Monday, March 11, 2013

Saturday Night Live and Transphobia/Gender Issues

So I expected people to be all over this, but I haven't seen anything about it, so I'll have a go--even though I'm not an expert in trans/genderqueer issues.

This week, Saturday Night Live was hosted by Justin Timberlake, a host I generally enjoy and the show was decent--not great, but decent.

That is, until the last sketches, which I found disturbing. (Even more than usual. SNL skates close to racism/misogyny/homophobia/transphobia rather a lot.)

I'll start with the one I found less offensive, a sketch featuring two female cast members playing stupid and/or intoxicated porn stars shilling for a cheap champagne. My real objection to this one is the fact that it made me realize how few and the quality of the roles SNL seems to be giving its female cast. Timberlake also plays a porn star, but is portrayed as a victim of an inappropriate childhood relationship with a male gym teacher and sounds neither wasted or (overly) stupid. I watch SNL intermittently, both because I like sleep and simply because the writing quality seems to have slipped (especially since Samberg left), but I was shocked to realize just how far the writing for its female cast has fallen. Increasingly the actresses are reduced to playing token pieces designed to set up the male actors to deliver the punchlines or portraying stereotypical roles we are meant purely to laugh at. I'd also point out in an otherwise amusing sketch featuring iconic SNL hosts, Candice Bergen was the only woman, had about one line and it was about putting the toilet seat down.

That brings us to the "She Has A Dick" sketch. A prerecorded "film preview" of a romantic comedy supposedly starring Justin Timberlake. Perhaps (and given SNL's track record, I'm being very generous here and sincerely doubt it) this was meant as commentary about the way people who express gender outside the binary norms are treated, but if that were the case it fails spectacularly. The concept is Timberlake meets the perfect woman, pretty, funny, etc., the twist being, you guessed it, she has a penis. (Kenan Thompson plays the "confused black friend" who repeatedly asks questions about the physicality of Timberlake's girlfriend and ends the segment with "Can I see it?".) Timberlake eventually overcomes his (rather minor) misgivings and says it doesn't matter, that he loves all of her. Which is great, in and of itself.

What is glossed over is the profound threat trans/genderqueer people face, and the fact that this is not a light matter--the threat of violence is erased entirely from this Rom-com take of an often overlooked issue in mainstream television/film. As I was watching, I was far from amused because all I could think of was how frightening it must be to reveal something so intimate with someone you care about, but don't really know how they'll react. And to face that uncertainty and chance at rejection with the knowledge that some men will react violently.

But what disturbs me most was the live audience's reaction, specifically when they laughed. The laughter read to me as laughing at the idea of a perfect girl with a penis, at the very concept of someone who does not fall neatly into the boxes we've made for them. The whole sketch feeds into our binary view of gender and gender expression, that because someone falls outside these lines, they are somehow a point of humor in and of themselves. If people are laughing for apparently bigoted reasons, I think we can say the comedy has failed.

Truly, I think the intention of this sketch can only be interpreted as ridiculing trans/genderqueer individuals. This has been agitating me since Saturday night; it makes me a bit sick to my stomach, frankly. "Humor" and hate go hand in hand far too often and hate is a hairsbreadth from violence. Needless to say, this has rather put me off SNL. I don't think I'm overreacting, but as I said I'm not an expert in this area. I would love some feedback from the community as to how transgender/genderqueer persons feel about this.

But I do know I definitely did not find this funny.

***UPDATE*** An alternate take on the skit: (Thx, Tracie Welser for the link!)

I already tweeted a link to this, but there's also some interesting points in the comments here.


  1. I think you are right. People's bodies are not punchlines for jokes. What is this? Jr. High?

    I felt the same way about the laughter. Gross. It's 2013, y'all.

  2. And--yeah!! I expected folks to be all over this. I was just googling to soak in everyone's collected rage and.....? Where is it? Do they not realize how gross this is?

    The worst part is trans/genderqueer folk ARE at such elevated risk for violence that perpetuating this kind of attitude is dangerous and irresponsible.

    1. I thought I was just quick on the draw and there would be more noise by now, but I can only find one article. The whole thing is very disturbing.

      Thanks for the comment, Jess!

  3. Thank you for this important post. I finally watched the skit on Youtube just now, and I have mixed feelings.

    I didn't laugh, I was worried. I share your concerns about safety and the very real danger transphobia poses. I, too, wondered how it would feel to experience this skit as a trans viewer. But after watching a second time, I have some thoughts. I'm approaching this as a former teacher of gender/queer theory. I'm reluctant to defend the skit in its entirety, but I am willing to consider its potential merits.

