw her glass tumbler at McDonald, an act that caused a gash requiring eleven stitches to repair. As people piled onto Flaherty, a security guard from the Schooner walked out of the bar and saw how Schmitz was trying to shove McDonald off his ex-girlfriend. Schmitz and McDonald both stepped away from the group. According to the bar’s security guard, McDonald was holding onto a pair of fabric scissors while Schmitz was clenching his fists and approaching her before he suddenly fell over and exclaimed, “You stabbed me!” McDonald herself testified that she did not jab Schmitz but was trying to defend herself:

I had some scissors in my purse, just to be on the safe-side [be]cause I never know. I pulled them out. He came towards me, but… I didn’t stab him, it was like he ran into the scissors, because [crying/sighing] it’s like he was trying to get me; like he really just wanted to hurt me so bad. …I was just, only trying to protect us, myself.

Despite conflicting eyewitness accounts, police later arrested McDonald considering her both the instigator of, and aggressor in, the attack.


The documentary Free CeCe centers McDonald’s experiences to highlight the violence and discrimination that trans women of color face on a daily basis. Following McDonald for three years, Gares connects CeCe’s story to the intersectionality of oppressive structures and the systemic racism that impacts so many trans people, particularly those of color. The documentary powerfully chronicles her local Support Committee organizing around McDonald’s case and her journey from serving her 19-month prison sentence in an all-male facility in St. Cloud and traveling for speaking engagements on transgender rights and social justice across the U.S. after her release. We powerfully see McDonald’s own activism awakening during her incarceration and her stepping up as a leader herself as she is exposed to the critical race and prison abolition writing of Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?” (who also makes an appearance in the documentary).

In an interview with the LA Times, McDonald asserted:  “I really want people to understand how necessary it is to challenge their privileges, decolonize their minds around the ways we’ve been conditioned to only accept certain kinds of people in our society,” McDonald said about telling her story. “I want people to challenge their ideas of gender identity and sexual orientation, challenge the status quo. Give other people a chance to live.”


During the post-screening Q&A, Andrea Jenkins moderated a panel comprised of CeCe, Laverne Cox, and director Jac Gares. The panelists thoughtfully engaged with questions on the inclusion of trans women in black feminism and womanism spaces. Cox thereby particularly stressed the ongoing importance of intersectional analyses advanced by bell hooks and others (despite the recent criticism hooks has been facing over her comments about Beyoncé). McDonald also reflected on her own journey and development as a leader on trans rights activism. Despite her Support Committee’s persistent encouragement to determine the organizing work and actions from prison, McDonald recalled her the uneasy relationship with becoming a leader “given that someone lost their life.”

While I really appreciated the documentary’s extensive focus on  survival – I think that the systemic racism that feeds people right back into the prison-industrial-complex could and should have been emphasized more; as well as a more critical engagement with the allegedly progressive liberalism in Minneapolis and Minnesota that is fundamentally grounded in an inherent whiteness. I would have also liked to hear more about what challenges CeCe is facing today: yes, she’s doing speaking engagements across the country but is she getting paid?

Overall, the Free CeCe premier at Intermedia Arts marked a beautiful home-coming for McDonald and Minneapolis’ queer community really showed-up and showed-out.


If you want to get more background on CeCe’s story, I invite you to read one of my publications, “#Free_CeCe: The Material Convergence of Social Media Activism” that takes an in-depth look at the organizing work around McDonald.






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The Trauma of this Election

My FB posts last night were mainly rants – so let me try to put a few more coherent sentences together.

I’m sitting at the airport right now Philly-bound for NCA; honestly, I’d much rather be NWSA bound because I know that in Montreal I would be surrounded by a supportive community of folks who get that now more than ever we need intersectional feminist and critical race approaches to this right-wing resurgence. Despite COMM’s persistent conservatism in many areas, I look forward to drink, mourn, process, and strategize with those precious ones who share my sentiments at NCA. After all, what we have witnessed in this election is an anti-intellectualism on an unprecedented level.

