I’ve been doing a fair amount of writing for The Advocate. In one of my recent pieces, I wrote about the addition of a transgender character on the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men. While I’m not sure where this character’s story arc will go, or how long she’ll be a part of the show, I wanted to give the show’s writers credit where credit is due. Compared to other CBS sitcoms, TAAHM’s portrayal of a transgender woman was absolutely spectacular. That said, the only reason this was “spectacular” is the extremely low bar for acceptability we need to set for trans representation on TV.
I said the show did a decent job, but pointed out that it was “less than perfect.” In response, a couple commenters asked what the show could have done differently.
One comment seemed particularly frustrated with any criticism I aimed at the show:
Trevan Ross · VP of HR at Superior Health Plan
“…the show’s portrayal of a transgender man was far from perfect…” So, exactly what WOULD be the “perfect” portrayal of a transgender man? And in whose opinion? Who decides whether a joke on a sitcom, (which by definition makes jokes about the entire cast, regardless of gender) is inappropriate, insulting, or merely funny? I grow tired of this never ending deluge of op-ed’s, relentlessly pontificating in an attempt to dictate to me whether I should be enraged, offended, or simply amused. When Will Truman made jokes about straight people on Will & Grace, you did not see the hetero community fly into a rage about it. Why should we?
Well, Trevan, let me take a moment to answer your comment. Let’s start here: comparing playful jabs at straight life (so inconsequential that they didn’t even pop up on the show’s Wikiquote page) to the usual, overdone “heh heh, it’s disgusting that you slept with that tr*nny” joke that I’m used to seeing… well, that’s pretty disingenuous. It’s called punching up vs. punching down, somewhat of a comedic rule. If you want to make a joke about a higher socioeconomic class of people (meant to say that society views them that way, not that they’re actually any better), you’ve got free reign to do so. Why is it okay for gay guys to joke about straight guys? Well, to be honest, straight guys aren’t an oppressed class (they could be members of an oppressed class, but in terms of sexuality, they’re not). That’s called “punching up.” Why is it not okay for a straight guy to make a “joke” out of gay people? Because, as society would have it, this is “punching down.”
Making fun of trans people is almost always “punching down.” The language used on TV is often the only thing the public has to inform them on transgender issues. That’s why it’s hurtful that we seem to teach everyone that it’s “disgusting” to have any sort of sexual relations with a trans person, or that we’re all devious people who want to trick others into sleeping with us.
It worries me that Trevan is a VP of Human Resources at a company. “I grow tired of this never ending deluge of op-ed’s, relentlessly pontificating in an attempt to dictate to me whether I should be enraged, offended, or simply amused.” Um, “I grow tired…?” *sigh* Trevan, do you know who gets to determine whether something is transphobic? Transgender people! So maybe, just maybe, instead of brushing off criticisms of transphobic media, you should take that to heart. “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t say ‘tr*nny.’ Seems to really upset some folks.” That would be a good start. I worry what working for your company would be like. Would it be okay for co-workers to call me a man? Would it be cool for them to make jokes about me, calling me a “tr*nny?” After all, who gets to determine what is and isn’t offensive.
So, anyway, as promised, here’s my opinion on the topic of what would constitute a “perfect” portrayal of a transgender person on TV? Here are a few ideas:
1. Hire transgender actors/actresses to play transgender roles. I know, I know, I know. Before you go all, “that’s why it’s called ‘acting!'” on me, I ask: how often do you see a gay actor playing a straight character on TV? Pretty often? Same for straight actors playing gay characters. Now, how often do you see a transgender person on TV playing a character who isn’t transgender? Never? Exactly. See, so while gay actors still find themselves able to get roles, even if they’re passed up for the role of a character who happens to be gay, the only possible role transgender people are given is that of a transgender person. In a perfect world (remember, that’s what I’m trying to describe), they’d at least get all of those roles whenever possible.
2. No transphobic slurs. Two and a Half Men did a good job on this one. This can’t be said for shows like How I Met Your Mother and Mike & Molly, both shows that have used two of the most offensive transphobic slurs (“tr*nny” and “sh*male”). A+ to TAAHM on this one.
3. Don’t say, “used to be a…” I know, this one seems tough. How can you establish that a character is transgender without saying that this woman “used to be a man” or that man “used to be a woman?” Well, the thing is, maybe you don’t have to. I’ve always been a woman, regardless of my exterior. I don’t really appreciate people saying that I “used to be” something that I never was.
4. Don’t make jokes about someone “still being” something else. One part of the TAAHM episode that I wasn’t totally thrilled with was when Alan and Paula went out on their 2nd date (the fact that they went on a second date is awesome!), and they made a series of jokes about the fact that Paula was taking the role of “the man” in the relationship (lending her jacket to Alan, paying for concessions, getting into a fist fight with a noisy theater patron). The point of these jokes was to again tie things back to what she really is (in the minds of the viewers).
5. If you don’t know whether or not it’s okay to say a word, don’t say it. Amber Tamblyn’s character used the term “post-op” to describe Paula. I know a lot of trans people who don’t like to use such language, as it implies that you’ve either gotten Gender Confirmation Surgery or that you’re planning on it. A lot of trans people either can’t afford GCS, can’t have it for medical reasons, or simply don’t want it. Terms like “pre-op” and “post-op” seem to set hierarchies, suggesting that someone who has had GCS is “more of a (insert target gender)” than someone who hasn’t. That’s not the case. A man is a man, whether he has a penis or a vagina. A woman is a woman, whether she has a penis or a vagina. (I know, quite the concept, right?)
6. Don’t make someone’s status as a trans person the focal point of your jokes. This was another one. While none of the jokes were innately offensive, they did center on Paula’s status as a trans woman, talking about genitals more than would have come up in an episode with a cisgender love interest.
So there you have it, my short list of suggestions for what would make a “perfect” trans character on TV.