You can’t hold me accountable, I’m hilarious!: SNL, trans communities & the politics of taking a joke

Week before last, Saturday Night Live aired the sketch above as a fake ad for “EstroMaxx,” a once-daily hormone treatment for transgender women.

I know. There’s a whole lot of bad going on there. Take a minute if you need one.

Thankfully, and almost immediately, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) responded by launching a petition, calling upon SNL producers to address the impact of the sketch. In their release, GLAAD provided a quote from org president Jarrett Barrios, who said:

“The violence, discrimination and harassment that transgender Americans experience each and every day is no laughing matter. ‘Saturday Night Live’ is a touchstone of American comedy, but Saturday’s unfunny skit sends a destructive and dehumanizing message.”

GLAAD’s response is timely and critically important. But the format of a press release doesn’t allow for a full response, breaking down just how & why a sketch like this is so destructive. So let’s do that here.

The Problem with EstroMaxx

To put it simply, a sketch like EstroMaxx contributes to a climate of transphobia. Where there had been radio silence on trans identities, EstroMaxx filled that silence with counterproductive and misleading messages. (And it’s become part of a little avalanche of transphobia, from Craig Ferguson to Adam Sandler.) Here are some of those messages:

The sketch makes a joke of passing, without recognizing the extraordinary barriers, challenges, and yes, violence, that people face when they don’t appear to be a gender that can be quickly and easily categorized. Trans and gender non-conforming people are followed into bathrooms, called names, and subjected to the use of gender pronouns that may not reflect their identity. And that’s just the daily background noise that transphobia creates. On the larger end, trans and gender non-conforming people face pervasive discrimination, violence, and even dramatically increased rates of death, both by suicide and murder. Given the considerable risk, it’s incredibly unlikely that a trans woman would sport a week’s worth of facial hair growth. Should she have the right? Absolutely. But the chances that she’d do so this cavalierly are slim.

It encourages disrespectful behavior, like leering at trans people’s bodies, using the wrong pronouns, and laughing at the daily lived experience of trans people. The writers here clearly did their homework: they read up on the medical care necessary to transition. They looked into hormone treatments and surgery, and found out how difficult they are to access. Hell, they even brought in the danger that trans people face in going through airport body scanners. They learned all that, and then what did they do? They made all that hurt and all those barriers into one big hateful joke. Classy.

It paints a target on the backs of trans women, portraying them as clueless, bumbling impostors who are completely unaware of the way they’re perceived. Bobby Moynihan appears as a woman with styled hair, no makeup, and a beard. Paul Brittain wears a skirtsuit with feathered hair and a mustache. On Friday, most Americans weren’t specifically on the lookout for people whose gender presentation they didn’t recognize. By Sunday, Saturday Night Live’s 5.4 million viewers were. And that’s 5.4 million people who will start making jokes, saying hurtful things, and even inciting violence against trans people. It’s not a one-to-one equation, that’s for sure—watching this sketch won’t make you transphobic. But it definitely won’t make you less transphobic. And it certainly won’t make trans women any safer.

It fetishizes trans people, while simultaneously making anyone who’s attracted to trans people creepy and suspect. That’s right, people who date trans people: you’re on the hook, too. Keenan Thompson’s attraction to Bobby Moynihan is played for skin-crawling laughs. Can it be genuine attraction? Nope. It’s got to be creepy. Partners of trans people must be even crazier than trans people, if they find that attractive.

Isn’t anything funny?

So we’ve established what’s counterproductive about EstroMaxx. But when is humor productive?

Here are some questions to ask yourself: Does it expose the bias that trans people face? If so, awesome! Go forth & funny! Does it educate people on trans identities and communities? Rock it out! Is it in the hands of trans-identified people? Go team!

Look, I’m the fat girl who makes more fat jokes than anybody. I’m a big fan of the funny. Humor’s also a great tool for interrupting oppressive moments, and for taking control of narratives about our communities and experiences. But jokes that perpetuate oppression and misconceptions? Thumbs down.

“Why can’t they learn to take a joke?”

GLAAD’s response has popped up on a number of web sites, from MTV to Perez Hilton. Many of the comments feature a sad old line, rehashed again and again: “Why can’t they just take a joke?” It’s a line that’s used time and time again, in a wide range of context against a variety of communities. It’s deceptively simple, and it accomplishes several things at once. This one short line can deftly:

Absolve the speaker of any responsibility. It’s not my fault that I said it, it’s your fault for misinterpreting it. I don’t need to confront my privilege, you need to confront your hyper sensitivity. This one can also quickly and easily slip into accusations of emotional instability or straight up mental illness—a tactic that’s been used against women (hysteria was a real illness, everybody!), queer people (reparative therapy, anyone?) and communities of color (drapetomania made slaves run away!), to name a few. Simply put, the why-can’t-you-take-a-joke approach swiftly shifts focus from the oppressor to the oppressed, and can shortly thereafter cast dangerous aspersions about that person’s stability. Fair? Hardly. Effective? Definitely.