The spiral of silence (to quote a famous COMM theory) proved deadly last night and had all the pollsters wrong. Who showed-up last night? The silent racism, white supremacy, misogyny, white anger, homo- and transphobia viciously reclaimed their voice to power. A backlash none of us could really imagine – backlash to eight years of Obama, to socio-cultural shifts that clearly made a lot of folks angry and unable to grasp, to the government “dictating your health care” and “taking your guns away” among so many other things.

Yes, Clinton was far from perfect, represents the status-quo and should have never been nominated by forward-thinking Dems in the first place. We all knew we were going to be fucked, yet a Trump election just didn’t seem fathomable, and now on November 9 it is reality.

You can blame the third party voters, write-ins, and POC folks allegedly not showing up and/or voting for who they were supposed to all you want – but what we really need to acknowledge is the fear Trump successfully incited in so many white middle-class communities, especially across the MidWest.

I get it. Some of my rural Minnesota folks are hurting: the manual labor jobs barely pay enough to make a living, “the Mexicans” are causing “trouble” in your small towns, “things aren’t the way they used to be,” “Somalis are rude, greedy, and terrorists,” “Obama has brought sin upon this country by giving the gays all the rights,” … and the list continues.

We need to get out of our “liberal newsfeed bubbles” and start talking to each other. Explain to those who consistently vote against their own interests why Trump will not be the messianic outsider who will fix all that’s broken.

Trump is not the exception – we are seeing a widespread resurgence of right-wing nationalism in all of Europe as well, responses to austerity politics and refugee crises. These are fragile times. While I believe in the strength of our democratic institutions we need to acknowledge that all the checks and balances are basically controlled by Republicans (which is different from when G.W. was elected in 2000 under equally divisive circumstances). I said it last night without trying to be polemic, but please remember that Hitler was also elected democratically into office.

Finally, on a personal note: I’ve never felt scared by election results until last night. Shit all of a sudden got very real. My legal status as a non-US citizen all of a sudden seems to pose a real precarity. And let me be very clear – I fully acknowledge my white German academic cis-privilege that will in all likelihood not make me the target of Trumpian vitriol, nonetheless I feel vulnerable. And I feel really scared for all the dark and brown lives that are not protected by white privilege, but have worked their asses off to realize their personal dreams and better their lives here in the U.S.

To all my queer, POC, immigrant, undocu and feminist warrior students (and they comprise the majority of my classroom at CU Denver) – please know that you are not alone.  We will continue the difficult conversations that we were already having in our classroom, we will process together and share our perspective, we will learn from one another, we will strategize and we will organize.

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Black Deaths Matter? Sousveillance and the Invisibility of Black Life

In this recent article for Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media & Technology my co-author K. Mohrman and I are examining the shooting of Philando Castile, and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds’, decision to film his death at the hands of the police, in order to explore the potential of live-streaming applications as a form of “sousveillance” that can expose white supremacy from below. In highlighting the political economy constraints that limit the dissemination of such images, we argue that the geographic and historical context of these videos as well as their integration into social justice movements, are critical for deploying them as effective tools that challenge racial inequality and make black life matter, not just black death.

Below is an excerpt, you can access the full article directly on Ada’s website.


On July 6, 2016 Philando Castile, a 32-year-old lunch supervisor at a St. Paul Montessori school, was pulled over by police in Falcon Heights, a suburb in Minnesota. During this traffic stop he was fatally shot by police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Immediately after the officer opened fire, Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, began live-streaming the event through Facebook’s Live application.[1] The video opens with Castile slouched back, his chest covered in blood staining his white t-shirt. Initially, Castile is still partially conscious and is audibly groaning as the viewer witnesses him slowly bleeding to death. Eerily calm, Reynolds directly addresses the camera as the officer continues to point his gun at Castile:

Reynolds: “Stay with me … We got pulled over for a busted tail-light in the back … and the police just… he, he’s covered – they killed my boyfriend. He’s licensed, he’s licensed to carry. … He was trying to get out his ID in his wallet out of his pocket, and he let the officer know that he was… that he had a firearm and that he was reaching for his wallet. And the officer just shot him in his arm.”

