ABC, a network known for LGBT-friendly fare like Modern Family, Happy Endings and the recently canceled Greek, has found itself in hot water over its upcoming sitcom Work It. In case you ain't up on thangs, a quick synopsis: two out-of-work dudes, frustrated that they can't find a job in the midst of this 'mancession' (their word, not mine) decide to dress up as women in order to get jobs.
I'll be honest. After viewing the trailer a few times, my first thought was "Is this really that offensive/that big of a deal? Obviously men donning women's clothing is nothing new, and has been going on since ancient Greece (but of course that was due to women being banned from the stage--old school sexism at its best!), and has continued in movies and TV ever since, from Milton Berle, Flip Wilson and The Wayans Brothers to Martin Lawerence, Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy. In the past I've watched and chuckled at Mrs. Doubtfire, White Chicks and The Nutty Professor and thought little of it.
But now all of the controversy surrounding Work It has given me cause for pause about some of my viewing habits. While I don't know a lot of transgender people, I am supportive and empathetic towards their struggle, and as such, wouldn't want to inadvertently support things that demean or degrade them. However, like portrayals of us gays, lesbians and bisexuals, I think each representation of transgender men and women has to taken in its own context. I've never seen Busom Buddies, the 80's show this farce is often compared so I can't comment on that. As for Nutty Professor, I'd contend that the humor derived not from Eddie dressing up as women, but from the fact the women he portrayed were quirky, kooky and generally crazy as hell.
Upon reflection though, I'll admit that films like Doubtfire, White Chicks, Norbit, and Madea (to an extent--Ms. Perry's character is so exaggerated and over-the-top she almost transcends the whole concept) all start from the same place: that men who dress up as or become women are to mocked, laughed at, and disrespected. In light of this realization, I know I need to be more discerning of when media depictions of transgender folks tread into transphobic territory. And in my opinion, Work It definitely falls into that category, trying to wring fresh humor out of big, macho men squeezing themselves into skirt, stomping around in stilettos and slapping on too much makeup. Notice how smaller, more effeminate men are never chosen in these scenarios?
Adding insult to injury, the trailer for the show used Rupaul's classic "Supermodel," which only offers more proof the show's creators consider being transgender as synonymous with (in this case) very bad drag. Some would argue that the two are the same, but they couldn't be more wrong. Although it can and does often challenge notions of gender, drag is ultimately a performance; living life as transwoman or man, which often involves fears of facing violence, hatred and discrmination, is not.
Needless to say, I won't be watching, for all the reasons above. That and the show just doesn't look all that funny (and there has been good comedy involving transgender folk--Hedwig And The Angry Inch anyone?). But what do you think of Work It? Discuss in the comments, and read transwoman Sara Jakubowski's letter to ABC HERE.