Creates a space in which it’s okay to be oppressive and you can say anything as long as it’s in jest. We also see this when white people make racist jokes ironically, as a way to prove how “post-racial” they are. Ultimately, this doesn’t prove anything to anyone: it perpetuates oppressive tropes and makes them impossible to critique. I like to call this part “you can’t hold me accountable, I’m hilarious!”

Places blame and responsibility on the person/community that’s already being targeted. If you’re offended, that’s your own fault. Not only that, but you’re ruining it for the rest of us. The take-a-joke line quietly but clearly creates a climate where speaking from your own experience and voicing your needs is now, in this bizzarro upside down world, somehow oppressive to people with privilege. I know, you guys! It’s ridiculous.

Ultimately, the EstroMaxx skit is deeply transphobic. It perpetuates some dangerous myths about trans people (particularly transfeminine people, who are already at extraordinarily heightened risk of violence and discrimination) and salts that wound by making a mockery of the oppression they face. And when someone musters the courage to speak out against that oppression: they’re too sensitive to be trusted, and they’re a pariah for “ruining a perfectly good sketch.”

Some joke.

20 thoughts on “You can’t hold me accountable, I’m hilarious!: SNL, trans communities & the politics of taking a joke

  1. “Watching this sketch won’t make you transphobic. But it definitely won’t make you less transphobic. And it certainly won’t make trans women any safer.”

    Although perhaps the subject of a different blog post, as you’ve already written so succinctly and clearly here, I think you can go further than this.

    Why wouldn’t this make people more transphobic? It probably does. It probably made most of the viewers, if not, at least slightly more, however subconsciously, biased against transgender people.

    Check out studies of TV tokenism done by Tufts University:

    http://news.tufts.edu/releases/release.php?id=144
    http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1948662,00.html

    Basically, they studied the impact of simply having a lead role character in tv shows interact with a sidekick (or other smaller role in a tv show– lead character’s boss, for example) who is often the token minority. After watching the white main character interact with sidekick or other token minorities– people who often get in the way of a main character or are talked down to for comedic effect– people were tested for racial bias and were found to be more subconsciously biased against minorities.

    They did other studies where they blocked out all audio and erased the minority character completely from the scenes, and overall people still picked up from facial/body cues the subtly negative treatment.

    If the casting of characters and acting out of a typical scene can increase racial bias, why wouldn’t making transgender people– already terribly misunderstood and discriminated against– the butt end of cheap jokes (casting them as mentally ill, absurd, clownish) do so to a much further degree? It may not make someone transphobic, but it feeds off of the internalized transphobia people already have, reinforces their “other-ness,” and so on.

  2. It’s probably worth taking into perspective how skits on SNL portray any issue. Don’t they pretty much make everyone from football players to business executives look like idiots?
    It always seemed to me that the model of that show is to make fun of everyone. In that sense, one could consider if maybe this skit makes T-folk a part of the group, fair game to be picked on just like everyone else. Sometimes gaining acceptance in this odd culture means showing you can take a joke.

    That’s just a perspective worth taking into consideration. Otherwise, I appreciated your post and the perspective and points you make are very articulate and well-spoken. It is a truly horrible place in this world for people, for some reason especially MtF. Violence is often a seemingly expected and accepted “consequence”. I fail to comprehend why gender and transgenderism is so misunderstood and hated. It really boggles my mind, and makes me very sad that people are so cruel. It is a crime of epic proportions that people are denied the right to simply live and be who they are without being free from such outlandish persecutions.

    Even if we could keep distasteful jokes and cruel depictions out of the media, it unfortunately would not change the fact that most people still see the transgendered as disgusting, depraved freaks. They find it repugnant and are made immensely uncomfortable by it entirely.

    After all, I am a member of this community and will attest that the last thing you want to find waking up one day in this culture is that you are in fact transgendered, because it’s one of those things you cannot make “go away”. Now there is scientific proof of brain gender and that female and male bodies can truly have the opposite gendered brain, yet of course that does nothing to stop the raging hatred and lack of empathy of the general populace. In my personal experience in everyday life, things are getting worse and not better. There seems to be an increasing air of confidence among people that they have a free pass to attack transpeople. In that regard, this SNL sketch was in poor taste. The sad fact of the matter may just well be that the staff and cast of SNL feels like much of the rest of the populace and simply sees the transgender community as freakish petty weirdos who are more interested in having boobs of their own than simply trying to live as who they are without persecution.

  3. Thank you for breaking it down in such a easy to understand way. Wondering if you would mind me using it to work with a youth who makes racist jokes and then claims its for the humor not because he’s racist…

  4. t’d-off said:
    It’s probably worth taking into perspective how skits on SNL portray any issue. Don’t they pretty much make everyone from football players to business executives look like idiots?
    It always seemed to me that the model of that show is to make fun of everyone. In that sense, one could consider if maybe this skit makes T-folk a part of the group, fair game to be picked on just like everyone else. Sometimes gaining acceptance in this odd culture means showing you can take a joke.

