Op-ed: Just Doesn't Work
BY Diane Anderson-Minshall
December 21 2011 1:45 PM ET
So while the characters on Work It are clearly cross-dressing men, not transgender women, the average American doesn't understand the difference. That's what makes the show so dangerous. Off-screen, transgender people face significantly disproportionate rates of unemployment (not to mention discrimination, violence, and poverty). so the farce of saying these men get jobs not in spite of but because of the fact that they look like nonpassing trans women is a ridiculous at best, dangerous at worst. Letting audiences laugh as these men struggle with passing in a world built entirely on traditional feminine constructs may have the unfortunate consequence of making people think it's funny to laugh at trans women too.
Work It won't just anger transgender activists; I'm fairly certain that a good number of women won't relish it either. Somehow, the world in which the cross-dressers are employed is straight out of a 1950s typing pool (and not the one from Mad Men). The women are catty, stupid, and hyper-feminine; the only one who doesn't have or want a husband is presumed to be a lesbian. After one of the cross-dressers fails his job interview because he's hitting on the other woman too much, she eventually hires him because he knows how to fix a car and she's in a bind. Of course, in an office full of women, the only person who can fix a car is the man in drag (is it 1982 all over again?).
The show segues from one guy's work life to his home life (best line of dialogue: "As a woman, I’m going to ask you to stop comparing prostate exams to the pinball scene in The Accused. It’s not OK"). He’s shown strapping down in Spanx, padding up in a push-up bra, all while the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” plays and he struggles to hide his penis under his skirt. It underscores what most Americans find most threatening about trans women: that there once was and maybe still is a penis underneath that skirt.
Knowing the hysteria that has accompanied the outing of trans women — often followed by great violence — it's hard to find funny the scenes in which these cross-dressed characters are called "beautiful," even with a wink, where their size and girth get canned laugh track responses, or one in which a character finds "her" binding falling out as she dances with her new female coworkers. Because in reality, there is nothing funny about not passing.
I know, I know, I get the argument that ABC is making, that these are not transgender women, merely men, a la Monty Python, who are cross-dressing for a laugh. But Monty Python is over 40 years old, and I'm with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation on this one. Sorry, ABC, I love what you've done for us so far, but when it comes to Work It, I'm worried that by telling folks to laugh at these cross-dressed men, it may give them license to laugh at transgender women who look — and struggle to find work — just like them.
GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign teamed up to put an ad in Variety today to ask ABC to at the very least shit-can the advertisement that features the two main characters, dressed as women, standing at urinals. Trans activists know all too well the fear that trans women feel, rightly, in public bathrooms, and that ad surely won't make it any better. But I'm sure GLAAD is hoping ABC, a network so on the ball with trans representation this year, will reconsider the whole show.
I like the network, like the actors, don't mind exploring men's fears (hell, I like Two and Half Men, probably the most sexist show on the air), and frankly would love a world where women ruled the workforce, but no matter how you define it, Work It doesn't belong on TV at time when transgender women can be legally fired in 34 states for no reason, where 97% report being harassed at work, and where 26% have reported being fired simply for being trans. Let's come up with a funnier show.
DIANE ANDERSON-MINSHALL is executive editor for The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter at @DeliciousDiane.