Let Me Die A Woman: Ugly, Exploitative, and Invaluable 45 Years Later

Harmony M. Colangelo
16 min readMar 25, 2022

“This theater will present an extraordinary movie. A motion picture that deals with the last sexual mystery. But it is much more than a motion picture. There are no actors or actresses in it. There are just real people and what they do and how they feel and what happens to them in this all real sexual adventure — you will remember all your life.”

A deep and mysterious voice narrates the above phrase over a black screen. Dramatic music thunders as the title card bursts from the blackness and Let Me Die A Woman overtakes the frame. This is the start of the trailer for a film that has been labeled one of the “worst films ever made” by many of those who have actually seen it.

One part exploitation film, one part documentary, and several parts recycled porn, Doris Wishman’s Let Me Die A Woman attempts to use all of the groundbreaking medical and psychiatric means available at the time to successfully convey what being transgender meant in the 1970s. However, it does this in the most viewer-hostile and puzzling ways possible. Not because this is a deliberately esoteric art house experience, but because each of the individual elements of the film clash with each other almost stunningly in their execution.

Numerous scenes of no frills pornography are presented devoid of any arousal within this unsexy sexploitation film, moments of sincere empathy towards trans people are presented so clinically that these subjects might as well be stationary props like a plastic skeleton in the corner of a high school science class, and the “there are no actors or actresses” promise is glaringly apparent when much of the film showcases people reading their lines from slightly off camera or were obviously dubbed in post. To say that this film is undercooked would be playing nice. This footage is raw and often bloody, no more so than in the promised surgical footage of “a man becoming a woman.” As a finished product, Let Me Die A Woman does just about everything wrong to be a “good film” but it is, with no hyperbole, one of the most historically significant pieces of trans cinema that exists.

Understanding the specific brand of “sexual adventure” that this film takes the audience on means setting aside conventional narratives and even stepping outside the context of sexploitation as a whole. Let Me Die A Woman does some bamboozling with its marketing, but the number one thing it is honest about is that this feature is best classified as a Hygiene Film. It’s important to understand how and why hygiene films were made, as their prolonged impact in society is also a direct influence to the structure of Let Me Die a Woman. To do this we need to start at the end of World War II.

It’s easy to underestimate just how suddenly many aspects of American living changed in the decade following the second World War. True, this war was over, but many battles continued to be fought as a result of it — the most era-defining being that against the second Red Scare and McCarthyism. All that was “good and pure” about the United States and the old fashioned, capitalistic way of life was being threatened by the unseen threat of communism while citizens were still recouping after seemingly “winning” the war against fascism. To assuage the confusion and anxiety of this time, the powers that be reached for a favorite tool used expertly by all parties during the war — propaganda films.

Originally known as “attitude-building” films, these borderline tools of brainwashing were deployed to provide answers and direction towards the nuclear family, especially those 2.4 perfect kids of theirs. Typically between 10–30 minutes long, these films preached the most desired and “authentic” aspects of American living towards viewers, and presented them as incontrovertible. Ranging from often ham-fisted themes about personal grooming, fitness, social interactions, puberty, and nuclear bomb safety drills — mental hygiene films also leaned all the way into “scared straight” stories about date rape, sexuality, drug use, and, possibly the most timeless and enduring of all, the carnage caused by drunk driving. Odds are, if you were a teenager in the United States and had to take a driving class, you saw your fair share of decades-old, informative videos about grisly car accidents. These cautionary films are holdovers and descendants of the social guidance films of the 1950s.

Ken Smith states in his book Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945–1970:

The people responsible for these films were driven by a sincere desire to guide young people toward behavior that they felt would make them happy. It’s no fun to be lonely or physically unattractive. Nor is it enjoyable to be a heroin addict or to have your face torn off in a car wreck. Unfortunately, responsibility for these problems was not shouldered equally. Society and dogmatic rules were never wrong; it was always the teenagers who were at fault.