    That’s kind of how I looked at it. And I liked that they were envisioning a world where Big Pharma courts the MTF dollar. I’ve seen how SNL lampoons everyone, including minority groups of which I am a member, and given the show’s generally progressive bent, I don’t tend to read their teasing as mean-spirited.

  5. “It’s probably worth taking into perspective how skits on SNL portray any issue. Don’t they pretty much make everyone from football players to business executives look like idiots?”

    That may be (I haven’t watched in years, except for last week’s Dana Carvey ep) but that still doesn’t make it okay. Just because they are mistreating everyone doesn’t make it okay to mistreat anyone. And a lot of “jokes” like this are a lot more harsh and pointed than simply doing a celebrity impersonation.

    Another awesome article.

  6. aside from all the good points you’ve already made, here’s another one, and perhaps a good way to work around the initial “you don’t have a sense of humor” reaction to criticism of this skit.

    when the skit began (yeah, i was watching snl that night), i initially assumed the point of the skit was to mock those commercials for drugs that make a big deal about how it’s sooooo much work to have to take a pill once a day/week/month (coughcoughbonivacough). i think those commercials are ridiculous and was looking forward to seeing them mocked. yet the skit did nothing to support its initial premise. instead it made tired sight gags about transwomen. so i’d argue, on top of everything else, whether or not you think transpeople are ripe for mockery, the skit was poorly written and had nothing new to say about anything.

    seriously, i’d like to know if anyone out there who thinks the skit is funny can come up with a better reason to support it than “i laugh when a woman has a mustache.”

  7. I’m seeing a lot of “but they make fun of everybody!” comments. That may be true, but not everybody has the same amount of oppression that they face. A football player or a business executive doesn’t have the same number of daily hurdles to get over before they can laugh at themselves. This isn’t laughing with. This is laughing at. Laughing at people’s pain, laughing at their experience. The only people they’re laughing with are the ones who tear them down.

  8. I’d agree with the whole they make fun of everybody perspective if they had, as sam mentions, actually stuck with the initial point which was to lampoon drug commercials. If they had gone for a Transamerica-esque version of this skit then perhaps it would have been funny but the horrifically inappropriate and unrealistic presentation of MtFs is just stupid and mean with no actual humor.

  9. We face this issue in dealing with prison rape. Just Detention International (formerly Stop Prisoner Rape) once mounted a campaign that got 7-Up to pull an offensive ad.

    Sad as it might seem though I think “joking” about something is a stage in being able to talk openly and sensitively about it. That’s not to say that the “That’s not a joking matter” is not the logical next step.

  10. Thanks for this analysis! I support trans and genderqueer rights. I’m also a fat activist. I see so many ways people with trans or fat experience can support each other in fighting these oppressions! I hope you’ll reconsider whether fat jokes (the ones that buy into fat oppression) are funny.

  11. Sorry, I think I read too quickly. Sounded like you were saying you make self-deprecating fat jokes, but you’re talking about the challenging use of humor, sounds like. Yay to humor that brings down oppression!

    • Marylin,

      Thanks so much for your comment, and all you do! (I got my hands on a copy of Fat!So? as a sophomore in college, and it was the first fat-positive book I read. Needless to say, it wasn’t the last.) :)

      Yes, I’m a big fan of anti-oppressive humor. To add some light & shading to what that means to me, I’ve put up a new post about comedy. If & as you’ve got the time and interest, take a look:

      http://yrwelcome.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/on-allies-and-comedy/

  12. I think the accusation of hate mongering is reaching. I think the basic problem here is that this just isn’t a funny skit. They have essentially taken the “classic” ‘men dressed like women’ bit and put it in a new context. It’s lazy comedy and nothing you shouldn’t already expect from SNL.

  13. Pingback: on allies and comedy. « you're welcome.

  14. Wow, I consider myself an intelligent and discerning person buti didn’t see half the bad elements you pointed out in this skit. I think your points are valid but I really don’t think the skit is perpetuating as much as you claim. But obviously that’s my opinion. To me comedy has little boundaries and if it’s done “well” I give it a carte blanche.

  15. I am a comedian (obviously not famous) but very very immersed in the culture of comedy. Comedy is a very useful tool. When wielded wisely like with the humor Dennis Miller, Stephen Colbert, and Whoopi Goldberg it can open people’s eyes to issues in a lighter format. However, sometimes comedians/writers lose sight of the Golden Rule. There must be a balance between funny and hurtful. SNL could have been more responsible. Although, if there was no SNL skit, then this discussion may not have occurred. Posts like this, news articles etc…bring balance. Excellent blo,g btw.

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