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.”