Op-ed: Just Doesn't Work
BY Diane Anderson-Minshall
December 21 2011 12:45 PM ET
If any major television network can be said to be advancing the visibility of transgender people on TV, it would surely be ABC. After all, it’s the first major network to cast an actual transgender actress in a recurring role (Candis Cayne as Carmelita on Dirty Sexy Money) and the first to feature a regular starring character that is trans (Ugly Betty's Alexis Meade, played by nontrans actress Rebecca Romijn). Earlier this year, the network came under fire by religious conservatives as it gallantly stood behind its first transgender competition-show contestant, Dancing With the Stars' Chaz Bono.
All of this explains, in part, why it's so disappointing — for producers, network presidents, LGBT viewers, and nearly every transgender woman in America who reads the blogs — that ABC's new mid-season sitcom Work It is the subject of so much conflict over its perceived anti-trans bias. I say that because in this current scenario, not a single person wins.
First, the basics: Work It could have been a hilarious social commentary on the collective male fear of workplace emasculation, the thesis bandied about by some academics and men's rights groups that men are losing ground to women in the workplace, that men have become the new minority when it comes to career trajectories that have us all achieving the quintessential American dream. It's a theme that's likely got a tiny basis in reality. Though women still don't earn as much as men overall, and women — and sometimes gay men — are still vastly overrepresented in pink-collar jobs, universities are seeing emerging achievement gaps in some fields, in which women are now at least enrolling in programs at much greater numbers than men, for example.
But Work It is not a hilarious social commentary. It's not a hilarious anything. The premise is simple, albeit ripped from the 1980s hit Bosom Buddies (a show that would seem delightfully dated in a post–Chaz Bono world, in which we all know much more about the existence, if not the reality, of transgender people). The show stars two very capable actors — Benjamin Koldyke (who played Alby's gay Mormon lover on Big Love and Robin's boyfriend Don on How I Met Your Mother) and Amaury Nolasco (who played Fernando on Prison Break) — who both deserve much better material.
They're former employees of a Pontiac dealership who have been canned, along with their decidedly sexist male friend, thanks to a flagging economy in St. Louis. After failing to get a job, one overhears of an opening for a pharmaceutical rep, a position for which men aren't hired because, as one insipid female character says, "doctors want to nail them less."
The pharma girl phenom has been pop culture scuttlebutt before; How I Met Your Mother tackled it with a funny storyline in 2010. Which underscores how outdated the show is. One character waxes about the "mancession" and how women will soon rid the world of all but a few men, whom they keep around as sex slaves, but not the kind of sex men like, just "kissing, cuddling, listening," and you can't help but think about how outdated the baseline is here.
So in turn, the men dress up as women and get hired as such, and I'm sure that's where it says in the network's original pitch, "Hilarity ensues." But it doesn’t.
That these men in drag could be hired as women is beyond belief, and the very real danger in pretending they could is that it flies in the face of reality: that actual transgender women have an extremely hard time finding and keeping a job, especially those who have not had a great deal of feminizing surgery. For transgender women, especially those who transitioned after puberty, feminizing surgery costs tens of thousands of dollars and can include foreheadplasty, rhinoplasty, cheek implants, jaw and mandible restructuring, tracheal shaving, chin narrowing, brow lifts, orbital reshaping, electrolysis, breast implants, body sculpting, and liposuction. That doesn't even include what we generally think of as gender-reassignment surgery, or bottom surgery. For many trans women, especially the later in life they transition, the fewer of these procedures they've had, the harder it is for them to pass, and the more frequent it is that they appear to the average non-informed American (i.e., much of the intended audience for Work It) to be mere men in drag.
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