Yanez [shouting]: “Fuck … I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his head up.”

Reynolds: “He had…you told him to get his ID, sir. His driver’s license. Oh my God, please don’t tell me he’s dead…” [camera pans to show Castile not moving] (StarkS 2016).

As Yanez yells at her to keep her hands where they are she responds in an obedient, yet firm voice: “I will, sir, no worries, I will.” What viewers witness is Reynolds rehearsing a centuries-old script in which slaves were required to properly address and obey their masters. Reynolds understood that this traffic stop had turned into a matter of life and death: her own survival depended upon complete compliance and obedience to authority, evident in her recurring affirmations of “yes sir.” When Reynolds does start crying in anguish towards the end of the nine-minute video, after she has been put in the back of a police car, her four-year-old daughter can be heard comforting her: “It’s OK, Mommy. It’s OK, I’m right here with you.”

Even as Reynolds is forced to watch the killing of her boyfriend, she understands that the only way to assert that Castile is human whose black life did, indeed, matter is to document and film his death. Reynolds later told reporters that she recorded the video “so that the world knows that these police are not here to protect and serve us. They are here to assassinate us. They are here to kill us because we are black” (Domonoske 2016).

Images of Death

Visual depictions of black death have long circulated in U.S. society both as a reinforcement and challenge to white supremacy. For example, between the 1890s and the 1940s spectator lynching became a form of entertainment for white Southerners. “Attended by thousands, captured in papers by reporters who witnessed the tortures, and photographed for those spectators who wanted a souvenir and yet failed to get a coveted finger, toe, or fragment of bone” (Hale 1998: 202) lynchings propelled images of black death into mainstream U.S. culture as a form of easily consumable amusement. On the other hand, in 1955 Jet Magazine published images of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till’s severely mutilated corpse, which caused a nationwide outcry and helped to fuel the Civil Rights Movement. Thrust into the role of activist by her son’s brutal lynching, Mamie Till’s insistence that her son’s body be brought back to Chicago for an open casket service ensured that 50,000 mourners witnessed how he had “been crucified on the cross of racial justice” (Bunch cited in Nodjimbadem 2015). In 1992, the brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers was recorded on a bystander’s camcorder. While the recording documented the state-sanctioned violence against King, a jury later acquitted the accused officers, despite the taped evidence, causing LA to erupt in riots. These examples demonstrate that the socio-political context in which media images of black death are created and disseminated determines their viability to expose and dismantle white supremacy.

Video footage documenting state-sanctioned violence against black lives has now become ubiquitous: cell phones, security cameras, as well as body and dash cam footage have made the public a witness to the police killings of numerous black and brown people. This article highlights the circumstances of Castile’s death, particularly Reynolds’ use of Facebook Live, to explore the function of the camera and live-streaming applications for exposing and challenging white supremacy. We examine the affordances of these technologies that allow for the inversion of the institutional gaze and enable individuals who have historically been the subjects of racialized surveillance practices to engage in “sousveillance,” a subversive surveillance from below. Unlike past depictions, sousveillance engenders new modalities of visibility that can move beyond the double bind of witnessing and spectacularizing that often follow images of black death. Yet, whether sousveillant images can challenge us to make black lives matter and not simply reinscribe an association between blackness and death depends not only upon their circulation within social media but their contextualization within larger social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter.

The complete article is available on Ada’s website: http://adanewmedia.org/2016/10/issue10-fischer-mohrman/

Fischer, M. & Mohrman, K. (2016) Black Deaths Matter? Sousveillance and the Invisibility of Black Life. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No. 10. doi: 10.7264/N3F47MDV

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#femfilm16’s Feminist Video Essays

Teaching GWSS 3307 Feminist Film Studies in Spring 2016 was a lot of fun!  The class covered a lot of theoretical ground: from Mulvey’s psychoanalytical take on the male gaze, post-feminism, bell hooks’ oppositional gaze, post-colonial film theory, or Butler on gender performativity — we did it all!

