Libra Tampons, Work It, and Why Oppression Makes For Bad Comedy

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:

18 Responses to “Libra Tampons, Work It, and Why Oppression Makes For Bad Comedy”

  1. 1 ScarUponTheSky January 3, 2012 at 2:23 am

    As articulate as I am you have laid out all my ire more eloquently than I can find my self to do with either issue. I see that proverbial red whenever I start thinking about “Work It” and the knowledge that the writer/creator is “basing the show off a dad’s friend who was a cross-dresser” doesn’t make anything even remotely better. I can’t even be excited that one of the lead characters isn’t of Caucasian/White ancestry (because racial/ethnic diversity still lacks massively in television, particularly comedy shows.)

    As for the Libra ad, I won’t even watch it. It just pisses me off and not even for the transphobia. It’s angering simply for the fact that I have ciswomen in my family (and among my friend’s) who according to this add aren’t women because they are either too old to bleed anymore (and therefore don’t need tampons) or have medical issues that get in the way. To imply that my 77 year old grandmother isn’t as much of a woman as my soon-to-be 16 year old sister is f*ing ridiculous.

    /rant, Anyway, I simply just want to thank you for blogging your thoughts and your thoughts about these current humourless because they are exactly what I think (down to me discussing MP references too).

  2. 2 urbanmythcafe January 3, 2012 at 11:48 am

    I was at a friend’s house and the trailer for this Work It show was on. It really made me cringe, I mean almost physically ill. There is no way that I can watch it again. The same old “Gender Humor” has played out on TV sitcoms for generations, and that is bad enough. Of course, the gender stereotypes in television commercials are even worse.

    But this show is another level of nastiness. In the world around me, I see really encouraging progress. Marriage equality. A supportive president. Scores of forward thinking companies giving fair treatment to LGBT employees. Trans people given fair treatment, and even treated as normal in the national media spotlight. LGBT characters in mainstream movies and television (once again portrayed as “normal”). Then we have a sitcom like this one. And it I don’t mean to portray is as offensive from an LGBT point of view. I am equally revolted from a feminist perspective.

    The show will probably wither up and vanish of its own merit. I hate the thought of a world where people think that the things portrayed on such a show have anything to do with the reality of being trans.

  3. 3 Sig January 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    Silly Stephen you don’t know what goes on in women’s bathrooms – it’s a regular war zone for who is the alpha female! I imagine cleaners have it rough having to clean all the smashed perfume bottles and ripped hair extensions. I just loooove the idea that you’re a REAL MAN or REAL WOMAN when you do this or that …, heck I had had an odd teenage phase where I’ve decided to be a REAL LADY. It consisted of dissing women who love sex and telling everyone that someone becomes a REAL WOMAN when they have a baby. Who cares about those who can’t get pregnant or don’t want to, right? Oh, and ladies don’t have careers which “Work It” fails to see as they’re taking over the workforce. I have nothing else to add – I knew there was a reason I don’t like sitcoms, it’s all the “gender humour” as the commenter above me mentioned. I dunno if anyone seen those teen flicks where girls had to dress up as guys, I have yet to understand why everyone loves them :/ .

  4. 4 Ben January 3, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    The fact that it’s so horribly offensive is probably the only thing of note about it.

  5. 5 kadin January 3, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Stephen, I’d love to see a follow up post talking about Work It and its place among other shows/movies like Bosom Buddies, Some Like It Hot, and Tootsie – especially Tootsie. I also recommend the introduction of Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interest (If you haven’t read it already). Although it’s a little dated I still find it most helpful in breaking down what “cross-dressing” is doing. I’m with you though – Work It and the Libra commercial are not at all funny on so many levels. Keep up the great work!

    ps. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on the web series “Shit Girls Say”

    • 6 Stephen January 4, 2012 at 1:24 am

      Oh wow, I totally meant to talk about Tootsie in this post and it slipped my mind. I think Tootsie is a good example of how a crossdressing gag can be used well and make for a really smart, subversive, and funny movie. Some Like It Hot as well. Maybe I’ll do a follow up!

  6. 7 Terry January 4, 2012 at 2:08 am

    Just to let you know I think you were an absolutely STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL young woman. I know this has nothing to do with how you felt inside. In my heart of hearts, I want you to be happy and feel at peace. I do want you to realize, though, that you could have totally ROCKED it as a woman.

    Irrespective of gender, you have a brilliant mind, incredible social conscience and loving and accepting heart. I wish all good things for you, today and always.