It is believed that at least half of these films are lost forever since any copies that were not played until they physically fell apart were not seen as having any value outside of their intended use and were disposed of. Even their targeted demographic of teens didn’t take them seriously, but with our current times extensively laden with virtuous propaganda, the influence of these films is arguably stronger now than in the heyday of this genre. Unfortunately, as this micro-genre of film was not well preserved — few have survived in the wasteland of lost media within this mid-century sub-genre.

The duality of mental hygiene films is that the moral messaging was to encourage the “correct” and idealized way to live in America — a caricature akin to stereotypical behavior culturally most easily recognized in shows like Leave it to Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show. However, this so-called “reality,” did not exist. Mental hygiene films were kept morally simple to appease educators and their messaging grew more overt in direct response to individualism granted by the rise of teen oriented culture, fashion, and expression. If the teens of the time truly were already going with the flow and behaving like good little boys and girls as these videos claimed was the hip trend that “everyone” was already doing, these videos wouldn’t need to exist in the first place.

Similarly, horror as a genre has always been about exploring or exploiting whatever the current state of fear is in society (often times trans panic in a post-Psycho era). These types of educational films perform a similar tactic but through the inverse approach. This was not about coded social commentary, it was about social engineering through dramatized reality. Producing these films under the notion of them having educational value allowed filmmakers the leniency to get away with showing far more visceral acts than even their horror contemporaries of the mid century. Drug use, violence, sexual assault, and many other visuals that would never make it to screen under the ever watchful eye of the Motion Picture Production Code (more commonly known as the Hays Code) were routine occurrences in mental hygiene films because the message was telling you to avoid them…or else!

This is the pocket of exploitation that Let Me Die A Woman fits within.

“Debbie’s body is that of a female”

According to Doris Wishman biographer Michael J. Bowen, filming for Let Me Die A Woman started as far back as at least 1971. Wishman, one of the few women in her field, had previously carved out a career as a self-taught filmmaking auteur within the sexploitation subgenre during the 1960s. Originally making nudist films, she would eventually move up to unapologetic pornography. With the dissolution of the Hays Code in 1968, an influx of queer films started seeing high profile releases such as the explicitly trans focused Myra Breckinridge and The Christine Jorgensen Story, both released in 1970. Likely inspired by the mainstream movie goers’ novel fascination with transsexuals and the sensational and somewhat morbid interest in watching them transition, Wishman started working on her own film, originally known as Adam or Eve and Strange/Her, that would capitalize on this by giving viewers exactly what they wanted but in a way that no one actually wanted to see.

Let Me Die A Woman essentially has three types of scenes that awkwardly shuffle back and forth past each other for 78 minutes; a sitdown interview with the de facto star of the film, a post-operative trans woman going by the pseudonym Leslie, educational segments featuring Dr. Leo Wollman, and, possibly the most infamous series of scenes, softcore porn that serves as dramatic recreations of real events. The credibility of the former is certainly distracted by the latter.

Leslie was likely the last piece of the puzzle in the seven-plus year production of Let Me Die A Woman as her scenes are some of the final ones shot. She talks about dysphoria, personal experiences with transitioning, and how her life has changed since getting the fabled type of operation this entire film prides itself in showing. In a film that is almost jarringly clinical and distant, Leslie (who may also be intersex based on her accounts of adolescence) adds a needed human and sincere element.. That said, Leslie is an unreliable narrator and, well, an asshole. She boldly states a lot of elitist theories about the transgender community based on her own opinions and presents them like facts. She also seems to hate other trans women, feminism, and gay people, even likening herself to Anita Bryant. In the commentary of the “Transgendered Edition” of the DVD from 2005, she is downright cruel, openly mocking other trans people featured in the film in lesser roles. Appropriate for the film she stars in, there are good parts and really ugly parts to Leslie and she is a perfect example in hindsight for why multiple perspectives are important when documenting and discussing trans issues.