After live-tweeting several movies (including Tangerine, Cabin in the Woods, Vertigo, Legally Blonde and many more) and creating a Storify for Fifty Shades of Grey – my students created their own feminist video essays for our final project. Among their awesome topic choices were: Nikki Minaj’s play with the male and female gaze, the media’s racist portrayals of the the demonstrations in Baltimore following Freddy Gray’s death, freeing Kesha, a critique of the sexualization of Belle in the Twilight series, Lesbian Stereotypes in Marvel’s Jessica Jones, #OscarsSoWhite, or the rise of Revenge Porn.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 1.11.44 PM

For most students this was the very first time they were tasked to actively engage in media production processes: from recording and cutting their own audio, remixing different music video clips, to editing with iMovie or FinalCut Pro.While some initially grumbled about the amount of group-work required for this project – in the end they all seemed relieved of not having to write a standard 15 page research paper and were quite proud of their accomplishments. Some groups even wrote their own scripts, casted their own actors, and shot their own 5 minute parody of The Bachelor.


Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 1.12.26 PM

Overall, I was really impressed with the line-up of final videos: students were able to apply the theoretical frameworks we discussed throughout the semester in a very engaging manner by presenting on-point critiques of current pop culture. The analytical and technical skills at play were awesome!

My advice to colleagues who have shied away from media production assignments because they seem too hard to manage and delegate effectively: with the right preparation, tech support, and clear guidelines – they are a lot of fun for both students and instructors.

Thank you also to all the friends, family members, and significant others who joined us for our final viewing party!

Below are some of their amazing videos – be sure to check them out! You can also access all videos on this YouTube playlist.








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Summer and the livin’s easy – or so they say

It’s August 1 today – can you believe it?!

Shame on my blogging-self for not keeping the site very well updated over the past 6 months. But the final semester of grad school got the best of me, quite literally: I successfully defended my dissertation Terrorizing Gender: Transgender Visibility and the Surveillance Practices of the U.S. Security State in April, so that PhD is real thing now.

And after some *gruesome* months on the job market (I feel everyone’s pain out there) I am happy to report that I’ve accepted a position as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado – Denver.

IMG_2715View of Downtown from CU Denver’s  Student Commons Building

Leaving Minneapolis after 5 years certainly isn’t easy and there are many things I’m already missing. Yet Denver isn’t too shabby of a place to live (despite the insane influx of Midwesterners, Texans, and Californians …)! I’m quite fond of the art and food scene at this point, and of course, all the micro-brews (not too over-hopped) speak to the German in me as well.  While I have yet to adjust to the rather intense desert heat and the fact that it’s been constantly over 90F for the past 3 weeks, I love biking along the Cherry Creek Trail to my new office on CU Denver’s Auraria Campus and drive out to the Rockies on a weekend (not to mention the skiing season that awaits me:)

IMG_2741 Denver Museum of Art


Professionally, I am very glad to have found an academic home in a Department that approaches Communication Studies from a critical  and intersectional perspective and has a strong focus on social justice efforts. I’m very excited to get to know my new colleagues over the next few months and help to shape the Department’s Media Studies pathway. I also look forward to work with CU Denver’s multi-faceted student body and get a sense of what drives and concerns students out here in the West.


We Made It to the Top: Pikes Peak at 14,110 Ft (4,300m)

IMG_2779Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs

To all the students I encountered teaching during my time at the University of Minnesota: it’s been a great pleasure and I wish you all the best for your future endeavors! Your inquisitiveness, critical thinking skills, love for current pop culture, crazy media production skills, and sometimes also push-back – all have made me a better teacher over the years.

So much for now. There are only a mere 3 weeks left before the Fall semester starts: syllabi need to be finalized, articles need to be reviewed, revised, and written, and at the very top of that pile should be a book proposal in the making. Ah the lives of academics. I promise the next post will be more on topic and less weepy again 🙂





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