I don’t even remember when or why I signed up to be on GLAAD’s mailing list. My Gmail archives tell me it happened last July when I signed some online petition asking NBC to include gay couples in a wedding contest that The Today Show was running. I’m guessing that getting e-mail from GLAAD was something I thought I should do, kind of like how when I was a kid and we lived in a small town, I loved the folded presence of the weekly town paper in our kitchen, even though I rarely read it. The content was important, but its simple existence mattered even more.
So I really didn’t want to open the e-mail I got last Monday, the one calling for action against Saturday Night Live‘s “anti-transgender segment.” I didn’t want to open this e-mail because I figured one of two things would happen:
1) I’d read about some standard infuriating caricature of trans women played by cisgendered guys, a bunch of over-femmed deep-voiced dudes making “haha man in dress!” jokes. They’d be dressed in pastel colors and have furs draped around their necks and speak in falsettos. I would be furious and resigned to the fact that trans women will seemingly never appear on TV in ways that don’t draw attention to their masculinity, genitals, or jawlines. (I didn’t guess that trans men might be the subject of the segment, because not only are trans women generally subject to more media ogling than trans men — excepting the pregnant Thomas Beatie—but also because I solipsistically default to thinking that worldly matters are generally about me.)
2) I’d read about a legitimately funny joke, a tame, hardly offensive joke, and GLAAD would condemn it, and I would be frustrated that a group whose stated job it is to watch out for folks like me would be screaming about something that’s not that big of a deal. (I didn’t guess that such screaming might not appear on anybody’s news radar, not only because transphobia tends to receive zero attention outside of queer and uber-liberal circles, but also because a part of me doesn’t want the world to see trans people making waves, doesn’t want us to be seen as screechy or angry. I’m not proud of this, it comes from a place of fear and it keeps me from standing up for myself and others like me.)
Anyway, I assumed either SNL would be stepping on trans women or GLAAD would be stepping on funny jokes. And I love trans women and funny jokes. So I read all my other e-mail first. Then I went out to Ethiopian food, and then to a reading, and then I got drunk, and then I discovered the salty, spicy deliciousness of late night Indian fast food, and then I lurched back to my apartment at three in the morning. (To be clear, these events were not an emotional response to GLAAD’s e-mail, it was all previously planned. Except for the Indian food.)
The next day, the stupid e-mail was still there. I opened it, scanned it, read phrases like “fake commercial for an estrogen product,” and “offensive and dehumanizing portrayals of transgender women.” There was a link to watch a video of the skit, and a link to a petition demanding that NBC remove the segment from its website and from the airing of all future episodes. I immediately clicked back to my inbox to read my other messages.
Over the next four days, I heard some hubbub about the skit on the Internet, and then, that Saturday night, in D.C. for AWP — a writers’ conference — I came back to my Maryland hotel after a cold, exhausting evening spent failing to find friends to drink with in lieu of seeing Gary Shteyngart, and it was then I finally downloaded the SNL segment (an extension of the night’s masochism?). The skit advertised “Once Daily Estro-Maxx.” Bill Hader and Fred Armisen and some dude with a mustache and some dude with a beard all run around in fake boobs, singing the praises of an estrogen drug that only requires a daily dose. Bill Hader speaks in an exaggerated, femmy voice, “Most hormone replacement therapies require you to take five supplements a day.” He throws his arms out. “Who has time for that?” Laughter ensues!
My first thought, actually — and I think this is the first time I can speak for most trans women — was that I would totally buy this product if it was real. I’m fucking serious. I have to take three estrogen pills a day, and just one sounds awesome. (Pfizer, consider this in your next round of R&D budgeting.)
Maybe it’s from growing up in politically polarized Eugene, Oregon — where anything controversial can reliably offend forty percent of the population — but I’m always somewhat resistant to being offended by anything artistic, comedy in particular, an art form whose capacity to offend is one of its recognized privileges. I’ve thought for years that to feel offended by a work of art is, to some extent, the simpleton’s response, one that belongs to zealots who grunt, dunce-like, “THIS IS WRONG.”
And yet, I find it takes effort for me to be offended by something. Even when I’m alone in front of my computer, it’s easier to roll my eyes and attempt to enjoy the joke rather than internally confront something that makes me feel uneasy. I don’t want to harrumph about a comedic sketch and least of all an SNL skit — it makes me feel like a grumpy old person, a grumpy old person from the ’70s, at that.