Despite what the unflinching footage of vaginoplasty featured might make you believe, Dr. Wollman was not a surgeon and did not perform gender affirming surgery. He was actually a hypnotist and gynecologist who had been doing important preoperative work with trans people since the mid 1960s. Most of his onscreen time is spent going over basic anatomy, making broad sweeping psychological analysis of the trans condition, and prodding naked bodies with a metal pocket pointer. Some of the few genuinely nice parts of Let Me Die A Woman are scenes of the support group run by Dr. Wollman, and these groups are something he actually had been facilitating for years prior to being enlisted for his role here. Not only is this an intersectional group and one of the earliest examples of seeing transgender men on screen, but an instance of seeing multiple trans people on screen together that is starkly uncommon, even today.

The woman in the PLATINUM blonde wig is an icon.

Yes, everyone might be extremely awkward on camera, some of the provided advice isn’t very helpful, and there is some considerable dubbing in post (most notable for Dr. Wollman who is voiced by someone else for the entire film), but this was one of the first instances of the trans community being visibly represented by actual trans people. In most examples you could point to today, and infinitely more so in Let Me Die A Woman’s time, trans people do not get their own voices nor are they usually allowed to play trans characters. Let Me Die a Woman deserves considerable praise for this choice, however, trans people aren’t afforded the opportunity to play the many trans roles in the dramatization scenes.

According to Wishman herself, each of the exploitative and pornographic scenes featured in Let Me Die A Woman are based on real stories told to her by trans women. Known for some extravagant embellishments and routine carny-esque behavior, the exact legitimacy of Wishman’s claim is at least a little bit suspect. However, there are many facets of reality that are represented by these scenes in all of their gory, softcore glory. Amongst the dramatizations that harken back to the previously mentioned hygiene film roots, we have instances of sex work, self inflicted genital mutilation, suicide, and a lot of awkward, flaccid nudity. Where these scenes differ from the undeniable truths represented in guidance films is that these segments are not about forsaking carnal desires in favor of moral fiber, they are about people trying to live and be happy while making mistakes. Let Me Die A Woman attempts to show this albeit in very sensational and half-baked ways.

The pornographic segments put the “sex” in “sexploitation” and include (but are not limited to); a pre-mustache, pre-Deep Throat, Harry Reems (credited as Tim Long) having sex with a kayfabe freshly post-op trans woman and destroying her new vagina, once thought to be lost footage of someone attempting to remove their penis with a hammer and chisel, Dr. Wollman penetrating transgender activist Deborah Hartin with a dilator before she has lackluster sex with some random guy one room over, dramatic musical crescendos more at home in a Universal monster movie that routinely cue when they show a trans individuals’ genitals, and the hilariously inconspicuous placement of Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady” on a woman’s record shelf as she brings home a John played by the same actor as Dr. Collingwood from The Last House on the Left. Wishman likely filmed many of these types of scenes for other projects before they eventually found their home in this film. There is a certain chaos to them that makes it hard to call them good or bad, though they definitely lean heavily towards the latter.

Whether the goal of these dramatic, exaggerated vignettes was to elicit sympathy, arousal, shock, or some befuddling mixture of the three, Wishman set out to show a version of reality and, taste be damned, she did. It’s impossible to be sure if the correct language was there or how conscious Wishman was of what she was presenting at the time, but these are graphically lurid depictions of trying to survive through dysphoria in order to reach euphoria. They are ugly and messy but that, much like the rest of this film, is the overarching theme.

“I found the transsexuals to be very sad and lonely people. Because of that, I paid them more than anyone else, to ease my conscience, I guess. I didn’t want to think that I was exploiting them, although I really wasn’t. They were all very happy to be in the film.” — Doris Wishman

Working in the genre that she did, Wishman might have a slightly skewed idea of what is and is not exploitation but it is abserd to modern perspective to underground ground art of this era.

While Let Me Die A Woman is pretty cut and dry about being sexploitation, the care in some of the educational portions of the film give the impression there were good intentions set forth by Wishman. She allegedly butted heads with Wollman over his objections to some of the sensational language used in the film that made the trans community seem like “freaks,” however if Wishman had been truly trying to capitalize on trans people, she could have simply not included Wollman, Leslie, or any other more informed people in the first place and just put out pure schlock (or at least less credible schlock). This film juggles a lot and drops the balls at almost every chance, but she kept working on this film for the better part of a decade and even picked up the balls in the first place. That says something at the very least.