    • 8 anivad January 5, 2012 at 7:04 am

      Wow, that was… kind of unnecessary. :\ Couldn’t you just tell him that he’s an awesome person without needing to talk about how he would have made a beautiful woman? How is that even relevant to anything? Do you do the same to cis people? “I think you would make a really hot guy! But anyway I think you’re a great girl.”

      If no, why to trans people? Why the almost-implication – brought on by the use of words like “could have” – that he should have even *considered* his appearance as a factor in transition?

    • 9 Kristen from MA January 5, 2012 at 8:58 pm

      Wow – I can’t believe you wrote that, HERE of all places.

      For what it’s worth, I happen to think Stephen is a stunningly beautiful young man (especially because he seems really centered and at ease with himself).

    • 10 Alison January 27, 2012 at 12:03 am

      Holy shit, you’re an idiot.

  7. 11 Kristen from MA (USA) January 5, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    Back on topic, I wanted to mention that Amanda Marcotte wrote about this show over at Amanda is my favorite feminist/political writer, offering clear analysis of the never-ending culture war (with a healthy dose of snark).

    Another of my favorites, one of the bloggers over at Shakesville, wrote about the show as well. Her name is Eastside Kate and she’s trans. (I just love her writing. Seriously, if she wrote a post about concrete sidewalks, I’d read it. Love her!)

  8. 12 nzer January 5, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    Just so you know, that Libra ad was not depicting a trans woman. It was clearly depicting a drag queen. An actual drag queen played the part. See this article for more info:

    • 13 Stephen January 5, 2012 at 11:48 pm

      The character in the ad is a fictional being in a created piece of media, not an individual with an identity. It’s never made clear in the ad that the character is a drag queen, so the fact that the character was played by a drag queen really doesn’t matter. In fact, often actors play characters whose identities they do not share! For example, Tom Hanks isn’t gay, but he plays a gay man in Philadelphia, and Felicity Huffman isn’t trans, but she plays a trans woman in Transamerica. The fact that Sandee Crack is a drag queen couldn’t be less relevant here.

    • 14 roostertails January 6, 2012 at 3:31 am

      For me, it was really unclear as to whether she was a drag queen or a transwoman – particularly because of her reaction to not being able to use a tampon (i.e. upset). It has been really interesting to me to watch the debate unfold around this, and the responses, especially the ones that go along the lines of ” I wasn’t offended, therefore it’s NOT offensive”.

      The conflation of drag queens and trans women is something that happens quite frequently (also, please note that of course there can be crossovers between the drag community and trans community they’re obviously not mutually exclusive), and acts to undermine the validity of trans women as women. It’s something that happens really frequently in my experience, and often results in the propagation of the idea that genitals are the sole indicator of gender. I think that the ambiguity in this ad (in regards to the depiction of the taller blonde lady) is what lends towards it’s transphobia.

      I agree with Stephen when he says that “the fact that the character was played by a drag queen really doesn’t matter”. The offensive element, for me, is the intention to shame the taller blonde lady through her lack of ability to menstruate.

  9. 15 Ronny Chacin January 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    The thing and I think what Stephen tried to point in this post is that we cannot speak for ourselves as a superior being in the human society, (Cisgenders), We are currently living in a world where people is coming out as they truly are, this never happened in the past, unlike a few which are very well known names, Trans were usually closeted because they were afraid of being damaged by a phobic society, it’s the same thing as assuming that all women are white, that all women must have straight hair, cissexism is the new racism, we all need to respect one another and stop pulling labels to people based on cliches, many cis women can’t menstruate because they went threw an Hysterectomy when they were 18 due to health problems, this Libra add besides of being transphobic is also misogynist.

  10. 16 Alison January 27, 2012 at 12:15 am

    (Hi! I’m a friend of Scott’s, found your blog after you mentioned that “little trans gay” would lead the way and I just had to see for myself)

    It is incredible to me how people can be so blind to their very real privilege and the very real discrimination in the world, and yet so quick to imagine discrimination against themselves. Wait, not incredible. Infuriating.

    Also, that Libra ad seems to have disappeared from the internet. I couldn’t find it, but I sure could find a lot of people putting the word transphobic in sarcastic quotations and people declaring that everyone needs to chill out and get a funny bone. If there’s a lazier way to get away with being a jackass than invoking comedy, I can’t think of it.

    • 17 Stephen January 27, 2012 at 1:28 pm

      Hi Alison! I totally know you are a friend of Scott’s because I’m really creepy and know a bunch of his friends’ names from Facebook! Not at all weird.

      Yeah, I think they pulled the ad? The backlash was so immediate and intense.

  1. 1 On Sexting, Shaming, and So-Called Comedy « Miss Mary Max Trackback on March 26, 2012 at 3:18 pm

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