But, even though SNL eschewed some of the stock gags (all of the actors wore pants, for starters) the skit did make me mad, and a little sad. Some of it was little, mundane things, like the characters with facial hair — as if estrogen makes you forget to shave? — but what really dug at me was when the camera zoomed in on Fred Armisen’s face, who said “Because I don’t want to spend my day taking estrogen,” after which the camera zooms out, revealing Armisen running on a treadmill, wearing a baby-blue hoodie and a camisol with lumpy breasts poking out, and he says, “But I do want to become a woman,” and the audience laughs and laughs, with nothing else to the joke besides that Fred Armisen has boobs but still looks and sounds like a man.
In high school, I was in a stage musical version of Some Like It Hot, the movie where Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis pose as women to join an all-girl band and evade detection from the mob. They put on high heels, hilarity ensues, etc. The American Film Institute ranks it as the funniest movie of all time. One of my best friends played the Tony Curtis role, and all of us, self included, laughed as he pranced around the stage, talking in an exaggerated high voice, tottering around in heels. I played the old millionaire who chases after the girlied-up Jack Lemmon character. I even shaved my head for the show.
Kind of ironic now, sure, but even then, when at seventeen I was already dressing in women’s clothes. Even when I had some semblance of the knowledge that my given gender wasn’t the right one, I thought the whole show was funny as balls, that of course men posing as women (such a poisonous phrase that still sticks with me, posing as) was funny. There was a parody song on the radio I heard on Christmas in our kitchen in fourth grade, “Walking ‘Round in Women’s Underwear.” There was an Eazy-E song one of my other best friends used to play in high school between jazz choir gigs, where Eazy finds out a woman has a penis (“I said ‘damn’! Dropped the gat from my hand / What I thought was a bitch really was a man.”) There was the movie Rat Race released when I was fifteen, where Cuba Gooding, Jr. is driving a bus full of women, and when one of them reveals she’s a male cross-dresser, Cuba starts screaming and screaming. I laughed at this and everything else, I laughed at all of them.
I don’t quite know what to make of all of that, besides that I likely wouldn’t laugh at any of that now. (We’ll put aside the fact that I probably wouldn’t laugh at any other part of Rat Race now either.) I didn’t sign the petition asking NBC to take it off Hulu, or send an angry message or anything — though, full disclosure, I did complain heavily on Facebook — but it’s all the aforementioned examples plus the laughing at Armisen’s fake breasts that digs at me.
The inaccurate stuff like the facial hair is just annoying, it’s the laughter at the real stuff — that hammered ad nauseum message that transsexual women look and sound like men — that hurts. I was naturally blessed with some physically feminine attributes, but I’m also six-one and have a deep voice, and not looking and sounding like a man is a daily fight, one I often feel I’m losing. I’m not saying SNL is an arbiter of my emotional state (God forbid), but stuff like this, in the absence of any other popular portrayal of trans women, can get a girl down, y’know?
Maybe, too, my frustration comes from the fact that this Once Daily Estro-Maxx thing could actually be pretty funny, but it settles for the easy laughs. Comedy’s offensiveness is effective when it challenges, when it incisively says something new and unprecedented. And there’s nothing new or unprecedented about male actors strapping on stuffed bras and pretending to be transsexuals.
Yet this concept is fertile ground for awesome humor. Pharmaceutical ads are ridiculous, and God knows there are no products on TV marketed to trans people. The skit had potential, but they chose the most fantastically lazy way of going about it. (I know, fill in your own joke here about how “fantastically lazy” describes a lot of SNL comedy.) Trans people have crazy lives, SNL! There’s a lot of realistic shit that’s way funnier than your lame-ass caricatures! Ever thought about what it’s like being a six-foot-tall woman and filling a prescription for Viagra at the local pharmacy? I have!
There’s danger, I realize, in complaining about being the butt of a joke, because we’re all the butts of jokes at some point, and I’m sure any one of my friends who’s spent a reasonable amount of time with me could pull out a few (or fifty) recollections where I’ve laughed hard at the expense of a group I don’t belong to. And certainly, I don’t think that Hader and company meant to be malicious or anything — there are enough people threatening us on the street taking care of that — but the skit is so inaccurate and humorless that it really makes me wish humor about trans people was written by actual trans people. We’re a group that could use a few laughs. (NBC, you know where to find me.)