A surefire sign of a flimsy documentary is when the filmmakers have a set goal that obfuscates the actual topic they are documenting. Rather than letting reality guide the narrative, they have pre-set stops they want to make along the way and the final product is a version of reality that pushes an agenda. In that sense, Let Me Die A Woman is a terrible documentary, but it is also terrible pornography and a rocky educational tool on a good day. It is no wonder that this film went nowhere upon its quiet, mysterious release sometime between 1977 and ‘79.

Unsurprisingly, the MPAA gave Let Me Die A Woman an X-rating and thus it was restricted to grindhouse theaters. When production on the film started in the early 1970s, “pseudo-sexological marriage manuals” were the hotness of the day and, even compared to Wishman’s other work, the definitive “Transgendered Edition” of Let Me Die A Woman released through Synapse is erotically tame. Wishman likely banked on the trend of “sex change” fascination and the educational aspect to help entice views when she first started working on it. But by the end of the decade, tastes for hardcore pornography in adult theaters had long since overtaken erotica that used plots or education to justify their modest depictions of sex. Too graphic and too unsettling to be seen as sexy and too sexual to be screened anywhere other than pornhouses assured that the film would be doomed to extremely rare and isolated showings in Canada and New York City over the following years.

As if Let Me Die A Woman’s specific use of erotica wasn’t outdated in and of itself, 1979 also was the ground zero for one of the nation’s largest blows to gender affirming surgery. Following a biased and heavily criticized study published by the head of Johns Hopkins’ Sexual Behavior Consultation Unit, the highly respected Johns Hopkins Hospital ceased transgender care believing that transitioning resulted in “no significant improvement” to patients lives and that continuing treatment would be “facilitating mental illness”. As Johns Hopkins had lead the nation in transgender care through the 1960s and ’70s and added a lot of legitimacy to it, many other medical facilities would also shutter their trans health programs in the following years. Visually, sexually, and now ideologically, Let Me Die A Woman was a discarded relic almost immediately upon release.

Heavy petting. How titillating.

What many might consider a detriment to watching Let Me Die A Woman is that the film itself is adamant about what it is — a harsh, joyless viewing experience. There are moments that could be called uplifting but the movie never really treats them that way. In retrospect, many social guidance films of the genre’s heyday scan more like watching something made by “so bad it’s good” director Ed Wood. Reefer Madness additionally comes to mind as a propaganda film that gained a cult following in the 1980s as a midnight movie. Let Me Die A Woman almost feels like it knows the threat of this and is adamantly against it. An educational tool, like any tool, has intended uses but can be repurposed for many jobs that weren’t specifically designed for. Either through genius design, the innovation of limitations, or sheer dumb luck, Doris Wishman created a film that even the most vindictive cynic imaginable would be hard pressed to repurposed for their own cruel amusement. There is no way of softening this film to make it more enjoyable or marketable.

If this film is not accepted for what it is, then it truly will live up to its legend as one of the worst films ever made.

It is impossible to retroactively materialize outwardly queer cinema into existence from this era and because of that alone, the archival merit of Let Me Die A Woman cannot be overstated, regardless of its objective quality. Visiting this film in today’s day and age is almost a masochist undertaking purely for the historical significance of seeing it just to see it. In a weird way it feels like that is the point of watching it now. It is sad, inappropriate, and sometimes excruciating, but that realization is reflective of being trans in any era. It certainly wasn’t the intended purpose but despite its long production history, Let Me Die A Woman is a glimpse into a very specific place in time — a microcosm that is unrecognized in the history of trans cinema. Modern respectability politics be damned because sex work, exploitation, and pornography are intrinsically tied to trans history and the latter was one of the first and only types of films where we got to play ourselves.

Honestly, it still kind of is.

For every Tyra Banks, Barbara Walters, or any other cisgender person who has ever asked penetrating questions to a trans person about their genitals, Let Me Die A Woman is something they should be forced to watch with eyelid clamps like in A Clockwork Orange to fully understand just how uncomfortable their line of questioning is for their trans guests. This movie will answer their questions crudely, archaically, and in phrasing that no trans person would ever dare speak out loud — but this is their deserving punishment for being obsessed with strangers’ sex organs and feeling entitled to explanations.

