If you’re the kind of person who reads my blog, you’ve probably heard about the two transphobic media controversies du’jour. There’s the ABC sitcom Work It and there’s the new ad from Libra tampons. If not, here are the Spark Notes:
Work It is a men’s rights fantasy about how two straight cis guys dress up like women in order to get jobs in a world where no one thinks of the poor men. I know, you’re excited already, seeing as there’s plenty of opportunities for cissexism, misogyny, and all kinds of bullshit in there.
The new ad from Libra features a trans woman and a cis woman in a women’s bathroom, competing over who’s the “real” woman. The cis woman wins by pulling out her pack of tampons. Because firstly, women always compete over who is better! Sisterhood is a myth! There’s some good old-fashioned patriarchal thinking. And of course, the ultimate determinant of gender is biology. If you have a vagina, and you bleed from it, you’re a woman. If not, you’re a man.
So obviously, activists and other folks who dislike evil stuff have recently been protesting these two pieces of media. I’d like to point out something that hasn’t been talked about much yet: Neither of these things achieve their goal. Their goal is to be funny, and they aren’t funny. In fact, oppressive humor is almost never funny. Why’s that?
Chevy Chase once said, “A laugh is a surprise.” And you know who agreed with him? Aristotle, who wrote that “The secret to humor is surprise.” Humor shocks us for a minute, pulling us out of what we’ve always assumed to be true. What’s funny is what’s subversive, what gives us that moment of cathartic laughter.
Why do you think Monty Python’s so hilarious? Take the sketch “Ministry of Silly Walks.” We’ve got this idea in our culture that government officials are men who know what’s going on, reasonable upstanding guys who behave seriously. What’s so funny about “Silly Walks,” ultimately, is that it pokes fun at that assumption that the government are doing important, serious things–instead, they’re just John Cleese doing really bizarre movements.
Here’s another example: one of my favorite jokes from The Simpsons. At one point in “Treehouse of Horror VIII,” Mayor Quimby is trying to mend the political harm to his career that he’s caused by using racial slurs. We’ve watched these kind of speeches a million times in real life, where a politician says something ridiculously racist and then tries to win back public support. It never varies: they try to smooth things over while never actually taking responsibility for their racism or the harmfulness of the ideas they’ve shown themselves to hold. But instead of being tactful in his apology, Quimby just straight up says what we can always tell those politicians are thinking: “I stand by all my ethnic slurs.” It’s one of the best lines from the episode and certainly one of the most quoted, in my own household and, from the looks of it, in Simpsons fangroups online. It’s funny because it shows us what structures have been put in place in political discourse to distract us from the truth–that our politicians really do stand by all their ethnic slurs!
Even better, let’s take another example from The Simpsons, one that’s actually about the gender essentialism that Work It and the Libra ad try to make jokes about. At one point in “New Kid on the Block,” Homer’s talking to Bart, trying to tell him about women. So he says this:
Son, a woman is a lot like a… a refrigerator! They’re about six feet tall, 300 pounds. They make ice, and… um… Oh, wait a minute. Actually, a woman is more like a beer. They smell good, they look good, you’d step over your own mother just to get one! But you can’t stop at one. You wanna drink another woman! So I says yeah, if you want that money come and find it, cuz I don’t know where it is you baloney! You make me wanna wretch!
The joke is obvious: Homer can’t tell Bart what women are, because women are a diverse group of people and you can’t be essentialist in describing all of them at once! Only a fool would try to do that, and Homer proves himself a fool in this line, where he starts out trying to explain gender, and finishes up seeming like he’s in some kind of 1930s mob film. The message is clear: any attempt to essentialize femaleness is going to end up sounding bizarre and stupid, just the way Homer does here.
That’s what Work It and this ad for Libra fail to do. They don’t critique people’s basic assumptions. They rely entirely on tired old ideas. “Men are different from women! Ahahahaha!” and “Trans women think they’re really female! Hilarious!” They don’t have one jot of respect for their audience.
Forgive me if I don’t quote too many jokes from Work It the way I have from you know, actually funny shows. It’s pretty painful to watch. I mean, in the trailer alone you have misogynistic chestnuts like, “Women are taking over the workforce!” and cissexist bullshit like the line, spoken by a cis woman to one of the crossdressing men, “Did [your husband] leave you for someone smaller?” At one point one character, in order to pass as a woman, has to throw away his subway sandwich and eat only lettuce, because obviously women never eat subway sandwiches and are delicate flowers who don’t need calories. The whole thing is just dumb and faintly embarrassing.
Obviously, don’t tune into Work It. You’ll be boycotting a sexist, transmisogynistic show, and you’ll be saving yourself time that I myself am never going to get back. (I believe you really ought to see something before critiquing it. I’m kind of regretting that decision. Life is too short to watch this show.)
Don’t buy Libra tampons either. What a bore that commercial is. What a vile vile cis supremacist bore.
I’ll leave you with my favorite comedian of all time, Peter Cook, riffing on the English class system: