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Sunday, 9 August 2015

Trans and the Uncanny Valley

“Whether it’s the skin, the voice, or the way it moves, we can tell the [robot] is attempting but failing to pass for human and that gives us the heebie jeebies”. Thus comments researcher Masahiro Mori on the uncanny valley that forms when something attempts to pass for something it isn’t but doesn’t quite get it right. The discrepancy between what we expect to see and the reality gives rise to a feeling of creepiness and sometimes revulsion. We are OK, and often amused, when the mimicry is an obvious pastiche, such as a toy, but become unnerved at a point when the mimicry becomes too realistic. Beyond that, when the mimicry is so perfect that we can no longer make a distinction, we relax.

The uncanny valley.

Mori, a professor of engineering, proposed the uncanny valley as a thought experiment for robot design, and how we would interact with them. (The recent Channel 4 series Humans exemplifies this perfectly.)
But it has also been used in psychology in a paper by Frank E Pollick of the Department of Psychology at Glasgow to explain (seriously) why we are sometimes unnerved by clowns (Capgras Syndrome).
And it could also have a bearing on passing and trans-people. People are unnerved, frightened, and can sometimes react abusively or violently if their perception of a transperson falls in this uncanny valley (which may be different for different people). And as the uncanny valley shows, you only need to be a little off in appearance, voice, gait or behavior. Drag queens, comedian Eddie Izzard and artist Grayson Perry (in his Claire persona) are on the left side of the scale. Theirs is a performance rather than an attempt to pass. Caitlyn Jenner, along with many successful transwomen, appears to have passed though the valley and out the other side. But the valley is a real trap for the weekend crossdresser, especially if they like to go out occasionally.
If on these occasions you find yourself in the valley, this suggests two possible strategies, depending how good you look and how comfortable you feel, that can push you to one side or the other. The first is the Eddie Izzard/ Grayson Perry approach, “Yes, bloke in a dress. So what? Deal with it.” The other, as many suggest, is to practice a confident attitude and walk in sensible clothes and comfortable shoes on the basis that if you don’t look nervous and self-conscious, and you don’t obviously frighten the horses, then most people probably won’t give you a second glance.


  1. Hi Susie,
    Thanks for 'following' my blog. I would not have discovered yours otherwise.
    I have been thinking of writing exactly this article for some time!
    Grayson Perry is indeed a case in point - and being an artist he can use Claire as part of his marketing.
    All the best,

  2. Fascinating! I recall that graph (but I don't recall the puppet annotation) from my own researching of the term Uncanny Valley back around 2000 or so. One day I shall have to archive mine your blog properly!