Let Me Die A Woman is a film that exists purely in contradictions and to understand it requires holding many polarizing truths in the same basket. It is beautiful and also horrendously made. It’s an empowering look at trans culture, but one that also exploits it. Let Me Die A Woman is a film that everyone should watch, but it also isn’t really a film for anyone. I can’t even fully say that I could recommend it. Let Me Die A Woman is an X-rated Frankenstein’s monster of a movie that is cobbled together, confused, but ultimately worthy of understanding why it is the way it is. Watching this film is a difficult experience but maybe the most hard part about it is how far we have come, medicinally and socially, but how much more has stayed exactly the same more than 50 years later.

Works Cited

“`Mental Hygiene’: The Dos and Don’ts of the Doo-Wop Age.” The University of Pennsylvania, The New York Times, 2 Jan. 2000, http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/hygiene-films.html?fbclid=IwAR21JoyFCgE13hKS-VV1QkTIiPhRB3wL2CXkRCQz09LOR-rzg1PafbAuags.

“A Gender Variance Who’s Who: Leo Wollman (1914–1998) Gynecologist, Hypnotist, Sexologist.” A Gender Variance Who’s Who, Blogger, Mar. 2007, https://zagria.blogspot.com/2013/10/leo-wollman-1914-1998-gynecologist.html?fbclid=IwAR1-M_VE4iuAsCiP2-KRIPgliue9_XaoHGQhPP6hzfb89mXmBp58a0udtdo#.YOPfbxNKiu5.

Baker, Rani. “Pathos And Porn — Doris Wishman’s ‘Let Me Die A Woman’ | by Rani Baker | Medium.” Medium, Medium, 30 July 2018, https://ranibaker.medium.com/pathos-and-porn-doris-wishmans-let-me-die-a-woman-2ad1d357210d.

Ellis Nutt, Amy. “Long Shadow Cast by Psychiatrist on Transgender Issues Finally Recedes at Johns Hopkins — The Washington Post.” Washington Post, The Washington Post, 5 Apr. 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/long-shadow-cast-by-psychiatrist-on-transgender-issues-finally-recedes-at-johns-hopkins/2017/04/05/e851e56e-0d85-11e7-ab07-07d9f521f6b5_story.html?fbclid=IwAR2DzIzIdkVM58Ai4j6sh7lRhm_2CIPyepudNz45DOi8s6D2dCd6pjPKGk8.

Malcolm, Paul. “Gendernauts; Let Me Die a Woman — LA Weekly.” LA Weekly, https://www.facebook.com/LAWeekly/, 1 Feb. 2006, https://www.laweekly.com/gendernauts-let-me-die-a-woman/?fbclid=IwAR2HxDjw1-dppYo03HqWFLOzg-kLIk5OTGk48_ITJcx6KIxiCO6nf1-nplM.

“Mental Hygiene Films · Reinforcement of Gender Roles in 1950s Popular Culture · The American Century.” The American Century, https://americancentury.omeka.wlu.edu/exhibits/show/reinforcement-of-gender-roles-/television--the-ideal-american/mental-hygiene-films?fbclid=IwAR1qATzJhQ6SSKvnTFDq4EjcATRRvQdtfSCGHQheueigtYXjtRJuHrKDNBU. Accessed 5 July 2021.

Smith, Ken. Mental Hygiene. 1st ed., Blast Books, 1999, pp. 1–240.

Wishman, Doris. Let Me Die a Woman. Synapse Films, 1977.

Commentary from Michael J. Bowen and “Leslie” on Special “The Transgendered Edition” release.

X, Bryce. “Let Me Die A Woman — 1978 — Review.” Worst Movies Ever Made, Worst Movies Ever Made, 10 July 2015, https://worstmoviesevermade.com/let-die-woman-1978/?fbclid=IwAR2mDOK92yAxHurtHcGBQ2gSLkzA5j_E6-kDmiqtOO0tH2bmXgXZkCuWBdU.