    What I found refreshing was that the woman herself (Melody) isn't portrayed as freakish or ridiculous, a fake woman, if that makes sense. She is attractive, feminine and seems relatively self-possessed. I'm not sure she's the object of the humor. The focus seems to be on the men and their acceptance of (or fascination with) her penis. It's the rhetorical elephant in the room, and they're saying out loud, they're facing it. I think their discomfort is the object of the joke. I'm with you on the racist bit, as the "look, let's ironically exploit that trope about the black guy again" is tired and unfunny. And ultimately the boyfriend accepts her as she is, which is the hopeful outcome that we truthfully need more of, in the world. That bit isn't the punchline, either.

    Comedy toes a thin line where political and social issues are concerned, and I think this was a risky skit. It can certainly be read as transphobic. I'd like to hear more from other people on this. But politically, socially, comedy has its uses. I think comedy is often the first space to grapple with social issues in a way that can speak to people, allow the audience to work through discomfort and eventually normalize tolerance. For example, the film Transamerica works as a drama, but it carefully crafts humorous moments into a narrative that looks unflinchingly at the danger and discrimination that trans women face every day (as a film, it's problematic in other ways, but anyhow). It has a happy ending, and I think we need more happy narratives than tragedies to normalize those stories that fall outside the binary, to make break down the binary. When I showed that film in a class, I was very surprised by what made students laugh, and felt uncomfortable with some of their laughter. But many of them later reflected on the film as one that forced them to confront their own prejudices while remaining accessible through use of humor.

    I'm also surprised that you're not seeing people talking about it. It could lead to important conversation, about people's reactions, about violence and masculinity in particular.

    Maybe I'm being naive, but I wish I could really see an entirely positive movie trailer of the kind that this skit only points to. I'd like to think it will eventually happen.

  4. Thank you so much, Tracie!

    While I was writing the post I did think about how it was a positive to see Pedrad play the character straight (as it were) instead of putting a male actor in a dress (which would've put us in a totally transphobic area, I believe) and I agree, I don't think SNL *meant* Pedrad's character to be the butt of the joke. I'm willing to allow that they didn't see it that way at all, but I don't think that lets them off the hook for how the audience reacts. (So really, I'm criticizing their skill as comedic writers.) I think I would have less problem with it if we had a more balanced dialogue about trans/genderqueer issues in the mainstream. If we had positive and nuanced characters seen regularly, in non-comedic roles, I think the audience would have a better idea of what was being (or what should be) mocked. (I mean, middle America's view of trans/genderqueer people/situations isn't exactly well-rounded.) But I feel it is way too easy for an audience to laugh at the wrong thing here.

    The focus upon Thompson's reaction also puts Pedrad's character's body up as somehow his business. The line "Can I see it?" is particularly worrying, (if possibly realistic), as I don't see many men saying that in reference to a friend's cis-gendered girlfriend. It implies that saying something like that is within the realm of acceptable (if borderline) behavior, denying her body autonomy and putting it in the hands of cis-gendered males. I also don't think the writers gave much thought to the fact that women's bodies (cis-gendered or otherwise) are continually up for male judgment and possession in our society--I *don't* think the writers meant to imply anything about that area of misogyny. The sketch is to too short (and I believe, immediately fed into the porn star skit when it aired) to reflect on what one is laughing (if one is laughing) at to be useful as a way of examining preconceptions upon one viewing and I suspect the people who especially need to examine their laughter won't be watching it repeatedly or in a constructive environment as your students did Transamerica. (which I have haven't seen, but will seek out. :-) ) I think SNL skits are more disposable by nature than a film or even a television series and without purposeful outside direction people are less likely to examine their reaction.

    The lack of conversation really is what has me the most upset, I think. This feels like a wonderful opportunity, regardless of how one views the skit, to have a real discourse about the whole issue and how gender is viewed in our society. But I've seen more noise about whether Timberlake dissed Kanye in his performance than about this under-examined topic

    But if you're naïve, so am I! It would be wonderful to someday see wholly positive films, though we're a long, long way off. (But most of the modern rom-com genre should die a horrible death anyway! :-P ) And perhaps this *is* a step in the right direction: perhaps Timberlake and company made the attempt to do something positive about the subject because of their massive misstep in 2011.

    Thank you again for discussing this, Tracie! *hugs*

  5. Hi!

    Just wanted to say pretty good analysis and commentary and pleased to see it :D

    -- Dyssonance

    1. Hi! Thank you so much for reading and commenting! :-D